Icommentary:/I Midseason Report

What a season we’ve had. From the death of Dale Earnhardt to the victory of his son on Saturday, NASCAR Winston Cup racing in 2001 has been through myriad emotions.

FOX’s entrance into NASCAR as one of its two broadcasting partners was generally well received, and ratings soared as competition increased. There has been plenty of off-track activity, from the investigation into Earnhardt’s death to Tony Stewart’s post-race antics.

But on the track, there have been several drivers who have acquitted themselves as championship contenders, and many more who are clearly not ready to wear the title 2001 Winston Cup champion.

To save drivers with incompletes – for failing to make races, getting fired, etc. – from having to face their parents, I’ve decided only to grade most of those in the Top 25. I mean, come on, can you really give Dave Marcis or Carl Long a grade?

OK, here goes…

Grade: A
Jeff Gordon:
He’s leading the points standings, won three races, taken four poles and has returned to championship form. And Gordon has done it all without Ray Evernham, the guy who many said was the only reason Gordon was so successful.

But Robbie Loomis and Gordon, given a year to work together, have clicked. Gordon’s season included a stretch of seven races where he won twice, finished second three times and third once. Oh, yeah, he won The Winston in a back-up car – a testament to the team’s preparation.

Gordon leads Dale Jarrett by 48 points, and that margin could be bigger. Gordon has crashed twice – both at Daytona, and had a blown engine at Darlington. Could be a long year for the anti-Gordon fans.

Kevin Harvick: He’s a rookie, folks. Keep that in mind. He’s 16 races into his Winston Cup career, and he has one victory – beating Gordon at Atlanta – and six top-10 finishes.

Yes, Harvick inherited one of the top rides in NASCAR when he took over for Earnhardt at Rockingham. But he’s hardly driven or acted like a rookie. Harvick is supremely confident, and the daunting task of racing against the best drivers in the world hasn’t fazed him a bit.

He won’t win the Winston Cup title this year, but he could finish the season as the Cup Rookie of the Year and the Busch Series champion. Not a bad way to celebrate his 26th birthday, which happens Dec. 8.

Grade: A-
Dale Jarrett:
Three victories in the first eight races put Jarrett atop the Winston Cup points standings. One of the wins was at Martinsville, a Jarrett nemesis through the years, and one had to wonder if Jarrett was working on a charmed season.

Jarrett even kept the points lead through a three-race stretch where he finished 18th, 24th and 15th. But Gordon has been too strong, and Jarrett slipped to second after an 18th-place finish at Michigan.

Can Jarrett recapture his early season performance? He’ll have to to catch Gordon.

Ricky Rudd: Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored the top “feel-good” victory of the season in the Pepsi 400, but Rudd’s victory at Pocono wasn’t far behind. He snapped an 88-race winless streak that included several close calls.

Always one of the most liked drivers in the garage area, Rudd seems in his best position to win a championship in his career. He overcame some early-season struggles – he was 11th in points after Texas – to close with 76 of Gordon after Daytona.

Rudd has been amazingly consistent the past 10 races, finishing 14th or higher in every race – including the victory, two seconds, a fourth, a fifth and two sixths. If Rudd keeps running that well, Gordon will have his hands full.

Grade: B+
Sterling Marlin:
One of the pleasant surprises of the season, Marlin has clearly been the best Dodge. Chip Ganassi’s buyout of Felix Sabates’ team has turned around Marlin’s career, as Ganassi has equipped the team with whatever it needs to run well. A victory, which has come close this year, isn’t too far around the corner.

Rusty Wallace: Wallace is fifth in points and won at California, but he’s been un-Wallace-like. He’s been quiet. Usually a guy who wins a lot of poles and leads a lot of laps, Wallace has yet to start first this season and has led only six of the 17 races. He’s finishing, having dropped out of one race, but isn’t finishing great. He has four Top 5s, the lowest of anyone that high in the points standings.

Grade: B
Tony Stewart:
NASCAR’s bad boy has lived up to his reputation. He’s spun Gordon after the checkered flag, argued with NASCAR and generally frustrated most reporters. Stewart does have two victories and is fourth in the points, but you’d expect more from such a talent. More results, but less nonsense.

Johnny Benson: Benson was a big surprise when he finished 13th in points after starting the season with a single-car team. Benson and crew chief James Ince are one of the underrated teams in the garage area, and an initial Winston Cup victory can’t be too far away.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He’s endured an absolutely dreadful year off the track, with the death of his father and the constant public reminders. Somehow, Earnhardt Jr. has stayed focused enough to have some solid runs, like at California (third), Dover (third) and, of course, Daytona. Last year’s rookie-of-the-year runner-up could be one of the top drivers in the second half.

Grade: B-
Steve Park:
You keep expecting Earnhardt Jr.’s DEI teammate to have a breakout streak. He was one of the hottest drivers over the final third of the 2000 season, and opened 2001 with a victory and two seconds in the first seven races. Inconsistency has been a problem, and Park’s team appears to be the hardest hit by the elimination of bump-rubbers. He has five Top 5s and five finishes of 31st or worse.

Matt Kenseth: Roush Racing’s leading driver in 2001. But that isn’t saying much, considering how that superteam has struggled. Kenseth doesn’t have a Top 5 this year, but has only dropped out of one race.

Elliott Sadler: Another pleasant surprise. The Wood Brothers haven’t been consistent contenders for a long time, but Sadler drove their car to victory lane at Bristol. The union with Roush has appeared to work for Sadler, as he’s 16th in points – 16 spots ahead of where he was a year ago.

Bobby Hamilton: Kenny Wallace left Andy Petree Racing after the 2000 season. That was a big mistake, as Hamilton has had a solid season in the No. 55. He scored Petree’s first victory as a Winston Cup car owner at Talladega and was as high as fourth in the points until a recent dry spell. Like Sadler, Hamilton has finished every race.

Jimmy Spencer: The most outspoken driver in the garage, Spencer’s words ring more true when he runs well. He’s done that this year, finishing fourth at Darlington, seventh at California and ninth at Martinsville. Maybe the addition of teammate Todd Bodine has helped. Darrell Waltrip may have been a millstone in 2000.

Grade: C+
Ward Burton:
No one has sunk more in the standings than Burton. In a Pontiac last year, Burton was fourth in points after Daytona. In a Dodge this season, Burton is 18th. Bill Davis Racing’s development of the Dodge has hampered performance, but the team is hoping the work will pay off in the long run.

Bill Elliott: Elliott’s career was supposed to be rejuvenated by the move to Evernham Motorsports. Maybe that will happen, but it hasn’t yet. After winning the pole for the Daytona 500, Elliott has sunk like a lug nut in water, drifting all the way to 19th in points.

Grade: C
Jerry Nadeau:
Had momentum after winning the season-finale in Atlanta last year, but Nadeau hasn’t been able to carry it over. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon is making Nadeau and Terry Labonte look especially bad.

Ken Schrader Another guy with a better-performing teammate, Schrader doesn’t have a Top 5 in 2001. The pairing with Benson hasn’t seemed to benefit either driver a great deal just yet.

Grade: C-
Jeff Burton:
Easily the most disappointing driver of 2001. Many picked Burton as the Winston Cup champion, but Goodyear’s new tire threw the team for a loop. It’s time for excuses to end, and Burton will be the first to tell you he should have more than two top-five finishes.

Bobby Labonte: A distant second as the most disappointing driver. There seemed to be no reason why Labonte couldn’t repeat his performance from 2000, when he won his first Winston Cup title. But strong runs have been the exception as Labonte has had trouble adapting to the new tire, too.

Mark Martin: What’s happened to Roush Racing? There are Kenseth, Martin and Burton, together in the points standings. Too bad for them it’s 12th, 13th and 14th. Martin’s career really seems to be on the wane, as he’s dropped in points each of the past three years. Too late to turn it around? We’ll see. Viagra can’t be happy after spending eight figures to sponsor this team.

Grade: D+
Michael Waltrip:
As wonderful as the Daytona 500 was for Waltrip, the rest of the season was poor. He drifted all the way to 29th in the points after failing to finish higher than 13th after Daytona. He was second in the Pepsi 400, but that’s no signal his season is getting better. I mean, he won the Daytona 500 and then look what happened.

Grade: F
Terry Labonte:
A big mystery. Why isn’t he running better? Gordon is leading the points standings and Labonte has finished on the lead lap three times? Is it time to get someone else in this car?

Mike Skinner: His days are numbered at Richard Childress Racing. Pegged by many as a sure Winston Cup winner, Skinner is as far away from that as he ever was. Only one top-10 finish in 2001. Any bets as to who’s next in the No. 31?

Petty Enterprises: Richard Petty has to be embarrassed. His three-car effort has been dreadful. Despite understanding the difficulties in a manufacturer shift, the addition of a team and dealing with tragedy, the results can only be described as that… dreadful.

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