Sunday, January 19, 2003

NASCAR lacks last-lap drama

The Greenville (S.C.) News

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - The 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup season featured a down-to-the-last-race championship run, had 18 different race winners (including five first-time visits to victory lane) and produced 10 track qualifying records.

A glaring statistic from 2002 stands out like a fox in a henhouse, however. In the 36 Winston Cup races, there was not a single case of a last-lap pass leading to a victory.

In a series that sells itself on fierce and frantic competition, on-track racing last season often was something less than spectacular. Numerous races had long stretches of follow-the-leader action (or the lack thereof), and more than a few events were settled not in fender-to-fender confrontations but by smooth moves on pit road.

It's a problem NASCAR is examining and one that several prominent drivers - notably Rusty Wallace - have addressed. Wallace and others have suggested trimming spoiler sizes to eliminate some corner downforce and returning to softer-compound tires - moves that, in theory, would make cars harder to drive and thus make racing better.

"Something needs to be done," said Michael Greene, a fan attending Saturday's Winston Cup Preview. "Some of the races were great, but some of them made you fall asleep. I think they need to listen to the drivers and make some changes."

NASCAR has explored changes and expects to modify some rules, although the adjustments probably will come later rather than sooner. In the meantime, much of the responsibility for winning may continue to remain on the shoulders of pit bosses.

"Right now, it's an engineering exercise," said television commentator Benny Parsons, a former driver. "What NASCAR is doing is the first step in trying to get these cars back more into the drivers' and teams' hands. If you all have the same box, then how do you make the prettiest box or the fastest box or whatever?"

Although it almost constantly examines the possibility of change, NASCAR has been criticized for toying with its rules when one or more car manufacturer models appear to be at a disadvantage. Numerous spoiler-size or roof height changes have been made during seasons in efforts to stabilize competition, an approach that keeps the garage hopping with complaints and earns stock car racing a questionable reputation with fans of more mainline sports that seldom tinker with rules in midstream.

"For people that aren't long-term fans of the sport, it's hard to make them understand why that's done, and I think it does pose some credibility questions," said Allen Bestwick, NBC Sports' NASCAR anchor.

Driver Mike Skinner said keeping the cars close is important in creating an environment in which good competition can flourish.

"We've heard people say we need to get the drivers back in this thing a little bit," Skinner said. "If we get the cars fairly equal, then you're going to see a lot more driver put back into this thing instead of just strategy on top of the pit box. I think right now the crew chiefs are winning as many races as the drivers."

NASCAR has moved toward a competition landscape that has placed all four competing car models in very similar silhouettes, or a "common template" vehicle. Car positioning on the chassis platform also will be the same for all models this year.

Jeff Gordon, a four-time Winston Cup champion, said he expects this year's racing to be similar to last year's unless significant changes are made.

"I think track position and pit strategy is going to be even more important than it ever has been," Gordon said. "Now that we've got all the manufacturers basically on the same page as far as the shape of the body, now NASCAR might be able to start making adjustments, whether it's to the spoilers or the roofs or the nose or whatever and be able to do it evenly across all the manufacturers.

"I would imagine before halfway of the season you'll start to see some adjustments made to everybody. I think Goodyear would like to have us on a softer tire, but as much downforce as we have and as fast as we go through the corners, they can't risk it."

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