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As the Winston Cup stock car racing season gets under way today, the sport prepares to take a new turn designed to preserve the excitement of pit road competition while eliminating danger to the crews.

NASCAR's solution to the pit road problem, prompted by last year's death of crewman Mike Rich, is a lengthy set of new regulations that would warm a bureaucrat's heart.And for all the speculation about their impact on the sport, talk of racing has almost taken a back seat.

Sure, one expects Dale Earnhardt to be strong again - perhaps more dominating than last year. But Mark Martin, Geoff Bodine and Bill Elliott intend to puncture that notion.

Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace have fresh optimism with new teams, but will all the pieces fall into place?

Ernie Irvan aims to break into the top ranks of stock car racing, as do Kyle Petty and Michael Waltrip, both with big bucks from new sponsors.

But what's going to happen when they all converge on the pits?

More precisely, what's going to happen when half the cars hit pit road, followed a lap later by the other half? And what's going to happen when yellow flag pit visits become gas-only stops?

Nobody knows.

The drivers don't know. The pit crews don't know. The promoters don't know. NASCAR doesn't know.

All we can really do is wait and see, and hope the scorers sort it all out.

NASCAR sometimes does things ``that makes us scratch our heads,' said Michael Waltrip, ``but that isn't one of them. We have to do something to protect the people trying to service the race cars.'

No one wants to see another incident like the one last November that killed Rich, a right rear tire changer for Bill Elliott, during the last pit stop of the 1990 season. Ricky Rudd'scar spun into Elliott's on pit road, crushing Rich between the cars.

``I know what it's like with cars buzzing by you at about 80 or 90 miles per hour about two inches away,' said Kyle Petty. ``I used to carry tires for my father.'

The first use of the new rules will be with today's ARCA 200 at Daytona International Speedway. Although the Busch Clash is also scheduled for today, there will be no pit stops during that 20-lap sprint for last year's Winston Cup pole winners.

The pit road rules effectively end tire changes during yellow flag stops and institute an odd-even pitting arrangement in the second and third laps immediately following a caution period.

The regulations also will be in effect for the Twin 125 qualifying races Thursday and, of course, Sunday's Daytona 500. The Busch Grand National series also will be included.

NASCAR does not consider the ARCA race a test case. The rules are here to stay, said NASCAR spokesman Chip Williams. ``After Daytona, we may take a look at them and make adjustments, but this is what we're going to do,' Williams said.

Since the new rules put a premium on tire-changing pit stops, strategy and experience in knowing when to pit and what to do may become more important than ever. Consequently, the best-run, most efficient teams stand to benefit.

Togetherness is the goal of many NASCAR teams today because of the example set by the Richard Childress team and Dale Earnhardt.

``Chemistry' is a new buzz word on the tour. To get to the top - to win the Winston Cup championship - team ``chemistry' has become all important.

At Billy Hagan's shops in Thomasville, Terry Labonte's new crew members have been using motivational workshops. The crew has been developing written goals and practicing positive thinking techniques.

``The chemistry is better,' crew chief Steve Loyd said.

Although it may not signify much in the next week, Labonte was the fastest in pre-Daytona 500 testing and won the Christmas 400K in Australia.

Felix Sabates, owner of Sabco Racing, which fields Kyle Petty's Pontiac, places much weight on team unity.

``I've never had an employee or associate of this company leave us or get fired,' he said.

Said Petty, ``When people work together for three or four years, you begin to understand what each other think.'

And to Jack Roush, who owns Winston Cup runner-up Mark Martin's car, the importance of chemistry within his team became all the more apparent last year as he watched the Childress team operate.

``I'd look up and see that Childress' stacks of tires were the straightest. And that they were the cleanest,' Roush said. ``I think that team chemistry is probably more important than that last five horsepower.'

Roush, Martin, team manager Steve Hmiel and crew chief Robin Pemberton have been getting better together since 1988, little by little, and they believe that trend will continue this year.

``The fact is, we're starting in 1991 with every person intact,' said Roush. ``We haven't had a mass exodus. No uprisings. To a man, the whole team has felt the purpose and necessity of what we're doing. We won't have to spend as much time to sort out an idea.'

Martin said, ``We'll be a stronger in almost each and every race.'

But, as he was quick to point out, stock car racing has a delightfully maddening tendency to throw a wrench in the works, chemistry or no chemistry.

``We might be leading 20 races, but a flat tire, a $2 part breaking, getting tangled up in somebody else's crash - those things we can't control.'

Even if the season comes together nicely for Martin and Roush, or for other teams, Earnhardt and the Childress team will still be exceedingly tough to beat.

At 38, Earnhardt is in the prime of his career. And as Roush so plainly saw last year, the Childress crew sets standards others follow.

In the future, stock car historians may look back on 1990 as the year Earnhardt really came of age - the year his aggressiveness, talent and confidence reached a happy medium.

In the minutes after the most bitter loss imaginable - a last lap tire blowout after dominating the 1990 Daytona 500 - Earnhardt faced a horde of reporters with the grace of a true champion.

And rather than burn that shredded, mangled tire, the Childress team mounted it on a board and put it on the wall at their museum/souvenir shop next to their garage in Welcome.

It is displayed with the prominence of a trophy. And it gets a lot of attention.

``That tire was probably worth $800,000 or $900,000,' said crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine. ``We couldn't throw it away.'

Earnhardt still can't believe his fate. But he said, ``If I had let that tire get to me like a lot of people thought it would, I never would have become champion.'

As close as the points battle was between Earnhardt and Martin, Earnhardt clearly dominated the season.

He won nine races to Martin's three. Earnhardt led 84 times during the season,Martin led 22 times. Earnhardt led 2,438 laps - more than twice as many as anyone else and more than five times as many as Martin.

But it was a tight point battle because Martin finished all but 83 1/2 miles during the season. Earnhardt failed to finish about 623 miles.

If there is a reason Earnhardt cannot duplicate last year's success, it has not yet surfaced.

The Childress team is rich, happy and well-managed.

Earnhardt is confident to the point of being cocky, but he says his aggressiveness is ``more calculated, more controlled.' He relishes his place at the top of stock car racing and seems comfortable with the vast attention it brings.

But he still loves taking digs at his chief rivals.

During a media luncheon in January in which Western Steer Family Steakhouses announced its associate sponsorship of Earnhardt and Childress Racing, Earnhardt was asked if he thought the chain could continue to attract diners who favor Bill Elliott and Geoff Bodine.

Earnhardt's eyes twinkled.

``They serve chicken and shrimp, too,' he said.

If chemistry is as crucial as many teams believe, then some big names in stock car racing may find tough times this year.

Rusty Wallace is making his debut in a partnership with Roger Penske and longtime Wallace associate Don Miller, although Wallace retains his Miller Genuine Draft sponsorship.

But the re-entry of Penske into NASCAR racing after an 11-year absence should not be underestimated, according to Roush.

``I think he'll be a substantial factor and force anywhere he wants to go,' Roush said.

Darrell Waltrip also enters the fray with his own new team. His challenge is particularly difficult, because in addition to the pressures of forming the team, Waltrip is coming back from the worst injury of his career - a badly broken leg last July during a Daytona practice crash.

The sport itself is stronger than ever, despite recession and war. The sponsorship merry-go-round continues, with some getting off and some getting on. But the withdrawal of Peak and Zerex anti-freeze were countered by the entry of new sponsors, notably Pennzoil (Michael Waltrip), Mello-Yello (Kyle Petty) and Western Auto (Darrell Waltrip).

Of the top teams, only Alan Kulwicki's is lacking sponsorship. Many observers blame that on the recession, since Kulwicki won a race last year and finished a solid eighth in the Winston Cup championship.

Despite that gap, the interest in stock car racing seems stronger than ever.

Total attendance at Winston Cup races was up 6.7 percent last year, with a gain of almost 210,000 fans at the tracks. The series continues to be the world leader in attendance among auto races, with more than 3.3 million fans at the 29 races last year. In the category of average attendance per race, the Winston Cup series ranked third behind the Indy car series and Formula I. Television ratings also have continued to climb. And now that The Nashville Network has contracted to televise five Winston Cup events, the fees paid by networks to race tracks are growing.

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