Sunday, October 06, 2002

Smaller gas tanks throw wrench in race

Rule change puts emphasis on pits

Enquirer staff and news services

        TALLADEGA, Ala. - The pressure of the closest championship chase in Winston Cup history could shift from the drivers to the pit crews today at Talladega Superspeedway.

        In an effort to separate the best cars from the weaker ones on the 2.66-mile, high-banked oval, NASCAR is requiring that cars use a 12 1/2-gallon gas tank, instead of the usual 22-gallon fuel cell, for the EA Sports 500.

        “We may get bit by it tomorrow,” said James Ince, crew chief for Johnny Benson. “There are going to be people that are hurt by it, having to pit a whole lot, because any time you go on pit road, things can go wrong.”

        The effects of the smaller gas tanks will be felt on long green-flag runs in the 188-lap race.

        In that case, the drivers would have to pit nearly twice as many times - about every 25 laps, instead of every 40 - and crews also would be hard-pressed to change more than two tires on a stop before the cars are gassed and ready to go.

        Veteran crew chief Frankie Stoddard, working his first race with Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton after being fired by Jeff Burton, said: “You have to have some luck on your side. Not every call (in the pits) is a great call. A lot of them, something has to happen just right for it to go that way.”

        Steve Hmiel, director of motorsports and technical operations for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., fields cars for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip and Steve Park in the 43-car field. The former crew chief said the added stops mean more chances for drivers to be penalized for exceeding the pit road speed limit of 55mph.

        “It puts the onus on the driver for getting the car to pit road as quick as possible,” Hmiel said. “Then we have to use good strategy - two tires, four tires, no tires. ... If you look at it optimistically, it's a chance to do better two or three more times. If you look at it pessimistically, it's a chance to mess up two or three more times.”

        Earnhardt, who has won the last two races here, and Waltrip, winner of two races in Daytona since the start of 2001, are considered the drivers to beat in any race at NASCAR's two biggest and fastest tracks. Those are the only tracks where NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates to reduce horsepower and keep the cars under 200 mph.

        SATURDAY'S PRACTICE: Jerry Nadeau, who will start 40th in today's 43-car field, was fastest in the final practice session Saturday, turning a lap of 193.956 mph with the help of a big draft. Joe Nemechek was next at 192.680, followed by Ken Schrader at 192.622, Jimmy Spencer at 192.602, and Kevin Harvick at 191.631.

        Jeff Gordon was seventh, the best of the drivers fighting for the championship, and Tony Stewart was right behind him. Series leader Jimmie Johnson was the worst of the group in contention for the title at 189.171, good for 31st.

        MARLIN TO WEAR HANS: Sterling Marlin says his season-ending neck injury has convinced him to switch from the Hutchens to the HANS head-and-neck restraint device.

        Al Shuford, who advises Marlin's team on health and fitness matters, had recommended the switch to Marlin. The Hutchens device uses a series of straps to restrain the driver's head; the HANS is a collar made of carbon fiber that works in conjunction with the driver's shoulder belts.

        CLOSE RACE: Bill Elliott has pulled into a virtual tie with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the voting for the NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award.

        Elliott, a former Winston Cup champion who has won the award a record 15 times, has leaped back into the battle on the strength of two late-season victories, including the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis. Although individual vote totals were not available, officials said a little less than 2 million votes have been cast. The highest previous vote total was 400,000 in 2001.

        Four-time and defending series champion Gordon is third in the voting, followed by Stewart. Fans can vote online once each day at


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