DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Flush from signing a $2.4-billion TV contract, after doubling its Winston Cup champions' bonus to $3 million and anticipating record crowds at every stop, NASCAR heads into the new season like a runaway freight train.
It starts today at Daytona International Speedway with front-row qualifying for the Feb. 20 Daytona 500. Unlike most other sports, stock car racing has its major event first, setting the tone for a rigorous 34-race season.
At first glance, things appear much as they were last year. Jeff Gordon is back in No. 24 as defending race champion, Dale Jarrett is back as Winston Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt is here. So are Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and the Labonte brothers, Terry and Bobby.
Tony Stewart, 1999 rookie of the year, is back, hoping to build on the most impressive freshman year in NASCAR history--three wins, two poles, a rookie-record $3.19 million and fourth in the points.
But there also is a newness to the 2000 season--new rules and new drivers.
In the interest of safety, NASCAR mandated new shock absorber and spring specifications for the Daytona and Talladega tracks, longest and fastest on the NASCAR circuit. Aimed at eliminating the squatty-looking cars that teams used to develop more drag and increase speed, a side effect to the new rules should be more old-fashioned drafting.
From a visual viewpoint, the roof lines have been raised 4 1/2 inches, from 46 1/2 to 51.
"The new rule may slow the cars down a little, but for the driver, it's going to ride a lot better and it's going to be a lot easier for qualifying," two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte said. "It had really gotten to a point that it was dangerous for the qualifying runs, especially for a new guy coming in that wasn't used to it."
There will be a lot of "new guys" this year, a crop of rookies Jarrett calls the "the finest I have ever seen coming into Winston Cup at the same time."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., winner of the last two Busch Grand National titles and buoyed by a $50-million sponsorship deal from Budweiser, is at the top of the list, which also includes CART open-wheel veteran Scott Pruett, former World of Outlaws champion Dave Blaney, former U.S. Auto Club Silver Crown champion Mike Bliss, and Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr.'s main competition in the Busch series.
Not among the rookie favorites but getting a lot of attention is Jeff Fuller, at 42 the oldest newcomer. His sponsor is Viagra.
Another new-old face is Robby Gordon, returning to NASCAR after two seasons with CART. This time he owns the team, along with John Menard and Mike Held.
"It's a different challenge, owning your own car and driving too, but that doesn't mean I'm going to work any harder than I did when I drove for other people because I did everything I could to win races," he said. "It's just that you can guide the ship a little differently."
An old face in a new uniform is Ricky Rudd, a fierce competitor as an independent car owner, now a teammate of Jarrett on Robert Yates' Ford team.
"I just feel honored and thrilled to have an opportunity like this," said Rudd, who has not missed a year since being Winston Cup rookie of the year in 1977.
Daytona even has a new look. Eight thousand seats have been added, bringing capacity to 165,000. Another 40,000 will jam the infield on race day.
Only the two fastest cars today will qualify for the 500. The rest of the 43-car field will be determined by twin 125-mile qualifying races Thursday.
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* What: Speed Weeks 2000.
* Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
* When: Today through Feb. 20.
* Defending 500 winner: Jeff Gordon.
* TV: Today, Daytona 500 front-row qualifying, 9 a.m., Channel 2. Sunday, Bud Shootout, 9 a.m., Channel 2; ARCA 200, 10:30 p.m., ESPN. Friday, Craftsman Truck 250, 8 a.m., ESPN. Feb. 19, Busch Grand National, 9 a.m., Channel 2. Feb. 20, Daytona 500, 9 a.m., Channel 2.