Firsts And Lasts

How truly ironic NASCAR staged their first truly great race since Darlington this spring in what was sadly the last fall race at Rockingham.

Bill Elliott was amazing on Sunday, starting dead last due to an unapproved engine change and winding up first. What could very well be the last of his 44 career victories took place at the track where Elliott made his first Winston Cup start back on February 29th, 1976, 27 years ago. Retirement rumors continue to dog Elliott who isn’t ready to announce his plans, but over the past few months newer fans have gotten a glance at the Awesome Bill of old. Elliott has scored a total of six top 5 finishes since this year’s Southern 500 where he also had a legitimate shot at a win. Back in the 80s Elliott’s fans, and they were myriad then and are myriad now, got a little smug. Elliott was winning so often, particularly on tracks one mile or longer in length, that it was almost a surprise if it wasn’t the 9 car jockeying into victory lane after the race. But Elliott and his fans have learned to savor each victory never knowing if it might be the last.

Barring a major disaster at Homestead, Elliott is practically guaranteed that he will finish in the top 10 in the points for the first time since 1997.

Also celebrating at Rockingham was the new (and last) Winston Cup champion Matt Kenseth who clinched the title with a fourth place finish strong enough to quiet some of his critics. It was also the first Winston Cup championship for Jack Roush who has been a part of this sport since 1988. Fittingly enough Roush also got his first career Winston Cup win as an owner at Rockingham when Mark Martin won on October 22nd, 1989.

Kenseth didn’t win his first Cup race or make his first Cup start at the Rock. But the storied old track did play a major role in his career. Back in 1998 few people knew who the skinny kid from Wisconsin in the un-sponsored car entered in the spring Rockingham Busch race was. But on the final lap of that race, Kenseth muscled aside Tony Stewart coming out of the fourth corner on the final lap to take his first Busch series win. And he celebrated with a slide through the grass on the tri-oval just as he celebrated his first championship today while the rest of us were scratching our heads and wondering who that Kenseth kid was. (Oddly enough, I attended that race with Mike Calinoff, who didn’t know who Kenseth was that day either. Calinoff is now Matt Kenseth’s spotter so congratulations to Mike on being part of the championship team.)

Kenseth’s run was not without incident. Tony Stewart got into the back of the 17 car heading toward the second caution flag. Later in the race Kenseth was penalized for exiting pit road having already passed the “commitment line”. Still that decision was a blessing in disguise. Had Kenseth continued down pit road he’d almost certainly have wound up a lap down.

While the title is clinched, there’s still a decent battle going on for second spot in the standings. Of the drivers who can claim that prize only Jimmie Johnson who finished second really seemed to be on his A game at Rockingham. Earnhardt Jr. did have his best career finish at Rockingham (by one position) but it was a matter of too little too late. Jeff Gordon got involved in a bad tempered fracas with Ryan Newman and was penalized a lap. After that Gordon’s day went downhill as he was trapped laps down three times when caution flags flew shortly after he pitted. Gordon ended up an uncharacteristically poor 24th place at a track where he normally does well. Ironically the poor finish allowed Newman, who finished fifth despite getting spun out to move past Gordon into fourth place in the standings. (But he’d have to overcome a 103 point deficit to Johnson to claim second spot in the standings next week.)

Johnson and Elliott ran each other hard but clean in those waning laps, a decided rarity these days when younger drivers and their elders get to racing one another. But Johnson must have remembered Elliott running him the say way back at Dover in June 2002 when he narrowly prevailed over Elliott. A little courtesy goes a long way.

Jeremy Mayfield finished third to give Ray Evernham his best finish since Homestead in 2001. At times during Sunday’s race it appeared that Mayfield was in position to break his own winless drought which dates back to June of 2000, but at the end he just had a good seat to watch the Elliott-Newman battle.

Tony Raines scored an astounding sixth place finish in an un-sponsored car to claim the first top 10 of his Winston Cup career.

Jeff Burton’s finished seventh despite yet another run in with Robby Gordon that sent the 99 car spinning and bought out the fourth of a record-tying ten (in a 400 mile race at the Rock) caution flags during Sunday’s race.

Bobby Labonte seems mired in a streak where he’ll run well one week and not so well the next. His finishes in the last five races have been 6th, 41st, 5th, 36th and 8th. Unfortunately there’s only one race left this season and Labonte who had looked like a title contender mid-season is just hanging onto the back of the top 10 pack.

Tony Stewart had an eventful day as well, first running into the back of Kenseth on lap 85 than tangling with Larry Foyt and spinning on lap 370. After the wreck with the 14, Stewart drove around the track and delivered a solid shot to the hapless Foyt’s rear bumper to express his displeasure. Fortunately the season ends next week or they’d have to install metal detectors at the garage area entrances to keep their from being gun fights after the race.

Sterling Marlin’s tenth place finish was his tenth top 10 of the season, but Marlin has just one more race to score his first top 5 result in 2003. After having been favored to win the title last year until he was injured Marlin’s 2003 season has been a major disappointment.

To be honest much of the 2003 season has been a major disappointment for race fans as well with lackluster racing, runaway wins and races decided on fuel mileage rather than speed. That’s what makes it even more tragic that NASCAR is taking a race date away from Rockingham, a track that has consistently provided an extremely high caliber of racing thanks in part to the extremely abrasive track surface that has even the most stoic racers screaming for new tires after 20 laps. Sunday’s race at the Rock was a celebration of all that is right with this sport shrouded with the bittersweet knowledge the track will have just one date in 2004 and might be off the schedule all together as early as 2005. It just doesn’t make sense, though if it makes cents I guess NASCAR will go ahead and do it anyway.

So will the last Rockingham fall race go down as the last win of Bill Elliott’s storied career? Who knows? It would seem the man himself has to decide what his future holds first. Will NASCAR ever see their error of their corporate ways and give Rockingham back the second date it so richly deserves? Either way, both Rockingham and Bill Elliott have provided fans of this sport with a lot of great memories that are going to last a long time.

Congratulations to Matt Kenseth, Jack Roush, the 17 team and the entire Roush organization on the 2003 Winston Cup championship.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

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