Perfecting The Speedway Show

(April 24, 2001)- - After the 2000 Daytona 500 was run in a single-file, follow the leader formation, NASCAR devised new rules to make superspeedway competition more competitive. Twenty drivers were invited to a mid-season test session at Daytona to allow NASCAR to try new aerodynamic rules. Metal strips were placed on the roofs of the car and alterations were made to the rear spoiler in order to create increased drag. The result was tighter racing as more cars could remain in the lead draft.

"When we tested at Daytona (in 2000) to come up with these new rules, something needed to be done at Daytona," Jeff Gordon said. "No one could pass at Daytona. You really didn't even see much side-by-side racing at Daytona." However, NASCAR also implemented the new aero rules at Talladega Superspeedway. "There's never needed to be anything done (at Talladega. The rules they had were fine here. We ran three wide, great racing, lead changes, and everyone could pass," Gordon said.

While the new aero rules might have helped competition at Daytona, Gordon feels they should not have been applied to Talladega. "These rules just made it absolutely crazy," he said. "I think they could go back to the old rules. But their thing is that whatever we have at Daytona, we need to have at Talladega because that's restrictor plate racing and we need to have a constant. I understand that to a point, but Daytona is not the same as Talladega. They're two different race tracks."

Though Gordon balked at two separate aero packages at the restrictor plate tracks. "We're as budget-conscious as anybody now," Gordon said. "We're spending tons and tons of money and wondering where it's going to end. We've got to be very careful of how much we spend too - even though maybe we have more to spend than others, we still have our limits."

In the weeks leading up to the Talladega 500 in April 2001, members of the racing media hinted at a driver boycott if NASCAR didn't implement measures to curtail the tight drafting packs, which are often recipes for multi-car wrecks. Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte reportedly received clearance from his sponsor that they would support him if he decided to pull out of the event due to safety concerns. Gordon did not contact DuPont and Pepsi about pulling out of the Talladega race nor did the companies contact the driver. "If there's a race going on, they expect their driver to be out there," Gordon said. "There's been things for years that people deal with that maybe they don't like. To me, the sponsor finds too much value in each and every race. In order for us to win championships, we have to race here and try to get as many points as we can." After all, sitting out a race can all but eliminate a driver from championship contention.

Sitting out was never an option, Gordon said. "When I decided to go Winston Cup racing, I didn't think that as soon as there was a race I didn't want to go to that I could get out of it. I'm sure if I didn't want to, I'm sure I could. But to me, that's not an option. It's just part of the series right now."

The issue of a safer chassis continues to be in the forefront in lieu of Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona. Earnhardt slammed the wall nearly head on, with the right front corner of his car absorbing the impact. "That right front corner is so stiff," Gordon said. "When you hit with the right front, it just doesn't give at all. I'd rather hit head on or back it in straight than hit driver or passenger side or especially right front. That's the worst is the right front. Passenger side and drivers side, that's next. The next thing is to back it in and the next one is to go straight in because all that stuff collapses."

More drivers have begun wearing the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device since Earnhardt's crash. In a head on crash, the HANS device restrains a driver's head to avoid a whiplash type injury. Gordon wore the device for the first time at Las Vegas and won the race. However, he woke up the next day and felt like he had a broken collarbone because the device pressed down on his shoulders during the race. Gordon wore the HANS device throughout a mid-April tire test at Atlanta Motor Speedway to get a better feel for the restraint system.

There has been much controversy in recent weeks regarding seat belts made by Simpson Race Products. NASCAR said the belts suffered a tear in Earnhardt's wreck in February and Mike Harmon's crash in a Busch series race in April. Both were wearing belts manufactured by Simpson. "As soon as I hear something like that I wonder if it was rubbing on something or is it just the stress of it or what," Gordon said. "There's a clip that you put on them to keep them really straight and tight."

Gordon continues to use Simpson belts. "I think they're the same belts that Earnhardt ran where the adjustments are from up on top of my hip," Gordon said. "I like to put them down below but I run a very short belt. As soon as it goes out of the seat, it's bolted on. The shorter you can run them, the better. And I run them very short. I tighten them up before I get in the car to where I can hardly breathe. Usually by the time I get settled in the seat, it's about perfect."

At Talladega it seems that a big wreck is inevitable. The caution free Talladega 500 in April 2001 was a testament to driver patience and the proper give and take attitude at work. But the fear of a wreck always looms. "That's when I don't mind getting paid what I get paid," Gordon said. "That's when I'm not ashamed to say it's worth it. But really, there are risks at everyplace we go and in every situation when you're a racecar driver."

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