Wallace Others Point At Jarrett

FONTANA, Calif. – Just about the time race fans were starting to give up hope of seeing a wide array of drivers being able to contend with Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon for this year’s NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship, it’s gotten pretty heated once again.

With his victory Sunday afternoon in the NAPA Auto Parts 500 from the California Speedway, Rusty Wallace has moved back into the title picture, jumping from sixth to fourth in the point standings after 10 of 36 races.

While there wasn’t a whole lot of drama until the closing stages of Sunday’s race, with Wallace trying to hold off Gordon for the victory, the early positioning of the points race was tightened up quite a bit in the aftermath of the fifth Winston Cup race at the Southern California track.

“I drove a good, clean and smart race,” said Wallace, the 1989 Winston Cup champion. “I brought the car home in good shape and we were able to gain a lot of points. I’m happy with the effort.”

Jarrett, the current Winston Cup points leader, was on the opposite end of the spectrum Sunday when he dropped a cylinder late in the race and struggled home to a 24th-place finish.

“It was one of those days you hope you don’t come across, but you do,” Jarrett said. “We dropped a cylinder and it was a case of nothing we did really went right. The good thing about it is the engine stayed together enough to finish. We were fortunate the car didn’t quit and we were able to salvage as much as we could.”

Which, with Gordon’s second-place finish Sunday, wasn’t a lot.

Heading to the next Winston Cup race Saturday night at Richmond, Jarrett will carry a 66-point advantage over Gordon, with Johnny Benson 111 points behind in third and Wallace fourth.

Feasibly, any of the three drivers behind Jarrett could walk out of Richmond with the Winston Cup points lead.

“It was a good points day for us,” said Gordon, a three-time champion. “It was good to come home second.”

Benson continues to impress, like he did Sunday by leading 12 laps before finishing 11th. Not long ago, after being released by team owner Jack Roush, Benson’s future was shaky to say the least. Now, he’s beating the Roush regulars on a regular basis, which has allowed him his first true venture into Winston Cup points racing.

Sterling Marlin is another driver having a quiet season rewarded as he is fifth in the points race, 150 behind Jarrett. While he finished ninth at California to lead all other Dodge teams, Marlin was disappointed he wasn’t able to gain more ground.

“This was the first race this year we didn’t lead a lap, and it was bound to happen sometime,” Marlin said. “We gained some points on some guys and lost a few to some others. We got another Top 10 and we’ll just keep plugging along. We’ve got a lot of racing left, so we’re not going to get too excited one way or another just yet.”

Following Sunday’s race, positions five through 10 in the points race moved within 300 points of Jarrett, those being, in order, Benson, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Hamilton, Steve Park, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. None of those drivers have ever won a Winston Cup championship.

Stewart, who finished fourth at California, is slowly and methodically way moving his way upwards in the title fight.

“It’s about that time of year again,” joked the third-year driver who has a reputation for getting off to a slow start. “This was a real big day for us. It really makes me look forward to Richmond.”

If you want to dig a little deeper, don’t count out Stewart’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte, who spun out twice coming off the fourth turn at California but still managed to finish on the lead lap in 22nd.

Labonte is 15th, 373 points behind Jarrett.

But you couldn’t have given Labonte, the pole winner for the race, much comfort in that fact.

“It was good for one lap,” Labonte said in reference to his qualifying effort. “It wasn’t good for many laps, but it was good for one. I guess that’s the way it is.”

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