Fords get help from NASCAR after Stewart wins Shootout

Monday, February 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Tony Stewart and the Ford drivers were the only ones celebrating after the first race of the NASCAR season.

Stewart drove his Pontiac to victory Sunday in the Budweiser Shootout, a nonpoints race at Daytona International Speedway. Two hours after its completion, NASCAR reduced the spoilers on the Fords to make the Tauruses more competitive.

The rules change overshadowed Stewart's second straight victory in the made-for-TV event and spawned a flurry of complaints from the other three car makes.

``The Dodge camp is now basically behind the eight ball across the board,'' said Tony Glover, team manager for Chip Ganassi Racing. ``It's disheartening and it's disappointing when you start into a situation as an underdog.''

NASCAR cut a quarter-inch off the Ford's rear spoilers following their poor showing in the shootout.

The spoilers will be reduced to 6 inches, a full half-inch smaller than they were when NASCAR first introduced its new aerodynamic package late last fall. NASCAR took the first quarter-inch away last month after the Fords tested poorly under the new rules.

The Fords can begin using the smaller spoilers on Tuesday, and NASCAR will monitor their progress in the 125-mile qualifying races on Thursday. Should the decision shift the disadvantage to any of the other three car makes, NASCAR president Mike Helton said more changes could be made before next Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.

``We're making these changes based on results on the track,'' Helton said. ``This action is coming from what we've seen in Daytona so far.''

The Fords have been slow since the first practice here Friday. Only two Fords cracked the Top 20 in the first round of qualifying on Saturday, and Dale Jarrett's Robert Yates-owned Taurus was the top finisher in Sunday's shootout.

Jarrett's sixth-place finish was almost four seconds behind Stewart, who held off a last-lap charge by the Chevrolets of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon to win the race.

The race was a single-file event until it turned into a legitimate shootout at the end, with Stewart winning for the second straight year with an Earnhardt in his rearview mirror.

Earnhardt Jr. was on Stewart's rear bumper until the finish line, reminiscent of last year when Stewart outdueled Dale Earnhardt one week before the seven-time Winston Cup champion was killed in the Daytona 500.

``Winning that race last year with that black No. 3 in my mirror was the highlight of my career,'' Stewart said. ``But this was just like last year. He may have 'Junior' behind his name, but he drives like Senior.''

The thrill from the win was shortlived, though, as Stewart and his crew chief reacted to the Fords getting help.

``I'm the only one who can lose by this because I won under the old rules,'' Stewart said. ``I don't want them to do anything to the cars.''

And Greg Zipadelli, his crew chief, thought the Fords didn't deserve the break.

``They should have been left alone from the start and forced to do their homework a little better before they got here,'' Zipadelli said.

Yates fired back.

``We've worked extremely hard,'' he said. ``We didn't sit back or sandbag.''

Then he mentioned the four Chevrolets of Hendrick Motorsports, including that of Gordon.

``Rick Hendrick can get his towel out and cry about it all he wants to, but the bottom line is that physics is hurting us,'' Yates said. ``Thank goodness NASCAR is making some adjustments for that.

``There are a lot of good Ford teams and a lot of other teams that are good, but you can't erase too much of a handicap.''

The Chevrolets, which most people believe have at least a slight advantage, are using a 6 1/4-inch rear spoiler, while both the Dodges and Pontiacs are at 6 1/2 inches.

Ford teams have complained since the end of last season that they are at an aerodynamic disadvantage under the new rules for Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR's two biggest and fastest ovals.

The new package was introduced late last fall after driver complaints about dangerous racing at the two tracks in 2001. Those events had three- and four-wide racing and passing throughout the pack on just about every lap.

That resulted in a 19-car pileup near the end of the Daytona 500 that resulted in Stewart flipping on the backstretch. The elder Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the race.