The Points Race Is On

You always hear the phrase, “If those guys have trouble …” when a driver talks about chasing down the NASCAR Winston Cup points leader.

Sunday at Sears Point – oops, that’s $1 to the kitty – Infineon Raceway, that phrase took on a whole new meaning. “Those guys” including points leader Sterling Marlin, runners-up Jeff Gordon AND Jimmie Johnson and fifth-place Matt Kenseth.

Right when you thought you had this Winston Cup points thing figured out, you get thrown a curve. Appropriate, for Sears – darn it, $2 – Infineon is a track full of curves.

Just for fun, let’s go to the points standings before Sunday. They don’t look much like the points standings today (or at least Monday, when the points become official. Not sure why it takes a day – and a trip across the country – to “officialize” the points standings. Maybe the calculators are better in Daytona Beach, Fla.)

Marlin led Gordon and Johnson by 110 points. Mark Martin was in fourth, 174 behind. Kenseth was fifth, 190 out of the lead. The rest of the Top 10 was Rusty Wallace (minus-192), Tony Stewart (minus-229), Ricky Rudd (minus-294), Kurt Busch (minus-326) and Bill Elliott (minus-339).

Got all that? Good. It’s all changed now.

Marlin was the hard-luck loser Sunday when a rock flew up into his engine compartment and knocked off the water-pump belt. That belt also powers the power-steering pump, and Marlin thought only the power steering pump stopped working. But when Marlin stayed out for a few laps, the engine cooked because the water pump was busted, too.

The points advantage went to Gordon, who was cruising a long in the lead. But suddenly, Gordon was coasting along, his rear-end gear broken. Repairs were made, but you aren’t going to make up seven laps at Infineon (ha! Not this time).

Later, Johnson – who wasn’t having the greatest of days anyway – slowed with (what else?) rear-end gear troubles. And Kenseth had to fix a broken rear-end gear, too.

So with those four guys finishing 43rd (Marlin), 37th (Gordon), 35th (Johnson) and 39th (Kenseth), the points standings became pretty jumbled.

Marlin still leads, but he lost 48 points and now leads Martin by 62.

“You hate to see anybody have trouble, but you have to take the good with the bad in the points race,” Marlin said. “We’ve been due to have a little bad luck. We had it (Sunday), so maybe it’s over with. We’ll start back from square one when we get back to Daytona. We had a pretty good lead over everybody except Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. … We’ll take this beating and keep on ticking.”

Gordon “dropped” – he was tied for second, but Johnson held the tiebreaker advantage – to third but gained on Marlin, trailing by 82 points.

“In a day where it could have been really horrible, some other guys had troubles, so we were able to not lose as much as we thought we were going to,” Gordon said.

Johnson fell two spots to fourth, but he, too, gained ground on Marlin. Johns in is 86 points behind Marlin and four behind Gordon.

“Everything was turning out fine,” Johnson said. “We were probably overly cautious throughout most of the day, but that seemed to be the thing that I needed to do. The 24 had troubles, and the 40, and there at the end we broke the rear-end gear like the 24, Jerry Nadeau broke the rear-end gear – there were a lot of people that had the same problems. I don’t think I was overly abusive all day long, but something’s going on there with the rear-end gears that are breaking.

“We thought we could take advantage of everybody else having a bad day, but we had one too.”

Stewart was the big gainer, moving up two spots to fifth, only 88 points out of the lead and 26 points out of second.

“Hopefully it will give us our second wind,” Stewart said. “We’ve been behind and we’ve not been running the way that we wanted to run. But these guys never quit working, trying to get us where we needed to be. Hopefully, it does give us new life right now.”

While Stewart gained the most spots, Kenseth fell the farthest. He moved into fifth after winning last week at Michigan, but the busted rear-end gear dropped him to eighth. Still, at 178 points behind, he’s far from being out of contention.

“No matter how they run it’s just disappointing,” Kenseth said of his championship contenders. “I felt like we had a car to get a top-five finish, and that would have been really awesome for a road course. I felt like we had a good car. We could pretty much run the same times as the leader, but we fell out of it and finished almost last. It’s disappointing whenever you break parts, especially when you break that early, and it gets you so far behind.”

Rudd was pretty far behind a few races ago, yet here he is, in contention in seventh, only 148 out of the lead (Rusty Wallace is plugging away in sixth, 144 behind Marlin).

“Yeah, the points deal, we never counted ourselves out,” Rudd said. “We knew what the situation was and kept watching where the lead was. That 300-point gap is not a big gap this part of the season. I know we kept talking championship all along, and nobody probably took us very seriously when we were 10th in the points, but we looked at the math.

“Steve Post, our PR guy, he looked at it coming into this weekend’s race. If we had just finished the last 60 laps at Richmond, the last 10 at Dover and the last five at Pocono – even if we had run second on those days – we would have only been 45 points behind Sterling coming into this weekend’s race, so we’ve been kind of silently back there plugging away. Yes, we woulda, shoulda, coulda won two or three races by now, but when you have misfortune you just have to keep plugging away.”

Let’s review: Marlin leads Martin by 62, Gordon by 82, Johnson by 86, Stewart by 88, Wallace by 144, Rudd by 148, Kenseth by 178, Kurt Busch by 195 and Bill Elliott by 226. All 10 would seem to have a chance at the title, as do 11th-place Dale Jarrett (277 out) and 12th-place Jeff Burton (313 behind).

So who’s going to win it all? My money’s on Gordon. Or maybe Stewart. Marlin would be a good bet, too. And, yeah, don’t forget about Rudd. Or even Kenseth.

Dude, it’s way too early yet. Let’s just enjoy it.

“I think this is a pretty unusual situation to get to this point in the season and have so many guys knocking on the door with a legitimate shot at the championship,” Rudd said. “I don’t know how to read this year. I would have thought by now that there would have been some distance put in between guys. Instead, it seems like it’s heating up. I’ve never ever experienced this many guys running this close to a points championship. If you’re 300 points behind right now, that’s not too far out of it. When we arrive at the halfway point, that is not a big deficit.

“Now we’re talking 148 between the Top 7. It’s gonna be interesting.”

Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at lee.montgomery@rmg3.com

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