Sandra McKee has covered NASCAR and other motor sports for the Evening Sun and The Sun since 1976.


Brandon, Baltimore: Every day at the office the inevitable always manages to pop up when all the guys start talking sports ... NASCAR! Being that I am the only person who enjoys NASCAR with a passion, it's tough to defend it against the rest of my colleagues. However, the question is then popped: Is NASCAR even a sport? Of course I feel it is due to the amount of physical endurance, spectacular hand-eye coordination and straight-out [guts] these guys have to race at these amazing speeds, all within inches of each other. What is your take on this question? Thanks.

Sandra McKee: You'd think we were beyond that by now. But over the years, I, too, have heard this question - though less frequently lately. Are racecar driver's athletes? I'm always tempted to ask, "Are Major League Baseball pitchers athletes? Are golfers athletes?"

There have been studies done in the United States and in Canada to answer the question and as you've already pointed out, drivers score well on physical endurance and hand-eye coordination. The conclusion of researchers has always been that they are.

Drivers, who over the years have become more and more aware of the need for physical conditioning in their sport, compete in a competition that demands physical strength, mental fortitude and hand-eye coordination. They compete for a prize. Records are kept. Sounds like an athletic competition with athletes to me.

Richard Petty once said all the people and other athletes that question a driver being a competitive athlete should have to compete in a new Olympics event: "They should create a room and turn up the heat to about 180 degrees and put all the athletes in there. Sit them on a stool and then give them continuous mental and physical puzzles to solve within seconds. I guarantee you the drivers would last longer and beat everyone else hands down."

As racing grows in stature and the general public becomes more educated about what drivers actually have to do during a race, I think the question will answer itself and we won't have to.

Mallory, Hampstead: What do you think of the new qualifying format that's been instituted for the Daytona 500? It has me more confused than ever and I was just wondering what your opinion was on it.

Sandra McKee: Confused? You're in good company. After Thursday's qualifying races, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, "I don't understand qualifying. I'm sure the guy who drew it up knows all about it, but it's too confusing for me." Earnhardt simply waited for the final lineup to be posted.

This is it in a nutshell: Under NASCAR's new qualifying system, which guarantees starting spots to the Top 35 points leaders from last season, the final eight spots in the field for the Daytona 500 were determined by Thursday's race results and Sunday's qualifying speeds. The highest two finishing drivers in each race who are not among the Top 35 were added to the field. Then, the four drivers with the best qualifying speeds who were not already in the race were added.

Once the series moves out of Daytona, it is much simpler. The Top 35 points drivers will be assured a starting spot in every race, leaving eight spots for everyone else who wants to attempt to qualify.

The idea behind the change is to protect the teams who show up every week. I think it is probably a good idea. Fans come to see their favorites. While it is nice for local fans to see a local driver get lucky and make the field on a one-time basis, NASCAR has a responsibility to the majority of fans at the races and watching on television to attempt to make sure the regulars they cheer for get in.

If you were a Jeff Burton or Kyle Petty fan or one of their sponsors, for instance, and one or the other got bumped by a guy you had never heard of, a guy who had no plans of running any other race you would probably complain loudly - if not to NASCAR, to your buddy sitting next to you.

Dana, Parkville: I have been wondering this for some time now; Why are there only 43 cars on the track on race day when I know that more than that show to qualify and race?

Sandra McKee: In the first Daytona 500 in 1959 there were 59 cars. The Southern 500 once had a 75-car field. Imagine that! But, over the years, the fields decreased - sometimes for safety, sometimes because there just weren't that many cars that showed up.

But in the 1970s and 1980s, there were only so many pit stalls at the tracks. Long-time fans who have been going to Dover International Speedway can probably remember cars sharing pit stalls into the 1990s. It became increasingly clear that 43 was the optimum number of pit spots available, though starting lineups continued to vary between 49 and 42. During most of the 1980s and early 1990s the starting lineup at Daytona was usually 42, but in 1998 NASCAR set the official starting field for its races at 43. And that was primarily because of the number of pit stalls available at most tracks.

Glenn, Annapolis: What is the difference between the Busch Series cars and the Nextel Cup cars in terms of horsepower, weight, etc.?

Sandra McKee: The Busch Series cars and Nextel Cup cars are the same in their engine power - 358-cubic inch V-8 engines with aluminum cylinder heads - and their body weight - each must maintain a minimum weight of 3,400 pounds without a driver.

Among the differences between the two cars are these: