In preview of 500, Stewart takes close one

.172-of-second win nips pack of four

rule change aimed at Fords is made

Auto Racing

February 11, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If you like the way Atlantic Coast Conference basketball games come down to the final two minutes, or if you're enamored of the way you have to hang around for three quarters before NBA teams kick into high gear, or if you're fascinated by the way NFL quarterbacks run two-minute drills with the game on the line, you're going to love Sunday's Daytona 500.

That appears to be the consensus after the Budweiser Shootout yesterday at Daytona International Speedway. Five front-running cars held their positions until the final four laps before maneuvering for a chance to dislodge eventual winner Tony Stewart and his Pontiac from the front spot.

Stewart won $200,955 with just 0.172 of a second to spare, with two Chevrolets, a Dodge and another Pontiac challenging. There was no Ford in sight as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon in Chevrolets finished second and third, respectively. Ken Schrader's Pontiac and Sterling Marlin's Dodge came home fourth and fifth.

So, in an effort to ensure every make of car in the field has a fighting chance at victory Sunday, NASCAR president Mike Helton announced hours after the race that the Ford teams will be allowed to cut a quarter-inch off their rear spoilers in an attempt to improve handing and speed.

"We're doing it now because it will give us a chance on Thursday, in the 125-mile qualifying races, to see what the change creates," Helton said. "And we did it because we said in October in Joe Gibbs' garage, when we made the initial rule changes, that we'd adjust them when we had hard evidence."

During pole qualifying, there were just three Fords in the top 25. Yesterday, Dale Jarrett's Ford finished sixth, but far back from the five cars in the lead pack.

"I really couldn't drive by anybody out there," Jarrett said. "They can get out there and go if they need to. ... I've got to have a really good push behind me to make it happen. Otherwise, I get bogged down beside a car, and then I'm toast."

Stewart took the lead on Lap 47 and never gave it up, as Earnhardt, Marlin, Schrader and Gordon lined up behind him and refused to move until the final four laps. It was then that Gordon began picking off the men in front of him, moving steadily forward, while Stewart kept his eyes in his rearview mirror. By the time the last lap arrived, Gordon was making a run on Earnhardt, and Stewart saw he was home free.

"I was worried about Junior making a move on me," Stewart said. "I told my crew on the radio, `He may have a Jr. at the end of his name, but he's every bit as talented as his dad was and he's trying to use the same tricks.' ... You have to pay attention and make sure you make the right countermove."

Everyone was looking to figure out what moves he could make yesterday as drivers tested the new rules package -- car alterations designed to break up the dangerous big-pack racing that has had them on edge for the past 15 months.

Now, it appears, the strongest cars are able to break away from the pack and maneuver more adeptly away from trouble. It also appears the racing will look similar to the February 2000 race, in which Jarrett won in his Ford and found himself under attack by questioners who wanted to know if his dominance and the dominance of the Fords had created a boring race. But this time, perhaps because the spoiler angle is different by 10 degrees, it seemed that the Fords were the weakest links until Helton announced the change.

The rule change did not sit well with everyone, despite Helton's words that more changes could come after the qualifying races Thursday, if they were needed to equalize the competition. The Dodge teams were particularly stung, feeling they were already at a disadvantage to the Chevrolets.

"Now, we're basically behind the eight ball across the board," said Tony Glover, team manager for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. "We were just hanging on today. Sterling [Marlin] did a real good job in the draft. ... His experience and a tremendous pit stop enabled us to go from one group to the next group. We had a Pontiac and Chevrolet in front of us and a Pontiac and Chevrolet behind us. You could have taken a De Soto and run pretty good in those circumstances. It's disheartening."

Almost lost in the debate was the fact that the race was safe, the cars were stable and the drivers felt in control.

"I've always said a restrictor plate race like the Daytona 500 is like a chess match," Stewart said. "I still feel the same way. But the way the [rules] package used to be was more like playing Keno -- just pick numbers and see what happens.

"The racing is back in the hands of the drivers instead of us being at the mercy of the air. For the first time in two years, I felt comfortable out there."

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