Rookie class gets a drafty reception at Daytona

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Veteran racers steer away from Winston Cup's new blood.

By Jenna Fryer ~ The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's bumper-to-bumper and fender-to-fender at 190 mph. Decisions must be made in the blink of an eye, and the slightest slip can be disastrous.

Drafting at Daytona isn't easy, especially for rookies trying to earn the trust of their competitors.

A day after rookie Jack Sprague caused a five-car accident in the first drafting session of the season, the six-member rookie class had a hard time making friends on the track.

Casey Mears spent much of Wednesday's first practice running all alone behind Dale Jarrett, unable to hook up with any other veterans.

"We're trying to keep him kind of low-profile out there and not do anything too wild because it's so critical he earns the respect from his competitors," said Jimmy Elledge, Mears' crew chief.

"We've got to make it so we won't have to tie a big ol' bone around his neck just to get the big dogs to play with him when it comes time to race."

Drafting is essential in the Daytona 500 because carburetor restrictor plates required here by NASCAR sap horsepower and keep the cars in large packs that are often two and three wide.

So the drivers hook up with the car in front of them, bumper-to-bumper. The air from the first car in line pulls the others along behind it, with the rear cars able to slingshot when they pass, with the aid of that airflow.

Veterans lose comfort zone

But veterans generally aren't comfortable lining up with a rookie who is trying to get a feel for a Winston Cup car on one of the biggest and fastest tracks on the circuit.

"If I had my pick, I wouldn't want to work with a rookie," said four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "You have to kind of watch to see who looks comfortable out there, who knows what they are doing and isn't trying anything too aggressive."

It's a shared attitude, especially after Sprague's wreck Tuesday with less than five minutes left in the first practice session of the 2003 season.

Sprague bumped Steve Park, starting a chain reaction crash that forced Mike Skinner, Elliott Sadler and Jeff Burton into their backup cars.

"Unfortunately, we had an accident, and it puts rookies under a microscope even more so than usual," said rookie Larry Foyt. "You can't do anything stupid, you try not to jump around and be crazy. Even doing all those things, I haven't had a whole lot of guys working with us and it's been frustrating."

Not even Jamie McMurray, who earned drafting experience when he was thrown into the fire last season by making his Winston Cup debut at Talladega, had many friends on Wednesday.

Teammate Sterling Marlin worked with him a little bit, and good friend Jimmie Johnson gave him some help, but he said many of the cars avoided him. Whenever he closed in on the speedy Chevrolets of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, McMurray noticed that all his competitors wanted to hook up with them.

"It seemed like guys were doing crazy things to get in line with them," McMurray said. "So I really think if you have a good car, guys will be forced to work with you because they'll want your help."

Mears spent most of his time at the three practice sessions working specifically on drafting, knowing how hard it will be for him to prove himself to the field. With just one year of stock-car experience -- last season in the Busch Series -- he knows everyone is checking his credentials.

"When I was a veteran in any other series, I intentionally didn't work with rookies because you don't trust them," Mears said. "I don't take it hard. I'm just trying to show them we can all be friends."

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