Door-To-Door: NASCAR getting the lead out

NASCAR is switching to unleaded fuel in 2007, and that has some wondering when real alternative fuels get on the agenda. What's up with Junior and DEI? Will Rockingham get a second date back? Marty Smith has some answers in Door-To-Door.

Updated: February 15, 2007, 2:40 AM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

The 2007 NASCAR season marks many new eras, most of which are plenty well-documented -- Toyota, COT, JPM, ESPN The Return, etc. But one -- arguably the most important but least sexy -- is hardly discussed.

Door-To-Door
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The unleaded fuel era.

For the first time in its 59-year history, NASCAR teams in the top three series will use unleaded fuel in competition almost solely, the lone exception being the season-opening Speed Weeks festivities for Nextel Cup teams.

Other than that, they literally got the lead out.

This is a big, necessary step for the sport. But some fans feel it's still outdated in a green-conscious society that becomes more environmentally concerned by the day. Hybrids are hot. So that begs the question: Is Ethanol, or another renewable fuel, on the sanctioning body's radar?

One Nextel Cup engine builder thinks that time is coming.

SUNOCO refuel
Brian A. Westerholt/WireImage.comThe gas can man will begin pouring unleaded into cars this season.

"I have little doubt that in the near future we will begin to look at fuel alternatives to replace the petroleum-based fuels that we use today," said Jeff Andrews, head of the Hendrick Motorsports engine department.

The Indy Racing League utilizes ethanol fuel. For NASCAR teams to do so, the current fuel systems would require alteration.

"There are some very distinct differences in the fuel system between NASCAR and the [IndyCar] Series that make it possible for the [IndyCar] engine to use ethanol," Andrews explained.

"For example, the fuel-flow needed with methanol/ethanol-type fuel is approximately twice what we currently flow, using the current grade of Sunoco fuel."

Accommodating the resulting increase in flow and pressure, many of which are not legal by today's NASCAR rules, would require extensive modification to the current fuel systems, Andrews said. These types of changes are quite costly to teams.

"NASCAR is very aware and conscious of the cost associated with our sport," Andrews said. "Ethanol is an option that I am sure NASCAR is aware of, as well as the costs that would be incurred by teams to modify fuel systems and adapt to the change."

NASCAR officials say they're not opposed to the idea of exploring an alternative fuel like ethanol, but right now it's far from being a primary focus. Right now the chief concern is the transition to unleaded fuel.

Sunoco, NASCAR's official fuel supplier, doesn't manufacture ethanol and doesn't use it in its racing fuel. They supply the specifications NASCAR requests -- so for now, the focus is unleaded.

Marty,

With Dale Jr. in his contract year, and him and Teresa having their problems, if he doesn't sign back with DEI do you think we will go to RCR and Childress, bring back the black 3 that Dale Sr. made famous.

Childress did say the only way that the black 3 would come back on the track would be if an Earnhardt was driving it, and with Harvick getting a new sponsor this year it seems as though it could be a good chance.

-- Mike, Augusta, Ga.

If Dale Earnhardt, Inc. officials refuse to give Junior an ownership stake in the company, he'll leave. It's that simple. And if that happens, logic points to Childress as the beneficiary, along with the entire NASCAR industry and its fans, of course.

Everyone wants to see the black 3 back on the racetrack.

In other words, DEI stands to lose the most, here. And lose it would. Earnhardt Jr. has all the leverage in this negotiation. He leaves, DEI drops from the elite. He's the sport's biggest star. His sponsors would find a way to go with him.

And his fans? Pied Piper-dot-com.

Marty,

Rumors are around Denver that Dover International Speedway has bid for some land around the Denver area, and will be building a track in the near future. What have you heard? All us transplanted "Redneck" NASCAR fans want the scoop!

-- Bill, Denver

Doesn't seem as if there's any validity to your rumor, Bill. I checked up on it with Dover International Speedway spokesman Gary Camp, who tells me such speculation is news to him. The company, to his knowledge, has purchased no land in the Denver area and has no plans to construct a track there at this time, he said.

MartDawg,

I saw your appearance on OTL the other day. That coat and tie you had on sure covered up your red neck. Tell ESPN that NASCAR fans don't do coat and tie.

-- Mike, Muskogee, Okla.

Duly noted, Mike. Say hey to Merle for me.

Marty,

Do you think NASCAR will ever go back to North Carolina Speedway and do you think Darlington will ever get a second race back?

-- Tim, Warrior, Ala.

Unfortunately, Tim, the answer is simply no, and no.

North Carolina Speedway is an unfortunate case, an awesome racetrack in an oversaturated, oft-unsupportive rural market. And its February schedule date wasn't the most accommodating, either. It's a shame.

The racing there was stellar, traditional beatin' and bangin' and slippin' and slidin' on a surface that wore out rubber like P12 grit on sheet metal. It is now reduced to a testing facility for the Car of Tomorrow. Heartbreaking.

I wish NASCAR would hold a Busch/Truck weekend at Rockingham, a pair of one-and-done shows like we used to do at South Boston Speedway. It'd keep the track fully operational, it's close to home and would be a great show. Any thought of that, though, may have been dashed by last season's Busch Series event at Martinsville. The turnout was sparse.

And fact is, Rockingham is still too close to Charlotte and Martinsville and Richmond and Darlington.

That brings us to Darlington. The ol' Lady in Black is hanging in there. I think she'll continue to host one dance a year. Anything to the contrary would be a most ridiculous decision on NASCAR's part. History is important.

I've said this before: I understand the theory behind California Speedway's having two dates. Big, expansive market. Doesn't mean I like it. What sticks in my craw is that it has Labor Day. It shouldn't.

It's off to Daytona now. Strap in, we're about to embark on one of the wildest seasons ever.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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