Commentary

New engine program the wild card as Nationwide turns to California

The restrictor plates are gone, Daytona is in the rearview mirror and the Nationwide Series starts for real this weekend at California Speedway, writes Mark Ashenfelter.

Updated: February 22, 2008, 10:32 AM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- With Daytona out of the way, it's time to start finding out what the landscape in the Nationwide Series will really look like this season.

The restrictor plates are gone until Talladega, and Saturday's race at California Speedway will give an indication as to which teams have best adapted to the new engine rules being enforced this season.

It's a safe bet that the changes -- designed to increase engine durability, giving lesser-funded teams the opportunity to use the same engine in consecutive races -- won't lead to a dramatic cost savings for the Sprint Cup Series-backed teams that have dominated of late. Those teams will almost assuredly break out new engines for each race, but the question is how well they've adapted to the changes themselves.

After a preseason test at Las Vegas, defending champion Carl Edwards expressed concern that his team's engines weren't as strong as some of the competition. The thing is, the Roush Fenway Racing juggernaut has had time to improve its equipment, and it won't be surprising to see that Edwards is as fast as the rest of the field.

Then again, the Toyotas may be even stronger than when the Vegas test was held, so it's all just speculation until the drivers are turning laps for keeps.

The key to the change is the tapered spacer in the carburetor, as explained by Nationwide Series Director Joe Balash.

"The tapered spacer -- unlike a restrictor plate -- funnels the air from the carburetor into the intake manifold, helping the air/fuel mixture circulate better than a restrictor plate would," Balash said. "It's designed to reduce some horsepower, and that's how engine components can be used more than once. That, along with the gear rule that reduces RPM, puts less stress on the engine, allowing parts to be used again."

Teams using numerous key engine parts for more than a race at a time, though, aren't likely to be the ones battling Edwards, Clint Bowyer, David Reutimann and others for the championship. At least not this year.

Depending on any other changes in the series in future years, maybe the engine rule will cut costs across the board, not just for the teams looking to get by.

Come Saturday, though, Bowyer won't be worried so much about how much horsepower he has as he will be about trying to get to the front of the field. Running the full schedule in search of the championship, he wants to rebound after finishing 25th at Daytona.

It will come as no surprise if he's at the front of the field from the outset. Not only will he be driving the car Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton won with here last fall, it's a car that also won races at Charlotte and Homestead. In just four starts, the car won three times to go along with an eighth-place finish.

And Bowyer's no slouch at the 2-mile facility, with two poles and three top-5s in five starts.

"I like the racetrack," he said. "It seems like you have to run the car pretty free on the long run and that's one of my strong points."

Jason Leffler is just glad to be into what he considers the heart of the schedule.

"I always look forward to the chance to get back to the West Coast, but this weekend I'm just excited about getting back to racing," said Leffler, a native of Long Beach, Calif. "Daytona is its own beast, where it really doesn't matter if you have a great race car or a mediocre race car. It's more about the luck you are dealt.

"The real season starts at California because your performance there will be a pretty good indicator of where you stand in comparison with everyone else and what areas you need to work on for the first part of the season. We struggled last year at the mile-and-a-half tracks but have worked hard in the offseason to conquer those problems. After a pretty good test at Las Vegas, I feel very confident that we will have a strong car that will be able to qualify up front and be able to contend for the win this weekend."

Stephen Leicht, meanwhile, is simply thrilled to be behind the wheel of a car this weekend, let alone RCR's No. 21 entry. After finishing seventh in points last year, he found himself without a ride this season.

For now, he only has two starts slated with RCR, but it's better than watching the entire year on the sidelines, or jumping in inferior equipment hoping for a miracle.

"The Nationwide program at RCR is the best out there, and to have an opportunity to drive for a championship winning team is unbelievable," Leicht said. "I'm honored to drive for Richard [Childress] and equally excited to be part of the RCR family. Knowing that I can talk with my teammate [Bobby Labonte, who will drive the car in 15 races], and the guys on the Cup side will make my learning curve that much better."

For one weekend at least, everyone will be on a bit of a learning curve thanks to the new engine package.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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