Sunday, February 9, 2003

NASCAR Notebook

Penske drivers stumped after poor practices

By Jenna Fryer
The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Rusty Wallace peered under the hood of his new Dodge Intrepid, his brow crinkled with concern and his eyes glistening with frustration.

The first practice sessions for the Daytona 500 can be the most agonizing time for a team. When the cars hit the track Saturday, Wallace was slow and his crew had no idea why.

"It's humiliating when you run like we just did," Wallace said. "I'm as mad as can be about this because we do not know what the problem is."

Wallace, making the switch from Ford to Dodge this season, was 42nd out of 51 cars after the final practice session before Sunday's official qualifying session.

Only the top two qualifiers earn a spot in the field for the Feb. 16 season opener. In Daytona's unique qualifying format, the rest of the 43-car field will be filled by a combination of qualifying speeds, results of two 125-mile qualifying races run on Thursday and car owner provisionals.

So teams want their cars as fast as possible in the two rounds of time trials, otherwise they've got five days of hard work ahead to improve the car before the qualifying races.

Ryan Newman, Wallace's teammate, also struggled Saturday with the 19th fastest speed.

It was baffling to the Penske Racing South teams because they had strong testing sessions at Daytona last month and made no changes to the cars.

"We're as stumped as anyone," Newman said. "We changed nothing and we lost speed."

The Penske cars at least had some hope of learning a few things in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout. Because both Newman and Wallace were entered in the race, they had a chance to see how their secondary cars ran in race trim and apply it to the primary cars if they have to race their way into the 500.

"The Shootout cars are so good, that's what makes this so confusing," Wallace said. "Neither of us are as good as we were in testing and we don't have much time to figure out why."



Sterling Marlin, typically a poor qualifier, had decent runs in both practice sessions and was fourth fastest in the morning session.

Asked why he never carries his strong practices over to qualifying sessions, Marlin said his team doesn't have "the voodoo oil" other teams put in their cars.

"We're always real fast in practice, but when it comes time to qualify we don't have any voodoo oil like the other guys do," he said. "I've seen that voodoo oil help guys pick up a half a second."

A myth? Perhaps.

But a quick poll of the garage found that many teams believe their competitors tinker with their oil - trying to make it as thin and light as possible - right before qualifying.

"Call it what you want - bumble juice, snake oil, whatever - we don't know where to get it," car owner Felix Sabates said. "We've tried. I offered another team $10,000 for a can of what they use, but they said no."

Kyle Petty, who once got so sick during a race from fumes coming from additives in his oil, said the practice of tinkering with the engine lubricants ended years ago.

"I think seven, eight years ago a lot of teams tried all kinds of things," Petty said. "But these days NASCAR sniffs everything out and they'll bust you for any of that."

Actually, NASCAR president Mike Helton said teams can do anything they want to their oil - at their own risk.

Because teams must now use the same engine in qualifying and the race, thinning the oil for a qualifying session could damage the motor to the point it won't last for a 500 mile race.

"They can try any combination of things," Helton said. "But when you start cutting back - we're talking about nuts and bolts that need to be greased - it's just like your bones and joints that need to be lubricated. Take it away and something might snap."



The season hasn't even started yet and Jeff Gordon already is tired of the often asked questions about his personal life.

Gordon is in the middle of a divorce from his wife, Brooke, and spent much of last season denying the split was a distraction in his racing career.

The offseason did little to silence the skeptics.

"I still have a hard time believing that breaking a rear-end spring at Sears Point had anything to do with (the divorce)," Gordon said Saturday when asked about the distraction.

Mechanical failures aside, Gordon is now admitting that attention paid to his personal life sometimes caused his mind to wander last year.

"I didn't maybe think it was going to be as big of news as it was," he said. "There's no doubt that that stuff was a distraction - more of just the actual events going on than the media."



Joe Nemechek bested the entire field in Saturday's final practice with the fastest speed. Then he fired a warning to his competitors.

"Somebody better watch out for us, because we're coming," he said.

Driving the No. 25 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports - generally considered the weakest entry in the fleet that includes Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Terry Labonte - Nemechek slowly has turned the team around.

He finished second in two of the final four races last season, had a strong test session last month, was fifth fastest in Saturday morning's practice then ran a lap at 185.189 mph in the afternoon - quickest of the entire day.

"I think we're pretty good. You never know until it's time to go out (and qualify) and show everything you have," Nemechek said. "We just don't know how much everybody else is going to pick up."

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