Unchaining the Racetrack Trains

“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.”

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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.

“You’re talking about a pit stop where it’s going to take about half the normal time to take on fuel, so I anticipate a lot of two-tire stops. I don’t know if there’ll ever be an answer on how to make restrictor-plate racing safer, but I have to applaud NASCAR because they’re definitely working on this, and this is one of the ways it shows.”

The rule change will make things much tougher on the pit crews, and Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge driver Casey Atwood said that’ll be where races are won or lost.

“There’ll be a lot more pit stops and the crews will have to stay focused a lot more because if you’re a second off, you could lose the draft,” he said.

Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart looks forward to having some breathing room on the track thanks to the fuel cells.

“Hopefully it’ll get us in a situation where we can string the cars out a little more and everyone won’t be so tight on each other,” he said. “That’ll give us an opportunity to move around on the race track a little more. The racing will still be good, because by being in smaller packs we can actually feel like we’re racing instead of just getting stuck in line and hoping that the line you’re in goes faster than the one next to you.”

Sheryl Crow’s largest crowd was at a NASCAR event.

She can belt out rock or the blues with the best of them, then slow things down with a ballad. Of course, when you’ve worked with both the Rolling Stones and
Stevie Nicks, it helps to be versatile.

Sheryl Crow is just that, and last October the female rocker performed in front of the largest crowd of her career prior to the running of the EA SPORTS 500. More than 150,000 fans were on hand for the NASCAR Winston Cup event, but before the gentlemen started their engines, Crow revved them up with a three-song set.

Opening with her first hit, “All I Wanna Do,” she followed with “Soak Up the Sun” from her C’mon, C’mon album, and she closed with “Steve McQueen” – her most recent hit that now has a NASCAR connection since Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears in the video.

Crow has attended three live NASCAR races, and plans to see many more in person.

“I grew up in southern Missouri, so I pretty much grew up on NASCAR,” Crow said. “I watched it on TV a lot when I was younger, and now I’m finally getting to go to the races.”

Crow was nurtured in a musical environment. Her parents were big band musicians, and she started taking piano lessons at age 6. She continued to hone her craft in her teens, and once Crow graduated high school in Kennett, Mo., she moved to St. Louis in order to launch a singing career.

It began with R&B covers, and in the 1980s, Crow finally broke into the paying side of the industry, singing backup for artists such as George Harrison, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart.

In 1993, the sultry performer decided to break out on her own, utilizing her skills as both a singer and songwriter. The result was Tuesday Night Music Club, an album with heavy blues influences that featured her first hit, “All I Wanna Do.”

Thanks to that radio and music video-friendly number, Tuesday Night Music Club went multi-platinum. “I always enjoyed singing, and I knew pretty early on that this was what I wanted to do,” Crow said. “My family was musical, so I guess I came by it naturally.”

Now a superstar for A&M Records, Crow’s self-titled follow-up album was released in 1996, spawning three hits – “If It Makes You Happy,” “Everyday Is a Winding Road” and “A Change (Will Do You Good).” Again Crow reached multi-platinum status, and the album proved she is an artist who is as comfortable with pop as she is with hard-core blues.

In 1997 and 1998 Crow spent much of her time touring, playing select dates on the Stones’ Bridges of Babylon tour and also serving as a headliner in Lilith Fair.

In 1998 she released The Globe Sessions, which won a Grammy for Best Rock Album, and in 1999 Live From Central Park kept her streak of top-sellers going strong.

But after singing at Talladega last October, Crow was ready to enjoy the other show.

“This’ll make the third NASCAR races I’ve been to,” she said. “My first was at Bristol, and that really got me hooked. But there’s something about Talladega that just makes it a lot more exciting than the others.

“I hope I can come back. This is pretty cool.”

Kevin Harvick

Meet the Drivers

Kevin Harvick
DOB: 12/8/75
Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.

Drives GM Goodwrench Service Plus-sponsored Chevrolets for Richard Childress Racing.

Harvick had the tough task of taking over for the late Dale Earnhardt in 2001, and turned in a fine Winston Cup performance, winning in his third career start. He also won the NASCAR Busch Series that season, pulling double-duty by driving in both events.

The 2002 campaign was a rough one for Harvick and the rest of the Childress camp, although the driver managed to win one race and ran strong as the year wound down.

Harvick began racing go-karts at the age of 5, and quickly worked his way through the ranks.