How Do You Like Me Now?

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Homestead hasn’t been around long enough to earn a cool marketing slogan like “Too Tough to Tame” or “The Monster Mile.” But if I was in charge of the marketing at the track I’d crank up a new advertising campaign full of Toby Keith bluster, “How Do You Like Me Now?” No one is going to think track management was crazy was investing ten million dollars improving the track with some sorely needed banking. The newly configured track passed this weekend’s test with flying colors providing great if sometimes controversial racing all weekend. Sure, Elliott dominated the race, there were an alarming number of tire failures, and ten cautions but I think fans will recall Sunday’s Ford 400 of the one of the best races during a sometimes-tepid 2003 season.

(And I must note for the benefit of Bill Elliott’s fans, and they are legion, it was heartbreaking to see Elliott lose the race on the final lap when he cut down a tire, in what was the final Winston Cup race ever. If I don’t I’ll get more hate mail than the Chi-Chis in Pittsburgh.)

The most controversial moment in Sunday’s race came when Kevin Harvick made an ill considered three wide move on lap five, lost control and took out Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. Harvick went on to finish third while the wreck cost Newman two spots in the points and dropped Busch out of the top 10 in final points costing him a banquet invitation. Considering Busch and Newman are part of that new Gillette razor promotion with Harvick, I’d be awful careful when they were around me with sharp objects for awhile.

Fans will say that the win fell into Bobby Labonte’s lap when Elliott cut down his tire on that fateful final lap. But to be in position to benefit from Elliott’s misfortune Labonte had to out duel Harvick, Tony Stewart, Jimmy Johnson and Johnny Benson in a frantic battle for second that went right to the brink of disaster on more than one occasion. It was a little salve for a disappointing end to a season that saw Labonte looking like a legitimate title contender at the mid-point of the year.

Harvick escaped the lap five wreck nearly unscathed and went on to finish second. Well that’s one way to do it I suppose. Had he actually won the booing might of reached the crescendo that Kurt Busch faced in victory lane at Bristol this August.

Jimmie Johnson closed out the season on a remarkable hot streak finishing second or third in the final six races of the season. That was no easy task for Johnson today as he cut down a tire early in the race and fell a lap off the pace. Johnson got his lap back without the benefit of NASCAR’s controversial “Lucky Dog” pass rule.

Johnny Benson finished fourth in his last ride driving the MBV 10 car and in the last race for Pontiac in NASCAR’s top series. It was his second top 5 result of the season (the other occurred at Dover) and hopefully a strong run will help Benson find a ride for 2004.

Some folks will say Jeff Gordon had an off season finishing fourth in the points with “just” three victories. A lot of drivers would kill their mama’s to have a season that good. In a statistical quirk, Gordon finished fifth five times in the final eight races including Sunday’s event.

Rumors Jeremy Mayfield was about to be fired really lit a fire under the 19 team and their driver. Since the rumors began flying the team hit a hot streak that ended with a sixth place result on Sunday. Mayfield ended up nineteenth in the points standings which doesn’t sound that impressive until you consider he ran as low as 33rd in the standings earlier this season. I’d like to start a rumor I won’t be the most highly paid Winston Cup writer next year at this time.

Tony Stewart’s title defense this year got off to a miserable start. But as is his habit late in the season, Stewart got hot, won at Charlotte and scored top 5 finishes in six of the last nine events and top 10s in eight of those races.

Bill Elliott showed more class in his post-race comments, despite the heartbreak of losing a race on the final lap, than some victors have shown after winning this year. But then Elliott has been around this game awhile and knows sometimes you lose races this way and sometimes you win em this way. A strong finish to his season has apparently caused Elliott to decide to come back full time in 2004 and try again. If he can run as strong next year as he did since the Brickyard this year, Elliott who will be 49 this year, might just make a run for the title battling the kids.

Jamie McMurray finished ninth and more importantly clinched Rookie of the Year honors this weekend. McMurray set expectations high winning what was only his second Cup start last season and had to deal with cruel reality earlier this year. But down the stretch McMurray started showing some genuine promise and demonstrated he’s in Winston Cup racing because of his talent not a pretty face.

Sterling Marlin’s 2003 season can only be termed a major disappointment. After seeming to have a lock on the title last year until he got hurt, Marlin failed to win a race in 2003 and scored no top 5 finishes. A tenth place result at Homestead ended the season on a bright note.

Todd Bodine, Scott Wimmer and Tony Raines who finished thirteenth through fifteenth also ended the year on a good note. The same can not be said for Mark Martin and Ward Burton who wrecked out while contending for tenth. Neither driver won a race this year. Rusty Wallace suffered through a blistered tire and a black flag to end a dismal 2003 season in 23rd and fourteenth in the points, the first time Wallace has missed a banquet invitation since 1992. Michael Waltrip’s second half was as bad as Ryan Newman’s was good. A blown tire put Waltrip hard into the wall and dropped him to fifteenth in the final standings.

For race fans too 2003, a season of occasional controversy, massive change, and some pretty sorry excuses of races ended on a bright note. If the spring Darlington race was the most exciting event of the season, the 2003 Homestead race was far and away the best race ever staged at the star-crossed track. How do you like me now? I like Homestead just fine now, though I hope Goodyear goes back to the drawing board on the tires for this joint. Because the track is finally an exciting venue that is worthy of hosting the season finales for all three racing series. We’ll be talking about this one for awhile.

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I have to end with a sad farewell and offer a sincere thank you to Winston and Unocal 76, both of which have played a huge role in getting our sport to where we are today. And I’d like to thank my readers for another great season in 2003 and all your support over the year that I rang in in the hospital. I’m asked often, so for the record the leg has healed well, and if I have a bit of a limp I’m doing OK for a guy who has as many miles on the clock as I do. There’s more columns to come wrapping up the 2003 season, but I realize some of you will be switching gears until next February, so let me take this opportunity to wish you and yours a Happy Holiday season and prosperity in 2004.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

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