Half And Half Matt Mclaughlin


Six drivers arrived at Dover with a chance to leave Sunday evening holding the Winston Cup points lead. Half, race-winner Jimmie Johnson, runner-up Mark Martin and fifth place Tony Stewart ran well on Sunday. The other half finished poorly.

For the three points contenders who had a rough afternoon; Sterling Marlin, Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace, it was a matter of how do you like to take your lumps? For Marlin is was a long miserable weekend. He was slow in qualifying, slow in practice and unhappy with the car. He pretty much knew he was going to have a lousy race from the time he took the green flag and in fact he’d have finished a lot worse than 21st had it not been for the high attrition rate at Dover. For Jeff Gordon, he knew he had to overcome a bad starting spot, but his car looked fast early in the event. But he got his bad luck over with early getting caught up in a wreck and went over fifty laps down in the garage while the team repaired the battered 24 car. It must have been especially frustrating seeing his team’s sister car running out there clearly contending for the victory. If Gordon fails to win the 2002 championship you know he’ll be looking back at Sunday’s Dover race as one of the main reasons why. But fate might have been cruelest to Rusty Wallace. At least Jeff got to take a nice break. Wallace ran up front most of the day and was poised to break a winless streak that seems like it dates back to when Benjamin Franklin was in Pampers, but a blown right front tire late in the event ended Rusty’s chances. It’s sort of like having to choose between a painful flu shot where you know the hurt will be over quickly, or a weeklong ordeal of misery from a bad case of the flu.

Johnson’s third win of his rookie season ties the record currently held by Tony Stewart. It also allowed Johnson to move up to second in the standings, only thirty points behind Mark Martin. Those twenty-five points the 48 team was docked for rules infractions after the Firecracker 400 now loom large. If Martin goes on to beat Johnson by less than twenty-five points at the end of the season it would offer some measure of revenge to Mark whose shot at the 1990 title fell short partially because of a points reduction penalty at Richmond early in the season. Can Johnson make a legitimate bid at the title? Crew chief said they were “going for it” after the race, or words to that effect.

Martin looked to have a shot at Johnson late in the race, but once it was clear the Hendrick Chevy was faster, he settled into a comfortable second place with third place finisher Dale Jarrett in a different zip code. Martin has become the Zen-master of NASCAR. He knew Johnson would only make up ten points, and realizes that there are some difficult tracks ahead, particularly Martinsville, for the rookie driver. Martin has been running for championships for a number of years, and if he once again comes up just short, he’ll be able to stretch those atrophied muscles that control his grin just long enough to say “We’ll get em next year. Or we won’t. It really doesn’t matter.”

Dale Jarrett finished third, or perhaps best in class because he clearly had nothing for Johnson or Martin. It’s hard to say that Jarrett’s had a bad season with top ten finishes in half of the races run to date, but when names are thrown around debating who will be this year’s champion, Jarrett’s is not among them and that frustrates him. Were it not for the indecision as far as leadership early this season DJ might be up there battling with the big boys rather than trying to claw his way back into the top 10 so he can wear his Tuxedo in December this late in the season. Jarrett’s team was also docked 25 points for a rules infraction earlier this season and he’s now 29 points outside the top 10.

Matt Kenseth started out this season as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit, and it appears he will finish the final third of the season on a strong note as well. It was a lackluster middle portion of the season that has cost him a chance at a championship though a top five points finish is still within the realm of possibility.

Tony Stewart felt he was having engine problems late in the event which had to be especially worrisome in light of his teammate’s engine failure earlier in the event. Everything hung together well enough Stewart finished fifth, not bad, but probably also frustrating when at times it appeared he had a dominant car. With Marlin’s recent streak of bad finishes, it appears the title chase will become a three way battle between Martin, Johnson and Stewart, but I’ll hold off on that prediction until after the unpredictable Talladega race two weeks hence. Before he can even concentrate on winning at Kansas City next week, Stewart must hope that he wins a round in Sullivan County Tennessee Tuesday, and ponder what career implications an indictment might carry.

While the Roush outfits, as a whole, have been resurgent all season, Jeff Burton just hasn’t been able to find the old magic. He finished sixth Sunday (Jeff finished third at Dover in June) but the 99 remains the weak sister outfit of the Roush Racing stable. The crew chief change didn’t magically fix anything, but then few thoughtful people believed it would.

The fourth Roush entry, Kurt Busch finished seventh. Only eight cars were on the lead lap at the end of the Dover race, and four of them were Jack’s. Only last year it seem Roush couldn’t buy a top ten finish. In as many years as he’s been a part of this sport, Roush has never won a Cup or Busch title. There’s a chance he could win both this year.

Last week’s winner Ryan Newman had a strong run going early in the Dover event, but spun himself out while running in second. Miraculously he didn’t hit anything, but the car just never seemed the same after the spin. (The rear wheels suddenly reversing directions during a spin often does engine damage.) Still Newman managed to finish on the lead lap in a respectable eighth place. As well as he’s been running the last month, Newman could be considered a dark horse pick for the championship.

Ricky Craven had his best race in a long while at Dover, and even led a portion of the event. But when the handle went away on the car, it went away quickly and Craven was unable to hang on. Eventually he lost a lap and finished ninth.

Johnny Benson, still stinging from his encounter with the Wallace Posse at New Hampshire, managed a second consecutive top ten finish. That’s the first time this season Benson has had back to back top 10s.

Sunday’s race poses an interesting question. Necessarily only one driver will win the championship at the end of the year. If you were one of the six drivers who entered Dover in the hunt, and you were to find out you weren’t going to win the title, but would you prefer to have one or two lousy runs so that you could just go out and try to win some races and have some fun in the final races of the season rather than dealing with all the pressure? Or would you prefer to arrive at Homestead still in contention for the championship and blow an engine on the first lap? Either way for Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Sterling Marlin if they plan on seriously contending for the Winston Cup title, Dover has to be their last bad weekend. With eight races remaining a half and half mixture of good finishes and bad isn’t going to make the cut.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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