Teams can focus on race setups in '05

Updated: February 10, 2005, 8:14 PM ET
Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Nextel Cup drivers are looking forward to working more on race setups now that NASCAR has given the top teams a free pass into the field.

Beginning with the Daytona 500, the top 35 teams in car owner points from 2004 will make the lineup. After five races, 2005 points will determine the automatic berths.

So, top teams will no longer need to spend much time on qualifying setups. Other factors, for the most part qualifying speeds, will fill the last eight spots in the 43-car fields.

Qualifying speeds will continue to determine most starting positions for all but one of the races, the season-opening 500. Under Daytona's unique system, most of the grid for the race Feb. 20 will be set by finishing order in 150-mile qualifying races Thursday.

The drivers are nearly unanimous in their support of NASCAR's latest rule change.

"Maybe qualifying isn't as important as what we felt,'' three-time 500 champion Dale Jarrett said Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. "It's never paid any points and it doesn't pay a whole lot of money, yet we've always gotten more time to practice for qualifying than what we actually got to practice for the race.

"Now, it's the opposite. The race is where the points are paid, where the money's paid and where the trophy is given. I think we're making a step in the right direction. I think it's going to make for better racing.''

Jeff Green said Busch series teams have concentrated their practice time on race setups for years and that it's going to work just fine in Cup.

"I think you can win these races from no matter where you're at, from any position, if you've got a good enough race car,'' Green said. "The main thing is just getting your car handling well.''

Another change this year is that about two-thirds of the tracks will switch qualifying from Friday to Saturday with NASCAR impounding the cars immediately after the time trials. The teams will be allowed to make only minor adjustments -- still to be determined -- before starting the race with the same tires and fuel load with which they qualified.

Cars will be impounded for the first time Feb. 26 at California Speedway, where the Auto Club 500 will be contested the next day. Many Cup teams tested last week at the track.

"What I've noticed so far from our test in California is that you can just make the adjustments you can make from your race setups and you just deal with it in qualifying,'' series champion Kurt Busch said. "We'll see what happens two or three races in.

"Do guys just go for qualifying and track position early on in the race, and try to hold that throughout the race, or will they try to completely work on their race setup, take what they get and work their way toward the front? It's still a mystery.''

Joe Nemechek, one of the favorites to win the pole Sunday after being among the fastest cars in preseason testing at Daytona, said the new rule will "probably make the racing a little bit better just having more time to work on race setups.''

But he believes time trials will remain an important part of the race weekend, especially because the qualifying order determines choice of pit boxes for the race.

"I know you're guaranteed a spot in the show but, still, if you get a bad draw for a pit box, you're going to pay the price during the race if you keep getting blocked in,'' Nemechek said. "You're still going to have to qualify the best you can each week.''

He said the effects of a smaller rear spoiler and softer tires mandated this year for intermediate tracks such as California are unknown.

"There's a lot of issues that are still unclear,'' Nemechek said. "If they go into an impound, are we still allowed only three sets of tires? If you have four or five hours of practice, you're going to run out of tires. There's a lot of issues that still have to be addressed by NASCAR.''

Mike Bliss also is a big fan of the new qualifying rule.

"I think it's perfect,'' he said. "We spent more time worried about qualifying than we did on race setup. Nobody remembers who was on the pole, but everybody always remembers who won the race.''

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press