Sunday, October 06, 2002

Expect the unexpected at Talladega

The Greenville (S.C.) News

        TALLADEGA, Ala. — Beyond occasional mayhem, few observers know what to expect in Sunday's EA Sports 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

        NASCAR's decision to use smaller fuel cells, a move designed to force more green-flag pit stops and thus, theoretically, break up the track's huge and dangerous packs of drafting cars, leaves an air of mystery over the start of the 1 p.m. race.

        The 12.5-gallon fuel cells - about half the size of the standard 22-gallon units - will force pit stops in the 30-lap range as opposed to the 50-lap window standard for past races.

        Toss the pit-stop uncertainty into the normal chaos associated with Talladega races, and the mix could be volatile. It also could have a large impact on the tight and crowded Winston Cup points race as the season moves toward an end.

        “One reason I come here every year is that you don't ever know what's going to happen,” said Eddie Belk, a fan from Montgomery, Ala. “The cars look like they're in a popcorn popper. It's the only place you see them race like that.”

        The race might be the first of several that sees the use of the modified fuel cells.

        NASCAR president Mike Helton said Saturday that the smaller cell could be used in next February's Daytona 500 as the sanctioning body explores its options at its biggest tracks.

        “I don't know if we'll end up getting anything definitive in one sample, one race,” he said. “If there's not any big reason not to do it again, we'll do it again to see over time what results come from it. I don't know that there's a definitive answer that can come from one use.”

        The strongest cars are likely to be those of Dale Earnhardt Inc. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the past two races here, and Michael Waltrip, his teammate, has been a valuable drafting partner at Talladega and Daytona. Few will be surprised to find them near the front in the closing laps.

        Waltrip said he doesn't expect the fuel-cell change to distort the general face of Talladega racing.

        “I think it's going to be the same old Talladega with a few more pit stops,” Waltrip said, fresh from a practice session that put him 10th on the speed chart.

        Because the peculiarities of the draft make two or more cars go faster than one, drivers and teams tend to work together to pit at the same time, thus keeping drafting lines intact. Waltrip, however, said he tends toward lone-wolf status for Talladega pit work.

        “You don't want to pit when everybody else does because the end of pit road gets so congested,” he said. “I always tell my guys if everybody's going to pit on lap 50, let me run to lap 51 and I'll pit by myself.

        “That way you take out a collision on pit road. You take that out of play. You take out having a problem getting into the pit because of everybody diving off turn four to get into the pits. Everybody has their own strategy.”

        Waltrip said running alone on the track for a few laps is no problem.

        “I might lose a second because I run by myself for one lap, but I can make up two or three (seconds) getting in and out of the pits,” he said.

        “Pitting with someone is a great idea a hundred years ago, but, with the tight competition and the way the cars are running in a pack, you want to avoid that. You wind up slowing down to pit-road speed a long way before the line (that marks the start of pit road), and you can't afford to do that.”

        Saturday's “happy hour” practice produced a top speed of 193.956 mph, registered by Dodge driver Jerry Nadeau. Others in the top group were Joe Nemechek, Ken Schrader, Jimmy Spencer, Kevin Harvick, Stacy Compton, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Steve Park and Jeremy Mayfield.

        Rookie Jimmie Johnson, who will start on the pole, was 31st fastest in happy hour.


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