Two Out Of Three Aint Bad

There’s nothing wrong with stock car racing a quick trip to Atlanta in the spring can’t solve. In 2000 the rap after the first few races of the season was Winston Cup racing had become “boring.” That spring at Atlanta Dale Earnhardt held off Bobby Labonte by inches in a preview of their season long title bout. In 2001 the stock car community was still reeling from the loss of Dale Earnhardt, when Kevin Harvick, driving the Intimidator’s car, held off Jeff Gordon by inches to put a smile back on our faces if admittedly a few tears in our eyes as well.

This year’s first three races have been marred by controversy, but there was no real point of dispute with the officiating at Atlanta today. If Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Junior didn’t race side by side to the line, they were in close contact those last handful of laps and the crowd both at the track and at home on the couch roared its lusty approval. What’s more, Matt Kenseth’s Ford, Dale Earnhardt Junior’s Chevy, Ward Burton’s Dodge and Tony Stewart’s Pontiac all took protracted stints at the front of the pack. Aero issues? What aero issues? There’s nothing so out of kilter a little banking in the corners can’t cure. No, it wasn’t a photo finish, but as our old friend Mr. Meatloaf once advised us, two out of three ain’t bad.

Tony Stewart was a favorite pick for this year’s title in pre-season predictions but his 2002 campaign got off to a horrid start with his 43rd place finish at Daytona. Stewart rebounded with top five finishes at Rockingham and Vegas, and his win today at Atlanta. During his brief but stellar career in Winston Cup Stewart has always run great late in the season, but to this point he’s buried himself so far down in the points each previous year that he couldn’t overcome the deficit. But now four races into the 2002 season Stewart sits fifth in points only 101 markers behind points leader Sterling Marlin and clearly on a roll.

Prior to today Dale Earnhardt Junior’s best finish this season was 16th last week at Las Vegas. He rebounded nicely with a hard fought second place finish this afternoon, though he never could get a nose alongside Stewart as the laps wound down. Second was by far Junior’s best ever finish at the track, though he’s run competitively here before. And Dale’s title chances aren’t completely eliminated yet either. He’s got 32 races to make up the 189 points he lags behind Marlin. For those into numerology the second place finisher at the last two Atlanta spring races has gone on to win the championship.

Jimmie Johnson had his best career Winston Cup finish today with a third place result. His season to date has been remarkable, but next week’s race is going to serve as a major challenge. Darlington doesn’t suffer rookies lightly.

At times this afternoon Matt Kenseth seemed headed for his second victory of this season. For most of the day his pit crew was once again flawless, but there were problems changing the left front tire during the pit stops following the sixth caution period that sent Kenseth back to 18th place, the last car on the lead lap. Kenseth fought and clawed his way back to fourth today on this, his 30th birthday. I wouldn’t expect Kenseth is too upset by that one bad pit stop this season. After all he’s back running at the front at least contending for wins after his terrible 2001 season.

Ricky Craven is having a career year to date and scored his second top 5 finish of the season today. Last year Craven had four top 10s all year, and this year he’s batting .500 on top 10s. But his pit crew is going to need to rise to the occasion if Craven is to score another victory.

Rusty Wallace’s struggles in qualifying this year are one of the sport’s most inexplicable mysteries. He’s needed three provisionals just to make races this year. As recently as 2000 Wallace was the most prolific Winston Cup pole winner with nine Bud Pole awards. Wallace managed to storm his way forward to a sixth place result, his best of the season, but has to be wondering if he could have been a contender had he not used his car up during that long march to the front.

Ward Burton and his crew chief Tommy Baldwin have always been gamblers. The decision today to take on two tires rather than four late to gain track position was a worthwhile roll of the dice, though it didn’t work out as planned. A few more caution periods late in the race and Ward might have another trophy to bookend his Daytona 500 hardware.

Mark Martin never contended for the win, but quietly scored another top 10 finish his third top 10 in fours races this season. It looks like whatever ailed the Roush boys in 2001 has been cured.

Sterling Marlin failed to lead a lap today, the only Winston Cup event he hasn’t led this season. He’s a perfect four for four as far as top 10s, and today’s ninth place result was actually his worst finish of the season. He remains atop the points standings for the third straight week even at this volatile time of the season.

Ryan Newman came out of the gate hard today, passing pole-sitter Bill Elliott for the lead on the very first lap. If someone had tried to convince me prior to this season a rookie would be in second place in the points standings even after only four races, I’d have wondered what he was smoking, but that’s where Newman finds himself currently.

And for long time fans, there was another dash of good news with two Petty Engineering drivers, Buckshot Jones and Kyle Petty, both posting top 15 finishes today with help from those stout Egge engines.

While we won’t have the controversy of the week to debate endlessly this week, that doesn’t mean that NASCAR can afford to get complacent. The pit road incident that saw Jimmy Spencer spin Bobby Labonte’s Pontiac didn’t injure anyone, but that’s thanks to the remarkable coordination and head’s up alertness of a NASCAR official and a crew member of the 18 team. Pit road safety needs to be addressed and addressed quickly before tragedy strikes. The new pit road speeding violation rules announced today were a good start as drivers try to gain every millisecond they can get away with on pit road due to the ultra-competitive nature of the sport today.

It’s easy to get oneself all worked up into a tizzy over the controversies that sometimes plague this sport. I’m guilty of it myself time to time. (OK, perhaps a little more frequently than that.) But even if today’s race wasn’t quite as exciting as the last two spring Atlanta races, it certainly served as a reminder of why we all love this sport. When everything goes right at a track properly designed for today’s Winston Cup cars, it can be a ton of fun to watch and you can holler your throat raw cheering for your favorite drivers. And for those who just have to have a finish measured in inches, tune in the Speed Channel’s tape delayed coverage of Saturday’s rain shortened ARCA event Monday night. That race was decided by .001 seconds, and some people still aren’t sure whom rightfully won.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2000

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