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NASCAR WCUP: Tick-Tock Goes The Clock

15 February 2000

By David Treffer
Contributing Editor, The Auto Channel

DAYTONA BEACH, FL--Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock. In the time that it took you to say those four words about one second expired. For thirteen drivers attempting to make the field for this Sundays Daytona 500 that precious one second makes all the difference. Fifty-six drivers put forth qualifying efforts this past week that measured from a low of 47.098 seconds (Dale Jarretts pole position time) to a high of 50.058 seconds for Dan Pardus. Jim Sauter and Norm Benning did not post a time for qualifying.

Breaking down the statistics even further reveals that less than one second is the difference between Jarretts time and Geoffrey Bodines lap of 48.072. In between Jarrett and Bodine are thirty-eight drivers. Less than one second. Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock.

When you begin splitting a second into ten-tenths over a 2.5 mile track then you come to realize how even the smallest of bobbles can cost a driver. The Daytona track is 2.5 miles in length for a total of 13,200 feet. Divide that by 10 and you come up with an answer of 1,320 feet or a quarter-mile. In some of those quarter mile splits the driver may drive a perfect line or he may miss the ragged edge with even the most subtle of changes.

Rusty Wallace is a prime example of a small bobble. During practice Wallace was setting the pace for the entire field. A number of people reasoned that Wallace would be at the top of the charts when qualifying ended on Saturday. On the first lap of qualifying Wallace appeared prepared to take pole position. However, on the second lap Wallace made a small adjustment on his racing line. That small adjustment placed Wallace seventh, instead of first, on the speed charts.

Hindsight is always perfect. The beauty and curse of todays technology is that the feedback from racecars via computer is almost instantaneous. Drivers can no longer hide behind the argument that something was not set-up right on the car. Todays technology driven crew chief can examine the telemetry from the car and figure out how the car was responding to the drivers input. Using Wallace as an example, and this is not meant to pick on him, he drove a line on the second lap that compared to practice laps was slightly higher on the track. It was a difference of maybe 4-6 inches. None the less it was different line. Even the most subtle of changes can be the difference.

Certainly their are variables that the driver cannot control. Heating of the track, moisture, wind and last but not least the drivers psychological chase of the perfect lap. Wallace did not make any excuses about his second lap. Instead Wallace was upfront that he had tried a different racing line. Maybe he was trying something that he will use during this Sundays race.

Qualifying set-up and race set-up are two distinct animals. One driver who does not consistently qualify well but works on race set-up is Dale Earnhardt. Sure, Earnhardt has won his share of poles but more often than not he has started somewhere in the middle of the pack and picks his way through the field. Seven Winston Cup Championships attest to his philosophy.

The competition to make the field in a Winston Cup race becomes more fierce every year. It is now common to have the entire field of 43 cars covered by no more than 1.5 seconds. Little margin for error. With more sponsors involved in Winston Cup racing the greater the pressure to perform to attain one of those coveted starting spots. In Winston Cup the best thirty-six times get in the show. The next seven spots are left open to the "provisional" starting spot. NASCAR has worked with the provisional rule almost every year to try and level the playing field. None the less it is not and probably never will be a perfect system. "Nobody ever said that racins fair" to quote Geoffrey Bodine. How true.

So the season has started and the chase for the Winston Cup is in race mode. Winning pole position is never a guarantee of winning much less finishing the race. However it does help with race/pit strategy as well as getting the sponsors name mentioned early and often on TV and radio. So the next time that someone tells you "give me second." You can think of the drivers who would love to get rid of that extra second. Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock!

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot photos and racing art, please visit The Racing Image Galleries and The Visions of Speed Art Gallery