The Politics Of Winston Cup

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Talk might be cheap, but when it comes to manufacturer haggling, it can sometimes be entertaining.

The Ford vs. Chevrolet war (which now has to include Dodge) had been waging for years, and lately most of the battles appear to take place off the track. Politicians may rule the government, but don’t look now, there are some politicos in NASCAR who would do well in the White House.

The latest round of controversy started last week, when NASCAR announced it was giving Chevrolet and Pontiac a slight extension of their front air dams for Sunday’s Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway – and only Sunday’s race. The sanctioning body said it would review the rules after the race.

The “kickout,” as we’ve come to know it, helps with front downforce. And it could, in theory, lessen the effects of the dreaded “aero push.”

Did General Motor put forth some sort of backroom wrangling to get the rules change? Yes, if you believe a Ford guy. To which GM would reply, Who us?

And after Friday’s qualifying, the talk picked up some more. There was Chevrolet driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning his first pole of the season. Curious? Perhaps. Second was Kevin Harvick in a Chevy. Third was Michael Waltrip in a Chevy. Fourth was Steve Park in a Chevy. Fifth was Robby Gordon. Two guesses as to what kind of car he’s driving, and one doesn’t count.

The highest non-GM product was the Dodge of Bill Elliott. That prompted Dodge executive Jim Julow to say, “I’d like to congratulate Ray Evernham for putting the No. 9 and No. 19 Dodge Dealers Intrepid R/Ts on the front row of the non-Chevy segment of the Pepsi 400. Based on (Friday’s) results, we clearly don’t have a level playing field for all manufacturers.”

Really? Who should we believe?

“I really don’t feel much of a difference with the change on the nose,” Gordon said. “We came here and tested, and I think that’s why we qualified good. I think Michael Waltrip – he started on the front row here last time – shared his knowledge with his other two teammates (Earnhardt Jr. and Park), and they were able to come back and capitalize on what they had as well. I contribute our good qualifying to testing here a week ago.”

Sounds believable enough. But for the counterpoint, let’s turn to … Jack Roush, the miracle man himself. He hasn’t lost his feistiness, you know.

“It looks like NASCAR is really quick to look at any situation where it looks like a Chevrolet can’t win and fix it,” Roush said. “The Fords would have to wait past the time when a championship would be decided to get a consideration like this.”

Bill Wilburn, crew chief for Ford’s Rusty Wallace, went even further.

“I don’t know exactly how Chevrolet played this game, but obviously the help they got was a big plus for them,” Wilburn said. “Here they are giving something to somebody who was pretty good to begin with. We’re in the middle of this points race, but all we can do is look deeper into it and talk to the NASCAR people and see what direction they’re headed.

“They tell us it’s just a one-race deal, and obviously that’s about all it should be because right now, if this race track stays cool and calm like it is and we get some rain to keep it clean, we’ll be hard pressed to keep those guys in sight come race time. With that extra downforce on the nose, they’ll be able to do things with their car that we just can’t do. We just have to work hard in practice and see what we can come up with, but Chevrolet getting that 1-inch kickout is a pretty big hurdle to overcome.”

Ah, politics. Don’t you love it?

But while Friday’s qualifying might seem to mean a Chevy romp on Sunday, Saturday’s practice tells a different story.

In Happy Hour, Pontiac’s Tony Stewart was fastest, followed by the Fords of Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace. Hmm.

In Saturday morning’s practice, fastest was Ryan Newman, with Mark Martin second. Chevy guys, right? Nuh, uh. Ford.

But Roush hinted the GM camp was sandbagging, how showing their true hand for fear NASCAR would take away the supposed advantage.

“If the Chevrolet guys were smart, what they would do is just hold back now and get an advantage for the rest of the year,” Roush said.

That’s funny, Chevy guys responded.

“We have way too much on the line to sandbag,” said Jimmie Johnson, a rookie Winston Cup driver but obviously not a rookie politician. “It’s easy when you’re sitting on the other side of the fence and throwing rocks at people. But when the rocks are being thrown at you, and you’ve got a lot to get done, you aren’t going to sandbag.”

Besides, this is an important race for every manufacturer, being so close to the Motor City.

“I would like to see the day that Dale Jr. or Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon or any of those guys would sandbag,” Bobby Hamilton said. “It’s just not in their bloodline. It’s not going to happen. The bottom line is that Detroit is a really important place for all the manufacturers. It’s a feather in their cap for whoever can win here. If anybody ever sandbagged, it’s not going to be in Detroit, I can promise that.”

Of course, the fact that the rules change came at this track has angered some. And you can guess which side of the fence they are on.

“They will fight aero-push like everyone else (in Sunday’s race), but when you give them that much more front downforce they’re able to overcome that a lot easier,” Wilburn said. “If we could put an inch more on our Ford, we’d be a lot better. I’ve seen a pretty even mix among manufacturers as far as results and I don’t know that one make has won anymore than another, so an inch for one brand right now seems a little over the limit as far as I’m concerned.”

And you thought Democrats and Republicans were the only ones who could trade barbs like that?

Welcome to Election Year – er, Race Day.

“Obviously some of the manufacturers are complaining a little bit, but it’s Winston Cup racing, and I’m used to it,” Robby Gordon said. “It’s only a one-race deal, and we’ll see how the race goes. I’m sure NASCAR will make the proper adjustments after the race to keep it a level playing field. Racing in Detroit is definitely a manufacturer’s battle. I’ve seen that for a long time coming here – even in Indy cars. Everybody wants to win here in Motor City on Sunday.”

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