Welcome To Real Racing: Rockingham

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When the green flag waved last Sunday for the start of the Daytona 500, the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup officially began.

But the real fun begins Friday. That’s when the “normal” Winston Cup weekend starts with qualifying at North Carolina Speedway for Sunday’s Subway 400.

Drivers and teams spent almost two weeks in Daytona, while most race weekends consist of three days. Plus, the racing at Daytona is less about handling than it is about drafting and restrictor plates.

So the racing at the 1.017-mile North Carolina Speedway is a welcome change.

“It’s just more like going to the real world – and I mean because of the schedule,” Schrader said. “You get on the track Friday morning, Friday afternoon you know where you’re starting, you work on it a little bit Saturday and you race Sunday. It’s not like the schedule at Daytona. I love the schedule at Daytona – it’s one of the races I look forward to – but our real season starts at Rockingham.”

Qualifying is slated to start at 3:05 p.m. ET. Jeff Gordon won the pole last year, while Steve Park held off Bobby Labonte in a stirring battle for the victory. The win was emotional as it came a week after Dale Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500, and Park was driving a car owned by Dale Earnhardt. Inc.

This year, though, emotions aren’t quite as high. But after many days of tension in Daytona, Rockingham will be a bit more relaxing.

“It’s also going be nice to get to a non restrictor-plate race,” Mark Martin said. “Two weeks or two months of restrictor plate racing gets old after a while.

“Rockingham is really the start of what we do week in and week out. It’s a great track and it’s a good race where you can run anywhere on the track. We are looking very forward to getting out there, and I feel really good about where we are.”

Martin is one of many drivers who feel good about the 2002 season. Ward Burton, of course, feels the best, since he’s coming off a Daytona 500 victory. Elliott Sadler, who finished second, feels pretty good, too. So does anyone who finished in the Top 10.

“I’ve always said that you don’t need a good finish in the Daytona 500 in order to win the championship,” said Gordon, who was ninth last week. “Going into Rockingham with a Top 10 already under our belt is certainly encouraging. Now we won’t have to play catch-up like we have the last couple seasons.”

But even if he did have to play catch-up, Rockingham would be a good place to start. There’s no more worry about restrictor plates or drafting, and there won’t be nearly the discussion of aerodynamics as there was a week ago this time.

“You definitely feel like you’ve got pretty good control of what is going on,” said Johnny Benson, who finished 10th at Daytona. “At Rockingham, obviously drafting isn’t important like it is at Daytona, so you don’t have to worry about being hung out or not having a drafting partner. You don’t set your car up specifically to draft, so there are a lot of other elements to think about.

“Now we get back to what we call normal racing instead of restrictor-plate racing. All races count the same in points so while we might not worry about Rockingham like we have Daytona; it still counts the same as Daytona. The race car at Rockingham is now more in the control of the driver and the crew than it was last weekend at Daytona. For a driver it means you can now make different judgments on how you want to pass somebody. You can set him up, you can pass high or low, you can do whatever your car allows you to do. At Daytona you couldn’t do that because you had to worry about the draft so much.”

At Daytona, you have to worry about a lot of things. The nearly two weeks of buildup for the Daytona 500 can drive some people batty. But at Rockingham, there’s little time to talk. You have to worry about racing.

“At Daytona, everything is magnified like at Indianapolis during the 500 and the Brickyard 400,” John Andretti said. “The media is at Daytona the whole time, and we’re there the whole time. You run out of things to talk about. Everybody just sits there and waits for the event. We’ve talked about it. We’ve beaten it into the ground. We talk about everything we could about 10 times to everybody we can find and everybody that can find us.

“When you get out of Daytona and get back to Rockingham, it’s back to boom, boom, boom. You qualify, there’s something to talk about then. Then there’s the Busch race and then the Cup race, and it’s done and you go to the next one. There’s a lot less down time and thinking about what could happen, trying to get that last little bit out of the racecar and then messing up. Sometimes too much time is a bad thing, too.”

Besides, no matter how big the Daytona 500, it’s only one of 36 races. The season isn’t made or lost there.

“We’re looking forward to getting to Rockingham and really digging into the rest of the season,” Dale Jarrett said. “So much work goes into the preparation for the Daytona 500 that we kind of lose sight of the fact that that is just one race out of 36.”

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