What A Short Strange Trip Its Been

While it’s only six races into the Winston Cup schedule already this season there’s been more surprises than Mr. Dunkin has donuts. The season started off with a rash of controversy, particularly at Daytona, about calls from the NASCAR tower but while the officiating has settled down to a degree, there’s still surprises aplenty in the Winston Cup garage.

Not all surprises have to be unpleasant. Few people would have guessed Sterling Marlin would be solidly in the points lead and the only multi-race winner 1/6th of the way into the season. A colleague who I consider one of the best in the business wrote a pre-season column noting that once Winston Cup drivers hit their mid 40s they find wins hard to come by. Historically that’s been the case even for great ones like the late Dale Earnhardt. But Marlin will be 45 this year and not only has he won two races he was solidly in contention to win another two or possibly three. And as far as points, this is easily Marlin’s best start to the season in his entire Winston Cup career which dates back to 1976. Making his points lead that much more amazing are the fact this is only Dodges second year in their Winston Cup return (Dodges have won half the races run to date) and Marlin drives for Chip Ganassi, who took over the once laughable Felix Sabates organization at the beginning of 2001. While he’s a newcomer to NASCAR those who follow CART know Ganassi is no stranger to championship celebrations.

If old age is getting the job done this year, youth is also being served. Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman are both solidly in the top 10 in points, and Newman had been as high as second in the standings prior to Bristol where he was collected in a wreck not of his own making. While both Johnson and Newman drive for well-established and funded teams, combined they have outscored their mentors 3-0 as far as top five finishes.

Statistically speaking the powerhouse team this season is Roush Racing. All four Roush drivers are currently in the top ten in points; Matt Kenseth (2nd), Kurt Busch (5th) Mark Martin (8th) and Jeff Burton (9th). That’s a major surprise considering the struggles Roush Racing had last season, particularly early in the year. Even in Daytona pre-season practice they appeared to be struggling still. It’s a somewhat more minor surprise that Kenseth and Busch are ahead of Martin and Burton in the points and that the 17 and 97 outfits have scored victories while the 6 and 99, Jack’s franchise teams, have not.

Of course not all surprises are pleasant either. K-Mart’s surprise announcement they were dropping sponsorship on both Travis Carter’s cars only weeks after saying publicly they would honor their contract was one such unpleasant surprise. As a result the 66 team is now dormant and it’s not known if the 26 team will be making the trip to Texas. While I expected some Busch and Truck fields might not be filled this season admittedly I’m surprised NASCAR is asking some rolling chicane teams to add races to their schedules just to fill the fields at Cup events this early in the season.

Of course the most surprising news out of the Jeff Gordon camp involves an off-track matter, but the less said about that to the better. Whether that domestic discord is affecting Jeff’s ability to concentrate on the business at hand this season or not is a question only Gordon can answer and he swears that’s not the case. But the fact remains while he’s had some strong runs in 2002 Gordon hasn’t been able to finish the job. He’s in the longest winless drought of his career since winning his first Cup race and just hanging onto to 10th place in the standings. At Bristol, a track where he’s won four times, Gordon spun himself out for no apparent reason. It seems the bad luck that once avoided Jeff as if he had a legion of guardian angels has finally found him and the odds are catching up with Gordon. With thirty races remaining can Jeff still rally back to claim another title? Certainly, but he’s dug himself a 192 point hole he needs to crawl out of. That means Sterling Marlin could not attend the upcoming Texas race and even if Gordon won the race and led the most laps he could not wrest the front runner spot from Sterling.

Richard Childress Racing is also off to a miserable start to the season. So far Kevin Harvick is the only RCR driver to score a top ten finish. He has two top 10s and a single top five and currently resides 20th in the points. If it’s any comfort that’s six and nine positions ahead of his teammates Robby Gordon and Jeff Green respectively. While both Gordon and Green have had some strong runs they just can’t finish the deal, and mechanical DNFs have plagued all three RCR teams. Not unexpectedly Gordon has been involved in more than his fair share of spins and wrecks and he capped off his terrible start to the season with his loathsome conduct on pit road after the Bristol race ended.

Nor is the Robert Yates outfit off to too fine a start. Like RCR, Robert’s teams have combined for two top ten and one top five finish. Also like RCR mechanical gremlins have been a bane thus far in 2002.

I think most race fans were shocked when Tony Stewart finished 43rd at Daytona whether they like him or not. It was somewhat less surprising that Stewart rebounded quickly, and while known as a slow starter each season to date, Stewart already managed a win at Atlanta. In my pre-season predictions I guessed that if Stewart could average a 12th place or better finish in the first eight races of the year he would be champion. To date Stewart is averaging an 18th place finish in the first six races. (Slightly better than the 19.67th place finish he averaged to date in the first six races last year.) On the downside Stewart suffered painful back injuries last weekend at Darlington and had to use a relief driver at Bristol. On the plus side he now has two weeks to continue healing up and as wacky as things have been this season, a 12th place average in the first eight races might not be necessary after all.

As far as pole-sitters, it wasn’t unexpected that Jeff Gordon would claim a pole at Bristol. What was unexpected is that Ricky Craven would be the only multi-time pole winner to date in 2002, and the other pole winners would include Todd Bodine (whose team is no longer operating) rookie Jimmy Johnson and Bill Elliott, who prior to last year hadn’t won a pole since 1997. But sitting on the pole hasn’t been much of a help during races this year despite conventional wisdom. Only Ricky Craven has parlayed a pole into a top 5 finish (5th at Rockingham) and pole-sitters are averaging around a 26th place finish in 2002. (Cravens 41st place result at Darlington is dropping that average.) Meanwhile Marlin and Kenseth have won races after starting shotgun on the field. Rusty Wallace, once NASCAR’s most prolific pole winner, has used three provisionals in six races as has Terry Labonte. Both Wallace and Labonte are previous Winston Cup champions. Mark Martin has also needed a pair of provisionals to make the race. By contrast Shawna Robinson has only needed one provisional to get into the three races she’s made this season. Even a provisional starting spot isn’t the kiss of doom it usually is this season. Seven top tens have been scored in six races by drivers who needed a NASCAR handout to make the race. Elliott Sadler finished second at Daytona after starting 41st. (And recall Marlin is credited with an 11th place starting position at Darlington, but actually started 41st because of an engine change. He went on to win the race. Ryan Newman who actually started 42nd finished fifth in the same event.)

Add in the “spoiler rule of the day” changes at Daytona, the inconsistent red flag calls at the end of races, some WWF moments, a “no call” on a pit road penalty, Marlin’s odd decision to hop out of the car at Daytona, two car deemed to be illegal but allowed to keep wins,and even a pace car that wouldn’t start and had to be towed, and there’s been no shortage of controversy for the fans to debate in 2002. And with thirty races yet left to run, there’s no way to predict how many more surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant, lay ahead in 2002.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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