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Drivers, chiefs like the small gas tanks as attempt at safety

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Hoping to break up huge packs of cars that lead to multicar wrecks at restrictor-plate races, NASCAR is using smaller fuel cells for today's EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

It might work. It might not.

The smaller fuel cells hold 12.5 gallons, barely half of the standard 22-gallon cell, requiring teams to make more pit stops. If the race stays green it could string out the field. If there are frequent cautions the cars will remain bunched.

"I think we have to watch it and see," said Mark Martin, who trails rookie Jimmie Johnson by 11 points in the championship standings. "I'm not sure if I'm for it or against it, but I applaud NASCAR for trying."

Pit road will be a busy place. Teams will make nearly twice as many stops as normal, but the stops will be shorter because it takes less time to pour 12.5 gallons of fuel into the car. Expect to see two-tire stops, alternating between right- and left-side tires.

"If you look at it optimistically, it's a chance to do better two or three more times," said Steve Hmiel, director of technical operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "If you look at it pessimistically, it's a chance to mess up two or three times."

Drivers are nearly united in their dislike of restrictor plates, which keep speeds less than 200 mph by reducing horsepower at NASCAR's two biggest tracks, Daytona and Talladega. But in nearly 15 years no one has come up with a better solution.

James Ince, crew chief for Johnny Benson's No. 10 Pontiac, likes the smaller cells.

"There are going to be people that are hurt by it, having to pit a whole lot, because anytime you go on pit road things can go wrong," Ince said. "But we're excited about it. It's probably the simplest, smartest thing we've done in a long time when it comes to speedway racing."

A pit mistake during a green-flag stop could be devastating.

"It's definitely going to place so much more importance on the work in the pits," said Doug Ingold, gas man for Rusty Wallace. "I personally won't enjoy being under that big level of scrutiny, but we'll be ready for them. It could produce a race that they'll be talking about for years to come."

NOSE FOR TROUBLE: Tony Stewart, third in the standings 36 points behind Johnson, crashed in the past two restrictor-plate races at Talladega and Daytona. Another pileup could cost him a shot at the championship.

"This weekend is big," Stewart said. "If we can get through the end of this thing, roll the car back on the trailer with all the fenders on it, it will be huge."

PRACTICE RUN: Stewart's No. 20 Pontiac was fastest in the first of two Winston Cup practice sessions Saturday, lapping the 2.66-mile tri-oval at 191.271 mph. Jerry Nadeau's No. 44 Dodge topped the chart in the final practice at 193.956 mph.

MONEY MATTERS: The Winston Cup leader bonus, awarded if the race-winner emerges as the points leader, is a record $250,000. Johnson, Martin, Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace are eligible. ... The total purse for the EA Sports 500 is $4,158,532.

TALLADEGA TRENDS: Thirty-four of the 66 races at Talladega have been won from the first three starting positions, but five of the past seven were won from 14th or worse. ... The past seven Talladega races have been won by a Chevrolet.

ARCA RESULTS: Jacksonville's Keith Segars won the Food World 300 by 0.148 seconds over Chad Blount. It was Segars' first victory in the series and at Talladega.

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