Unchaining the Racetrack Trains

| April 07, 2005

“If we all use our heads and play it smart and do what we’re capable of doing, we can put on one heck of a race.”
- Jeff Gordon

Just how different will next month’s Daytona 500 be?

A new wrinkle has been added to NASCAR Winston Cup superspeedway racing with the introduction of smaller fuel cells. And with the season-opening, biggest race of the year just weeks away, there are still questions about whether NASCAR officials will make this 500 like no other as they attempt to involve more superspeedway fans and make the big track races safer with a single innovation. All the talk about the cells hasn’t given us the final answer yet, because NASCAR has been known to change race setups just days before a major race.

A Winston Cup machine normally holds 22 gallons of fuel, but for the EA SPORTS 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway last October they had a 12.5-gallon capacity. For the 2003 season, the cells are expected to be tinkered with even more at the larger tracks, such as Daytona, Talladega and possibly Atlanta.

Just as restrictor plates were installed for safety reasons, safety is the logic behind the smaller cells. Drivers often complain of the “big wreck” at superspeedways, a chain reaction caused when cars are bunched up on the track and get caught up in a sheet metal free-for-all. NASCAR officials hope the smaller fuel cells will prevent these wrecks by forcing cars to pit at different times and slicing down the size of the on-track trains.

“A whole new strategy has to be put into place by the teams,” said NASCAR Winston Cup Series director John Darby. “Working with a variety of drafting partners and thinking about different scenarios on when to pit, with who, and how big a gamble they want to take, are just some of the things teams have already been thinking about.

“One of the most important parts of Winston Cup racing is the activity on pit road. Drivers have their roles on the track, and the pit crews play their roles during a pit stop. The biggest change for the fans is that the crews will now be involved twice as much.”

It’s worth a look back to October’s Talladega race (a safe event, but one not unlike some of the pre-small cell races at the same track) to get an idea of how some of the big guns feel about changing cells.

Four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, driver of the DuPont Chevrolet, said the fuel cells shouldn’t hinder him.

“It makes some sense,” Gordon said. “The lighter fuel load will force us into more green flag pit stops, which should break up one big pack of 43 cars to a number of smaller packs. I just hope that if it comes down to a fuel mileage race, that we’ve got decent fuel mileage.

“If we all use our heads and play it smart and do what we’re capable of doing, we can put on one heck of a race – one that fans will enjoy and we’ll enjoy.”

UPS Ford wheelman Dale Jarrett suggested there was a fear of the unknown, but that NASCAR was taking the proper steps.

“Certainly, I think it’ll be interesting to see how the weekend plays out with the new fuel cell,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has a real clear idea as to how many laps they’ll be able to make it on a tank of gas with the smaller fuel cell.

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