Seven Weeks

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Anyone who says that Winston Cup racing is too predictable lately has to add an asterisk to that statement now to include a footnote “except at Pocono.” It’s only been seven weeks since the June race at Pocono, yet only four drivers managed to finish inside the top 10 in both races. The winner of the June race, Tony Stewart, blew an engine Sunday and finished 37th. Mark Martin, who’d finished second in June got wrecked and finished 41st. Kurt Busch finished 36th at Pocono in June but rebounded nicely with a runner up finish Sunday. Joe Nemechek finished 38th in June, but seventh on Sunday.

Ryan Newman’s victory was his fourth of the season a total that’s even more impressive in light of the fact only two other drivers have scored more than one win this season to date. (Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson.) It’s interesting to note of those multi-race winners Newman is the lowest in points (9th) and Johnson has the best points position (4th.) The top three drivers in the points have just one win a piece and Kevin Harvick is in seventh place two spots ahead of Newman without a single win to his credit despite the fact Newman has twice as many top 5 finishes as Harvick. Yes, the NASCAR points system is a little bizarre.

How bizarre? If Matt Kenseth were to show up and qualify for the next four races, then would pull off the track after the first lap to finish dead last and Newman won all four of those races and led the most laps, Ryan still couldn’t catch Matt in the points. At this point Newman is racing to see how many wins he can rack up and considering he’s won two of the last three races my educated guess at that number is “a bunch more.”

Kurt Busch is second only to Ryan Newman as far as 2003 victories with three wins to date. Late in the going at Pocono it seemed he had a legitimate shot to pass Newman for the lead but turn three was Busch’s Achilles’ heel. No Jack Roush team has ever won at Pocono but a Roush Racing entry has finished second in the last three races run at the Pennsylvania triangle.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third to reclaim the second position in the points standings. He’s now finished eleventh or better in six of the last seven races. Junior was the only driver other than Newman to score top 5 finishes in both Pocono races this year. (He finished fourth here in June.)

Michael Waltrip finished fourth to score his sixth top 5 finish of the season. That matches the most top 5s Waltrip has scored in any season. (And it was way back in 1990 Waltrip scored those five top 5s.) Waltrip fared considerably better at Pocono Sunday than he had in June when he finished eighteenth.

Terry Labonte scored top 10 finishes at both Pocono races this year with a fifth place result Sunday. All of last year Labonte had only managed one top 5 finish (and that was on a road course). This was Labonte’s first top 5 finish on a non-restricted track this season.

Jeff Burton finished fourteenth at Pocono in June but rebounded with a sixth place finish Sunday. More importantly that sixth place result was the 99 team’s fourth straight top 10 finish as they return to the form they were known for in the late 90s. While Burton is probably not a title contender this year (he’s currently tenth in the points) you have to walk before you can run.

With questions looming over whether UAW will be back as a sponsor on the 25 car team next team, Joe Nemechek is once again polishing up his resume. A seventh place result at Sunday will look good if Nemechek ends up knocking on doors looking for a ride again. Nemechek’s last top 10 finish was his May win at Richmond.

Todd Bodine scored his first top 10 finish of the 2003 season with an eighth place result Sunday. He just missed a pair of Pocono top 10 finishes having come home eleventh here in June. A lot of people talk trash about Bodine but compare that 9.5 average finishing position at Pocono to Dale Jarrett who is well known for his prowess at the Pocono triangle. Jarrett had that terrible wreck here in June and finished 42nd, but could run no better than 21st Sunday in a car with no apparent damage. Jarrett currently leads Bodine by 81 points in the standings.

Dave Blaney finished ninth on Sunday, considerably better than his 26th place result at Pocono in June. This season started with a lot of promise for the 77 bunch with three top 10 finishes in the first six races but that ninth place result Sunday was their first top 10 since.

Sterling Marlin had top 10 finishes in both Pocono races with a sixth place finish in June and a tenth place result Sunday. Sunday was the first time Marlin has finished in the top 10 since Michigan.

Matt Kenseth finished third at Pocono in June but his team elected to play the gas mileage game conservatively on Sunday. Kenseth returned to the track in eighteenth and could only rally to thirteenth before the checkers flew. He was clearly incensed by the strategy and said afterwards he felt he had at least a top 3 car. With the massive points lead Kenseth now enjoys, coupled with problems for Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte Sunday it seems likely that Jack Roush will play the conservative strategy more frequently for the rest of the year as he tries to claim his first Winston Cup championship.

That leads to an interesting scenario because to date Kenseth has only won one race and if the team is in the “protect” mode its not likely he’ll win many more. Under the current points system Terry Labonte holds the mark for the least wins by a Winston Cup champion with two victories in each of his championship seasons. (1984 and 1996) Under a previous points system Benny Parsons won just one race in his 1973 championship season. Ned Jarrett also won just one race in 1961, the year he claimed his first title.

Sunday’s race goes to prove that on any given Sunday predicting the top 10 at a Winston Cup race is still a fool’s errand. Cars that run strong can suffer mechanical problems or get swept up in wrecks not necessarily of their own making. Backmarkers can rise to the occasion. Favorites can have an off weekend. The drive to the 2003 championship is beginning to look pretty predictable (Kenseth has now led since the fourth race of this twenty race deep season) but there’s sure to be a lot more surprises between the Brickyard and Homestead out on the track.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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