Fords slowest in first Daytona 500 practice, complain about new rules

Saturday, February 9th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The new rules package implemented for the season-opening Daytona 500 is not set in stone, especially after a day of complaints from the competitors.

Winston Cup racing returned to Daytona International Speedway on Friday with two practice sessions run under NASCAR's new aerodynamics package.

Fords quickly complained that their speeds were too slow, and NASCAR admitted the rules could change before the Feb. 17 season opener.

``We're pretty comfortable where we are right now, but there's always room for some tweaking,'' said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter. ``The hardest thing for us is to wade through all this lobbying and see where we really are. We can't do that in one day of practice.''

Three of the four Chevrolets from Hendrick Motorsports were the fastest cars of the day, with rookie Jimmie Johnson posting the top lap at 185.033 mph in the morning session.

The Ford of Ricky Rudd was the next fastest make at 184.740. Ward Burton had the fastest Dodge at 184.098 and Johnny Benson the quickest Pontiac at 183.329.

Even though Rudd and Robert Yates Racing teammate Dale Jarrett, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, were the fastest two Fords, there was a steep drop-off among the Tauruses trailing them. The five-car stable from Roush Racing was particularly slow, with Mark Martin bringing up the rear at 180.014 mph.

But the other makes accused the Fords of sandbagging in an attempt to get NASCAR to alter the rules.

``The Fords will be just fine,'' said Chevrolet car owner Richard Childress. ``It's important to remember, a lot of teams aren't showing everything they've got right off the trucks.''

The Fords have already gotten one concession in the rules, with quarter-inch taken away from its rear spoiler after complaining about slow speeds following the January testing at Daytona International Speedway.

Rudd called the relief a ``token gesture'' and, despite having the fastest Ford, doubted a Taurus would make the front row when the first two starting spots for the race are set in Saturday's qualifying.

``You won't see a Ford on the front row, and if you do, it will be an awful big shock,'' Rudd said. ``All you have to do is look at the speeds, it's black and white. If you do that, I don't have to say anything nasty.''

The new rules, designed to eliminate the tight pack-racing that often leads to multi-car crashes, altered the heights of the spoilers and removed the roof deflectors and the metal strip at the top of the spoiler that were designed to punch a hole in the air and keep the speeds down.

But this package is similar to the one used in the 2000 season, which led to a single-file, hard-to-pass racing at Daytona. That Daytona 500 produced only nine lead changes and cries of ``Boring!'' from the drivers and the fans.

That prompted a rule change last season that made it too easy to pass, made the racing more dangerous and helped produce a 19-car wreck at Daytona. There were no serious injuries in that late-race pileup in which Tony Stewart flipped on the backstretch, but seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap.

There also was a 16-car crash on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway in October.