NASCAR can't make everybody happy

On Motor Sports

March 12, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

After weeks of carping by the Chevrolet teams and three races in which Fords have won twice and Pontiacs once, NASCAR made a calculated rule change this week in an attempt to improve Winston Cup competition.

Officials are allowing the nose of the Monte Carlos to be extended by adding two inches to the front air dam, an opening below the bumper that feeds air under the hood to the radiator.

The change is supposed to make up for a flaw in the new Chevy's design that resulted in unbalanced down-force between the front and rear of the car.

The rule will be in effect in today's Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Opinions on the impact of the change -- which followed two test sessions in a wind tunnel -- are diverse. Ford teams say the Monte Carlos have been given the key to equality. Pontiac teams are surprised they've gotten no help. And Chevy teams claim not to be sure how much the change will help.

What is clear is that the bellyaching has shifted. At Daytona last month, Dale Earnhardt called the rules and the competition "a joke." This week, Jack Roush, who owns the Fords driven by Mark Martin and Jeff Burton (among others), said NASCAR has given the Chevrolets "instant relief" on their own design flaw.

"It looks like they're picking up 65 pounds of front down-force, which will make it a match for what the 88 [Dale Jarrett Ford] had when the cars were checked after Daytona," Roush said. "So, NASCAR just said, `OK, you guys screwed up. Here's some [down-force]. This will fix you.' I don't think NASCAR let [the Chevy teams] work long enough with it to find out if they could overcome their problem."

Pontiac driver Johnny Benson, whose car has been a pleasant surprise and is 11th in points, said, "It's interesting how it came about. The tests showed the Pontiacs were the worst and the Chevrolets got the change. Our cars are the only cars that are the same as they were the year before. We've found all the potential there is. The Fords and Chevys, with their new cars, still have potential. We're the ones who need help."

Robin Pemberton, who prepares the Ford driven by Rusty Wallace, was also disturbed.

"It's really a confusing issue because when the Taurus was introduced, we needed something and we fought, but it took building a brand new car two years later in order to try to get something," said Pemberton, referring to the fact that NASCAR gave the Fords no relief in 1998 when they had a similar problem. "Chevrolet took two years to build a car before they introduced it and they get something in 45 days.

"It's definitely gonna be the change they need because now with. the added down-force, they've got more `tuneability.' They can slide the bodies back and make more rear down-force again. So it's an awful big tool they've been handed."

And yet, Andy Petree, who owns the Monte Carlos of Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace, said during a conference call this week that he "honestly doesn't know" what effect the new rule will have.

"Yeah, it looks like it will add 60 pounds of down-force to the front end, but it also looks like it will take 55 pounds of down-force from the back," he said. "If that's the case, it will be a wash."

Jeff Gordon's Chevy, missing from the Top 5 for a career-worst eight races, doesn't think the change is as much as the Chevrolets need, "but we'll take what we can get. It's all about finding the balance right now."

That's true for NASCAR, too. Looking at a huge television package that begins next year, the last thing it wants is a ratings slip because competition is predictable.

Hakkinen chases glory

This Formula One season, which began today in Australia, might be more exciting than usual from a variety of standpoints.

First, McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen is aiming to become only the second driver to win three straight Formula One championships. Second, Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher is determined to stop him.

If Hakkinen can join the wondrous Juan Manuel Fangio (who won four straight in the 1950s) as the winner of more than two straight championships, it would be a major surprise to last season's runner-up, Eddie Irvine, and a blow to Schumacher's ego.

"If the gap [between the two cars] is as close as I think it is, Michael will make the difference," said Irvine, who was Schumacher's teammate last season before moving to the Jackie Stewart Jaguar team. "Mika is a good driver, but he's not Michael."

Hakkinen is perceived as a driver fortunate enough to be in a fast car. Schumacher, on the other hand, is thought to be the most talented among active drivers.

"To make three championships in a row would mean everything to me," Hakkinen said.

And, oh yes, the F-1 series is coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in September for the 15th of 17 rounds in this championship bout. If Speedway owner Tony George is lucky, the title might still be on the line.

Nuts and bolts

Bobby Labonte, the current Winston Cup points leader, has won four of the past seven races at Atlanta.

It seems everyone is getting in tune with the Internet. The Ravens started playing at PSINet Stadium, Brandywine driver Donnie Neuenberger landed to sponsor his Craftsman Truck at Daytona, and Las Vegas renamed its event held last week the 400. And now, Dover Downs International Speedway says its MBNA Gold 400 on Sept. 24 will be the MBNA.COM 400 and its Busch Series companion event will be the MBNA.COM 200 instead of the MBNA Gold 200.

The Indianapolis 500 will get a boost in May with the entry of Chip Ganassi's teams. Ganassi fields the premier team in the rival CART series, with defending CART champion Juan Montoya and 1996 champion Jimmy Vasser. The only other CART car owner who will have a team at Indy is Derrick Walker, who is fielding a full-time team for IRL rookie Sarah Fisher, 19, who is getting sensational reviews before her debut March 19 at Phoenix.

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