Seven-time UPS Cup
Champion Jeff Gordon is introduced during his
final season in competition.
It was a beautiful day in New Orleans for the Ebay 500 with sunny skies, unusually low humidity and a comfortable temperature of 24 degrees Celsius. The new pentagon-shaped super speedway was
just completed last year and is now the largest in the country at three miles in length. The pre-race festivities
begin as Bill Clinton, Director of WB Entertainment, is paraded around the track as the grand marshal in a new convertible Ford Thunderbird. As race time approached, U.S. President Alan Greenspan
is projected on the holographic Jumbotron screen suspended from the Bridgestone blimp. His command "Gentlepersons, start your engines"
booms over the 200,000 seats within Earnhardt Memorial Speedway, and the cars
are soon on the track warming up their tires.
Up until the last minute, drivers and crews were scurrying to make adjustments to their car setups. No one is really sure how this race will pan out, given the recent required changes to the cars. NASCAR President Ray Evernham was instrumental in mandating new changes to the engine and aerodynamic configurations for the
super speedway tracks. Gone this year are the restrictor plates from the intake manifolds. The
car bodies have been modified to include higher front-end skirts and steeper-angled rear spoilers. These changes, combined with the new rev limiters, seemed to function well last year when they were
experimented with at Daytona. The Daytona race produced the results that drivers and fans were looking for: better throttle response with the new fuel injectors; lower top-end speeds and reduced bunching of cars. Depending on the results of the New Orleans race, NASCAR may implement these modifications on other tracks such as Atlanta and Texas later this year.
A look at the entry list for this year's Ebay 500 reveals that most drivers are under the age of 35. Long gone are the likes of Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd, all winning championships while in their 50's prior to retirement. NASCAR's most competitive division became a young
person's sport when they increased the season to 42 races. Despite the protests of many veteran drivers, NASCAR added six new Wednesday night feature races, all to be exclusively broadcast on The NASCAR Channel. Ironically, this was the brainchild of NASCAR Channel's CEO Darrell Waltrip, who raced into his 50's before becoming a broadcaster on what was once known as FOX television. This in turn reduced the number of sponsors willing to provide financial investment for such a long racing season. In response to the lack of sponsorship, NASCAR reduced the field for each race to 40 cars. As a compromise to the veterans, NASCAR created the Senior Circuit for drivers over the age of 45. Modeled after the PGA Senior Tour, this racing series includes 22 races, consisting mostly of short tracks and road courses. Dale Jarrett, Mike Skinner and Ken Schrader are currently the headliners in that division.
As he sits on the pole behind the Chevrolet Avalanche pace truck, veteran seven-time champion driver/owner Jeff Gordon wonders if this race will make or break his final season. Jeff had decided that this year would be his last after his horrific crash at Talladega last year. He is convinced that he is still around to race because he was wearing the HANS 2 device, finally mandated by NASCAR three years
ago. At the same time, "black boxes" were also installed in all racecars. The black boxes were a result of a class action lawsuit filed by the fans of the NASCAR drivers killed in 2000 and 2001. That, in combination with the new deformable composite front end, saved
Gordon from disaster when he crashed nearly head-on into the wall at 149.47 mph. Next to Jeff on the outside pole
is last year's champion Bobby Hamilton Jr. in his Mercury Sable, looking for his second consecutive win.
During the final pace lap, the 2003 Indy 500 champion Tony Stewart is contemplating what it would take to earn his 50th career UPS Cup win. Driving his Chip Ganassi Toyota Camry Solara, Tony revs his Tundra engine in anticipation of the green flag. In addition to Toyota, Honda had also attempted to enter NASCAR last year, but ended up scrapping its program. Instead, it will concentrate on supplying engines to the IRL, which has been a successful program for Honda since the demise of Oldsmobile.
Not to be overlooked, Shawna Robinson will begin the race in the sixth spot. After a rocky start in UPS Cup competition, the crafty veteran has amassed nine career victories for Mark Martin Racing and spawned a huge interest in woman's racing. Today's qualifiers include five women, the most ever in NASCAR history.
Directly behind Shawna in the starting grid are the Earnhardt brothers, Dale Jr. and Kerry. Since the retirement of Terry Labonte, Ward Burton and Rusty Wallace, the Earnhardts are the only pair of brothers currently competing on the circuit. The brothers now own Earnhardt Racing and are teammates with 2001 Busch champion and 2004 UPS Cup champion Kevin Harvick.
As the cars slowly came around the last curve awaiting the dropping of the green flag, the fans
stood in unison and screamed their lungs out as the rumbling stock cars suddenly
came to life. They roared past the start/finish line, leaving behind a cloud of blue
smoke, 800 horsepower of eardrum-rattling noise, and the pungent smell of expended high-octane fuel. These are the things I hope never change in the future of NASCAR racing.
Could some of these changes occur in NASCAR over the next 10 years? What's your vision of NASCAR's near future?
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