DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When NASCAR decided to slow its Winston Cup cars at Daytona and Talladega in the interests of safety--by mandating use of a one-inch carburetor restrictor plate--a side effect may be taking some of the fun out of the racing.
It was apparent Thursday in the Twin 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Raceway that the exciting maneuver of a car slingshotting past another in racing for the lead is a thing of the past.
Two veterans of Daytona, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, won the two 50-lap races that help determine the field for Sunday's $1.5-million Daytona 500, but neither race had much suspense for the 90,000 spectators.
Allison, 51, a two-time winner of the 500, led the final 31 laps and was never challenged despite having Rusty Wallace, pole-sitter Ken Schrader, Greg Sacks and Rusty Wilson lined up directly behind his Buick.
"From what we saw today," Allison said, "it makes you wonder if any car can slingshot by itself. We're still trying to get our car to respond to a slingshot, but if it doesn't, we'll have to use other methods to pass, like working the traffic."
That was the way Allison moved from fifth to first in mid-race, picking off Sacks, Kyle Petty, Schrader and Ricky Rudd one at a time to take the lead on lap 20.
Waltrip, 40, still seeking his first Daytona 500 victory despite winning three Winston Cup championships and being the sport's leading money winner with nearly $8 million in earnings, led from start to finish in a new Chevrolet.
The line behind Waltrip included two-time defending Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, one of the fiercest chargers in stock car history, Davey Allison, Terry Labonte and Neil Bonnett. None made a move to pass the front-running Waltrip as they charged single-file for lap after lap around the 2 1/2-mile tri-oval.
"The restrictor plate makes it very difficult to regain your momentum after you slow down," Waltrip said. "When you slow down in the turns, it feels like you're going to fall down the (33 degree) embankment. You don't have the power to recover."
NASCAR put in the restrictor rule after cars became airborne last year at Daytona and Talladega. The effect was to drop speeds from 210 m.p.h. to the 193-m.p.h. range. The rule applies only to the two super-fast speedways.
Only once during the 125 miles did Waltrip get a challenge and that came on lap 13 from former Winston Cup and Daytona 500 winner Cale Yarborough--and ended when Yarborough's Oldsmobile spun out of control without being hit, or hitting anything.
"I was passing Darrell going into the corner, and the car never stopped," Yarborough explained. "The back end just came off and I spun. Waltrip must have sucked all the air from the back of the car. We never touched, though."
In the earlier race, an almost identical aerodynamic development took seven-time Daytona 500 winner Richard Petty out of the race. Petty was at the rear end of a long draft when he pulled out to make a pass. Without warning, the rear end of his Pontiac began to slide away from him and the car did a complete spin before careening into the infield grass.
"You can't control these things ," Petty said. "I was in a drafting situation, and it just got sideways and spun. I hit nothing. I was lucky it stopped in the dirt. I hit nobody and nobody hit us."
Although neither Petty nor Yarborough were hit as they spun, they caused separate melees behind them.
Jimmy Horton and Earnie Irvan both lost control while trying to avoid Petty, sending Horton into the wall and Irvan to the sidelines when he was rammed from the rear.
Yarborough's spin led to a 10-car pileup as drivers fought to slow down before they reached his out-of-control car. No one was injured, but you couldn't say as much for the cars.
Despite the new safety features, one fiery accident marred the day as veteran J.D. McDuffie, Ralph Jones and Delma Cowart careened out of control through the first corner of the third lap in the second race.
McDuffie's car exploded into flames after hitting the outside wall and continued to burn as it slid slowly down across the track and onto the grass. McDuffie, 49, crawled out of the window of the burning car and rolled onto the grass before the emergency crew arrived.
McDuffie was taken to Halifax Medical Center with second-degree burns over 15% of his body, mostly on his hands.
Defending Daytona 500 champion Bill Elliott will start in the 16th row Sunday after his Ford failed to make a lap in the second race.
"The transmission broke when we hit third gear on the start," Elliott said. "We went to third and that was it. It was the transmission, plain and simple."