A Changing Of The Guard

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Dale Jarrett enjoyed a decent run at New Hampshire Sunday to finish seventh. The only thing remarkable about that fact is he was the top finishing driver who was racing Winston Cup full time just five short years ago. To further put things in perspective here at the halfway point of the 2003 season the drivers who have won the most races in the last year and a half are; Kurt Busch (7) Matt Kenseth (6) Jimmie Johnson (5) Ryan Newman (4) Tony Stewart (4) and Jeff Gordon (4). Of those seven drivers only Jeff Gordon was racing Winston Cup in 1998.

Johnson was able to stretch his fuel mileage long enough to win at New Hampshire in what was in fact his first top 5 finish at the Magic Mile. His fifth win came in just his 58th start. To put that number in perspective it took his teammate and car owner Jeff Gordon 68 starts to win his fifth race. (Bristol in the spring of 1995.) Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed seventy starts to score his fifth win. (Talladega in the fall of 2001). Tony Stewart needed just 47 starts to claim win number 5. (Dover spring of 2000). It took the late Dale Earnhardt 63 starts to win his fifth race. (Martinsville in the fall of 1980. Earnhardt won his sixth race the following weekend.) That’s some pretty heady company to be included in. To be fair Earnhardt fans will point out even as a rookie Johnson was blessed with superior equipment, but he’s surely driving those cars to their potential.

Kevin Harvick finished a distant second apparently content to take a wait and see attitude hoping the 48 car would run out of gas. It was Harvick’s seventh top 10 finish of the season compared with just eight top 10s he scored in all of 2002.

Points leader Matt Kenseth and his team were forced to gamble big at New Hampshire. With caution flags flying so frequently and around thirty cars on the lead lap they could not afford to stop and get a splash of gas to ensure they’d finish the race. Nor, naturally, could Kenseth have afforded to run out of gas, which probably would have dropped him to a twenty-somethingth finish. Kenseth stretched his mileage just enough and took another major stride towards a championship. He now leads second place Jeff Gordon by 234 points, a huge margin at the halfway point of the season.

Ryan Newman was able to play fuel strategy to win last week at Chicago, but with his tank running dry near the end of the race he had to lift out of the gas early just to make it to the end. That let three drivers by Newman, who’d been leading late in the race, but it also allowed him to claim his sixth top 5 finish in the last eight races.

Robby Gordon finished fifth to give Richard Childress Racing two cars in the top 5. With Steve Park finishing eighth all three RCR cars had top 10 finishes, the first time that’s happened since the team grew to three cars.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. at least kept Kenseth in sight finishing sixth. Such was not the case with Jeff Gordon who entered and left this event second in the points. Gordon dominated the race early, seemingly with ease, but a questionable call to take four tires on his last pit stop (attributed to Gordon himself) and whatever adjustments were made on that stop dropped him off the pace. The only cars Gordon was passing at the end were ones that ran out of gas.

Dale Jarrett finished seventh for the fourth time in the last eleven races run at NHIS, during a streak that’s only seen him finish outside the top 10 once at the Magic Mile. The finish comes at a good time for DJ and the 88 bunch who have been struggling mightily this season. This team is still mired in 28th and is running out the season to try to save a little face.

If Jarrett needed a good run, no one needed a decent finish more than Steve Park. Park hadn’t finished in the top 25 since Martinsville earlier this year and there’s been a lot of questions as to whether he’s physically and mentally capable to compete in Winston Cup any longer. One good run won’t silence all the critics, but it will give them something to consider.

Jeff Burton finished ninth despite having been speared by Kenny Wallace who was once again out there racing for no discernible reason. Something broke in the right front of the 23 car and Wallace hit Burton in the 99 who then hit both ends of his into the wall.

Greg Biffle also had some obstacles to overcome to claim a top 10 finish. Biffle got a lap down and was more than a little irritated when race leader Jeff Gordon refused to allow him back on the lead lap. On the subsequent restart Biffle tried to make sure he got his lap back by running into the side of the 24 car and sending him up the track. After that maneuver Biffle was invited to a post-race sit down in the NASCAR trailer after the race. Hopefully he ran because after Sunday’s race there was likely quite a long line of drivers waiting for a consultation with series officials. If he’s to win five races in his first 58 Biffle needs to calm down and get with the program.

Presumably because of the widened track surface there was actually some side by side racing at Loudon for the first time in ages. But the track wasn’t quite two grooves wide, which meant things tended to get a little physical as drivers tried to jockey their mounts side by side. Among drivers who won’t be exchanging dinner invitations this week are Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rusty Wallace and Tony Stewart, (heck Wallace and about every other driver out there), Jeff Burton and Kenny Wallace, Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon and John Andretti and Jimmy Spencer.

Jamie McMurray took the hardest hit of the race having lost the front brakes on his Dodge. He backed hard into the wall and nearly rolled over. The car came to rest with the driver’s side flush against the wall, but fortunately there was no fire. Also fortunately his decklid which cleared the catchfence didn’t hit anyone but look for NASCAR to require bigger bolts on the trunk tethers in the near future. Even more fortunately by the next time the series visits New Hampshire in September the SAFER barriers will have been installed.

While it’s still hard to see the “magic” in the Magic Mile at least there were a few smiles in Sunday’s three hundred miles, at least for folks who got to watch the proceedings from the grandstands or on their couches.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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