The Gruesome Foursome

FORT WORTH – Four of the top-eight drivers in last year’s NASCAR Winston Cup Series points race are doing very badly this season… very badly.

And it’s not just that their individual team is struggling, either. They each have a teammate – or two – who can’t seem to get it together, either.

The Roush Racing duo of Jeff Burton and Mark Martin, and the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, are caught in a funk they just can’t seem to shake.

It’s the strangest thing, without question, that’s taken place so far this year… and that includes some pretty strange stuff (Michael Waltrip wins the Daytona 500? Are you kidding? Elliott Sadler wins at Bristol? A rookie wins at Atlanta? Etc.)

Labonte is the defending Winston Cup champion, but after seven races in 2001 he sits 25th in points. His teammate, Stewart, is in the best shape of all four with the 17th position.

Burton, third to Labonte in last year’s title fight, is in the worst shape as he’s 35th in points, with Martin not all that far ahead in 22nd.

Last year, the four drivers combined to win 14 of 34 races. But this year, not one has scored a victory, and they seem to be doing all they can just to finish in the Top 10 every other week or so.

Of the four, Martin took home the top honors on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway with a ninth-place finish. His Roush teammate ended up two laps off the pace in 19th.

It was much the same story at Texas for the Gibbs’ gang, with Stewart three laps down in 23rd, and Labonte blowing a motor and finishing 42nd.

The biggest surprise has been Labonte, who finished no worse than 26th all of last year en route to his first championship. Labonte had a strong car Sunday, leading a little before the engine in his No. 18 Pontiac expired just before the halfway point.

“We broke something in the motor, probably a connecting rod or something like that,” Labonte said. “The oil pan has got dents in it from the inside, so something
let go down there. We had a decent run going, or at least better than we’ve been.”

Stewart wasn’t a happy camper after the race, which was evident by a conversation between he had with crew chief Greg Zipadelli after he was lapped by race winner Dale Jarrett only 123 laps into the 334-lap race.

“Are we even 100 laps into this race yet?” Stewart asked.

Painfully answering his driver’s question, Stewart was informed there were still about 350 miles of racing ahead of him.

Following the race, Stewart was less than pleased with his effort at Texas.

“We couldn't find any grip all weekend,” Stewart said. “Every time someone got up alongside of me, whether they were on the inside or on the outside, my car just felt unpredictable – especially on restarts. It was beyond frustrating.”

As far as the Roush camp goes, things aren’t a whole lot better, in fact, they’re worse, leaving team owner Jack Roush shaking his head in disbelief over what he felt was a strong 1-2 championship punch heading into 2001.

Burton finished third in last year’s points race, but now is 521 points out of the lead with little to no hope of making up the lost ground. He left the track Sunday without comment.

“Jeff is struggling,” Roush said. “He's just having trouble.”

That may be the understatement of the year.

Martin’s ninth-place finish was only his second Top 10 of the season. Imagine Mark Martin being thrilled about a ninth-place run.

“We just hung around all day,” Martin said. “We didn't run good, but we ran good enough to hang onto the lead lap. We've got some more work to do, that's for sure, but at least we didn't have any bad luck. We missed a lot of stuff that was right on top of us. We've got areas that we need to work on, but it's better than Darlington. We'll keep digging.”

The problem for all four drivers is the fact they may have already dug a hole too deep to climb out of.

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