By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001
DAYTONA BEACH -- Ford drivers who complain their cars are aerodynamically inferior to other Winston Cup manufacturers might have a legitimate concern.
But NASCAR isn't saying.
Winston Cup director Gary Nelson said Wednesday there were "some surprises" from wind-tunnel tests conducted Monday on four cars at Lockheed in Georgia.
"If I had made a prediction on several of the categories," Nelson said, "I would've been wrong."
NASCAR impounded four of the top five cars from Sunday's Budweiser Shootout, Tony Stewart's Pontiac, Bill Elliott's Dodge, Dale EarnhardtSr.'s Chevy and Rusty Wallace's Ford. Nelson did not divulge specific results from the test, but said NASCAR hasn't ruled out making changes before Sunday's Daytona 500. NASCAR might take cars back to the wind tunnel next week.
NEMECHEK WINS POLE: Driving a Pontiac instead of his Chevrolet, Lakeland's Joe Nemechek won his 11th career Busch Grand National pole and first in the NAPA 300 with a lap of 186.966 mph.
"There's a lot of work involved in speedway racing," said Nemechek, who won the race in 1998. "There's kind of an art to it and I think we've got the best team out there that can get that job done."
Two-time series champion Randy LaJoie was second (185.939). Defending Busch champion Jeff Green qualified 14th.
ON THIS DATE: Twenty-five years ago today, Richard Petty and David Pearson treated fans to one of the most exciting finishes of a Daytona 500.
They crashed on the final lap of the 1976 race. Pearson sputtered across the finish line to win while Petty stalled on the infield grass and finished second.
"It was just one of those things," Petty said. "I was trying to win and he was trying to win and it just happened."
Headline: A rookie is a rookie is a rookie
LUTZ -- Their presence was felt every time they stepped onto a new venue, a jolt of excitement for a golf tour that loves nothing more than to embrace its old heroes
Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Kite arrived on the Senior PGA Tour a year ago with a combined 74 PGA Tour titles, including 10 major championships. Each had the honor of being a U.S. Ryder Cup team captain, each played a prominent role as a player in the Ryder Cup.
But as a new senior season is under way, we're waiting for their impact to be felt on the 50-and-older circuit.
Larry Nelson, Bruce Fleisher, Hale Irwin and Gil Morgan didn't exactly lay down for the great triumvirate. Wadkins won the first full-field event of the year in Naples. Watson won the season-ending Senior Tour Championship. In between, Kite won two tournaments, including the Tradition.
But not exactly dominating.
Watson and Wadkins are back at the TPC of Tampa Bay for the Verizon Classic, which begins Friday. Kite is skipping the tournament because of a family commitment, but just about every other big name on the senior tour will be here, including Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, defending champion Fleisher and reigning senior player of the year Nelson.
And one thing remains the same: a Hall of Fame resume does not guarantee victories.
"I knew when I came out here that if I played my best, I could win," said Watson, a winner of eight major titles and 34 PGA Tour events. "If I played near my best, I had a chance. Last year, I finished second four times and won once, but I didn't have a year like Larry Nelson (six wins), Hale Irwin (four) or Bruce Fleisher (four).
"Does that concern me? Well, it does in one respect in that I would have liked to have (won more). But on the other hand, I didn't do it, so I can't worry about that. All I can worry about is going out and doing what I have always tried to do: play my best golf. I didn't do enough of that last year to win as much as I would have liked to."
Watson perhaps did not play enough to get into a groove. He competed in just 13 senior events, due in part to the death of his father and a heel injury. Watson also played in the four major championships on the regular tour, his best finish a tie for ninth at the PGA Championship.
"To win the most money, to be the player of the year, you have to be committed to play over here," Nelson said. "It could be that some of the best players on the regular tour just haven't been as committed on the senior tour. ... I think you'll see some commitments ... you didn't see last year."
For Wadkins, it was less about commitment than the ability to perform.
After becoming the ninth player to win his senior debut when he captured the ACE Group Classic in Naples in a playoff over three others, including Watson, Wadkins rarely contended. He had one other top 10 the rest of the year, a tie for 10th at the Foresmost Insurance Championship in September.
Wadkins played 23 events and had 10 top-25 finishes to rank 44th on the money list with $413,048. An elbow injury contributed to his woes.
"I had a lot of things going on last year between my elbow and other stuff," said Wadkins, who is going through a divorce. "It was just a year I'd just as soon forget."
As for the injury, Wadkins believes the elbow problems are behind him. Other than a slight scare a few weeks ago, he has been relatively pain-free.
"It didn't bother me for about five months," said Wadkins, who won 21 times on the PGA Tour. "I kind of jammed a shot ... in Hawaii, kind of got a stinger in it. It figures. It didn't bother me for five months and then it starts hurting the day before the first round of the year."
Wadkins reported no problems last weekend in Naples, where he tied for 43rd. He expects a year of familiarity to be a big help this season.
"It's a lot of getting used to," he said. "Going from four rounds to three rounds, it's more of a sprint than a marathon. You feel like you've got to go out and shoot 67, 68 the first round or you get behind the eight-ball awfully fast. Larry Nelson didn't really light it up his first year or two until he'd settled in. Now he's got a great comfort zone."
As Watson said: "The old boys say ... the second year you are more familiar with the golf courses and you tend to finish up higher. That's what I'm looking forward to."
WHO: 78 Senior PGA Tour players, including defending champion Bruce Fleisher, Larry Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Raymond Floyd, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino.
f,WHAT: 54-hole tournament, Friday through Sunday.
WHEN/WHERE: Today through Sunday at TPC of Tampa Bay, Lutz.
PURSE: $1.4-million; $210,000 to the winner.
TV: 1-3 p.m. Friday, Pax; 6-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, CNBC (tape delay). TICKETS: Admission is free today. Tickets for tournament rounds are $20 in advance, $25 at the gate. A day book, which has six tickets, is $70 in advance, $80 at the gate. A championship package, which has Friday-Saturday-Sunday admission and one sponsor parking pass, is $60. For information, call (813) 265-4653. PARKING: Available on Van Dyke Road east of Dale Mabry. Follow the signs from the Veterans Expressway or Dale Mabry Highway. Cost is $5 per car. No public parking will be available on Lutz Lake Fern Road once the tournament begins.
SCHEDULE: Today -- The second day of the Championship Pro-Am has 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. shotgun starts, and the Super Seniors Pro-Am is a 9 a.m. shotgun start at Fox Hollow. Friday-Sunday -- Tournament rounds begin at approximately 8 a.m.