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February 22. 2014 1:34AM

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: Stoddard's car makes today's Daytona 500


Former NASCAR crew chief Frank Stoddard, a Haverhill native, will have a car in today's Daytona 500. (UNION LEADER FILE)

Frank Stoddard - feeling a whole lot better about things than he did 12 hours earlier - traded in a snowmobile for an automobile as his favored mode of transportation and was going to Disney World with his family early on Friday morning.

The pride of North Haverhill, N.H., and Woodsville High School graduate will be back in Daytona on Sunday morning for NASCAR's Daytona 500, a race that opens what New Hampshire Motor Speedway general manager Jerry Gappens calls, "a season of change for our whole sport."

At Daytona, Stoddard and his new racing partner, Archie St. Hilaire, of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, will see what they can do about getting their driver, Terry Labonte, home with the best possible finish.

"If we can get a finish in the Top 20, we'd be ecstatic," Stoddard said. "Top 10, we'd be doing cartwheels. We'll see if we can finish in the Top 10, maybe even pull a stunner in the Daytona 500. The thing is, we're in it. We've got a shot at it now."

Late on Thursday night, it didn't look like they'd have a shot at it, didn't look like they'd be in it. When last we left Stoddard, he was finishing up his third season as an owner on NASCAR's Sprint Cup series last fall and was not sure he'd be back for a fourth. During the off-season he joined forces with St. Hilaire, who ran the Go Green Racing team, and, coupled with Stoddard's FAS Lane Racing, they created Go FAS Racing.

They combined crews, each brought some equipment to the party and pooled other resources, too.

Early on Thursday night, Stoddard - who put 800 miles on his snowmobile with his wife, Heidi, early this month on a trip that took them from Pittsburg to Jackman, Maine, and back - was worried about getting into the Daytona 500 leading into that night's Duels, the 150-lap qualifiers for today's race.

"We're on pins and needles," he said. "We're not locked into the 500. If we don't get in, things aren't looking as healthy." Terry Labonte did get into the race and starts in a decent spot today, in the 24th position. But things got a little dicey before they got better. "With two laps to go in the second race, we were going home," Stoddard said. "It was over."

Labonte was running just a spot out of qualifying. Then Casey Mears ran out of gas and Go FAS Racing had the spot it needed to get into the field for Sunday. Then came a big wreck at the very end of the race, allowing Labonte to move up in the field. "It was a little too stressful," Stoddard said.

But they're in and now will try to match, perhaps even improve on, Labonte's 15th place finish in Stoddard's first year as an owner in 2011 and get the season jump-started. Labonte finished 18th in 2012 and 26th last year.

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It's a year of change for Stoddard as he takes on a partner and he and the team have signed up Travis Kvapil, a 37-year-old veteran out of Wisconsin, to drive the bulk of the Cup races.

In years past, Stoddard has generally used an assortment of drivers during a season. Stoddard's changes are minor, though, compared to what is going on with NASCAR and the series overall.

Late last month, president Brian France announced sweeping changes to the way the series conducts its qualifying for races on a weekly basis and the way drivers not only qualify for the Chase to the Sprint Cup championship but what happens when they get there. Gappens likes it all.

"NASCAR stepped up and changed things up with qualifying and with the Chase," Gappens said from Daytona. "Those moves are bold and I applaud them for doing them. I think we did need to change things up a bit and renew some interest for fans and attract some younger fans and create more appeal to casual fans."

Weekly qualifying at sites other than Daytona will feature a knockout round of group qualifying. At tracks shorter than 1.25 miles, such as the one-mile NHMS, cars will go out together for 30 minutes and the 12 fastest, based on the driver's quickest lap, will advance to a 10-minute round that determines the pole winner.

The system does away with drivers going out one after the other for two laps of qualifying.

"As a track promoter, I knew we needed to do something for Friday and pole day, to revive it a bit and get people to come and see it," Gappens said.

Now a Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson fan, he noted, will perhaps get to watch their driver for 40 minutes rather than two. There are a couple of major changes to the Chase format. First, there will be 16 positions available in the Chase compared to 12 in the past. A driver who wins one of the 26 pre-Chase races qualifies for the Chase, as long as they are in the top 30 in points.

"I think you'll see harder racing during the first 26 races," Gappens said. "Instead of a driver settling and figuring maybe they'll take fifth place points today, they may risk going for a win. I think it will bring some more aggressive driving."

The Chase itself will become a series of elimination rounds. Four of the 16 races will be knocked out after the first three races of the Chase, four more after the next three races and four more after the next three.

That will leave four drivers to compete for the Championship at Homestead in the final Sprint Cup race of the season. The driver who finishes best in the race will be the Cup champion.

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NHMS will again host two Cup races: The Camping World RV Sales 301 is scheduled for July 13 and the Osram Sylvania 300 is set for Sept. 21. ... After a couple of years away, the Camping World Truck Series returns to the track with the UNOH 175 on Saturday, Sept. 20.

alessels@unionleader.com On Twitter: @AllenLessels


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