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The Slippery Slope: NASCAR's Rule Change

1 October 1997

CONCORD, NC -- Picture, if you will, that you are in the big game with only a few minutes left on the clock. You are in pursuit of your target and you think you might catch him by the time the clock winds down.

Your lungs ache and legs strain from the punishment you're dishing out to yourself in your attempt to catch him but the focus on the target helps you ignore all that. Then, right in mid stride some official says, "We're moving the goal line back ten yards for you and your team." You, taking a moment for yourself ask, "Why"? The official says, with a straight face no less, "Because the guy you're chasing has some friends that can't keep up. Oh yeah, we know he's doing okay but his buddies aren't and they need some help."

Sound far fetched? Well that's awfully close to what happened last week when NASCAR announced the latest rules change for the Chevrolet Monte Carlos used in Winston Cup competition.

The reason for the change, at least from NASCAR's point of view, is that ever elusive goal of parity. You see there is only one Chevrolet team that's made it to victory lane this year. Jeff Gordon's DuPont Monte Carlo has made it to victory lane ten times and the rest of his Chevrolet brethren, including the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte have been aced out of the top spot.

There are a number of factors that come into play here but one would find it hard to believe that Richard Childress Racing can't put a good car under Earnhardt or that Gordon's teammate and '96 Winston Cup Champion Terry Labonte forgot how to drive.

I can tell you from watching the races that things like pit stops and other 'intangibles' have put a crimp in Earnhardt's and Labonte's runs. But rather than address those issues it is just easier to give 'em a quarter inch of help.

As you sit and watch the Fords and Chevrolets enter turn three at Charlotte Motor Speedway (where the new rules will take effect this weekend) you can tell who's got the package. The Chevrolets can run about 100 feet deeper into the corner before rolling off the gas than can the Fords. I'll be interested to see if that distance goes out to 125 or 150 feet with the added downforce a quarter inch brings.

The championship battle is coming down to Gordon's Chevrolet, which holds the top spot, verses Mark Martin in a Ford and Dale Jarrett also in a Ford.

We decided we'd ask the guys who's lungs ached and legs strained from the pursuit of Gordon, "How's it feel to have the goal posts moved back about ten yards at this point in the season?"

When we approached Jarrett he seemed to be in a talkative mood. That soon changed though when we asked about the recent rules change. His eyes turned black in anger and his jaw got very tight. Then, with very deep conviction, he replied tersely, "I don't have any comment on that." The obviously upset Jarrett then walked off leaving little to the imagination as to how he really felt on the subject.

With that we headed over to the Valvoline hauler to get Martin's feelings. Martin also appeared to be in a good mood but alas that soon changed when we asked him for his feelings on the changes. Martin's demeanor changed immediately and his short answer said it all. "I don't have any thoughts on that."

Later Martin confided that there was some animosity with the move that NASCAR made. Martin said, "I could say a lot of things that would be smart or even hateful, but I'm not going to do that. It doesn't matter. I don't think it'll change the outcome of the championship, although it could. They got a little help. They needed it, but the same guy is going to win. It isn't going to help the 3 car win a race. It's going to help the 24 car win another race, so I'm not sure it accomplished exactly what they hoped for."

So with a wave of the pen has NASCAR stepped of on a slippery slope? If you ask Jack Roush he'd tell you yes.

"I'm not really going to comment on NASCAR as I'm not certain what the motives were," said Jack Roush the owner of Mark Martin's Ford.

"You can look at what's happened and say, 'well Earnhardt's having kind of a bad year.' And it's clear that (Terry) Labonte is not having a great year. But these things ebb & flow. And for the number of teams they've got they're not getting the production out of the drivers and out of the expense.

"If NASCAR is looking at that and wanting to come back and make some changes at this time they've got to consider that there's one Chevrolet that's won ten times. And it's leading in the championship now. If they make much of a change they'll create an environment for a runaway for the 24 (Gordon).

"Once you start changing rules in the middle of the year based on what the pressure is, either from the fans or trying to orchestrate the kind of result you want in your championship you really open Pandora's box.

"I've raced for 30 years now. And in many of those (years) I've seen that done. Once you start down that slippery slope it's awful hard not to create an environment where whoever won last week is going to get a handicap going into the next week. And so it goes."

We'll have to wait until Sunday night when the checkers fall to see just how slippery the slope got. But unless the 24 camp has a problem, which they historically do in this event, we will probably be writing a story that has been written ten other times this year with the 'We'll get 'em next week' line from the other Chevrolet teams as filler.

Mike Snow -- The Auto Channel