Column: Burton should win another | NevadaAppeal.com

Column: Burton should win another

Roger Diez

Well, Darlington certainly proved to be the most interesting Winston Cup race of the season so far, once everybody stopped crashing and they got a few green-flag laps in.

Ward Burton got a big monkey off his back, and I’m going out on a limb and predicting that this will not be his only win of the season. All three makes currently running in Winston Cup have won now (Pontiac for the first time at Darlington since 1963), so NASCAR must be pretty proud of their attempts to achieve competitive parity.

Speaking of parity, there have been further developments in the potential change in NASCAR body configuration rules toward a common template for all makes (or as NASCAR terms it, a common aero package).

Actually, the real story has to do with lack of development, as Dodge has suspended planned testing of its Winston Cup Intrepid at Homestead later this month. The test was put on hold pending NASCAR’s decision whether or not to implement the “common template” for the 2001 season, which will be the debut of the new Intrepid.

Dodge program director Ray Evernham and the Dodge teams involved in the test have decided to wait for firm word before collecting data that may prove worthless. The Bill Davis team, which will switch from Pontiac to Dodge next year for drivers Ward Burton and Dave Blaney, has two Dodges built to current specifications.

“NASCAR hasn’t given us a definite on anything, but the common template has certainly come to the top of the talking list right now. If that’s going to become a reality, we probably need to check up on the development and see the thing through,” said Davis.

He added that he expects a yes or no from NASCAR by this weekend.

Although the common template idea would eliminate a lot of the whining and politicking over advantages and disadvantages of various body styles, and put more of the racing outcome in the hands of the teams and drivers, there is a downside. Car company executives have expressed dismay over the idea of weakening brand identity, and turning the Winston Cup into a “spec” series may erode fan loyalty and interest.

I’m just glad to sit on the sidelines and watch this one, rather than have to make the decision.

— Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) kicks off its season this weekend at Miami-Homestead. Although it promises to be a highly competitive and exciting series this year, there is one major ingredient missing – American drivers.

With the defection of Al Unser Jr. to the IRL, Robby Gordon and Scott Pruett to NASCAR, and promising young drivers like Alex Barron and Memo Gidley without rides, the driver roster is starting to look more like Formula 1 than an American-based series.

CART President and CEO Andrew Craig addressed this issue at a press conference last week, expressing concern but offering no immediate solutions. The fact of the matter is that in today’s world of open-wheel racing, a driver who can bring sponsorship to a team has a lot better chance of getting a ride than one who can’t.

Young South American and European drivers seem to be a lot more successful at building relationships with sponsors who can benefit their careers than do American pilots. I think a large part of the situation is because open-wheel racing is much more popular in those countries than in the U.S., where NASCAR has soaked up the lion’s share of the sponsorship money available.

What’s the solution? There is none looming on the horizon for the current season, but Craig pointed out a much higher participation level by Americans in the CART feeder series this year, which should translate into more of these drivers moving up to the top level in the next three years.

“We have 10 Americans this year in Indy Lights,” said Craig. “We have 17 Americans this year in (Formula) Atlantic. And those, I believe particularly in the case of Indy Lights, are a record, and certainly high levels of numbers in these series for the past.”

— One of the American Formula Atlantic contenders is 19 year old T.J. Bell of Sparks. Bell came out of the chute in testing at Homestead for this weekend’s Atlantic doubleheader as one of only 10 drivers below the 41 second lap time mark on the combination oval/road course circuit.

Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal motorsports columnist.