Rating The Races: Part 3

BRISTOL NIGHT RACE- Controversy reigned supreme. When normally mild mannered Ward Burton said after his wreck he wished he’d had a gun to shoot to Dale Junior rather than just throw his heel pads at the 8 car you know tempers were hot. Robby Gordon flat out parked Jimmie Johnson while both were on the “lap down” lane for a restart and collected several other front runners in the process. No surprise there, but it was surprising to see the normally polite Johnson respond with a less than polite single digit salute at Gordon whose seen a few of those during his so called career. To cap it off Jeff Gordon knocked Rusty Wallace out of the way late to take the win, aided and abetted by somewhat teammate Joe Nemechek who held Rusty up so Jeff could get to him. Wallace took off in dogged pursuit to try to put Gordon into the grandstands but ran out of laps. Gordon broke his long winless streak. Wallace did not. Press hacks rejoiced at all the simple stories. God bless Bristol! Rating A. Not the best Bristol night race but an average Bristol night race beats average sex.

THE SOUTHERN “BY GAWD” 500- What is it about the Southern 500 and rain? The Granddaddy of them all got under way over two hours late under threatening skies that had Bill Weber mangling adjectives and adverbs like a Cuisanart following the world’s stupidest rain delay programming that didn’t involve Super-soakers. Jeff Gordon took the lead from Ryan Newman, looking to set the world on it’s ear by winning the race as rookie on the eighth restart, and survived a final challenge on the ninth restart bought about ironically enough by Joe Nemechek who’d helped his teammate the previous week. What Joe giveth, Joe taketh. Media pundits (excepting for yours truly the eternal cynic) nominated Jeff Gordon as the presumptive title favorite as he moved into second in the points. Then it rained some more and everyone floated home on their arks, with two of every type of wild life, blondes, redheads, and brunettes. Rating A
The Southern 500 always gets a Gentleman’s A. A bad Southern 500 beats a good Super Bowl.

RICHMOND- We can see in retrospect now the Richmond race the beginning of the end for once presumptive Champion Sterling Marlin. He crashed hard on lap nine well after a caution probably should have flown and collected teammate Jimmy Spencer. In fact it was a brutal weekend at Richmond with the track still trying to overcome that poor sealer application and Derrike Cope and Bobby Hamilton would also miss races after hard crashes in various divisions of racing that weekend. Matt Kenseth overcame two flat tires to go ahead and win. His toughest challenger, Rusty Wallace, once again fell short after blowing a tire late. Rating B- Hey, guys can we not seal the track this winter? Tell Brian it will save a few bucks!

NEW HAMPSHIRE – A pretty good race held on a very miserable day. The track didn’t come up, but then it might not have had time to. The race ground to a halt shortly after it began when rain set in and the usual stupidity ensued on television. (Can’t they give the races back to ESPN just for rain delay shows?) Once racing resumed it was a game of musical chairs waiting to see the precipitation started falling again. The rain teased and teased as the drivers up front tried ever more frantically to find a way to the lead. Ryan Newman held off a hard charging Kurt Busch in a battle between two of this seasons brightest stars to take his first Winston Cup win. Mark Martin took the points lead from Sterling Marlin after 25 races that wet afternoon. Rating B. B stands for boring too. I hope Ryan Newman wins a bunch more races but I hope that next time they spike his Gatorade with LSD too, because I have never witnessed such a boring celebration in my whole life. It was like watching the guy who won “Best Engineering Student” get presented with a belt clip slide rule.

DO-OVER- This race came down to another generational battle which just happened to be among the top two drivers in the points at the time. Jimmie Johnson was running hard to complete the rare Dover sweep when he came up on Sterling Marlin trying to put him a lap down. Marlin held up Johnson enough that Mark Martin got to the 48 car’s rear bumper, but once Johnson found a way around Sterling, Marlin held up the 6 as well allowing Johnson to streak on to the lead. Those thinking Jeff Gordon had a chance at the title this year saw their hopes take a heavy blow when Gordon wrecked early and finished 37th. It just goes to show ya, it’s always something. Rating B.

KANSAS- This race got off to a violent start that faded rapidly into a sooze-fest. Jeff Gordon dominated the race to the point NASCAR threw one of those debris cautions. A wreck ensued not long thereafter and NASCAR red flagged the race with three laps to go. Ryan Newman was on Jeff’s tail heading to the green flag that resumed action, but Gordon pretty well snookered him on that restart and drove off to an unmolested win. Jimmie Johnson led the points battle after this race. Rating D. A rookie leading the points chase? Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore and I’m thankful for it.

TALLADEGA- Anyone up for another round of stupidity? NASCAR’s latest “cure” for the restrictor plate ills was a 12.5 gallon fuel cell that hold thirteen gallons in some cases. Honestly, were they bottle-fed leaded paint as children? And in an already bizarre season you don’t get much weirder than the top two men in the points (starting on the front row because qualifying was rained out) colliding while on the warm up laps. Mark Martins car took a hard left into Jimmie Johnson’s Chevy sending them both into the grass in the first wreck that occurred behind the pace car and threatened to decimate the field. To no one’s surprise it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading the race late, but rather than Michael Waltrip watching Junior’s back it was Tony Stewart who made no attempt to pass the 8. That might have had to do with the points situation. With Johnson and Martin suffering that early problem, and Johnson and Gordon both losing engines (all six Hendrick engined car expired their mills) Stewart took the points lead with his second place finish. This was the first race that Sterling Marlin missed due to his cervical fracture. Rating D. Did I mention this is a really stupid track? That’s my opinion. Your mileage may vary but if you have a stupid 12.5 gallon gas tank you ain’t going very far anyway.

CHARLOWES- Are you kidding me? In only his second start as a stand-in for an injured Sterling Marlin, the virtually unknown kid who’d never even won a Busch race (but was about to win two) Jamie McMurray, won the fall classic at Charlotte. Not only did he win, he held off a determined challenge from former Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte for the final ten laps. Chip Ganassi was apparently so pleased he bought Jamie a former Miss Winston to play with just like Jeff Gordon had until he broke his. (Or his tried to drive him broke.) Rating B+. Weather for the weekend. G-. Charlotte is now designated a rain forest after that weekend.

MARTINSVILLE- Threatening weather held off long enough to get an entire race in. Will wonders never cease? Kurt Busch’s sensational sophomore season continued with another strong run, though late in the race Johnny Benson was on his rear bumper and people were waiting with bated breath to see if Benson would do the bump and run for his first Winston Cup win just as Busch had done to Spencer for his first win earlier this season. Benson raced Busch clean infuriating his own crew chief. We all wondered if Benson would ever get another chance. As it turned out he did. Rating A- If NASCAR ran all their races on short tracks the sport would be bigger than the NFL and we wouldn’t have to put with Britney Spears either.

ATLANTA- Rain, more miserable stinking rain. See Atlanta gave up their date as the season finale race in November to move this race to October when it doesn’t rain in Atlanta. Except this year, oh did it rain. And then it rained more miserable stinking rain on some miserable fans who didn’t smell too good by day’s end either. This race had heavy title implications with Tony Stewart saved by rain delay shortly after noticing one of the wheels on the 20 Pontiac had been left loose. And Jimmie Johnson spun himself out not once but twice. Kurt Busch ended a rain soaked parade alleged to be a race as the winner. Rating- D. For damp.

ROCKINGHAM- Knowledgeable fans looking at the schedule knew the Rock was the final chance for a truly classic race left on the 2002 schedule, and it provided all that and more in spades beneath curiously blue skies that failed to delay the race. Is Rockingham indoors? There was lots of side by side racing on a multi-groove track with only a slight stench tainting things when teammate Kurt Busch allowed Mark Martin by so Mark could lead the most laps. In the end it was Johnny Benson up front with Mark Martin behind him like a heat seeking missile, but both drivers raced clean and finally Johnny Benson had his first Winston Cup win. Rating A+. Ironically while Mark got those 5 points for leading the most laps, he lost 25 points for an undersize spring found in the 6 car after the race. As for Benson’s win, cue up Frank Sinatara’s “My Way” but prepare to watch me run from the room with my hands over my ears trailed by girlish screams. I really hate that song.

PHOENIX- Here’s a surprise. This race was decided in the pits. It came down to a battle between Matt Kenseth and Rusty Wallace both of whom went with two tires under the final caution pit sequence. Kurt Busch who’d been dominating the mid-stages of the race went with four tires and was never a factor in the outcome of the race. In the end Kenseth was first off pit road, giving him the advantage of clean air on the front of his car, so he prevailed over Rusty. Rating C-. Pretty much typical of your aero-push challenged races this year. But give Matt style points for winning a race during which he ran out of gas.

HOMESTEAD- Fans know they’re not going to see much of a race at Homestead, but fans tuned in to see who won the war, not the battle. Tony Stewart pretty much had the championship in the bag but there was still that slight chance Mark Martin could pull it off, a chance that glowed slightly brighter when Stewart attacked another photographer in the garage area Saturday. Martin really put himself in the hole with an awful qualifying run Friday, but steadily worked his way towards the front for most of the race while Stewart headed in the opposite direction, but it wasn’t enough. As far as the win it came down to decisions in the pits again. The final restart was led by Ryan Newman whose team elected not to pit him, Jimmie Johnson who took fuel only, and Kurt Busch who went with two tires. (Dale Jarrett had been up front but his team chose to go with four tires. Wrong answer! That was about as effective as the “Green Stamps and soft drink for the driver only” pit strategy.) Two tires was the correct choice, Busch won his fourth race of the year, Tony Stewart won the 2002 Winston Cup championship, and Ryan Newman won Rookie of the Year honors. Rating D-. There are many great reasons to visit the Miami area like your boss tells you you have to go or you’ll be fired, but attending a race is not one of them.

Rating the Races: Part 2

Rating the Races: Part 1

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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