The Winston 500 today will be the last of four restrictor-plate races this season.

Most race fans know that the plates are required by NASCAR in Daytona and Talladega to slow the Winston Cup cars down. But many don't fully understand what the perforated metal plates actually do.

Affixed to the top of the carburetor, the plate reduces the amount of air intake by nearly 30 percent, which translates into a loss of about 340 horsepower from what are normally 750-horsepower engines.

"To understand how much horsepower engines lose to restrictor plates, imagine drinking a thick milkshake through a one-quarter-inch diameter straw," explained Peter Guild, owner of Pro Motor Engineering, which builds engines for several Winston Cup teams.

"With a straw that size, the milkshake comes up fairly easily. But when the diameter of the straw is reduced to about half that size, you must draw a lot harder, and you still won't get as much milkshake."

Since restrictor plates decrease the amount of horsepower, engine builders find other ways to produce it.

Guild said the focus has turned to engine weight, with the restrictor-plate engines about six pounds lighter than the nonrestricted versions.

"In plate engines, we try to make the internal rotating and reciprocating parts of the engine, such as the crankshaft, pistons, piston pins and connecting rods, as freely moving as they can be," said Guild, a 25-year engine-building veteran. "Horsepower is lost when mechanical parts rotate, so the heavier the parts, the more horsepower is sacrificed."

Freer, lighter engine parts produce extra power and, as Guild said, "Every little bit counts."

Good Eye Dale Earnhardt is so masterful in traffic on the big tracks at Talladega and Daytona that some people believe he can see the air in the draft.

So far this season, the seven-time series champion has finished second in the Daytona 500 in February, won the DieHard 500 in Talladega in April and was sixth in the Pepsi 400 in July.

Earnhardt, 48, laughs at the suggestion that he sees things that others don't in making his way through the high-speed traffic jams on those ovals.

"I learned to drive on these super-speedways from guys like Buddy Baker, David Pearson and Bobby Allison," he said. "I really watched Buddy Baker catch me, then blow right by me in 1980 to win the race.

"It took me a little while to figure out exactly what he did, and I went over to him and told him what I saw. He laughed and told me I was pretty quick to figure it out. I'd tell you what it was, but then again maybe everyone out there should just figure it out on their own like I had to."

Not in the Bag It's no wonder that Dale Jarrett doesn't feel secure in the Winston Cup championship race despite holding a 222-point lead with five races remaining.

Runner-up Bobby Labonte and third-place Mark Martin, trailing by 262, remain in the picture. Fourth-place Jeff Gordon also has a mathematical shot, although it's a real long shot at 396 points back.

In 1995, Gordon led Earnhardt by 302 points with four races remaining. After Gordon experienced trouble in Charlotte and Rockingham, Earnhardt had the deficit down to 162.

He finished third in Phoenix, while Gordon came in fifth, and it came down to the finale in Atlanta. Earnhardt had to lead the most laps and win the race, which he did.

Gordon finished 32nd in the race and Earnhardt ended up just 34 points short of another title.

Bonus Money Three of five Roush Racing drivers will be going for a $1 million bonus today in the Winston 500.

Jeff Burton, who has won the bonus twice this season, will be joined by teammates Mark Martin and Kevin Lepage, as well as brother Ward Burton and Jeremy Mayfield in the drive for the big bucks offered by series sponsor Winston.

The five drivers became eligible for the bonus by finishing in the top five last month in the Southern 500, the fourth of five bonus races this season.

Stat of the Week After Gordon's wins in the last two events, he and Rusty Wallace are tied for 10th on the career Winston Cup victory list with 49. It took Wallace 465 races to reach that total, while Gordon has run in just 218.

NASCAR

Winston Cup

Upcoming event: Winston 500, Talladega, Ala., Today

Points Leaders

1. Dale Jarrett 4,427

2. Bobby Labonte 4,205

3. Mark Martin 4,165

4. Jeff Gordon 4,031

5. Tony Stewart 4,004

6. Jeff Burton 3,921

7. Dale Earnhardt 3,859

8. Rusty Wallace 3,542

9. Mike Skinner 3,362

10. Ward Burton 3,347

Money Leaders

1. Jeff Gordon $4,946,491

2. Jeff Burton $4,725,226

3. Dale Jarrett $3,184,569

4. Bobby Labonte $2,906,166

5. Dale Earnhardt $2,377,549

6. Mark Martin $2,356,486

7. Terry Labonte $2,059,851

8. Tony Stewart $2,006,936

9. Mike Skinner $1,947,476

10. Rusty Wallace $1,898,474

-- Through the UAW/GM Quality 500, Oct. 11

Busch Grand National

Upcoming event: Rockingham (N.C.) 200, Saturday

Points Leaders

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3,988

2. Matt Kenseth 3,871

3. Jeff Green 3,732

4. Todd Bodine 3,489

5. Elton Sawyer 3,363

6. Jeff Purvis 3,321

7. Jason Keller 3,186

8. Dave Blaney 3,066

9. Randy LaJoie 3,021

10. Mike McLaughlin 2,999

-- Through All Pro 300, Oct. 9