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Top 35 in Nextel assured of starts

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published January 14, 2005

DAYTONA BEACH - NASCAR on Thursday changed the procedure used to determine the field in Nextel Cup, assuring the top 35 teams in owner points of starting spots. The top 30 teams are assured spots in the Truck and Busch series.

The eight remaining starting positions in Nextel Cup will be filled by the seven fastest qualifiers and a champion's exemption if it applies. The final 2004 owner standings will be used for the first five races this season. Kyle Petty holds the 35th spot until April 10 at Martinsville when the new standings will be used.

Under the old system, teams accrued provisionals - free passes - based on the number of races for which they attempted to qualify. The new format guarantees the investment of large, full-time organizations by assuring they will not miss races - and the revenue they generated - to a part-time team because of a poor qualifying effort. With NASCAR set to impound cars after qualifying in about half of its Cup races this season, the new procedure also assures continuity of fields. Regulars Scott Riggs, Scott Wimmer and Petty were the only drivers to run out of provisionals and miss a points race last season.

NEW LOOK: Greg Biffle loves the proper flow of things. Winning a NASCAR Truck series title, then a Busch crown seemed so much like a precursor to a run at a Nextel Cup title at Roush Racing.

That's why the continuity errors that bogged down much of his 2003 and 2004 seasons were so maddening, irritating to the point of publicly calling out his organization's effort in preparing his No. 16 Ford. At one point, Biffle barked that his Busch series car - also fielded by Roush - was better than the car his Cup team was preparing for him.

A baffling combination of crew member changes and parts failures had kinked the system.

"I was really, really excited by the end of the (2003) season," Biffle said. "But our cars were not where they needed to be. We kept having stupid stuff happen and break and a lot of it is that continuity and once you break, that it is hard to get that rhythm back. It's hard, and sometimes you don't ever get it back."

But the problems began to disappear late last season, and with them went Biffle's dour forecast on his future with Roush. He won at Michigan and produced three top fives in the last 14 races. He improved from 25th in the driver standings to 17th.

Then came a season-ending win at Homestead-Miami Speedway and his mood got even better. With the first of two preseason testing sessions concluded at Daytona International Speedway, and the season to begin there with the Feb. 20 Daytona 500, Biffle sees another chance to build success.

Daytona, after all, has been the scene of some of his happier moments. His first win came in the 2003 Pepsi 400, he won the pole for the Daytona 500 last year and finished 12th despite having to start at the back after blowing an engine in practice.

Happy with the improved horsepower of his cars and enthusiastic about his chances, Biffle sees continuity again as the only possible hitch. Three crew members changed on his team in the offseason, including the head mechanic.

"When it comes thrash time and you've got two hours of practice and you've got to get it in qualifying trim, everybody isn't used to working together, it takes a couple of races to iron out those little things," he said. "But I think we'll be all right."

The resources are certainly there for his use. Roush Racing has won the past two Nextel Cup titles with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch.

SPARK PLUGS: Thursday's) morning test session was washed out by intermittent showers. Preparing the 2.5-mile track after the rained stopped was hampered when one of two jet dryers broke down. ... Teams that finished in even-numbered positions in owner points last season are scheduled for three days of testing at Daytona beginning Tuesday.

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