A new Daytona 500
Changes promise to spice up the Great American Race
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There are changes afoot in the Great American Race. Big changes. Sport-altering changes. Mind-boggling changes.
But are the changes in this year's Daytona 500 good for racing? Good for fans? Good for the drivers?
"It's going to be the best 500 we've ever seen," team owner Richard Childress proclaimed.
"I'm going to make a prediction," driver Sterling Marlin said. "Sunday is probably going to be the best Daytona 500 there's been since we've been racing."
Yes, the 43rd running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday promises to be unlike any of the previous 42. It will be, NASCAR fervently hopes, a lot different than last year's, won by Dale Jarrett in what was widely held as a fan's worst nightmare. The 2000 edition of the 500 had a woefully weak nine lead changes, sparking NASCAR to pass a series of changes to the cars that will be evident Sunday.
Not that everybody thought last year was that bad.
"Last year's race wasn't boring to me. It's a real nailbiter when you're up there, bumper-to-bumper, for 500 miles," said driver Rusty Wallace, who finished fourth. "It's like you're swatting bees the whole time."
The aero package has done just what NASCAR intended -- it has evened things out. Through races and qualifying all this week, cars have been slower but more tightly packed. Lead changes have been frequent. The racing, in a word, has been exciting.
Scary, but exciting.
"We've got good, old-fashioned racing again, and I'm expecting veterans who have been used to that kind of draft to come to the head of the Daytona 500," said Tim Culbertson of Dodge Winston Cup engineering. "I think it's back to being the old chess match of where you want to be on that last lap."
That's good news for Dodge, which has wily Bill Elliott sitting on the pole for the 500. Elliott, who ran a record 210.364 mph pole for the 500 in 1987, won the pole for the 2001 race last Saturday at 183.566 mph.
Dodge cars last ran at Daytona 16 years ago and their storming return to the venerable 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway has raised eyebrows all week. The new Dodges sit 1-2-3 in the 500, prompting other manufacturers -- Fords, mainly -- to claim they're at a disadvantage.
Dale Jarrett, the defending 500 champ, will be running his Ford from the No. 31 spot in the 43-car field (he wrecked Thursday in the Gatorade 125s, the qualifiers for the main portion of the field). Defending Winston Cup points champion Bobby Labonte, in a Pontiac, starts in the 37th spot.
Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt starts on the inside in position No. 7, while his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on the outside, one spot ahead in position No. 6. Both are in Chevrolets.
With all the aerodynamic changes, working with other cars may prove to be more critical than it ever has. With the pack tightly bunched, the airflow around the cars can be both an unbeatable friend and a daunting foe.
"All the cars are equal, but you've got to have somebody work with you," said Jeff Gordon, the former Winston Cup champ who is trying to rebound from a disappointing 2000 season. Gordon, in a Chevrolet, starts in the 13th slot. "Unless you get guys working together, you're not going to do anything."
Cars who have found themselves alone in the front of the pack this week -- battling the air with no aerodynamic push from behind or no car ahead to deflect the air -- all have been passed.
If there is a bunch of cars together entering the final of Sunday's 200 laps, things could get extremely interesting. Drafting, slingshot maneuvers, blocking. It's all been done this week. It's all expected Sunday.
"If they decide to slingshot you," driver Ricky Rudd says, "there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. You can't make your car wide enough."
There is -- as there always is at Daytona -- a possibility for disaster, too. With all the close racing, it won't take much for something to go terribly wrong. A hot track, an unexpected gust of air, a blown tire or a nervous driver can pile up a lot of cars in a hurry.
It is that unknown that has everyone around Daytona both excited and more than a little nervous for Sunday's race.
Good for racing, or bad for it? Whatever, it will be a change.