Rating The Races: Part 1

Overall: While there was an exciting points race ironically there wasn’t much exciting racing this season. The problem was widely rumored to be the “dreaded” (media members are required to add that adjective) aero push, that meant often a faster car behind a slower car didn’t have enough front tire grip to make a pass. Time after time we saw a car that was in a class of its own leading the race come off pit lane in seventh of eighth and that driver just couldn’t advance. NASCAR is hoping the standardized body mounting location rule next year will be an important first step to eliminating this problem.

DAYTONA 500- We’ll give this race a B for bizarre. Sterling Marlin got into Jeff Gordon fighting for the race win, and behind them “the best drivers in the world” were running into each other and the wall like a bunch of drunken hobby stock bull ring racers. So NASCAR whipped out the red flag and Sterling must have figured, “As long as they make up the rules as they go I guess I will too” and hopped out his car to try to pull the right front fender off the tire. At that point a NASCAR official leapt from the pace car and appeared poised to tackle Marlin to stop him. More merriment ensued over the radio as NASCAR tried to decide if Marlin had gone “out of bounds” to pass Jeff Gordon but in the end it didn’t matter because he got penalized for working on the car under the red flag. Ward Burton won the sport’s biggest race. And anytime you have a plate race where nobody is killed or badly hurt it gets a one letter grade improvement.

ROCKINGHAM- This race gave us a preview of the season ahead, though we didn’t know it that day. Matt Kenseth won passing Sterling Marlin with eighteen laps to go when the 40 car slipped in some fluids. Matt went on to win the most races this season. It was also our first sign that Jack Roush’s teams that struggled so badly in 2001 were back on track. Despite having thrown a red flag the previous week at Daytona, NASCAR chose not to do so at Rockingham and let the race finish under yellow, setting up a pattern of inconsistency that led up to the near riot on the backstraight when they let the Firecracker 400 end under yellow. Sterling Marlin took the point lead that day and would lead it for 25 races consecutively. And aero push problems diminished the quality of racing all day, so things were largely decided in the pits, a harbinger of things to come. Rating C+ Hey, the sanctioning body couldn’t screw up things three weeks in a row right? Wrong.

LAS VEGAS- And the inexplicable just keeps on coming. Once again fans were left scratching their heads when NASCAR called Sterling Marlin for speeding on pit road, but later said the message didn’t reach the pit official in the 40’s box in time so it would not be enforced. Marlin went on to win the race and continued his hot start to the season. Rookies Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson showed up just how competitive they were going to be all season out there in Nevada. Overall rating C. Most of the races in at LVMS have been Craps so far.

ATLANTA- What if they had a race and NASCAR officials didn’t screw it up? We finally got some normalcy in racing again with an exciting race. Tony Stewart and the 20 team’s decision to go with four tires helped them to run down Ward Burton whose car only had two fresh tires and Stewart held off a determined challenge from Dale Earnhardt Junior to win a good race. It was another step in the rally for Tony Stewart who’d left Daytona 43rd in the points and we all know now where he ended up. Big fun. Rating A- See I don’t hate a race just because Stewart won.

DARLINGTON- Even in a substandard season of racing, the Lady in Black finds a way to stir up the pot. Stewart fresh off his win at Atlanta encountered terrible luck. While leading the race he was taken out by Buckshot Jones in an accident that also gathered up eventual points contender Mark Martin, and did enough damage to the car of Jeff Gordon that had led 196 laps that Gordon was no longer a contender. Stewart got the worst of it and was sent to the hospital with lower back pain. In the end it was a game of the tortoise and the hare, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. streaking to the lead on a restart with eight to go past Sterling Marlin, but Marlin patiently began reeling him back in, retook the lead and went on to win the race. Rating:

BRISTOL- This is one Jimmy Spencer will never forget. On a final restart Kurt Busch knocked Spencer out of the way to take the lead and drove on to his first Winston Cup victory. Mr. Spencer was not pleased afterwards. Nor were Robby Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. kindly disposed with each other after the race. Junior gave Gordon a solid shot on the cool down lap, and Gordon responded by pile driving the 8 car on pit road. Sterling Marlin finished 19th but still held onto the points lead. Kurt Busch winning a race, and Robby Gordon acting like a jerk? Well at least one of those developments wasn’t expected. Rating: A. Not classic Bristol, but a bad race at Bristol beats a good race at most tracks.

TEXAS- Rainy weather delayed the race until Monday adding to tensions about just how fast the newly repaved TMS was going to be. Once again Robby Gordon played a vital function in the race by wrecking and trapping all but six cars a lap down, though Ryan Newman’s subsequent engine explosion allowed a bunch of them back on the lead lap. The race was probably decided in the pits with Matt Kenseth beating Jeff Gordon back onto the track and the two drivers finishing in that order. And stories began cropping up, “So when is Jeff going to win a race again?” At least it beat the divorce nonsense. Rating C- Why? I don’t like Mondays. Rating for all those fans who actually came back on Monday and the place was nearly full A. Eddie Gossage joked maybe NASCAR should give the track two Monday dates if they were fresh out of Sunday ones.

MARTINSVILLE- This race is going to be best recalled for what happened on the Saturday prior to the event. NASCAR decided they’d had enough of Kevin Harvick’s attitude in the wake of his purposely spinning out Coy Gibbs in the truck race and they sat him out a race. On the track, a healing Tony Stewart looked to have control of things, but was one of the few cars to pit late and couldn’t make up the ground. (See aero push) Up front Dale Jarrett and Matt Kenseth got a little too busy arguing over the lead between themselves and let Bobby Labonte slip on by them both. And for one afternoon it appeared maybe Labonte had broken out of his slump but it just didn’t turn out that way. Rating B. As in beating and banging on a short track, and B-have Kevin!

TALLADEGA- Another stupid race at the world’s stupidest race track. It looked like maybe the boys were going to play nicely with one another, but late in the race Tony Stewart was in the wall, and moments later 24 cars were in the process of crashing, burning, spinning, and otherwise being reduced to smoking junk including some very stout pieces. And that wreck was minor compared to Saturday’s Busch series wreck that eliminated all but a handful of cars and sent two rolling. No surprise there though. No surprise that Michael Waltrip pushed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to another plate track win either. Rating S for stupid. A stupid, stupid, stupid parody of real racing put on by stupid men who won’t lay out the coin to fix the joint. And I’m trying to be nice here. (In better news, despite grim early reports concerning his condition, Jack Roush recovered swimmingly from his aircraft crash that weekend thanks to the bravery of Mr. Larry Hicks.)

FONTANA- While there was some good racing at the end this event was largely a bore. And once again things were settled in the pits. After a savage crash involving Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Which we’d later learn effectively derailed Junior’s season) Jimmie Johnson’s team went with a fuel only stop. Johnson was able to pass Bill Elliott on the restart and hold off eventual second place finisher Kurt Busch to the checkers to score his first career win as a rookie. Good day for Johnson. Fairly bad day for those who had to watch the race. Rating C- I know, let’s clone Michigan and remove some banking! I’m sorry that’s the wrong answer and you don’t get to go on to the Lightning Round.

RICHMOND- This had to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Normally the night races at Richmond are highly anticipated by racing aficionados but an improper track surface not only turned this track into a joke, the joke was played on us Sunday due to rain Saturday night. The slapdash affair left Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace angry at each other. Rudd was trying to lap Rusty and Wallace put him into the wall. Tony Stewart was the winner, or better “First Survivor” and even he was screaming about the track’s condition. Rating F This track can do so much better.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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