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New rule gets green light

It seems the vox populi has been heard.

Aware that its loyal fans were frustrated with the increasing number of Nextel Cup Series races that had finished under caution, NASCAR officials announced Thursday they would resolve to end races under green-flag conditions by implementing a green-white-checkered rule in Nextel Cup and Busch Series races, beginning next weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway.

While the intent is to finish under green, NASCAR officials did not guarantee that result, cautioning there will be instances -- such as a wreck on the white-flag lap -- where finishing under yellow is unavoidable.

The new procedure will consist of a two-lap restart -- green for the first lap and white for the final lap leading to the checkered flag. Any additional laps will be counted and scored. Only one restart under the green-white-checkered rule will be attempted during a race. If a caution comes out during that period, the race will be deemed complete.

"The green-white-checkered format is an attempt to achieve everyone's goals -- a green-flag finish," said NASCAR president Mike Helton. "This change hopefully will provide competitive finishes in the relatively rare occasions it is warranted."

This season, four races -- at Talladega, Charlotte, Pocono, and Michigan -- have ended under caution. Fans reacted angrily at Talladega April 25 when Jeff Gordon snapped Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s string of five consecutive wins in restrictor-plate races at the 2.66-mile tri-oval.

Gordon cruised to the checkered flag under caution, finishing ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. when Hendrick Motorsports teammate Brian Vickers induced the 11th and final yellow flag after wrecking three laps from the end of the 188-lap race. As Gordon came to the finish line, his car was pelted with projectiles from the estimated crowd of 155,000, who had turned out to see a race to the finish.

"We have gotten to the point where we've had too many races ending under caution," said Jimmie Johnson, who won at Pocono, Pa., June 13 when the yellow was unfurled on Lap 197 of the 200-lap race because of oil on the track. "I don't think it's right for the fans to have to sit through the traffic and [pay the] money they pay to be at these events [and watch a race finish under caution]."

The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series has used the green-white-checkered format since its inception in 1995, doing so 42 times over 225 races with no major accidents or injuries reported.

"Considering the tight competition week in and week out in the other two national series, we feel the time is right to use the same procedure in all three national series," said Helton.

Yet one Nextel Cup driver, Rusty Wallace, claimed that NASCAR would be putting its drivers at risk.

"All these race fans drinking beer and screaming and hollering have not been in a helicopter, upside down, with 30 tubes hanging out of you after going end-over-end 30 times like I've been before because of these green-white starts," Wallace said. "I think it's ridiculous and it's unsafe.

"I'll take some heat probably, but it's just the wrong thing to do. I'm not willing to do it to make the fans happy. They've been here all week long and they've seen 495 miles of racing and they'll just have to give up that last five miles of racing."

Gordon is prepared for the change. "We've talked about it long enough," he said. "It has been a topic of discussion for years . . . and as many times as we've seen races end under caution, it's a good, positive thing for the fans and for everybody."

Cut runs deep

Michael McSwain was startled this week when he was released from Joe Gibbs Racing as crew chief of Bobby Labonte's No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet. "It's no different than anybody else -- we've had good weeks and bad weeks, but it was a big surprise," McSwain told "It really was. I can't say we didn't do good together, because we did." McSwain teamed with Labonte for wins at Atlanta and Homestead-Miami Speedway last year. Labonte, winless in 18 starts this season, ranked sixth in the driver standings with 2,278 points, 442 behind leader Johnson. McSwain was replaced for the interim by Thomas Brandon, a 30-year-old engineer at Joe Gibbs Racing. "It was as big a shock to me as it was the rest of the world," said McSwain. "If we were 25th in points I probably wouldn't be so disappointed. But being in the position we were in, it's disappointing." . . . Joseph R. "Papa Joe" Hendrick, father of Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, died from an undisclosed illness Wednesday night at a Charlotte, N.C., hospital. Hendrick, 84, shared with his grandson Ricky ownership of the No. 25 GMAC Chevrolet driven by Brian Vickers. "I cannot personally thank Papa Joe enough for the lasting opportunity he helped create for everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, including myself," Vickers said. "He was someone who truly cared, always stopping to speak with anyone and everyone, and always excited to be in the shop around his guys on the No. 25 team." A memorial service will be held today in Charlotte, and Hendrick will be buried Monday near his birthplace in Palmer Springs, Va. . . . Earnhardt Jr. recently won the ESPY Award for best driver, beating six-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher, 2003 NHRA Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon, Indy Racing League champion Scott Dixon, and 2003 NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth . . . Gordon appeared Thursday night on Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown," a charity tournament. Playing for the Jeff Gordon Foundation, Gordon beat actress Angie Dickinson in a head-to-head finale, going all-in with a pair of 10s. He beat Dickinson by drawing another 10 on the fifth and final community card. Earlier in the game, however, Gordon never pressed his luck. If you're Jeff Gordon, why not bet on yourself?

Material from personal interviews, various sanctioning bodies, race teams, sponsors and track publicity departments was used in the preparation of this report.

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