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New NASCAR rules debut at California

Updated:
FONTANA, Calif. (AP) _ New rules are going to make for some big changes for NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers this weekend at California Speedway.

Shorter rear spoilers, softer tires and a new qualifying schedule greeted the Nextel Cup drivers when they hit the 2-mile oval for two scheduled practice sessions Friday.

``There really is a lot to take in,'' said Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson. ``This weekend should answer a lot of questions for everyone after all the speculation we've been going through all winter.''

The season opened last Sunday with the Daytona 500. But the results of that race were probably a bit misleading because the teams were forced to use horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates and had rear spoilers 6 3/4 inches high for stability on the 2 1/2-mile Daytona International Speedway.

In Sunday's Auto Club 500, the unrestricted engines will produce considerably more power, but the spoilers will be cut to 4 1/2 inches and there also will also be a new generation tire to contend with. Both changes, to be implemented everywhere except Daytona and Talladega, are intended to slow the cars in the turns by giving them less downforce, thereby making passing easier and improving competition.

Nearly everyone tested the new aerodynamics package here and at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in January, alleviating many of the concerns. But there wasn't any racing.

``Until we get around other cars in race conditions, we're really not going to know how much of an effect the reduced spoiler height and the new tire compound will have,'' said Tony Stewart, who led a race-high 107 laps last Sunday before slipping back to seventh at the end.

``It didn't seem like it was a huge change for us,'' he said. ``Things are going to change constantly, and no matter what changes, you've got to learn to deal with it and learn to make the best of it.''

Some drivers have looked forward to the changes because they expect them to make the cars harder to drive, perhaps an edge for the more experienced such as Stewart.

``I've lain in bed at night wondering if it will,'' he said. ``We really won't know until we get a little deeper into the season. I'm hoping so.

``Two years ago, we were in situations where track position was everything and you could run 150 laps on a set of tires and be just as fast as a guy with 30 laps on his tires.''

Stewart would love to see the competition revert to what it was when he set a slew of rookie records in 1999.

``Back then, you had to really pay attention to your tire wear and not overdrive the car too early,'' he explained.

The weekend schedule could also play into the hands of the more experienced drivers.

Beginning this week, and at about two-thirds of the remaining tracks, qualifying has been switched from Friday to Saturday. The cars will be impounded by NASCAR immediately after time tests and race the next day with the same tires, chassis setup and fuel load on which they qualified.

``With the new deal you have to think primarily about the race,'' Kyle Petty said. ``So you have to be right where you want to be with the car when it comes time to qualify.

``It's going to be interesting to see how things shake out in the race. You're going to have to make some pretty big decisions by Saturday morning off what you did in a couple of hours of practice Friday afternoon.''

Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon said Sunday's race is going to tell everyone a lot more about the season than the 500.

``I think you're going to see more lead changes,'' he said. ``I don't know if you're gong to see as much side-by-side racing with the new rules. But what you saw at Daytona is not what exists anywhere else other than Talladega.''
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