Earnhardt Jr. Spins Out; NASCAR Ponders Use Of Rain Tires At Watkins Glen
Posted August 10, 2003 12:51 p.m. EDT
WATKINS GLEN — It didn't take long for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s final practice at Watkins Glen International to turn rocky.
After posting the second-quickest lap in the first few minutes of running around the twisting track on Saturday in preparation for the Sirius at The Glen, Earnhardt slid off course between the final two turns and into a massive gravel pit built to slow the cars and prevent them from crashing.
Practice was halted for three minutes while crews dug out the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy. After Earnhardt parked it in the garage, his crew blew out two small piles of rocks from the engine compartment and rear suspension. There was no apparent damage to the car.
"I was pretty fast," said Earnhardt, whose lap of 122.078 mph ended up being third-best behind rookie Greg Biffle and three-time Glen winner Mark Martin and just ahead of polesitter Jeff Gordon. "We've got a good car, and we need a win.
"I was driving it pretty hard. There's a lot of rocks, but it's ... better than sliding into a guard rail."
Earnhardt, second in the points standings to Matt Kenseth, had some companions in the rough. Kyle Petty's No. 45 Dodge spun through the gravel and gently brushed a foam barrier, allowing him to drive away, while Jimmy Spencer ended up mired in the gravel and had to be towed out.
Christian Fittipaldi also crashed and dented the front end of the No. 44 New York Yankees Dodge.
The forecast for Sunday's Sirius at The Glen was calling for an 80 percent chance of rain, and the chance that NASCAR would conduct its first race using Goodyear's rain tires became a possibility.
"It could be historic," said Rick Heinrich, marketing manager for Goodyear. "That's why we bring 'em. We want to be ready."
Good idea. A torrential downpour forced the Busch North series race to be called after 41 of 62 laps Saturday, giving Ted Christopher the victory.
Heinrich said Goodyear shipped 1,200 rain tires to Watkins Glen. He added that NASCAR indicated it would not like to begin the race on the tires, which cost $394 apiece and have a tread depth of 6/32nds.
"They want to have the option to use them under the right circumstance in order to get the race in," Heinrich said.
If the tires are used, pit strategy could become critical. Heinrich said that under extremely wet conditions, cars could run the whole race on one set of tires.
Mike Skinner won an exhibition race in Suzuka, Japan in 1999 on rain tires. Mark Martin, Terry Labonte and Robby Gordon are among a handful of drivers who have tested in the rain at The Glen.
Qualifying for the Winston Cup race at Watkins Glen was rained out three years ago, and teams practiced in the rain with the treaded tires, but the weather cleared on race day.
NASCAR said a decision will be made at race time.
"I can handle it," said Ryan Newman, who starts 13th. "If that's what we've got to do, then we'll do it. I'm looking forward to it."
So, too, was Canadian road racer Ron Fellows, who raced in the rain at Watkins Glen nine year ago with much success.
"I won here in the rain in a Trans-Am race in 1994 -- from the back, thank you very much," said Fellows, who will start 18th. "Let's hope it's an advantage. It will be interesting, for sure, if it rains."
If it rains, one windshield wiper and one brake light in the rear window would be added to each car.
The Air Force will have a special paint scheme on Ricky Rudd's No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Taurus for a special occasion.
Before the race, Gen. John W. Handy, who heads the U.S. Transportation Command and Air Mobility Command, will officially swear in 20-plus Air Force recruits. Four F-16 fighter jets from the 174th Air National Guard Fighter Wing in nearby Syracuse, N.Y., will do a flyover to mark the occasion.
Rudd, who qualified 26th, has 25 top-five finishes in 48 road-course races, more than any driver in NASCAR history. He has two victories and eight top-five finishes at Watkins Glen and won the pole last year.