By Roger Diez
NASCAR is already cranking up for the 2004 season, with testing underway at Daytona for Winston (oops, Nextel) Cup teams that finished in odd-numbered points positions taking to the track this past week.
As expected, the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) cars of Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were fast in restrictor-plate trim, at least until Michael broke an oil line and smacked the wall in his primary ride. Initial times were right in the same ballpark as last year's, despite a slightly bigger restrictor plate and larger rear spoiler specified for 2004.
This will be the first season for Nextel as primary sponsor of the most popular racing series on the planet, and perhaps in the solar system. Strangely, the telecomm giant has been reticent about promoting itself, with the only outward sign of the change of sponsorship a new paint job on the NASCAR headquarters truck. Rumors have it that Nextel has spent a bundle on infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood of NASCAR tracks, probably fearful of the bad press if the media experience communication problems at the races. NASCAR officials and employees will all communicate with Nextel phones, which are being handed out quite freely. Strangely, Nextel has maintained a low (or non-existent) human profile in the garage area and press room at Daytona, at least so far.
Of course, NASCAR being NASCAR, the buzz (initiated and stirred up by 17, count 'em, 17 press releases) is mostly about rule changes for 2004. The rules for provisional starting positions have been tweaked, reducing the number of provisionals at each race from seven to five, meaning 38 cars will now qualify on times. Teams with prior year points will now get as many as 10 provisionals, increased from eight last year. Teams will start with four, receiving credit for another every sixth race. Teams that finished outside the top 45 last year will get two provisionals after four attempts to qualify, successful or not. These teams will receive a maximum of eight provisionals (one after every sixth race) for the season. Are you still with me? If not, pay attention to your TV at the Daytona 500, as Darrell Waltrip will explain it in great detail over, and over, and over, and over, and over. . . .
Testing rules are also modified from 2003. Testing restrictions, originally instituted in hopes of leveling the playing field for teams with smaller budgets, have been relaxed slightly for 2004. Veteran drivers can now conduct five two-day tests and four one-day tests. Rookies get seven two-day tests and five one-day tests. Rules apply only to tracks on which Cup races are scheduled, so teams can flail their cars to a frazzle on non-Cup tracks like Kentucky and Nashville, which closely mimic a number of Cup tracks.
Although no aero changes outside restrictor plate tracks have been announced for Cup cars, the Grand National Series will adopt several aerodynamic tweaks that were tried and abandoned by their big brother series last year. The "bug catcher" strip, a transverse, half-inch high roof fence, will be used by the Grand National cars, as well as a 6.25 inch high, 55 inch wide, rear spoiler. NASCAR is trying to induce additional aero drag, making throttle control more effective for drivers in the series. The changes, as in the Cup series, apply only at Daytona and Talladega, the restricted tracks.
For those of you who are ESPN fans, there's good news for 2004. After three years of reporting from parking lots and motel rooms, NASCAR is allowing the sports network access to the track. ESPN, after almost single-handedly building a TV audience for NASCAR, found itself out in the cold after NBC and FOX split the rights to broadcast NASCAR races in a bidding war that saw world record sums flow into NASCAR's coffers. ESPN is back inside the big tent in 2004 after canceling their RPM2Night magazine-format show, and will have a studio presence at Speedweeks in Daytona.
Finally, we'll see at least one rising star in the Nextel Cup series this year. Craftsman Truck contender Brendan Gaughan will drive the No. 77 for Penske Racing in 2004, the third team in the Penske stable.
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.