2003: Year of change offered glimpse into the future

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Dec. 19, 2003) -- The 2003 NASCAR season will be remembered as a time when speed was as evident off the track as on it. There was an altered schedule, a new premier series sponsor in Nextel, a new fuel supplier in Sunoco,...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Dec. 19, 2003) -- The 2003 NASCAR season will be remembered as a time when speed was as evident off the track as on it.

There was an altered schedule, a new premier series sponsor in Nextel, a new fuel supplier in Sunoco, more new safety initiatives, a new boss and finally, talk of a new points system for NASCAR's premier series.

All of that complemented what have become staples:

* Competitive balance (17 different race winners in both the NASCAR Winston Cup and NASCAR Busch Series);

* Huge attendance figures (approximately seven million fans for NASCAR Winston Cup);

* Vast television audiences (an average of 7.8 million watched NASCAR Winston Cup races in 2003).

There was more, of course. "Young guns." Veterans reloaded with enthusiasm. A NASCAR Winston Cup champion who personified consistency on the track and class away from it, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford), who gave car owner Jack Roush his first title in NASCAR's top series. The NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series titles weren't decided until the closing laps of the final race, with Brian Vickers (No. 5 GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet) and Travis Kvapil (No. 16 IWX Motor Freight Chevrolet) emerging as champions.

That's the abridged version of a year that bridged several eras and provided sneak peeks into a newer-than-ever NASCAR -- a NASCAR unlike anything that has gone before.

Following is a chronological rundown of a mercurial 2003 that set the stage for a future that promises to move even faster.

JANUARY: State-of-the-art.

That was the phrase which cropped up constantly as people viewed NASCAR's new Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., at the official grand opening during the annual Charlotte Media Tour. The 61,000 square-foot, the first of its kind in motorsports, was unveiled by Managing Director of Competition Gary Nelson.

The "R & D" Center was the site for NASCAR's annual press conference that coincides with the media tour. Another sort of unveiling took place, as NASCAR Chairman/CEO Bill France announced a concept called "Realignment 2004 and Beyond" that would address Southeastern saturation of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule, and events having trouble selling tickets. France said more news about realignment would be coming in the near future.

With a theme established -- that theme being change -- the rest of January followed suit in a big way. R.J. Reynolds announced it was ready to end its 33-year sponsorship of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series at the end of 2003, if NASCAR found a new sponsor. ConocoPhillips (76) announced it was ending its 50-plus year role as official fuel supplier to NASCAR, at the end of the year. In both cases, NASCAR started the process to find a replacement. ...

The annual January test sessions at Daytona International Speedway took on a new name: "NASCAR Preseason Thunder." There also was a Western version of NASCAR Preseason Thunder," at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. ...

NASCAR announced a safety/security initiative that was greeted warmly throughout the NASCAR Winston Cup Series garage: The implementation of "hot passes" for NASCAR's premier series, aimed at limiting the number of people in the garage during busy times. "Hot" times for the garage were defined as beginning 30 minutes prior to any scheduled on-track race-car activity, and ending approximately 10 minutes after the end of on-track activity -- including practices, qualifying sessions and races. Also, pits were designated as "hot" 30 minutes prior to the start of a race and remaining so until races ended.

FEBRUARY:

Michael Waltrip (No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet) became the "rain man" as he won the Daytona 500 for the second time when the season-opening classic was halted after 109 laps and more than two hours of rain delays. That capped another round of Daytona International Speedway's "Speedweeks" that also included Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) winning the Budweiser Shootout; Jeff Green (No. 30 America Online Chevrolet) and Earnhardt winning the Gatorades 125s; and Green starting on the Daytona 500 pole. ...

Leading up to the Daytona 500, NASCAR announced the formation of the "NASCAR All-Time Top 10." The elite list was based on the number of times drivers have ended the season in the NASCAR Top 10. Appropriately, NASCAR's two most prolific -- and recognizable -- champions, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, were 1-2. During his career Petty finished in the NASCAR Top 10 a total of 25 times, while Earnhardt did so 20 times. ...

The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season started in grand style with a three-wide finish at Daytona. Rick Crawford (No. 14 Circle Bar RV and Motel Park Ford) got the victory, edging Travis Kvapil and Robert Pressley (No. 59 Harris Trucking Chevrolet). For Crawford, it was his first win since 1998. ...

In the NASCAR Busch Series' season-opener the day before the 500, the Koolerz 300, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the (No. 8 Oreo/Ritz Chevrolet) to victory. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: Mariah Carey, singing the national anthem at the Daytona 500.

MARCH: "That was incredible."

Ricky Craven's (No. 32 Tide Pontiac) crew chief, Scott Miller, was finally able to utter those words to Craven as the driver made his Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 victory lap around

Darlington Raceway following one of the closest -- if not the closest -- finishes in series history.

Craven beat Kurt Busch (No. 97 Rubbermaid Ford) by .002 second, the closest finish in NASCAR since electronic scoring was introduced in 1993. Craven and Busch raced side-by-side for the last two laps of the 400-mile event. Coming down the front stretch for the final time, the two drivers' front bumpers locked as they pushed and bumped each other toward the finish line, but Craven had just enough to inch his car ahead of Busch. "That was the coolest finish that I've ever seen and I'm glad I was a part of it," Busch said. The victory was the second of Craven's career. ...

A day after that drama, the NASCAR Busch Series tried to raise the ante, in the DarlingtonRaceway.com 200. Coming to the finish line, the cars driven by Todd Bodine (No. 92 Herzog-Jackson Motorsports Chevrolet) and Jamie McMurray (No. 1 Yellow Transportation Dodge) collided. Bodine slid across the finish line to win his first race of the season; McMurray's car spun toward the inside. "I held it wide open," Bodine said. "I knew I was pointed the right way down the race track. I was just hoping it would get there." ...

At Texas, the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet of reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Tony Stewart was impounded by NASCAR officials and transported to the R & D Center for further investigation -- an unprecedented move -- after it failed inspection that showed a skewed measurement from the corners of the decklid to the corners of the roof. "This one's ours right now," NASCAR President Mike Helton said of the car. Stewart raced a backup car and finished 34th. ...

The first two weeks of March were all about Matt Kenseth. At Las Vegas he got what proved to be his only victory of the season. The next week at Atlanta he finished fourth to take the series point lead. Kenseth stayed atop the NASCAR Top 10 for the balance of the season -- 33 consecutive race weeks. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: Britney Spears at Texas Motor Speedway, watching the Samsung/RadioShack 500.

APRIL:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. again showed his superiority at restrictor-plate tracks with a record-setting fourth consecutive victory at Talladega Superspeedway, in the Aaron's 499. His first win of 2003 also pushed him to second in the NASCAR Top 10, his highest series ranking since being No. 2 following the 2001 Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) picked up his fourth career win at Martinsville, while Kurt Busch became the season's first multiple-race winner with his victory at California. Busch scored his first win of 2003 at Bristol.

Also in April, beginning at California, was a NASCAR safety initiative mandating a second tether for front wheels at all events 1.25 miles in length, excluding road courses. The initiative was put in place following an incident at Talladega where one of the wheels on Ryan Newman's No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge became disconnected. Analysis of the car and data at NASCAR's R & D Center showed that two fiber cables would more than double the strength of one steel cable. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the time still an actor, as the Honorary Starter for the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.

MAY:

The month basically belonged to Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet, a leader of the Young Gun cadre who won two of the season's biggest events on successive weekends, at Lowe's Motor Speedway no less, in Concord, N.C.

After winning NASCAR's annual all-star event, The Winston, Johnson came back the next week to win the Coca-Cola 600, the victory partly facilitated by rain which halted the race after 276 of a scheduled 400 laps. ...

The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series had its first-ever Lowe's Motor Speedway race. Further history was made as Bill Lester (No. 8 Dodge Motorsports Dodge) won his first pole and became the first African American driver in 41 years to capture a NASCAR national series pole. ...

Safety again was in the news. NASCAR expanded its requirement of a second front-wheel tether to all tracks. Also, a seven-month study resulted in recommendation of a catalyst that helps reduce levels of carbon monoxide in the driver cockpits. Tests had shown that the catalyst had reduced carbon monoxide as much as 75%. ...

At month's end, NASCAR announced the dates for its season-ending awards ceremonies for the three national series. The NASCAR Winston Cup ceremony was set for Dec. 5 in New York City, with a return to the Waldorf=Astoria after 2002's show was held at the Hammerstein Ballroom. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: American Idol finalists performing the national anthem at the Coca-Cola 600.

JUNE: It was a month for the ages.

People found out that Bill France was serious about realignment.

They also found out that NASCAR was serious about finding a sponsor to replace R.J. Reynolds.

Within a seven-day period, NASCAR announced a significant schedule alteration and a new sponsor for its premier series. On June 13, "Realignment 2004 and Beyond" became more than a concept. It became reality. On June 19, it was announced that Nextel Communications had signed on for 10 years, ending a swift and successful search by NASCAR for a new entitlement sponsor.

NASCAR announced the first phase of "Realignment 2004 and Beyond" with 2004 schedule adjustments involving three facilities in its premier series. California Speedway got a second date, to be held the Sunday of Labor Day weekend (Sept. 5), a date previously held by Darlington Raceway and the famed Mountain Dew Southern 500, which was moved to November's date (Nov. 14) previously held by North Carolina Speedway. NCS thus lost one of its two events.

Said NASCAR President Mike Helton: "These decisions have been made with the long-term interest of the sport -- starting with the fans -- in mind." ...

Another decision was made, and Tony Stewart got most of his car back. The No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet impounded at Texas was returned to Joe Gibbs Racing. The team was allowed to retrieve the chassis and engine, but NASCAR retained the body since it did not meet the specifications of the 2003 Chevrolet body submitted by General Motors. ...

The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series hit a milestone at Memphis Motorsports Park as the series ran its 200th race, won by Ted Musgrave. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: Actor Tom Arnold, the Grand Marshal for the Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

JULY:

Greg Biffle, the 2002 NASCAR Busch Series champion, needed a big win in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, a break-through win. What better place for that to take place than at Daytona International Speedway? Biffle, driving the Roush Racing No. 16 Grainger Ford, won the Pepsi 400 at DIS, rejuvenating his battle with Jamie McMurray (No. 42 Havoline Dodge) for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors. ...

A week later, Ryan Newman won at Chicagoland Speedway, his third victory of the year, tieing Kurt Busch for the series lead. Two weeks after that Newman won again, at Pocono. But he left that event in ninth place in the NASCAR Top 10, haunted by five previous DNFs in the season's first half. ...

On July 30, NASCAR announced that all vehicles in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series were required to have an additional fire-extinguishing cylinder solely dedicated to the fuel cell area, effective Aug. 13. The device was recommended immediately. ...

On July 4 at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led every lap of the NASCAR Busch Series race -- the Winn-Dixie 250 Presented by PepsiCo. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: NFL All-Pro defensive end Warren Sapp of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Grand Marshal for the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

AUGUST:

The month began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Goodwrench Chevrolet) winning the Brickyard 400. Series points leader Kenseth finished second and left Indy with a 286-point lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. Already, some were conceding the title to Kenseth. ..

The NASCAR Busch Series race at Indianapolis Raceway Park, the Kroger 200 Presented by Tom Raper RVs, was called one of the best races in series history. That was because of a remarkable door-to-door duel over the last 30 laps between Brian Vickers and Shane Hmiel (No. 48 Goulds Pumps Chevrolet). Vickers got the win -- his first in the NASCAR Busch Series -- and a big boost to his championship hopes. ...

Sunoco was introduced as the new fuel supplier for NASCAR. The 10-year deal was announced at Michigan International Speedway, two days before Newman got his fifth victory of 2003. ...

On that day of Newman's victory, Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer (No. 7 Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge) were involved in a post-race altercation. Several days later, they were issued penalties. Spencer was suspended from racing until Aug. 26. He also received a $25,000 fine and was placed on probation until Dec. 31. He thus missed the NASCAR national series triple-header at Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch was placed on probation until Dec. 31. ...

The month ended at Darlington Raceway, with two-time series champion Terry Labonte (No. 5 Kellogg's/got milk? Chevrolet) winning the Mountain Dew Southern 500, his first win since 1999. The victory moved Labonte to 11th place in points. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: LeAnn Rimes, singing the national anthem prior to the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway. ...

SEPTEMBER: It was time for a change, said Bill France. And so, a change was made.

France's son Brian Z. France was announced as the new Chairman/CEO of NASCAR, becoming the third member of his family to lead the sanctioning body. He follows his father and NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., his grandfather. ...

In addition to the change at the top, NASCAR also announced two other executive moves. Paul Brooks was promoted to senior vice president; former ESPN/ABC/Disney executive Richard Glover was named vice president of broadcasting and new media. ...

NASCAR returned to Richmond International Raceway, where the SAFER barrier system -- commonly called "soft walls" had been installed. During the weekend there was a gratifying example of the system's effectiveness. NASCAR Busch Series driver Jason Keller was involved in an incident very similar to that of Jerry Nadeau at RIR in May, before the system had been installed. While Nadeau was seriously injured, Keller was ready to race the next day.

When NASCAR returned to New Hampshire International Speedway for the second time, SAFER barriers had been installed there, as well. ...

Richmond was safer but it also was a bit unruly, and NASCAR was forced to crack down. Harvick, five Richard Childress Racing crew members from his team, and Pat Tryson, crew chief for Ricky Rudd, received a varying range of penalties for their involvement in an altercation following the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 held on a Saturday night. ...

Safety continued to be in the forefront, with two bold brushstrokes by NASCAR. Racing back to the line under caution was ceased. Also, an option was announced for teams in the NASCAR Winston Cup and NASCAR Busch Series, allowing installation of an "alternate exit" for drivers via a roof "hatch." Michael Waltrip (No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet), a pleased 6-foot-5 beneficiary, became the first driver to have the exit installed. After winning the Talladega race on Sept. 28, he celebrated by pulling into the infield grass, stopping his car and popping out the top of the hatch to wave to the crowd. ...

Glover was welcomed to his new job with some encouraging news, when the race at Talladega -- the EA Sports 500 -- had the highest national rating ever for any auto race competing for viewers against professional football, a 5.5 according to Nielsen Media Research. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: Newly crowned Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap, the Grand Marshal for the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

OCTOBER: Ryan Newman was NASCAR's "Mr. October."

Newman won three of his series season-high 11 Bud Poles in October along with his eighth race of 2003, which would also end up as the series high for the year. Newman won poles at Charlotte, Atlanta and Phoenix (Oct. 31) while posting a win at Kansas.

Jeff Gordon completed a season sweep at Martinsville and went on to register a victory the following week at Atlanta. His back-to-back wins marked the first time in 2003 a series driver had won consecutive points races. It was the 14th time in Gordon's career he had won at least two races in succession. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: Actress/model Carmen Electra, Grand Marshal for the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

NOVEMBER:

Kenseth clinched the NASCAR Winston Cup Series title at Rockingham, the season's next-to-last race, capping a season of remarkable consistency. Kenseth posted a series-leading 25 top-10 finishes and had only two DNFs. One of those DNFs came in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Kenseth's car encountered engine problems early, and the champion ended up in last place. That had no effect on the post-race, official series title celebration on the speedway frontstretch. ...

Both the NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series titles were decided at Homestead. Heading into those finales, six drivers were in the running for the NASCAR Busch Series title, while four drivers had a shot at the NASCAR Craftsman Truck championship.

Brian Vickers finished 11th and edged 1994 champion David Green (No. 37 Timber Wolf Pontiac) for the NASCAR Busch Series trophy. Travis Kvapil won the NASCAR Craftsman Truck title by finishing sixth and nipping Dennis Setzer (No. 46 ACXIOM/Computer Associates Chevrolet) by nine points. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: The world's premier women's tennis players, sisters Serena and Venus Williams -- Serena serving as Official Starter -- at the Ford 400, at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

DECEMBER:

Kenseth collected a point-fund bonus check in excess of $5.1 million at the year-end NASCAR Winston Cup Series Awards Ceremony, at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York, and ended with a total of $9.42 million in season winnings. Leading up to the ceremony,

Kenseth enjoyed a busy "Champion's Week." He appeared on the "Today Show" and "LIVE With Regis and Kelly." He visited the White House and met with President George Bush. He went to Times Square and received a proclamation from the office of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, proclaiming Dec. 5 to be "NASCAR Winston Cup Series Day" in New York. He also endured, along with the rest of Manhattan, a massive snowstorm that blanketed the Northeast the first weekend of December. ...

Jamie McMurray joined Kenseth and the rest of the NASCAR Top 10 in New York, to be honored as the Raybestos Rookie of the Year. ...

Bill Elliott finally ended speculation about his future by announcing he would cut back to a limited schedule for Evernham Motorsports in 2004. His slated replacement in the No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge: Kasey Kahne. ...

As the year came to an end, speculation was rampant about a possible alteration of the points system in 2004 for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. An announcement regarding any possible changes is expected to come in early-to-mid January. Stay tuned. ...

Celebrity sighting of the month: Singer/pianist Harry Connick Jr., performing a lively set to open the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Awards Ceremony on Dec. 5 at the Waldorf=Astoria.

-nascar-

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