Revved Up For NASCAR Season

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - February 28, 2007
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While we can continue to argue whether or not NASCAR officials did the right thing in allowing Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin to finish Daytona 500 before dropping the yellow flag, one thing is clear: It’s shaping up to be one heck of an interesting season.

In case you’re wondering, the answer to the lead-off question is yes and no. Harvick and Martin were clear of trouble and no administrator should determine the winner, while at the same time the caution flag is a safety device that shouldn’t be compromised. NASCAR rules have always contained a bit of elasticity, so why should this one be any different?

With teams getting busted for having a car too low - a minor mechanical faux pas that nobody worries about - to Michael Waltrip having some unknown substance - gel, jet fuel, STP, moonshine? - in his intake manifold, we’ve seen that cheating or “creative engineering” still has its place even when NASCAR is ready to drop the hammer. For those keeping score, that’s five crew chiefs suspended, five drivers docked points, four owners hit and four fines levied. What’s worse for Waltrip, and anyone else driving the interlooping T, is that Toyota is not happy with the coverage. The world’s No. 1 auto maker has money to spend and would love to take a bite out of Chevy and Ford as the pair struggles in the showroom.

Many expected driver and Sirius talk show host Tony Stewart to turn a strong showing at Daytona - he was leading after 153 laps before wrecking with Kurt Busch - into a springboard to get back into this year’s Chase to the Cup. NASCAR helped everyone by bumping up and therefore watering down the field by increasing the number of participants from the top 10 to 12. Being a bridesmaid didn’t sit well with Stewart last year. But Tony wasn’t the only formner champ to have a bad opening week. Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and defending champ Jimmy Johnson all failed to finish the race.

Former F/1 champ Juan Pablo Montoya - who shocked international racing when he decided to give the redneck circuit a try - finished but failed to impress after qualifying fourth. Montoya battled engine trouble that left him only with fourth gear for much of the race. The Colombian has won on F/1 and in CART and is expected to visit victory lane this season. NASCAR sure hopes he does. The league is looking to make more headway into the Latin American market and Montoya could lead the way.

The Car of Tomorrow becomes the Car of Today on March 25 at Bristol, and no one is yet sure how this thing will work out. The bigger, boxier car will be safer, and while the looks will take some getting used to, no one seems to know how the car will perform. Early reviews have not been good.

The Associated Press quoted two-time Daytona winner Sterling Marlin as saying, “The one time I drove the Car of Tomorrow, it didn’t drive good. And Joe (Nemechek), said the same thing, it didn’t drive good. And Mark (Martin) said it didn’t drive good. That’s three good drivers that said it didn’t drive good. So there you have it.”

These early runs didn’t include the actual tires the cars would run during competition, so the performance will suffer. With the new design to be used in 16 races this year, any team with a leg up in this new technology could vault to the top of the Cup points race. That’s an awfully big unknown.

The biggest story to watch this year may be the most unpleasant. NASCAR’s first family - with apologies to the Pettys - is in the middle of a power struggle out of which no one will come unscathed. Teresa Earnhardt inherited Dale Earnhardt International (DEI) after the death of the Intimidator. Stepson Dale Jr., whose contract runs out with the company at the end of the year, wants majority control of the brand his daddy made famous. Actually, he wants the four Earnhardt children to run the entire show. There are indications that Jr. could bolt and take his crew chief with him. That would be ugly. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of NASCAR’s biggest stars and it’s hard to imagine a successful DEI without an Earnhardt behind the wheel. Teresa doesn’t spend much time around the pits and is seen my most to be an outsider possibly defiling the family name.

Trivia time. Which is the only manufacturer in NASCAR to build its cars in the U.S? Toyota. The Camry is built in Kentucky and the NASCAR engines in Costa Mesa, Calif. The Ford Fusion is made in Mexico while the Monte Carlo and Charger are all of Canadian birth.

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