New models, old-fashioned drive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Even though NASCAR contests races on high-banked speedways, it wants a level playing field. And, this year, perhaps more than any other, NASCAR has taken steps to give its Winston Cup series an NFL-like parity.

Throughout its history, NASCAR has been willing to tinker with rules nonstop - trying to make sure one make of car doesn't have a mechanical advantage over another - so much so that the specifications have been known to change from week to week.

Now, after years of talking about it, NASCAR has finally gone to a common, aerodynamic template. The goal: Give the fans as many different winning drivers as possible.

That always has been the goal, but with differently shaped race cars, teams have often found ways to overcome. Richard Petty won 27 of 48 races in 1967. David Pearson won 16 in 1968. Darrell Waltrip won 12 in 1981 and again in 1982. Dale Earnhardt won 11 in 1987. And Jeff Gordon won 13 in 1998.

Because a manufacturer or team often seemed to get the upper hand at some point in a season, you could almost always find at least one car owner or driver in the NASCAR offices campaigning - or, as some describe it, whining - for a rules change.

As teams go about preparing their cars for Sunday's Daytona 500, NASCAR is hoping business as usual is about to change.

In Winston Cup racing, builders have to fit the shape of their cars to the specifications of 32 templates. Under this season's new rules, 18 of those templates will be the same on all cars.

In the simplest of terms, Pontiac, Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge will be cut from the same pattern and air is expected to skim over all of them the same way, producing similar handling results.

Within NASCAR, opinions vary on the possible effects to the Winston Cup circuit. It could mean fewer rule changes because everyone will be in the same competitive boat. It could mean drivers become even more important because the equipment will be so similar. It could also mean the talent of engineers and their ability to get just a little more from the same design will make all the difference.

It could mean even more new faces in victory lane, too.

But will the result be better competition or worse? Will Winston Cup create new stars or a series of cutout dolls?

Dale Jarrett's crew chief, Todd Parrott, said it's "going to be more like pro football," with every team being much the same and only the inventiveness of the game plans making a difference. "If you find something to set you apart, it's not going to be a big half-second," he said. "It might be a tenth or two."

Though it might seem car owner Joe Gibbs, the three-time Super Bowl-winning coach with the Washington Redskins, might find the prospects of pro football parity familiar, that doesn't mean he'll like it.

"Parity stinks," he said. "Having said that, I'm sure there is a certain element that believes if you have 15 different winners, a long shot can win. But I'm not afraid of someone winning nine or 10 races. I say, go get it. We shouldn't be afraid of that. Look at Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon. They've been nothing but good for the sport. Look at the Green Bay Packers. They dominated and it led to great growth in the sport."

But in Winston Cup, dominance by one has led to squawking by others. That, in turn, led to rules changes that led to still more complaints.

"Dodge was a pretty good car before they did this," said car owner Ray Evernham, who has led the Dodge development program since the manufacturer returned to the series three years ago. "Now, with the common template, the rules [may] stay the same longer."

Evernham compared past efforts of building a successful Winston Cup team to figuring out a Rubik's Cube, but with an additional twist.

"Everything you need is in the cube," he said. "You just have to make the right moves. Of course, building a race team is harder. ... Just when you finally think you've got all the parts and pieces lined up, NASCAR changes the rules.

"We need time to work with our car without changes, and this may allow that. The change wasn't our choice, but what NASCAR is trying to do is make sure everyone has a chance to win."

The common template is a circumstance that makes Johnny Benson's crew chief, James Ince, grumble, "All it does is make the ignorant smarter." And yet Benson took the opposing view: "I think, long term, it's one of the best things NASCAR has done in a long time. It puts the driver back in the equation."

Drivers may be back in the equation, but parity is NASCAR's goal. Last season, there were 16 different race winners. Matt Kenseth's five victories led the circuit - a far cry from Gordon's 13 in 1998.

That year, NASCAR chairman Bill France embraced Gordon's dominance, saying: "Every sport needs a marquee player to attract new fans, to get them to watch their sport."

Gordon, low-key about his feelings on parity, said only: "When I won 13, I knew there was a lot of people who loved to hate me."

But NASCAR's ideas about the need for the big winner in Winston Cup seem to have changed, a situation over which both Petty and Jeff Burton voiced concern.

"There is no clear-cut favorite for the championship," said Burton. "I don't know if it's good. The sport thrives with a villain and a hero. Every sport has. ... And you have to be careful. Winning a race doesn't mean as much if 25 different people can do it."

Petty, the series' all-time winner with 200 victories, said: "Right, wrong or indifferent, it's competition that makes the sport work. Now, the deal with being dominant, I don't think NASCAR is going to allow it, and I think that's a mistake.

"You have to have a lead dog, and we don't have one right now."

NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said he hates to disagree with Petty, but did.

"We had 16 different winners last season and 19 the year before that, and this sport has never been more popular," said Hunter. "Why would we want to change that?"

Driver Mark Martin wasn't eager to go along with his teammate and Petty, either.

"I think spreading out the winning is good, because you can be junk and win," he said. "It's not good for guys like Jeff Gordon, guys who were able to dominate the sport. It's definitely harder to do that now. But I think you can have heroes and dominant figures without a lot of wins. Every time I open some newspaper or magazine I see Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. I can't believe it, but maybe we already have what winning bunches of races used to create. ... It's not just winning anymore; it's the marketing machine that makes more noise."

As for the reigning Winston Cup champion, Tony Stewart just shrugged.

"Whatever," he said. "It's all about fans' perceptions. Would they rather see one guy or 20 guys win? To me, it doesn't make much difference. My job is just to do the best I can whatever the rules are. Jeff Burton is going to run for mayor one day and Richard Petty has already run for a public office - and lost. Me? I'm just driving the race car."

At a glance

What: Daytona 500, opening race of NASCAR Winston Cup season

Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

2002 champion:Ward Burton

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