Live From Daytona Beach

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

 

The picture is becoming clearer for Sunday's running of the Daytona 500, after Jeff Green upset the field to earn the Bud Pole in qualifying here earlier this week. Green's Richard Childress-owned, AOL-sponsored Chevrolet knocked heavily favored Dale Earnhardt, Jr., off the point less than a minute after Junior had earned the provisional pole, leading an RCR assault that saw teammates Robby Gordon and Kevin Harvick also earn spots in the overall top six.

As a result, Green and Gordon will fill the front row for this afternoon's first Gatorade 125-mile qualifier, followed by Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, and Sterling Marlin. Earnhardt and DEI teammate Michael Waltrip will pace the second qualifying race, followed by Harvick, Bobby Labonte, and surprising Kyle Petty, whose Dodge has been among the fastest cars on the track all week long. The pole was the second of Green's Winston Cup career, and gives him an opportunity to become only the tenth driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole, joining Fireball Roberts (1962), Richard Petty (1966), Cale Yarborough (1968, 1984), Buddy Baker (1980), Bill Elliott (1985, 1987), Jeff Gordon (1999) and Dale Jarrett (2000).

Maine native Ricky Craven will start eighth in today's second 125-miler, after strong runs in last Saturday night's Budwesier Shootout, and in Winston Cup qualifying. "The car's been good all week," said Craven. "We came to Daytona with a lot of questions after changing from Ford to Pontiac during the off-season, but the guys have done a great job, and we've been fast right off the trailer.

Craven narrowly avoided what has (at this writing) been the only major wreck of Winston Cup Speedweek, triggered when rookie Jack Sprague tagged Mike Skinner's Pontiac midway in Tuesday afternoon's practice session. The cars of Jeff Burton and Elliott Sadler were also swept up in the wreck, with all but Sprague forced to roll out their backup cars and take starting spots at the rear of today's 125-mile qualifiers. The blow was particularly tough for Sadler, who had practiced at the front of the pack all day, and felt he had car enough to contend for the win Sunday.

"We led the draft for the whole practice," said a dissappointed Sadler afterward. "The car was great up front, and I had just started drifting toward the back to see how long it took us to get back up through the pack. Then the zero car (Sprague) got into Skinner, and there was no place for us to go. It's a shame, because four cars got torn up for no good reason. This is the same car Dale Jarrett used to win the Daytona 500, but now, we've got to go to a backup car that isn't nearly as good.

"I feel like we just lost a legitimate chance to win the Daytona 500."

Two other drivers with their work cut out for them today are four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and defending series champ Tony Stewart. Despite a strong run in last Saturday night's Budwesier Shootout -- where he finished second to eventual winner Earnhardt, Jr. -- Gordon could not muster enough speed in qualifying. He will start fifteenth in his 125-miler today, but expressed confidence that his car will race better than it qualified.

"We haven't quite been able to find the solo speed we've been looking for," he admitted, "but under race conditions, the car's great. We're a little disappointed in our qualifying speed, but if we cn stay out of trouble, we whould be okay in the 125."

Stewart, meanwhile, never completed a lap in his qualifying session, suffering engine failure in his Home Depot Chevrolet. He will start last (25th) in his qualifier this afternoon, and will have to tiptoe his way through the field if he hopes to avoid taking a provisional starting spot for Sunday's main event. Stewart lasted only two laps in last year's Daytona 500 before also suffering a blown engine.

No matter what happens today, Green and Earnhardt, Jr., will start Sunday's race on the front row. Positions 3-30 will be set in today's Twin 125s, and the fastest six drivers not already qualified will then be penciled into positions 31-36, based on their time trial speed from earlier this week. Positions 37-42 will be filled using the various NASCAR provisional plans.

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One of the longest-running sponsorships in professional sports is nearing an end, as the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company announced its intention last week to end its sponsorship of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Ned Leary, President of RJR's Sports Marketing Enterprises, confirmed last week that discussions to that end have taken place with NASCAR, and that the sanctioning body is currently seeking a new major sponsor for its premier motorsports series.

"Winston and NASCAR have been partners for over 30 years," said Leary. "We signed a five-year contract last July, but since that time, our business dynamics have changed dramatically. In our ongoing conversations with NASCAR, we have discussed the potential of their exploring a new series sponsor."

One year ago, RJR ended its support of NHRA Drag Racing and the PGA Golf Tour, after new federal laws dramatically restricted the ways in which tobacco companies are allowed to advertise their products. Now, sources close to the situation say the North Carolina tobacco giant will withdraw from NASCAR, as well, preferring to make the move on their own, before the government requires them to do so. Those same sources say that while NASCAR is currently courting a handful of possible replacements -- Coca-Cola, United Parcel Service, Budweiser, UPS, McDonald's and FedEx are among the leading candidates -- RJR has agreed to honor the balance of their five-year contract, if necessary. While no concrete figures have been released, it is believed that whatever company eventually replaces RJR will spend in excess of $40-million per year to do so, along with another $30-40 million to market and promote that sponsorship..

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco has been the title sponsor of the Winston Cup Series since 1971, and Leary said no concrete timetable has been set for Winston's exit. “We have always worked with NASCAR and others to do what was in the best interest of this great sport," he said. "As the series sponsor, we will continue our work to grow this sport.” Leary said.

Winston foots the bill for NASCAR's annual points fund, paying out more than $14 million to NASCAR's top 25 drivers last year, including $4.2 million to the series champion. Since 1971, the company has paid more than $84 million into NASCAR's Winston Cup point fund and will pay another $17 million this year. It also pays $3 million a year to sponsor The Winston All-Star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and only recently discontinued the Winston "No Bull Five" program, which offered a $1 million bonus to drivers and fans for winning major races.

NASCAR Chairman Bill France, Jr., said this week that RJR's announcement was the company's way of being "a good partner. We have a five-year agreement with them, and they've just given us the opportunity to throw our fish line out in the water and see what's out there."

Beyond mere dollars and cents, the loss of Winston will have a major impact on NASCAR's premier series.

"They have done a lot of extra things over the years that not everybody knows about," said Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell this week. "For many years, they assisted in different projects we did. Anytime we had some project going, and we would ask if they wanted to participate, they would say, 'Yes.' In the late '70s to early '80s, getting $25,000 to $50,000 from them was like hitting the jackpot. Reynolds picked us up in the '70s and walked down the aisle with us to where we are now."

"It will leave a huge hole," said Andrew Gurtis, President of Darlington Raceway. "I don't think everybody appreciates what R.J. Reynolds brings to the table in terms of signage, suites and trackside promotions alone."

In a related story, there will also be a new "official fuel of NASCAR" next season, after Unocal 76 announced that this will be their final year on the circuit. Unocal has dramatically reduced the number of retail markets that it serves in recent years; a move that renders any nationwide sponsorship unworkable. Unocal -- formerly Pure Oil -- has been with NASCAR since the circuit's early days, and the company provided much of the capital for the France family to build Talladega Superspeedway in the 1960s. Sources here in Daytona say Exxon/Mobil is already set to replace Unocal on Oening Day 2004.

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If there's a person in Daytona Beach more reviled than Brooke Gordon, you'd have to look hard to find them. Gordon, the soon-to-be ex-wife of multi-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, recently subpoenaed the records of a number of Winston Cup drivers and teams in an effort to obtain financial information that might result in a larger divorce settlement. Brooke Gordon's absence from Speedweek has not prevented a number of NASCAR insiders from voicing their displeasure with her tactics however, and earlier this week, three members of FOX Sports' on-air broadcast team minced no words in criticizing the former Miss Winston.

''I don't know what would give anybody the right to think that she can subpoena another driver's records," said Darrell Waltrip, himself a former Winston Cup champion. "This is between Jeff and Brooke, not between Roush Racing or any other race team. It seems irrelevant and intrusive to even consider something like that.''

Waltrip's colleagues, Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds, agreed. ''When people start sticking their noses where they don't belong, I get offended," said Hammond. "I feel like this is none of Brooke's business, and it's none of her lawyer's business. I don't agree with how she's handling this situation right now, and I've lost a lot of respect for Brooke.''

''There's enough assets to go around for both of them for the rest of their lives," added McReynolds. (She) shouldn't ruin our sport trying to get more. I hate to see other people in our sport dragged into their personal problems.''

In a bizarre twist, team owner Ray Evernham was subpoenaed here at the speedway Tuesday, when a sheriff's deputy served him with papers outside the track's tunnel. NASCAR officials had previously turned away at least one server attempting to enter the track, and Evernham said the sanctioning body requested that he go outside the track Tuesday to accept the papers.

"NASCAR asked me to do it, and to not make a scene about it," said Evernham, who served as best man at Jeff and Brooke Gordon's wedding. "I did it because I care about this sport, unlike Mrs. Gordon, who is trying to make a circus of the Daytona 500." Evernham said the subpoena orders him to appear in court here in Florida tomorrow, but said he will defy the order and refuse to appear. "I have two race cars to get ready for the biggest race of the year," he said. "I'm not stopping to go to court."

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Short (Track) Subjects...

...As usual, a handful of snowbirds have journeyed to the Sunshine State to take part in the annual World Series of Asphalt Stock Car racing at Florida's New Smyrna Speedway. Former American Canadian Tour champion Junior Hanley of Oakville, Ontario has been the best of a short northern field, finishing tenth, ninth and second in three Super Late Model division starts so far this week. Another ACT graduate, Ryan Moore, skipped the first night of the series, then finished 26th and tenth the next two nights. New England Pro Stock star Louie Mechalides is also taking part, with a best showing of fourth. New Smyrna hosts nine consecutive night of multi-divisional racing during Speedweek, and if you don't mind 30-minute delays between heat races, 15-20 minute stoppages for every spinout, a public address announcer that tells you virtually nothing about what's happening ont he track, and a main event that rolls to the line a 2 a.m., New Smyrna is the plave for you.

...After an acrimonious split at the end of the 2002 season, attorneys for driver Jimmy Spencer filed suit last week against Spencer's former car-owner, Chip Ganassi, alleging breach of contract and interference with Spencer's racing career. The lawsuit, filed last Tuesday in Mecklenburg County (NC) Superior Court, seeks a total of $600,000 -- the difference between what Spencer says he was to be paid this season by Ganassi in the second year of a three-year contract -- and what he will make this season driving for Jim Smith's Ultra Motorsports team. Spencer's suit also accuses Ganassi of offering financial assistance to NASCAR Busch Series team owner James Finch, provided that Finch does not employ Spencer as a driver for one year. Spencer drove Finch's cars in 23 Busch Series races last season. Spencer also said he is owed money by Ganassi for souvenir and collectibles sales from last season.

Ganassi has steadfastly refused to comment on the suit this week. However, Felix Sabates, Ganassi’s partner in the team, said Spencer had no contract for 2003, and as a result is owed nothing. “We don’t have a contract with Spencer. He never signed it,” said Sabates. “He’s got no argument with us.”

No matter who prevails in the end, Spencer's lawsuit gives the general public an unprecidented look into the inner workings of a NASCAR WInston Cup team. According to documents filed with the court, Spencer earned a base salary of $1 million last season, paid in month installments of $83,333.33. He also received a 45-percent cut of all the car's on-track winnings, plus a payment of up to $35,000 toward his disability insurance premiums.

...NASCAR's new rules restricting fan access to the garage area during critical times have been an unqualified success. Kevin Triplett, Managing Director of Business Operations for NASCAR, said there have been few complaints, and fewer problems. "Most of the people were very cooperative," he said. "They might have been disappointed, but I don't think anybody was uncooperative." Drivers and team members are unanimous in their praise for the new system, saying they are now free to do their jobs, unencumbered by the crush of humanity that has plagued the garage area for years.

…Riverside (NH) Speedway officials are considering a 250-lap Flying Tiger/Sportsman series event for the end of the 2003 season. Riverside General Manager Marvin Galarneau said last week that negotiations are ongoing with prospective sponsors for the event, as well as with the American-Canadian Tour. The proposed “Granite State 250” would be the longest race ever for the Tiger/Sportsman troops.

...John Andretti has reportedly received permission from Petty Enterprises to race in the Indianapolis 500 this season. Andretti's desire to run both the Indy 500 and the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 in the same day was a major sticking point between him and the Petty team last year, but the two parties have finally come to an agreement, allowing Andretti to return to the Brickyard on Memorial Day weekend for the first time since 1994, when he became the first driver to run both races on the same day.

...Tracy Gordon was a no-show at Daytona this week, after initially announcing plans to run the NASCAR Goody's Dash Series race here last Sunday. The Maine driver was supposedly set to run the race for the same team that will field his full-time ASA effort this season.