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Nextel Cup Series

Friday, January 16

NASCAR: Don't call it a playoff
By Mike Massaro

Mike Massaro NASCAR is expected to formally announce details of its new points system Tuesday during the annual media tour hosted by Lowes Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C.

During a brief meeting with the media Thursday afternoon, NASCAR chairman Brian France downplayed the negative reaction created by the proposed adaptation of what has now become known as the 26-10 plan.

"We know that change, if we change anything, there's a natural negative reaction," explained France. "When we lay out ultimately what we are going to do, everybody will go, 'That makes some sense.'"

Initially it was believed the after 26 races only the top-10 in points would be eligible to compete for the championship. France and other sources, however, have indicated that there will likely be a provision that makes any driver with a mathematical chance at the title a qualified championship contender during the last 10-race segment.

The magic number that keeps popping up is 400 points. With 10 races to go in 2003 no driver was within 400 points of the leader. Mat Kenseth had a 418-point lead over Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The 10th place man was Michael Waltrip, 785 points behind.

Many have described the new championship procedure as a playoff. But France doesn't think that's an accurate depiction.

"Certainly it's not a playoff," said France. "A playoff implies a lot of things, notably best two out of three, single elimination. We're not talking about something like that. We're talking about something that still has a big element of consistency."

Computer freeze It became evident last year, after NASCAR implemented it's "No racing to the caution" rule in Sept., that something needed to be done to accurately identify driver positions when the caution flag waved. This season NASCAR hopes to clear the confusion by using computerized scoring.

According to NASCAR competition director John Darby, each Nextel cup track is currently being equipped with sensors that will quickly enable scorers to identify driver's exact running position at the time of a caution. The system is a modified version of the loop that currently exists at the start-finish line of all tracks. Expanding upon that, tracks will now incorporate multiple sensor loops that will divide each track into trap zones.

Johnson's crashJimmie Johnson spent the majority of the week at or near the top of the speed charts, but he didn't leave Daytona happy.

On the first lap of his Thursday morning testing session, Johnson crashed heading through turn 3.

"It's really hard to spin a car out -- especially by yourself here," said Johnson. "Before I turned off the wall into the turn on my warm-up lap -- I wasn't even up to speed yet -- the car was backwards before I entered Turn 3."

A cool morning in Daytona Beach left a trace of dew on the racing surface. Shortly after grounds workers concluded a jet drying process on the track Johnson headed out. But according to him, some of the shadowed areas were still damp.

"We run the top all the way around here on the first two laps basically and maybe it was still wet up there," added Johnson, who turned a lap of 187.535 mph with that car earlier in the week. "Without a doubt there was something on the track. Casey (Mears) had troubles and we were the car right behind him. So he went through and almost crashed and unfortunately I came through and did."

Johnson believes the car can be salvaged, but if the team can't find a way to bring 48A back to life, the backup car isn't so bad either. The Lowes team ended the day with a lap 187.363 mph, the fifth-fastest of the day.

Ford engine delay Insiders say that when Ford teams integrate the use of their newly designed cylinder heads in 2004, they could gain up to 20 horsepower. The heads were approved by NASCAR toward the end of the 2003 season, however further research and development by Ford will delay its debut.

"I was talking to Jack (Roush) about it earlier and he doesn't expect to see that new cylinder head until maybe Indy or the second Michigan race," said Greg Biffle, indicating that it may be August before the new heads are used in competition. "I thought it was gonna be a lot sooner than that. I figured it would be Vegas (race 3) or something around that, so I was a little disappointed to find out that cylinder head won't be here as quick as we thought it was gonna be."

With the single engine rule in effect and new point system on its way, Ford appears to taking a cautious approach. A source with one Ford team revealed that further tests would be conducted to ensure reliability.

Slam dunk Jeff Burton and Roush Racing have been putting the full court press on corporate America hoping to score a sponsor for the 2004 season. So it only seems appropriate that the National Basketball Association will be prominently displayed on the car during Speedweek. Turner Network Television purchased the sponsorship package as a means of promoting the NBA All Star Game, which will be played on Feb. 15, the same day as the Daytona 500.

Jaws Some might say that Jimmie Johnson swims with the sharks every Sunday afternoon but during the offseason he did it for real. While scuba diving with Jeff Gordon in the Bahamas, Johnson and his Hendrick teammate encountered a scary group of characters.

"Jeff spotted a shark and then he chased the shark, which I thought was a bad idea," joked Johnson. "As he was chasing the shark, it led us to probably 15 more sharks."

Although he admitted sharks are among his worst fears, Johnson maintained his composure.

"I realized there wasn't anything that I could do to get away from them and if they wanted to they could just swim over and take a bite out of me," Johnson explained with a smile. "I hung onto a rock on the bottom and watched for a little bit and then left. I climbed out of the water basically speechless. But Jeff was high-fiving one of the guys who was with us on the dive. They thought it was one of the best dives they'd ever had and I couldn't really see or understand that."

The excursion was Johson's first scuba diving experience.

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and

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