Surveying the Field at the Daytona 500

Jack Arute, a sports reporter for ABC and ESPN, previews this weekend's Daytona 500 NASCAR race. Top-ranked driver Tony Stewart has raised concerns that a racing technique called "bump drafting" could endanger racers' lives.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Daytona 500 rolls this weekend, the first big race of the NASCAR season, and as stars, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson get set to race that event, questions are being raised about the safety of stock car racing. It is the fifth anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt on Turn 4 at Daytona.

For millions of Americans, Jack Arute is the voice of stock car racing. He works the races for ESPN and ABC Sports. He joins us from us from Connecticut.

Jack, thanks for being on with us.

Mr. JACK ARUTE (Stock Car Racing Correspondent for ABC and ESPN): It's my pleasure to be with you guys.

SIMON: Tony Stewart, the great driver, has gotten a lot of attention this week talking about the dangers of bump drafting. Remind us what that is.

Mr. ARUTE: One of the nuances of super speedways, like Daytona and Talledega, is that two cars, when they bump together, it's almost as if the same scenario that we've seen in the Olympics in some of the short track skating, where if you bump another competitor it gives you both a little extra push, well, bump drafting has been utilized probably for the last decade at these two specific super speedways. And it's okay when you do it on a straightaway. It gets a little bit difficult in challenging when you do it in the corners.

And Tony Stewart is the defending Nextel Cup champion, went to NASCAR and expressed his concerns. And NASCAR responded by outlawing that technique at certain areas on the racetrack, the tri-oval and of course in the two high-banked corners.

SIMON: Jimmie Johnson is going to be racing this week without his crew chief, who was suspended for modifying, and that's a word I have to put in quotes, modifying or enhancing Jimmie Johnson's car. How injurious is this, to race without your well-practiced crew chief?

Mr. ARUTE: It would be the same as if you went to the Olympics as a figure skater and didn't have your coach and trainer there. What Chad Knaus did, is they took up body design that was going to make the rear part of the car run a little bit lower through the air. It increased the aerodynamics of the car and allowed it to go faster through the air. My understanding, the infraction was to a sixteenth of an inch.

SIMON: Ooh.

Mr. ARUTE: But you can rest assured that Chad Knaus will be glued to a plasma screen television watching the coverage. And he'll be hooked up by wireless internet right to that pit box and trying to assist his replacement in making the calls on the race.

SIMON: As we mentioned, Jack, this is the fifth anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt on Turn 4. Five years after the fact, how much safer is stock car racing because in a sense it lost its most glittering star on that day?

Mr. ARUTE: Major safety improvements. Not only inside cockpit of the race cars with better seats and better restraint systems, but also the mandatory use of a head and neck restraint system that dramatically reduces the potential for basilar skull fractures, which is what killed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. And then the introduction of what's called the safer barrier, which is a semi-collapsible metal wall that absorbs a lot of the initial impact. It is now being introduced on all major racing facilities, and has dramatically reduced the potential for serious injury to drivers.

SIMON: Jack, predictions?

Mr. ARUTE: I'm leaning towards Jeff Gordon. But I would also put no surprise if young Carl Edwards is able to score his first Daytona 500 victory. And that would be exciting because Carl as part of his victory celebration always does a back-flip off the roof of the car, which is really great. I know that's more of a Summer Olympics performance. But maybe he can do it on a snowboard if he wins.

SIMON: Okay. Well, Jack, always nice talking to you. Thanks very much.

Mr. ARUTE: Thank you.

SIMON: Jack Arute, you can hear him on ABC Sports and ESPN.

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