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NASCAR adds deflector; escape hatch next

Ever since Dale Earnhardt's fatal wreck, NASCAR has stepped up its effort to protect drivers, examining everything from neck restraints to soft walls.

The latest innovation is an extension to the rear window, similar to a spoiler, designed to keep cars from becoming airborne.

Because the change involves a small deflector, it will barely be noticed Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, where the seven-time Winston Cup champion was killed two years ago. Gary Nelson, NASCAR's chief of research and development, said Thursday the deflector is mandatory.

"The cars stay on the ground better," he said. "We did a lot of testing with it and it proved out real well."

Although the change is the only new one for the Pepsi 400, Nelson said NASCAR is moving ahead with other safety devices. A rooftop escape hatch is a top priority, and its worthiness will be tested at the University of Nebraska's Midwest Roadside Safety Facility.

The hatch could be important if there is a fire. Neither Ken Schrader nor Dale Jarrett was injured after their cars burst into flames after crashes last month at Pocono Raceway, but both drivers had to squeeze through narrow side windows and barely escaped being burned.

Nelson said hatches will be an immediate option for teams and probably mandatory next year if the Nebraska test goes well.

New Hampshire International Speedway and Richmond International Raceway also announced that the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier being developed by the Nebraska school will be installed in the turns in time for their September races.

Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr. were killed in separate crashes in 2000 at New Hampshire, and Jerry Nadeau suffered serious head injuries earlier this year in a crash at Richmond.

So far the "soft wall" has been used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and on the inside wall at Talladega Superspeedway. The results have been good, but installation cannot be instantaneous because the barrier system must be engineered specifically for each facility.

CLEVELAND GRAND PRIX: Paul Tracy, CART's points leader, won the provisional pole for Saturday's race, which will be run at night for the first time in 22 years.

Tracy turned a lap in 58.40 seconds, nearly one-half second ahead of teammate and defending champion Patrick Carpentier (58.86). Rookie Sebastien Bourdais was third (59.16).

FRENCH GRAND PRIX: Police impounded the BAR team's Formula One cars after a court order seeking payment of an old debt. The seizure in Magny-Cours threatens the team's participation in this weekend's race. Jenson Button of Britain and Jacques Villeneuve of Canada drive for BAR.