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NASCAR isn't done tinkering


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2000

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The search for better, more competitive racing at NASCAR's two largest restrictor-plate tracks is not over.

Though the Winston 500 Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway produced 49 lead changes among 21 drivers and was a hit among the estimated 140,000 fans and most drivers, NASCAR director Gary Nelson said the sport's governing body will continue researching ways to improve restrictor-plate racing before the Daytona 500 in February.

"We evaluate the results based on what the competitors say, what the race fans say," he said. "It's important for the race fans to feel like they got their money's worth. The guys are what they come to see, driving the cars."

Of concern to some, especially a handful of Ford teams, was that Chevrolet swept the first six positions in spite of six rules changes designed with better racing in mind.

Five Fords led at least one lap.

"If you had a Chevrolet," said Ford driver Jeff Burton, "it (the set of changes) worked out great."

Ricky Rudd's Ford, Joe Nemechek's Chevrolet and Tony Stewart's Pontiac were impounded by NASCAR and tested on the chassis dyno following the race. The three cars will be taken to the Lockheed wind tunnel in Georgia this week for further aerodynamic testing.

"We're going to try and understand a little better what we saw," Nelson said. "There's always tweaking to be done. We have to think about it, get our data, go home and try to sort it out."

CHAMPIONSHIP DRIVE: Winston Cup points leader Bobby Labonte did nothing to hurt his shot at his first championship.

The driver of the No. 18 Pontiac was in contention to win late but got shuffled back to 12th in the final laps.

"Just ride around, try to protect your position," Labonte said of the race. "The car probably handled better, but that was about all. I'm tickled to death, to be honest with you."

Should he finish 10th or better in the remaining four races, Labonte will win the title. He leads Dale Earnhardt, who won the Winston 500, by 210 points.

"If it gets down to two or three races to go and he's still got 100 or 150 points on us, it's going to be tough to beat him," Earnhardt said. "If we can get it down to 150 points or less with a couple of races to go I think we've got a shot at putting the pressure on."

PASSING FANCY: The final 50 laps of the Winston 500 featured 12 lead changes.

Among the drivers shuffled out of the top spot was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led five times for 28 laps.

The Winston Cup rookie took his final lead on Lap 175 but was passed by John Andretti 10 laps later.

"We're pretty happy with how we ran," said Earnhardt Jr., who went from second to 14th in the final two laps. "The ... Chevrolet was real strong all day long and that's all we can ask for -- no matter where we finish, just that we were competitive and we didn't come here and run (bad)."

MAKING A POINT: He is a lame-duck driver but that didn't stop Mike Bliss from finishing a career-best ninth.

The rookie led two laps to become the 47th driver to lead this season.

"That was just awesome," said Bliss, who will be replaced by Kenny Wallace in the No. 27 Pontiac next season. "It was nerve-racking but I had a lot of fun out there today. That's the best race I've ever run and the most fun I've had racing."

PIT NOTES: Labonte and Earnhardt are the only drivers to finish every race this season. ... At the track where he made his first Winston Cup start in May 1972, three-time series champion Darrell Waltrip finished 35th in his final race at Talladega. ... Earnhardt's victory was his 76th. The 49-year-old is sixth on the all-time list. ... The 49 lead changes were the most in a Winston Cup race since the 1989 DieHard 500.

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