MILWAUKEE – First came soft walls, and now NASCAR has soft bumpers, too.

The first innovation – the crushable steel and foam system developed at the University of Nebraska – has been universally hailed as a tool that has saved more lives and minimized more driver injuries than anyone cares to contemplate.

The second – a reduction in the amount of bracing and the size of tubing allowed at the front of the cars – remains an unknown.

The development was spurred by complaints that drivers were using the noses of their cars as battering rams and creating unnecessary danger on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series’ longest and fastest tracks.

The Aaron’s 499 on Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway will be the first real test of whether less reinforcement will mean the drivers use their bumpers less and their heads more. So far, the only thing they’ve done is generate a wide variety of opinions.

“At least NASCAR is trying something for this event,” said reigning champion Tony Stewart, who led the charge for change in February with his dire but ultimately incorrect prediction that someone would be killed by the end of the Daytona 500.

“We’ll see how it works out.”

By limiting the amount of bracing and size of tubing in the front of cars, NASCAR hoped to create a consequence to bump-drafting. Too much puts both the radiator and the aerodynamics of a driver’s car in peril.

“People are gonna forget that they don’t have the cow-catchers in the front end,” veteran Mark Martin said Friday.

Most drivers agree that the softer bumpers can’t hurt, but few believe they’re soft enough to radically change the way people race at Talladega and at Daytona International Speedway.

“You’ll still be able to bump-draft and do the things you’ve always done,” 2003 champion Matt Kenseth said, adding that the change was just enough. “You’re not gonna be able to pile-drive somebody, which you shouldn’t be doing that to start with, so I don’t think it’s gonna be a big deal.”

Still others question whether the bumper addresses the real issues.

Daytona 500 runner-up Casey Mears is a fan of bump-drafting. In his mind, it’s fun and hardly ever a problem.

“Nine times out of 10, if you review the tapes the big (accident) is caused by blocking,” Mears said. “You could almost take the bumpers off these cars. If someone pulls down to block your run, they cause the incidents.”

Other problems are drivers making aggressive moves while side-by-side and hitting each other nose-to-tail while going through the corners at nearly 190 mph. NASCAR addressed both before the season opener in February and warned drivers that they’d be penalized.

While the threats may have been effective, they’ll never have the same sort of teeth as driver-to-driver intimidation or a good old-fashioned, butt-whipping, said veteran Jeff Burton.

The influx of corporate sponsors and television cameras has made dispensing such garage-area justice impossible. That’s put the sanctioning body in the difficult position of trying to determine a driver’s intent and dole out a proper penalty.

“They are going to have to start doing more than putting a guy to the tail end of the longest line, because that’s not a penalty at Talladega,” Burton said. “They’re going to have to put him down two laps or something to ever get the point across.

“It’s in the driver’s hands. Drivers need to decide that we can do it the right way and it’s no problem, or we can do it the wrong way and open up Pandora’s Box.”

Bump-drafting has become standard practice because the aerodynamics of the current Cup car tend to create large packs of cars all traveling at the same speed.

A driver can’t pass on his own, but the combined force of two cars working together with a draft and a bump is enough to break the logjam.

“Once you get a run, right before you get to the guy, you sort of come off the gas and you get the bumpers (together) and then you put the throttle back down,” said five-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Once you’re in the slipstream of the draft, you’re able to actually push the guy along all the way down the straightaway.

“If you do it right, the person that’s on the receiving end is appreciative of the help.”

Regardless of what happens throughout the event, whether the softer bumpers significantly affect the way people drive, one thing won’t change, predicted four-time series champion and defending race-winner Jeff Gordon.

“Of course, it’s not going to do anything for the last lap,” said Gordon, who has scored 10 of his 73 victories at Daytona and Talladega.

“On the last lap, guys are going to say, “Hey, I don’t need water in the engine anymore. I don’t care if it overheats.”‘

(c) 2006, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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AP-NY-04-29-06 1846EDT