The Circle Of Life

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Bill Elliott ran “the Lion King” paint scheme this weekend as the 1.5 mile oval at Kansas turned into the circle of life. There was little doubt at the end of the race Elliott had the best car and he was rapidly closing on Ryan Newman but his bid came up a few fractions of a second short.

Elliott was once king of the jungle on the superspeedways, particularly back in 1985 when he won a record eleven times on the big tracks. But seven of Newman’s eight race wins this year have come on tracks of a mile or more in length and with five superspeedway races left on the schedule Newman has an outside (extremely remote) chance of breaking Elliott’s record. One thing appears certain. There’s a new King of the Jungle in Winston Cup, Ryan Newman. The old lions must fade away as the young cubs assume the top spots in the sport.

Once again Newman’s efforts were aided and abetted by outstanding fuel mileage that bordered on unbelievable. Even if the 12 team was confident on being able to make the rest of the race without stopping for gas in the final 78 laps with all the right front tires blowing out at Kansas, usually with around fifty laps on the Goodyears, there had to be some concern if the tires would last. But young lions who haven’t taken enough hard licks into the wall yet will tread where veterans don’t dare to go.

Elliott’s frustration after the race was clearly evident and perhaps justifiably so. The law of the jungle have changed since back in the era where Elliott ruled the roost and the fastest car usually won the race. These days all too often it’s fuel mileage and two tire stops that allow a slower car to take the top spot. And Elliott’s chances at getting to Newman were held up when he had to run hard to get around the lapped car of Mike Skinner. Obviously Skinner is fighting to find a job next season. But there comes a point when a driver who is two laps down with fourteen laps left to run and only one other driver on the same lap as him he just needs to get the Hell out of the way and let the leaders race. Certainly Elliott was no cowardly lion as hard as he charged into the turn three on the final lap looking for the win. (C’mon the track is in Kansas. You knew there had to be a Wizard of Oz pun somewhere in this column.)

If there’s a subtle irony to the finish of Sunday’s race it’s that Ryan Newman is clearly the hottest driver on the circuit right now just as Elliott was the fastest car on the track at Kansas. But just as Elliott couldn’t overhaul him in the race, Newman is going to come up just short of claiming the top spot in the championship from Matt Kenseth despite the rough two week stretch Kenseth has going right now. Newman might be able to make up the 103 points he needs to catch Harvick for second, but Kenseth is just too far gone.

Jeremy Mayfield also ran a Lion King inspired paint scheme, but he’s a different sort of beast. Mayfield entered the sport with a ton of promise, but he was never able to claim the title of King of the Beasts. As he passes his prime (And things are relative in this sport. Mayfield is only 34) Mayfield is struggling to keep his ride for 2004. His sixth strong result in the last seven races might just be enough to keep Mayfield wearing red jumpsuits next year. At least Mayfield didn’t have to suffer the indignity of finishing second to Newman for the third time in the last five races which might have spared him another $3500.

Tony Stewart was king of the jungle last year, but he’s struggled mightily at times in 2004 and to date has only won one race. And folks at NASCAR are probably relieved to have Stewart on the shadows of the limelight this year as his conduct can be beastly. But Stewart does have three straight top 5 finishes after Sunday’s race and he’s moved up to eighth in the points standings.

Jeff Gordon was once the young lion that strode into the jungle and shocked the old guard. He finished fifth for the third straight weekend, but over the weekend Gordon has some rather catty comments over Ryan Newman’s success and insinuated that Newman and the 12 bunch were cheating with an oversize fuel cell. Ironically the same accusations were made against Gordon back when he was winning the most races season in and season out. The circle of life indeed.

Last year and earlier this season, Kevin Harvick seemed all roar and no bite. But in the last fourteen races Harvick has moved from eleventh to second in the standings and he added a win at the Brickyard 400 for good measure in the same stretch. Harvick is now 259 points behind Matt Kenseth but Kenseth only needs to finish eighth or better in the last six races to be champion. Could Harvick overhaul him for the top spot? Possibly but it would rank as one of the biggest upsets not just in racing history but in the history of sports.

Jimmie Johnson, another young lion working his way up the food chain, took the pole position Friday but then wrecked his primary car in Saturday practice. Forced to start at the rear of the field in a tight race car Johnson went a lap down early but was the beneficiary of the new rule that gives a lap back to the first driver a lap down when a caution flies. Johnson said he didn’t much care for the new rule earlier this week, but one would guess he likes it a whole lot better now. If he says otherwise he’s lion.

Jamie McMurray posted a respectable eighth place finish at Kansas in his first Cup outing at the track. Next week McMurray returns to Charlotte where he was top dog (yeah, I’m shamelessly mixing metaphors right now) in only his second Winston Cup start last year.

Rusty Wallace ruled the jungle back in 1989 and he seemed to have a car capable of winning the race early in Sunday’s event. But once again Wallace squandered a chance to snap his long winless drought, and its apparent he’s grown a little long in the tooth.

Another veteran, Ricky Rudd, rounded out the top 10 scoring his third top 10 finish in the last five races for the Wood Brothers outfit that also dominated the big tracks in their era.

While it would be premature to say the Kansas track has a second groove as fast as the low line at least drivers were able to stray off that low line without instantly being consigned to the wall on Sunday as in years past. If it’s any consolation to Bill Elliott his tangle with the sport’s Young Lion it worked out a lot better than Roy Horn’s Las Vegas battle with a big cat.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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