Finale Has Eye On The Sky

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LOUDON, N.H. – Finally, it’s here. Well, sure, it’s the last race of the season, but today’s New Hampshire 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway has been anticipated for more than two months.

The race was postponed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and moved to the day after Thanksgiving.

New England. Late November. Cold. Snow. Or so that’s what many drivers believed.

The forecast for today in Loudon, N.H. is for sunny skies and temperatures near 50 degrees.

So much for the dire predictions of bitterly cold weather, with two feet of snow. Still, there are some concerns, aren’t there?

“Not really,” Tony Stewart said. “As long as the track is in good shape, I don’t there will be any concerns for us. In all actuality, it’ll probably be one of the nicest days for us to be drivers in a Winston Cup car because it’ll probably be 65-70 degrees inside the car as opposed to the 120-130 degrees it normally is. It should be pretty comfortable inside the car.”

So, why worry?

“The biggest problem we will face is getting heat in the tires,” Mark Martin said. “We have trouble on the restarts up there when it’s warm, I can’t imagine what this will be like.”

Temperatures were in the 80s when the Winston Cup cars raced there in July, but grip was a concern even then. NHIS is a flat 1-mile oval, with long straightaways to build up speed, but flat corners don’t hold it. Track officials sealed the surface before July’s race, but there was still one groove in the turns.

Goodyear has brought a softer tire to NHIS, but the chilly temperatures are still a factor.

“Of all places that we go to, that is one of the toughest it could be because you don’t get much grip there when the track is warm,” said Bobby Labonte, last Sunday’s winner at Atlanta. “It’s going to be hard to do, but we’re going to have to do the best we can to get heat in the tires without tires warmers. We’re just going to have to get heat in the tires by swerving back and forth. That will be the biggest thing.

“Of all the places that we go to, it’s probably going to be one of the hardest because the grip is not good there for the first 10 laps of a run anyway until we get going. If you look at our lap times, it usually gets better after about 10 laps and then it maintains for 25 laps and then if falls off. It’s always slippery, and we’re going to have to be careful.”

The start of the race will likely be the chilliest time of the day, so that could be tricky.

“The cold is going to do more for the track than what it will to the race car,” John Andretti said. “New Hampshire is similar to Martinsville. It has the concrete surface in the corners. You just need heat in the corners. The biggest things at New Hampshire are the restarts because the corners don’t have as much grip to them. I would like it if NASCAR would bring out the blowers and heat up the corners regularly. I don’t know how the other drivers are going to go into Turn 1, but I am going to go in with great caution.”

Will everyone be like that?

“I’m going to go like hell to lead the first lap,” Kevin Harvick said. “I don’t know what the rest of them are going to do, but I’m going to drive the crap out of my car.”

Since the field was set by car owner points back in September, Harvick will start fourth. Jeff Gordon starts on the pole, with Ricky Rudd second, Dale Jarrett third, Harvick fourth and Stewart fifth.

The winner could come from the back of the pack, and that could cause problems, too.

“You have cars that are real fast in the back or the middle, and then you’ve got slow cars up front or fast cars up front,” said Kurt Busch, who starts 27th. “You never know how it’s going to play out. That’s what you have to work around at the beginning of the race. And it’s the temperature’s going to be cold and it’s a short track. It’s going to be very tough to get through the first few laps.”

And through the entire race as well. But the time to complain is over. It’s time to shut up and race.

“A lot of them gripe about things just because they need something to gripe about or looking for an excuse not to do something,” Harvick said. “We don’t get paid $3 or 4 million a year to sit at home and gripe about things. We get paid a lot of money, and someone’s going to expect us to race.”

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