CONCORD, N.C. — As the points race for the $1.25-million Winston Cup stock car championship narrows between Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace, NASCAR officials may have thrown a monkey wrench into proceedings with dramatic rules changes.
With the intention of slowing cars down--to prevent an occurrence of 3,800-pound cars flying through the air as happened at Talladega Superspeedway last July--NASCAR ordered the roof height raised half an inch, the rear deck spoiler trimmed 1 1/2 inches and the ground clearance for front air dams lifted 1 1/2 inches.
The new rules will be in effect for today's Mello Yello 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and for the season-ending Hooters 500 on Nov. 14 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Both are high-banked, high-speed ovals.
From the results of last Wednesday night's qualifying, they may have attained the desired effect. Jeff Gordon, the rookie sensation from Pittsboro, Ind., won the pole in a Chevrolet with a speed of 177.684 m.p.h.
That was slower than the record 179.027 by Alan Kulwicki last year.
"What's a couple of miles going to do? Nothing," said Earnhardt, a five-time champion. "What other sport changes rules late in the season with only four races left. The old rules worked fine for 26 races."
Wallace said the difference the changes made in his Pontiac were even more severe than for the Fords and Chevrolets. Wallace will start 21st after managing only 174.475.
"The Pontiac is narrower, so the changes cause more problems," he said. "It was bad enough during qualifying, but it's going to be worse on race day. When nobody's close, the rules work, but in traffic I think the air definitely upsets the back end of the car a little more.
"I drove in behind the No. 28 car (Ernie Irvan) in Turn 3 (during practice) and he was just flying along and I got up to his bumper and he turned sideways and went straight up the hill.
"I'm not happy with the rules, but there's no use talking any more about it. I've got to go out there and take what the track gives me and work as hard to make up time on Dale as I can. I know it's going to be the hardest thing I've ever done in my life to catch him and run him down."
Earnhardt, who led by 309 points four races back, holds only a 72-point edge over the 1989 Winston Cup champion. He lost 200 points in two races when he wrecked at Dover, Del., and broke a gear at Martinsville, Va., while Wallace was winning three of the last four races.
"I'd rather be racing Rusty for the championship than anybody else because I know he has the same determination to win that I have," Earnhardt said. "The closer he gets to me, the more pressure it puts on our team, and the more pressure there is, the better it is for me and the team. I know I do better under pressure."
Earnhardt, who qualified at 176.200, will start ninth in his GM Goodwrench Chevrolet.
"I liked things just the way they were the last time we came to Charlotte," said Earnhardt, who lives a few miles to the north near Mooresville. Last May, on the same weekend in Charlotte, he won the Winston, a non-points race that paid $222,500, and the Coca-Cola 600, which paid $156,650.
The Points Race
A look at the leaders for the $1.25-million Winston Cup stock car championship through Oct. 3:
No. Driver Points 1. Dale Earnhardt 3,877 2. Rusty Wallace 3,805 3. Dale Jarrett 3,571 4. Mark Martin 3,527 5. Morgan Shepherd 3,354 6. Kyle Petty 3,290 7. Ken Schrader 3,284 8. Ernie Irvan 3,192 9. Bill Elliott 3,150 10. Ricky Rudd 3,056