Third Times The Charm

Three weeks ago Matt Kenseth looked mildly bemused as reporters pestered him about his chances of overtaking Sterling Marlin to claim the championship. Matt noted it was early in the season, and there were a lot of things that could go right or wrong not just for Marlin and himself, but for all the drivers currently in contention for the championship. And things did indeed go wrong for the quiet young driver from Wisconsin. A blown tire and the subsequent wreck at Dover, one of Matt’s best tracks, left him with a 40th place result. A transmission failure at Pocono left Kenseth 35th in the final rundown. Matt tumbled to 7th in the standings and all of a sudden the throng of reporters surrounding him wanting a preview of his championship speech thinned out notably. Everyone ran off to talk to the “New Kid In Town” Jimmie Johnson, who worked his way up to second in the points on the strength of a pair of wins and a remarkable run of top 10 finishes.

But despite bad luck in two races the 17 team remained fundamentally strong. The gnomes in Jack Roush’s engine room turned up the heat during the off season that followed the disappointment of 2001. The 17 pit crew has been brilliant week in and week out. Matt is driving with a new measure of aggressiveness tempered by his trademark patience when it’s better to lay back and let the race come to him than to try to force the issue. Kenseth’s crew got him out first during the last sequence of green flag stops. Despite the red flag that flew soon thereafter, Kenseth was able to get a good enough restart to hold off some determined drivers on fresher tires hounding him those last three laps. The win was the third of Kenseth’s 2002 season, more than any other driver. (And three more than some very talented drivers picked by pre-season pundits as title contenders.) As a result he’s moved back up into fifth place in the points standings and with Sterling Marlin looking vulnerable after a string of lackluster runs, don’t count Kenseth out just yet.

Dale Jarrett gambled on four tires after the red flag, and charged his way past Ryan Newman to get to the tail end of the 17 car, but he simply didn’t have enough laps left to make the pass. Still after the way Jarrett’s season started, a second place finish in the wake of his Pocono win and a third straight top 5 finish is a pretty remarkable turnaround.

While leading the race Jarrett accidentally showed why no driver should ever intentionally allow another driver trapped a lap down back on the lead lap racing to the caution flag. DJ’s spotter apparently relayed information to Jarrett that the 48 was trying to get his lap back and because of spotty radio communication (is this perfect for the next Sprint commercial or what?) Jarrett thought it was his teammate in the 28 car that was trying to get a lap back, so he slowed. Not too many laps later, Johnson repaid the favor by passing Jarrett for position.

For Ryan Newman third may have felt like a victory. At least his engine lasted the duration this week, and he was a legitimate threat to take the win for most of the event. This was Newman’s second Winston Cup race at Michigan and his second top 5 result. Look for him to be a factor here in August.

There’s nothing like rumors of a career crises to ignite some drivers. Michael Waltrip could have decided if he was wanted any longer, he didn’t want to be at DEI anyway, but he chose a more positive approach. According to team sources over the last month Waltrip has taken a much more active role in motivating his team and getting everyone on the same page. The results are showing and the way Waltrip was driving those last three laps he looked like he just might win the race.

Jeff Gordon also took advantage of four tires to dramatically improve his finish after it appeared he’d have to settle for a result outside the top 10. A lot of fans seem to think that Gordon is no longer a threat to win. It doesn’t appear the other drivers feel that way as hard as some of them fought to keep him off the lead lap. It’s also interesting that even while Jeff Gordon’s “Slump” is a big media topic, as if Jimmie Johnson’s “excellent” season, they are now tied numerically in the points and they both have ten top 10 finishes in fifteen races.

Johnny Benson’s season has not been anything like he hoped for. His sixth place finish today was his best finish this year and only his second top 10. That’s especially impressive in that he started 30th. Earlier this week’s the Pontiacs got a rules concession from NASCAR which Benson’s crew chief, James Ince, said would help. Neither of Joe Gibbs Pontiacs looked particularly strong at Michigan, but with the new aero package it may take them a few weeks to sort out what the cars want. The jury is still out on whether NASCAR gave Pontiacs enough help.

Rusty Wallace finished seventh, his ninth finish between 6th and 10th place this season without a top 5 to show for it. Nor has Wallace been a threat to win any races to date this year. Normally next week’s race at Sonoma would be a good oppurtunity for Wallace to return to Victory Lane, but with the broken bones in his left foot, even finishing the race might be a challenge.

For the first time in the last month, Ricky Rudd never looked to have any real chance to win a Winston Cup race. But after the bitter dissapointments at Richmond, Pocono and Dover at least he got a decent finish at Michigan.

Mark Martin never led a lap at Michigan Sunday but he came home with his fifth top 10 finish in the last six Winston Cup races. Quietly Martin is positioning himself for a shot at the title everybody seems so eager to give to one of those “young guns”.

It wasn’t that long ago Kurt Busch was second in the points and the media was asking him about his title chances. The last four races have been a rough patch for Busch, but like Kenseth there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the team. Busch’s 10th place finish at Michigan doesn’t indicate how strong he ran Sunday and he could be in victory lane next week. (Well next week is Sonoma, so maybe the next race after that.)

As exciting as it was, Sunday’s Michigan event paled by comparison to the last few laps of the rain-delayed Busch race down in Kentucky. Unfortunately that rain delay landed the Busch event on a network a lot of fans don’t receive, so they missed out on what may have been the best finish in NASCAR racing in many a year.

Both races were red flagged shortly before their conclusion to allow for a green flag finish. I’m all for finishing races under the green flag, but you have to wonder why NASCAR won’t bite the bullet and put a rule in the oft-discussed seldom-seen rulebook to cover such eventualities consistently.

For all the talk about who will sit at the head table at the New York banquet this December, we’re still only fifteen races into a 36 race schedule, and anything can happen. But with his win Sunday Matt Kenseth served clear notice that despite an occasional bad run he intends to be one of the contenders. Take the man at his word.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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