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NASCAR places trust in safety innovations

Jeff Burton claims restrictor plates were not to blame for his oh-so-boring victory at New Hampshire International Speedway last fall, in which he led all 300 laps.

But why risk it?

Hoping for a more entertaining show, NASCAR will trust that a new tire compound, a track-surface modification and a couple of in-car safety innovations are enough to prevent a third tragedy at the 1-mile track in the span of 14 months. Restrictor plates will not be used Sunday in the New England 300.

Last summer, Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin Jr. and Busch series driver Adam Petty were killed six weeks apart in eerily similar head-on crashes into the Turn 3 wall. Both were believed to be victims of stuck throttles during practice sessions and died from basal skull fractures.

NASCAR quickly responded, requiring all cars to have a switch on the steering column for shutting off the engine. But when the Cup series returned to the New Hampshire track in September, drivers demanded more.

Designed for motorcycles and open-wheel cars, not 3,400-pound stock cars, New Hampshire is flat with long, fast straightaways. Restrictor plates, used only at Daytona and Talladega superspeedways, seemed like the answer.

But with all that snoring going on, who could be sure?

This time, NASCAR has done away with the restrictor plates. But what, besides the engine switch, is different about racing at New Hampshire than a year ago?

Three things:

Track owner Bob Bahre has in recent months done all he can to upgrade the surface, hiring one company to grind down bump stops and another to apply a sealant to give it added grip.

Teams are racing on different Goodyear tire compound and with new spring rules that NASCAR claims make the restrictor plates unnecessary.

And, since Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 in February, about 80 percent of drivers are wearing some type of head and neck support device, designed to help prevent basal skull fractures.

"Tragedy has struck us twice at New Hampshire and, definitely, those two drivers will be on our minds when we get there," said Elliott Sadler, driver of the No. 21 Ford. "But we've all got jobs to do and we all think we've got our safety stuff up to the 100 percent maximum."

SKINNER OUT: Mike Skinner will miss this weekend's race at New Hampshire because of injuries sustained in Sunday's Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. Robby Gordon replaces him in the No. 31 Chevrolet.

Skinner, 44, suffered a concussion, a fractured left ankle and torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The ankle will require surgery, which has not been scheduled, and he awaits word from doctors on the ACL tear.

Gordon began the season in the No. 4 Chevrolet, but was released by the Morgan-McClure team. He finished a Winston Cup career-best second June 24 on the Sears Point Raceway road course as a substitute in the No. 7 Ford.

TOUGH CHOICE: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company will end its relationships with the National Hot Rod Association, NHRA Team Winston and the Senior PGA Tour's Vantage Championship to remain title sponsor of NASCAR's Winston Cup series in 2002.

Under the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, tobacco companies can have only one brand-name sponsorship in a 12-month period. Banned from advertising cigarettes on television, R.J. Reynolds believed it would get the most exposure with NASCAR.

ONE AND DONE: Winston Cup drivers will have only one lap to qualify at New Hampshire, a change made for the second half of the season at all venues except short tracks at Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond and superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. Qualifying there will remain the best of two timed laps.

COLORFUL STATEMENT: Matt Sielsky is making his own fashion statement in the American Speed Association stock car series.

Following a fan vote on the Internet, the 23-year-old driver has dyed his hair.

"The fans voted to color my hair red, but I thought I'd go ahead and make it red and white to match the car," Sielsky said.

The ASA rookie will show off his new colors Saturday night in Indiana in the Tecumseh 300 at Salem Speedway.

"We just want to grab a little attention, especially from fellow rookie Johnny Sauter," Sielsky said of the series leader who has won six races this year.

PENALIZED: Paul Tracy and rookie Tora Takagi have each been penalized two championship points and placed on probation because of rough driving during Sunday's CART race in Toronto.

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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