Changes, Gordon turn Clash into Sunday drive Altered air flow creates 'wall,' minimizing passing

February 10, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- While Jeff Gordon drove his Chevrolet to victory lane after winning the Busch Clash, 13 other drivers headed for the garage. Once there, they parked, crawled out through their individual car windows and stood around dazed, seemingly too stunned to move.

They had just completed the 20-lap race for last season's pole winners that is known for its all-out sprint to victory. And they weren't baffled by Gordon's 0.130-second victory over Rusty Wallace, or by his winning $54,000 for 16 minutes and 11 seconds of work.

What shocked them was their inability to mount a passing attempt.

The Clash is a two-segment race of 10 laps each. The second segment starts with the finishing order of the first 10 laps reversed. Generally, it all combines for a slam-bang finish, with drivers passing each other at will and rubbing fenders in their mad dash to the finish line.

As Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Winston Cup champion who had won this race six out of 10 tries before yesterday, said at the start, "This is my kind of race. It's a go-for-it race."

But yesterday, on Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-mile tri-oval, there was no "go." With Wallace running second and Earnhardt in third, the race seemed to be setting up for a rollicking finish. But there would be no sprint to the finish. No shake, rattle or roll.

"I was just sitting there sucking mud, more or less," said Earnhardt, who finished third overall with $29,000. "There was nothing no one could do. If I could, I would have tried to help Rusty or he would have tried to help me. Nobody could do nothing. If you could pull out and pass, it would be all right. But if you can't get to 'em

"It's not fun," continued Earnhardt. "It's Indy car racing, nose-to-tail. We're all sitting in line."

The reason for all this line dancing is a combination of new rules changes. A raising of the quarterpanel, designed to slow the cars, makes them sit higher in the back and a change in the direction of the cold air vent combine to change the air flow behind the car.

Before the changes, the air coming off the car in front would flow under the car behind it, creating a kind of air pocket, or draft, that would pull the second car along. Now, the air is flowing higher and instead of flowing under the following car, it goes up and over it.

"It's like running into a wall," said driver Bill Elliott, who watched yesterday's race from the top of a trailer in the garage. "You just can't pass."

Because of that, the Busch Clash, witnessed by an estimated crowd of 75,000, was a shocking dud that left all but Gordon wondering what it all means in terms of next Sunday's Daytona 500.

"Trust me," said Gordon, after averaging 185.376 mph. "Once we get to the 125s [qualifying races Thursday] and the 500, it's going to turn into a handling race instead of a speed race and then you'll see passing. I think it'll be a pretty good race."

But Gordon's opinion was in the minority. In the garage, the 13 drivers who finished behind him huddled with each other, their crew chiefs and their car owners trying to work through what had just happened -- or failed to happen -- on the racetrack.

"It was a terrible race," said defending Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte, who won the first segment but managed to move up just four places to 11th in the second segment. "The worst I've ever seen. You can't pass. We had the lead [in the first segment] and we won. It's pretty easy when you're leading. You just stay there. But when you're in the back, if you don't get to the front on the first two laps when everyone is bunched up, you're not going to get there."

Ernie Irvan, who finished fifth overall, walked over to Dale Jarrett, who won the Clash last year, and said worriedly, "If you don't have a strong car and help, you're not going anywhere."

Wallace had a strong Ford. He finished third in the first segment and managed to make it from 12th to second in the second segment.

"I got a good jump on the second restart and that helped me a lot," said Wallace, who collected $47,500. But the jump wasn't enough to win. And even Gordon had to admit to some surprise.

"I looked behind me as we began the last lap," he said. "Truth said, I was probably looking in my mirror more than through my windshield. I saw Rusty and Earnhardt and I thought they'd get together and make a good run on us."

It never happened. Not even one attempted pass by the two men judged to be the most competitive on the racetrack.

"It was pitiful," said Earnhardt. And in the garage, no one disagreed.

NOTES: In the 34th Daytona ARCA 200, Andy Hillenburg won from the pole in his Chevrolet, beating Ron Barfield and his Ford to the finish line by .138 seconds. Hillenburg averaged 133.185 mph and won $18,860.

Today is a practice day for Winston Cup, Busch Grand Nationals, the International Race of Champions and the Goody's Dash cars.

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