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NASCAR and 'The Call'

One of the most storied parts of NASCAR lore is known as 'The Call'. That's a term used when - supposedly - NASCAR officials look the other way and allow a certain car to get an unfair advantage in a race when NASCAR believes it would be in the best interest of the sport for that car to win. That car gets 'the call' to victory.

Although never proven, but highly suspected, drivers and crews privately speak of how other teams get the call.

The most famous instance of 'The Call' came in 1984, when Richard Petty won his 200th NASCAR Winston Cup race with President Ronald Reagan in attendance. Many of the sceptics believe Indiana's own Jeff Gordon got the call when he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 - the first-ever NASCAR Winston Cup race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994.

So when Dale Earnhardt Jr won last Saturday night's Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, it was a storybook finish that could have easily been scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter. Young Earnhardt wins at the track that claimed the life of his father in the previous race at Daytona, the February 18 Daytona 500.

It was mere moments after Earnhardt's victory that the sceptics started to cry foul, that somehow NASCAR allowed Earnhardt's car to be faster than the competition, either by issuing the team a big restrictor plate or other tricks that would give the car more horsepower.

So in Sunday's Tropicana 400 at the new Chicagoland Speedway, will a victory by another driver quiet the latest NASCAR controversy, or will another driver get the call? Or does the call even exist? And if so, how can it be proven?

"It's a little absurd, some of the accusations that have been made this week," said Ricky Rudd, who will start third in Sunday's race. "I was telling somebody the other day, I've been in racing for 26 years and I've added three or four extra phone lines over the years waiting for the call and I'm still waiting for it. I haven't gotten it yet.

"The only things I have gotten came over the fax that said I had been fined for something. It was like an invoice coming over the fax machine."

Jimmy Spencer made some strong comments after last week's race when he was interviewed on NBC immediately following the Pepsi 400. Spencer basically said the outcome had been preordained back in February and NASCAR has been orchestrating outcomes for years.

After meeting with NASCAR officials this week, Spencer changed his public comments on the outcome.

"I said some stuff last week when I left the race track that was two years' worth of frustration forming," Spencer said. "I had run like crap on restrictor plate races the last two years. I love them and I have not run well on them at all.

"What I meant was the 8 car (Earnhardt) was really good. What I said came out wrong. I don't believe NASCAR has anybody that is cheating. If they were, they would fire them. If they catch them, they would probably put them in jail if they could. There are too many people that the cars have to go through in the inspection process. You can't get two or three people to agree on one thing, let alone 14 or 15 technical inspectors."

Rudd believes Earnhardt's dominance is a result of Chevrolet having a superior car on restrictor-plate tracks.

"Ford has not led a competitive lap with restrictor plates this year," Rudd said. "You have some really great restrictor-plate racers who are handicapped. Just go back and look at the numbers. You have taken the Ford and Pontiac and Dodge out of the equation at a track like Daytona.

"The whole restrictor-plate process, you go through a tech line and one guy gives the team the restrictor plate. I haven't experienced or seen any sight of it. Could it happen? Certainly, it's up to a guy who issues the plate. But, did it happen? We don't know. NASCAR has found all those tricks over the years and has found a way to police that. Whether you like the guy or dislike him (Earnhardt), he needs to enjoy what he accomplished that night. Here, they are struggling."

Young Earnhardt qualified 36th at Chicagoland, a track that has a tremendous amount of grip because of the new asphalt. Todd Bodine will start on the pole alongside Carter/Haas Racing team mate Jimmy Spencer.

Bodine was also accused of getting the call back in 1998 when he won a pole at Watkins Glen, New York after a tumultuous year involving his sponsor at the time.

"Anybody that would think that it was rigged last week has totally lost their head," Bodine said. "I said the one advantage that Junior had last week at Daytona is he had his dad upstairs pushing him. That was his advantage. There is not a person in this garage area that is not happy to see what happened with Dale winning that race, going out and doing that for his dad.

"You will hear a lot of crap and rumours. For Dale Jr, it was personal. I felt bad even hearing the stuff. He just had a fast race car and his dad was up there pushing him. It's that simple for me."

But, as happens so often in NASCAR, a new race brings a new storyline and possibly, new controversy.

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