A Long Strange Trip

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With a whimper not a bang the 2002 Winston Cup season drew to a close at Homestead Sunday ending one of the most bizarre seasons in the sports history. The title fight was really only a formality, and it was decided as expected with Tony Stewart taking top honors despite a lackluster day at the race track by the standards of the 20 team. Of course Saturday afternoon’s “incident” only capped off the weirdness that was 2002 and we faced the prospect of the title being decided not on the track, but by NASCAR suspending a driver, which might have led to wholesale rioting in Indiana.

The final points margin was 38 points, which means the debate over Martin’s front spring penalty should be allowed to die a dignified death. Actually had Roush won the appeal we might have been faced with the ugly specter of the team owner ordering two faster cars out of his fleet to pull over and let Martin by which would have given Martin a two point victory over Stewart. And ignited wholesale rioting.

It’s hard to imagine when this season started back in February I was dodging snowflakes on my race munchies run, and now last night fifty miles north of here it was snowing again. Where does the time go? What a long strange trip it’s been, to borrow a phrase.

While his terrible month of August kept Kurt Busch from having any chance at the 2002 title, he served notice he might be someone to watch in 2003 for that honor. Busch has been the hottest driver on the circuit in the final stage of this season with three wins in seven races. His four wins this year are second only to teammate Matt Kenseth’s five. And Busch’s third place finish in the points this year is dramatically better than his 27th place finish last year. Maybe Roush ought to keep this kid after all.

Joe Nemechek’s season started in turmoil with K-Mart announcing they were going to ditch Travis Carter’s team so they could lose money in other areas of their operations instead. But it appears now he has found a home at Hendrick Racing with the 25 team. And Joe might just produce for this team as well with two second place finishes in the final four races this season.

Jeff Burton’s third place result at Homestead matches his best of the 2002 season which has been a little off key. He was the only Roush driver not to finish in the top ten in points though he didn’t miss by much with a twelfth place in the final standings. Perhaps there is Hope for next year, because Burton and the 99 bunch were said to be experimenting with a radically different car for this race. That got me wondering if the “radically different” car was just one of Kurt Busch’s with a new coat of paint and decals.

Mark Martin fought the good fight and finished fourth, appropriate in that this is also the fourth time he’s ended up second in the standing with those runnerup results occurring every four years since 1990. (1990,1994,1998,2002) Still compared to their lackluster 2001 season the 6 bunch have nothing to hang their heads over this year. It’s a sad fact of life someone has to finish second in the title chase each season.

Jeff Gordon advanced two spots in the standings after Sunday’s race to finish fifth in the title chase. It wasn’t a vintage Gordon year especially with the off track distractions but there’s a lot of drivers who’d give their kidneys to wind up fifth in the standing with three wins in a season. On Friday Gordon needed a provisional to make a Cup race for the first time in 329 events, so he had to pass a lot of cars to get that top 5 finish. As “bad” as this season was for Jeff there was exactly one week all year he was outside the top 10 in points. (After the first Atlanta race, the fourth event of the season.)

Ryan Newman finished his remarkable rookie season with a strong sixth place finish which should be enough to clinch Rookie of the Year honors unless the advisory panel steals it from him. But, you say, Jimmie Johnson has three wins to Newman’s one. Yep, and Matt Kenseth has eight wins to Tony Stewart’s three, but which of those drivers will be seated at the head table December 6th? Newman had 22 top ten finishes this year, as many as any other driver. (Mark Martin, and that’s not bad company to keep.)

On the opposite end of the career spectrum from Newman and Johnson you have drivers like Bill Elliott who finished seventh at Homestead. Elliott had a remarkable season with those back to back wins, but the team and Elliott faltered down the stretch. The seventh at Homestead was Elliott’s first top 10 finish since Kansas, which cost him a top 10 points finish and an invitation to the New York banquet.

Jimmie Johnson’s late season was more difficult than the opening drive of races, which is a bit of an anomaly to the way it’s supposed to work for a rookie driver. Johnson still had a remarkable season considering he was passed by car owner Jeff Gordon out on the track Sunday and in the final points standings at the same time only in the closing laps of the 2002 season.

Elliott Sadler finished a quiet but respectable ninth at Homestead Sunday in his last run for the Wood Brothers. He enters the 2003 with a team in tatters trying to regroup. Tenth place finisher Bobby Hamilton doesn’t even know what he might do next year yet, and could be driving his own Craftsman Series trucks. Eleventh place Mike Wallace also doesn’t know where he’ll be next year.

In the final rundown, Tony Stewart finished eighteenth. And like I said, I am genuinely relieved the points gap was large enough between first and second that the 25 point penalty the 6 team was hit with in Rockingham won’t tarnish the title. I think that task should be left to the titleholder himself, and Stewart seems bound and determined to do so.

36 races. 14,550 miles of competition. Three calendar seasons. Forty one weeks if you include the Bud clash. Can it be the sometimes sloppy but wonderful 2002 Winston Cup season of surprises has finally ground to a halt? It wasn’t always the best of seasons but one thing is for certain, we’ll be talking about the 2002 Cup season for years to come because if nothing else, it sure as Hell was one long strange trip, wasn’t it now my dear readers?

You're sick of hanging around and you'd like to travel
Tired of travel, you want to settle down
I guess they can't revoke your soul for trying
Get out of the door - light out and look all around
Sometimes the light’s all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
what a long strange trip it's been
Truckin - I'm going home
Whoa-oh baby, back where I belong
Back home - sit down and patch my bones
and get back Truckin on……..

Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia/Phil Lesh/Bob Weir

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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