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Teams left out in cold start to feel heat rising

Eddie Wood pursed his face as if in pain. He was hurting, for sure. Not physically, but this weekend he probably would have traded that to avoid having his legendary team miss its first race in seven years.

By BRANT JAMES
Published May 1, 2007


TALLADEGA, Ala. - Eddie Wood pursed his face as if in pain. He was hurting, for sure. Not physically, but this weekend he probably would have traded that to avoid having his legendary team miss its first race in seven years.

A climate in which NASCAR has as many as 50 fully funded, high-profile Nextel Cup teams is good for the sport, but it's tough on small outfits such as the Wood Brothers. Stay in the top 35 in owners' points and there's guaranteed entry in every race. But fall outside and you're in the maddening position 16 teams endured at Talladega, fighting for seven spots.

Among the teams loading their haulers with barely used race cars this weekend were that of driver/owner Michael Waltrip, for the eighth time in nine races this season; both cars from first-year Team Red Bull; and that of driver Ken Schrader with the Wood Brothers, one of the teams on which NASCAR built its foundation half a century ago. Heavy-spending UPS is in danger of missing races because Dale Jarrett used his final past champion's provisional Sunday to get one of Waltrip's cars in the event.

"The environment we're in, we missed the race here in (October) 2000, and there were two or three people going home, " he said. "Missing a race is one of the worst things that can happen to you. Now that there's so many, it's beginning to be more interesting. I don't like it, don't get me wrong, but it's more going on about making races now than there's ever been."

NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the series is considering Waltrip's plan, under which teams needing to make the race on time qualify in order. Theoretically, cars and skill, not track conditions, would lead to the hundredths of seconds that determine who's in the show. The trick is making it fair, he said, adding there is no great concern that many high-profile sponsors are not getting a return on their NASCAR investment.

"If you have 50 teams entered, seven cars are going home no matter what, " he said. "That's all there is to it."

Jarrett, using his sixth champion's provisional, was lapped within 25 laps and finished 40th. He now must qualify on time for the final 27 races. Rival team owner Ray Evernham joked that Jarrett's situation could make the semiretired Bill Elliott gainfully employed soon. With former champion Terry Labonte fully retired, Elliott, the 1988 champion, has a free ticket into six races.

"We offered him a Busch ride, a Cup ride. I think he's waiting, " Evernham said of Elliott. "As of (Saturday), Bill's price went up."

FUTURE IS SOON: There is overwhelming support within the series to use the Car of Tomorrow in all 36 points races next season, Pemberton said. He wants to have the second phase of the planned three-year implementation set by June.

"We are probably at 80 percent of the teams, right now, that have voiced an opinion to go all-in for 2008, " he said. "And that is the team owners. It's close to 100 percent from the garage area in mechanics, crew chiefs and engineers."

Evernham, who said his three-car program is mired trying to develop the current and new cars (for 16 races) at the same time, said he is among the majority.

HANS CRACKS: The HANS (head and neck safety) device worn by Kyle Busch in Saturday's Busch Series race a Talladega was cracked after his spectacular, multiflip accident. NASCAR, which said the device still worked as it's supposed to, sent it back to manufacturer Hubbard Downing in Georgia for examination.

RIGHT AT HOME: Comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who whittled his niche into pop culture with his "You Might be a Redneck" routines, told the crowd before the race, "I love Talladega. I've been here two days and I'll never have to do any more research for the rest of my life."