By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 7, 2002
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The smaller fuel cells NASCAR used in an effort to break up the huge pack of cars typical of restrictor-plate racing did their job in the EA Sports 500.
Reducing fuel capacity from 22 to 12.5 gallons forced teams to make more pit stops. That, combined with a rare caution-free race at Talladega Superspeedway, strung out the field during green-flag stops. But within 10 laps, the cars were back in one big pack.
"We think the smaller fuel cell accomplished, at least partially, what we wanted to accomplish, to spread the cars out on the race track," NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said. "We had hoped to spread them out for a prolonged period of time. Overall, we think it was successful and we will look at it for future restrictor-plate races."
The change had some unintended results, turning the 500-mile event into a fuel-mileage race. Winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had one of the day's strongest cars, was among eight who made one fewer stop than most.
Hunter said NASCAR will consider making the cells a few gallons smaller or larger.
At Talladega, the pack of cars runs three- and four-wide. Faced with the prospect of such intense racing at nearly 200 mph without a caution, runner-up Tony Stewart was happy to have even a few laps of relief around green-flag stops.
"At least parts of the race gave you a chance to catch your breath and run single file to get caught up to the pack," Stewart said. "You knew as the race went on, if guys had bad pit stops it was going to start weeding out teams."
IN THE WEEDS: Michael Waltrip's No. 15 Chevrolet was among the leaders for most of the race, but a mistake on the final pit stop cost him a chance at victory.
As the team changed tires, Waltrip's car fell off the jack, trapping the air gun hose under a tire. Befirst.
He finished eighth because he did not stop for a splash of fuel. Waltrip was the only driver to finish in the top 10 of all four restrictor-plate races this season.
SHE'S A MILLIONAIRE: Earnhardt's victory made Debra Polzun of Manchester, Conn., a millionaire. She knew her chances were good when she was paired with Earnhardt Jr., who also claimed the bonus from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds last year.
"I've been praying I got Dale, and when I got him it was an unbelievable feeling," said Polzun, who returned to work at Traveler's Insurance on Sept. 30 after being on disability for six months. "This will help me a great deal."
NOW THAT'S WEIRD: At the same time Mark Martin's steering locked, causing him to collide with pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson during the warm-up laps, Stewart was having problems of his own.
"My chin strap didn't feel right, so I just reached up to tug on it and realized I didn't even have it strapped on at all," Stewart said. "So, I took my gloves off, was driving with my knee, was tying my helmet and all of a sudden -- "Exit, stage left.' I thought, "Wow, somebody is having a screwier morning than I am.' "
NUTS AND BOLTS: This was the third caution-free race at Talladega. The others were in 1997 and 2001. ... The past eight Talladega races have been won by a Chevrolet.