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Drivers and New Rules Hit the Fast Track

The Daytona 500 will set hearts racing on NBC. This year brings changes in the name and the scoring system.

February 15, 2004|George Dickie | Special to The Times

For a NASCAR fan, describing the Daytona International Speedway is like trying to explain the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. Words and pictures just don't suffice.

It must be seen with one's own eyes.

"The banking is unbelievable, and television does not do it justice," says NBC's Bill Weber, who will report from the pits at the venerable Florida track when the peacock network airs the 46th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday. "When you go into Daytona and you stand on the ground and look up at the turns, you would think the cars, if they stopped, would just slide off. And that's the challenge to the driver, to be able, at over 190 mph, to hold that car in that line in traffic for 2 1/2 miles each lap for 500 miles all day.

"People ask, 'How do new fans get hooked on NASCAR?' Hopefully, we can get them hooked by entertaining them on television. But if you take these fans to these race tracks -- not just Daytona, but almost everyone has some unique characteristic -- and close their eyes or blindfold them as you take them inside, and then put them at the bottom of those bankings and have them look up, every time you do it, it's like, 'Wow!' Because as hard as we try to describe it, until you see it and feel it, you can't appreciate it."

With this year's season-opening Daytona 500, two important changes take effect in NASCAR. The first and most visible is the name of the circuit. After a 32-year association with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., during which time the series formerly known as the Winston Cup grew from a bunch of races in the Southeast to a powerful mainstream sport, NASCAR decided to join forces with a more socially acceptable sponsor, communications giant Nextel, thus making the circuit the Nextel Cup.

The second and more controversial change is how the final standings will be determined. Previously, points that drivers accumulated in each race were totaled at the end of the season to determine a champion. Now, the season is essentially split. The top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of first place after the first 26 races will be included in a 10-race "Chase for the Championship." The first-place driver will begin with 5,050 points, the second driver 5,045 and so on, with drops of five points for all those involved in the championship showdown.

Under the new system, 2003 series champ Matt Kenseth would have finished sixth, while second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson would have won the title by 55 points over Jeff Gordon, who under the old system took fourth.

Although NASCAR officials are promoting the new system as a way of rewarding winning (Kenseth won only once in 2003, while finishing among the top 10 on 25 occasions) and adding excitement to the season-ending races (and thus increasing TV ratings at a time when fans often turn their attention to the NFL, college football and the World Series), drivers and fans have been less than enthusiastic.

One is Bobby Labonte, a Nextel Cup driver who finished eighth last year. "I don't like it. I mean, I say I don't like it, but you know what? It really doesn't matter. I mean, we're going to go out there and race.... I just hope that it's good for the sport as a whole. That's the main thing. And to be honest with you, if you call me back next year at this time and if it was a success, then I'd have to say, 'Hey, it might be one of the greatest things out there. I don't know.' Because right now, we don't know."

Weber takes a more positive view. "As a fan, I'm looking forward to it, and I know that probably puts me in the minority, just judging by what you read and what you hear. Although, I was at Daytona for both test sessions [in January], and I think more drivers are for it than are letting on. To attract new fans, I think you have to reward winning. When baseball went to the designated hitter or the wild card or realigned the divisions or things along those lines, naturally [people were] against it, because as a fan, you don't want to see change, and I think that's what a lot of fans are going through right now. They don't want to see any changes. I think this is going to generate some excitement, and if it doesn't work, you can always go back. But I think it's worth a try."

As far as drivers to watch at Daytona, Weber names defending champion Michael Waltrip, as well as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, Tony Stewart and Labonte. Of the last two, he says, "It wouldn't surprise me to see the two [Joe Gibbs Racing] cars run very well down there. Tony Stewart does not have the best of luck at Daytona, especially in the 500. Bobby Labonte's best finish there is second. But they usually come out of the gate strong down there. I think they'll have a good shot."

Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, tries to approach the Daytona 500 as just one of 36 races he'll be running this year. "In the scheme of things, as far as the year goes, it still pays the same points as the next race and the next race and the next race. But Daytona is obviously special because of the fact that it was one of the first tracks that was built for the Grand National series years ago, and obviously it gets a lot more media attention than, say, the second race of the year is going to have. You can say that if you win Daytona, it's going to make your year, but that's not really the case. It hasn't been.

"But obviously, winning the Daytona 500 is a huge feat just for the fact that it's kind of a special track, when you get down to it. And it's obviously hard to win too."

George Dickie writes for Tribune Media Services.

The Daytona 500 will air at 9 a.m. on NBC.

Cover photograph by Reuters.

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