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February 9, 2001 | 6:00 P.M. EST
There’s no denying it, however. NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing is back.
The series makes its return to the track on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway with qualifying for the Feb. 18 Daytona 500. The following day, the annual Budweiser Shootout will commence in front of an expected packed house at the historic 2.5-mile tri-oval.
The 2001 season promises to be anything but boring. From the new television package to the re-emergence of Dodge and Dale Earnhardt’s chase for an elusive eighth Winston Cup championship, the upcoming campaign should be a race fan’s delight.
While certainly there are many more, here are 20 things - with no particular order of importance - to keep and eye on in the Winston Cup Series this season:
1. Safety – With the deaths of three drivers last season – one in each of NASCAR’s three biggest series - NASCAR and its top drivers are (at the minimum) looking closely at several new safety features in an attempt to keep it from happening again.
The HANS device, a custom-fitted carbon-fiber harness worn around a driver’s neck, provides head-and-neck support by restricting a wide ran of movement on impact. Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth are just two of the drivers who plan on using the device and have been outspoken about its necessity.
NASCAR has mandated the use of throttle kill switches, mounted on the dash of each car. Some teams have even developed a secondary pedal-activated throttle kill switch.
In addition, some teams have gone to the use of custom-made foam bed liners in the driver’s seat, which provide all-around support for the driver in conjunction with seatbelt use. The liners not only act as a shock absorber, but also help prevent a wide range of movement.
2. New TV Package – NASCAR went all out when it signed its new television deal for the next few years, and the package will go into effect this weekend with the coverage of the Budweiser Shootout. The Daytona 500, which had been televised live on CBS since 1979, will be broadcast by the Fox Network, as will all of the Cup races in the first half of the year.
FX, a cable network, will broadcast the Busch Series races beginning with the Daytona opener on Feb. 17.
NBC, and TBS Superstation, led by veteran broadcasters Allen Bestwick and Benny Parsons, will pick up the television coverage in the second half of the season. It will call 20 Winston Cup and 18 Busch Series events.
3. Dodge – The media hype surrounding Daimler-Chrysler’s return to the Winston Cup Series has been off the charts through the past 18 months, and now it’s time to see whether or not the manufacturer can make a big impact on the series in its first year with the new Intrepid. A total of 10 teams will field Dodges beginning in 2001 – three from Petty Enterprises, two from Evernham Motorsports, two from Bill Davis Racing, two from Chip Ganassi Racing and one from Melling Racing.
Testing results in the preseason have been mixed, as well as driver and team owner opinions. One of the biggest worries for Dodge teams was the endurance factor surrounding the engine. That question could be answered on Feb. 18 at Daytona.
4. Ray Evernham – Along the same lines, Ray Evernham’s career gamble to leave championship bliss with Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports will be thrust into the spotlight. Evernham left Hendrick to head up Dodge’s research and development efforts for its return to Winston Cup.
Evernham Motorsports will field two Intrepids this season – one for veteran Bill Elliott, the other for rookie Casey Atwood. Elliott gets a new lease on life after his career has stagnated over the past few years, while Atwood gets a chance to show he belongs in the Winston Cup Series after a couple of solid years in the Busch Series.
5. R.J. Reynolds’ involvement – With its agreement with several states’ attorneys general to cut down on its sponsorship of major sports outlets, officials of the tobacco mogul must choose whether or not it will continue its relationship with the series. It now sponsors Winston Cup racing, the National Hot Rod Association and a Senior PGA Tour golf tournament in Winston-Salem, N.C. Officials say they’re considering their options, but the relationship between the company and NASCAR remains solid.
6. Tires – The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company certainly had its problems last season with blowouts, etc., and even faced a tire shortage in Charlotte in the fall. Many drivers and teams were extremely vocal about the quality of Goodyear’s product.
The company vowed to fix the problem, and apparently has done so judging by results of preseason testing at various tracks. Whether or not the problems have been taken care of remains to be seen.
7. New tracks – Two more tracks and two more races were added to both the Winston Cup and Busch Series schedules for this season. Both Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., and Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., are 1.5-mile facilities, comparable to tracks such as Las Vegas, Charlotte, Texas and Atlanta.
Whether or not the racing will be different than any of those tracks remains to be seen. The race in Chicago is scheduled for July 15, and the event in Kansas City is set for Sept. 30.
8. Repeat for Labonte? – Bobby Labonte isn’t kidding himself. He knows repeating his 2000 Winston Cup championship will be a tremendous challenge to himself and his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac team. Labonte never finished lower than 26th in any race last season and didn’t post a DNF.
Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip are the only three drivers to repeat championships in the past 20 years. Earnhardt did it three times, however, giving Labonte a ray of hope.
9. An eighth for Earnhardt? – In 2000 - for the first time in several years - Earnhardt put himself in contention to win that elusive, record-breaking eighth Winston Cup title. “The Intimidator” won two races (both at Talladega) and finished second in the points chase.
Earnhardt will be 50 in April, but he’s certainly shown no signs of slowing down. He said he fully intends to be at the head table in New York this December when he wins the championship, his first since 1994 and his seventh with Richard Childress Racing.
10. Gordon comeback – It’s hard to believe one would even mention the word “comeback” in association with Jeff Gordon, but that’s the case in 2001.
Uncharacteristically, Gordon finished ninth in points last year, his worst season since his rookie campaign in 1993 with Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon has 52 career Winston Cup victories to his credit after three triumphs a year ago, and the driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet is determined for he and his team to return to the form that helped it win championships in 1995, 1997 and 1998.
11. Stewart the “Dominator?” – What a first couple of seasons in Winston Cup Tony Stewart has had. Both times the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac has finished in the Top 6 in the points standings. He also has nine victories in only two years on the circuit.
Many expect the combination of Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli to give his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Labonte, among others, a run for the championship this season. No sophomore jinx for Stewart in 2000, but he’s hoping for more consistency to vault him to the top.
12. A victory, finally? – It’s all been said before. Michael Waltrip is still winless in a points race after 462 attempts. Waltrip may finally be able to get the monkey off his back in 2001.
Why is this year different from any other? Waltrip will drive a Chevrolet prepared by Dale Earnhardt, Inc. DEI got its first three Winston Cup victories a year ago, two by Dale Earnhardt Jr., and one by Steve Park. With a solid sponsor in NAPA and all of DEI behind him, there’s no reason to believe Waltrip can’t win a race this year.
13. Tough rookie battle – There have been some tight battles for rookie of the year before, and 2001 promises to be no different. Four drivers – Kurt Busch, Casey Atwood, Andy Houston and Jason Leffler – will be the top candidates, but look for it to be a two-driver race between Busch and Atwood down the stretch.
Both have hurdles to overcome early on. Busch is without a sponsor for his Roush Racing No. 97 Taurus, while Atwood and the rest of his team will still be getting used to the new Dodge Intrepid. That could allow Houston to stay close for a while, but look for him to fade late in the year.
14. Aerodynamic rules – These have been played with a great deal through the past few years to keep the playing field “level” in the Winston Cup Series, and you can expect changes again in 2001. New rules were put into effect last fall at Talladega to keep the speeds down, and as it turned out, that race was one of the best of the year.
That might happen again in the Daytona 500, but that also remains to be seen. If you think about it, one little spin in the front of the pack would have meant a 10-plus car wreck at Talladega.
15. Ryan Newman – Is this kid for real? Apparently officials at Penske Racing South and Alltel think so.
An open-wheel standout in the sprint-car ranks, Newman was signed by Roger Penske to drive a limited schedule in Winston Cup, Busch and ARCA for the 2001 season, with plans of putting him in a Winston Cup car full time in 2002. Newman, who won a pair of ARCA races in only four attempts last season, will be sponsored by communications mogul Alltel and will be a teammate to both Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield.
16. Jason Leffler – If there was ever any pressure on a 25-year-old rookie to perform, it might be on Leffler. The former open-wheel standout was heavily scrutinized for his decision to leave Joe Gibbs Racing’s Busch Series operation, where he finished 20th in points his rookie year last year, to take over as the driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 01 Dodge.
Leffler has only one year of stock-car experience and admits he still has a lot to learn about them. He left Joe Gibbs Racing because there was no apparent future for him there in the Winston Cup Series.
17. Ganassi’s Tough Road - Winning four consecutive CART Fed-Ex Series championships doesn’t necessarily guarantee you success in the Winston Cup Series, and Ganassi knows it. He enters the Winston Cup Series knowing full well the competition level, and expects there to be setbacks. Just ask Cal Wells, who stumbled through his first season of Winston Cup racing in 2000 after a great deal of success in CART.
Ganassi will put his hopes in the rookie, Leffler, and veteran driver Sterling Marlin. He has a tremendous cast of supporting characters around him, however, including Andy Graves and Tony Glover.
18. Jerry Nadeau – A lot of eyes will also be on this guy, but Nadeau has proven he belongs in the Winston Cup Series. He ended the 2000 season, his first with Hendrick Motorsports, with a bang when he won the finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Nadeau finished 20th in the points standings and could very well break into the Top 15 or Top 10 in 2001, provided his team shakes off the nine DNFs it suffered through last season.
19. Elusive Daytona 500 – Dale Earnhardt finally won his first Daytona 500 in 1998 after 20 tries. There are others – big names – that are creeping up on (or have passed) that number as well, and hope to break that streak come Feb. 18.
This year’s “SuperBowl of Auto Racing” will mark the 23rd attempt for Terry Labonte, driver of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet. Mark Martin has never won the Daytona 500 in 16 previous tries, nor has Kyle Petty in 21 attempts. Ricky Rudd has had 22 cracks at a Daytona 500 victory, but has fallen short every time.
Dave Marcis, who will be 60 in March, has been coming to the 500 every year since 1968, but has never won it, either.
20. A championship contender – Speaking of Rudd, the driver of the No. 28 Texaco-Havoline Ford took a while to jell with his new team a year ago, and wound up finishing fifth in the Winston Cup points standings. He came close, but never got to victory lane, however.
Rudd is expected to be stronger in 2001, and many believe he’ll win a few races, as well as contend for a Winston Cup championship. The competition will be fierce, but if anybody knows what it takes to get him there, it’s team owner Robert Yates.