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Old 07-18-2003, 06:32   #1 (permalink)
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NASCAR:Long-Distance Runaround:Matt Kenseth rocks steady,while Jeff Gordon closes in

AutoWeek
By BILL McGUIRE

BETWEEN THE ROAD-course event at Sears Point on June 22 and the Pepsi 400 under the lights at Daytona on July 5, Winston Cup teams got their final week off before hitching up for the long haul to season’s end—and it won’t end until mid-November. With 18 races in 18 weeks and thousands of miles of competition remaining, the second half of the Winston Cup season is the most grueling march in major motorsports.

At the season’s unofficial halfway point—but with still a long way to go—the big story on the track is parity. NASCAR’s efforts to keep the competition close with ever-tightening regulations are working: In the first 18 races of 2003, there have been 14 winners. And the closest finish in Cup history came this spring at Darlington, when Ricky Craven ground Kurt Busch to a 0.002-second win. Yet while NASCAR keeps tilting the table, certain teams and combinations still manage to reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

In the final charge some will rise and some will stumble; nobody has shown all they have just yet. But what we have seen in the first half may well indicate who will come out on top at the end.

Despite the carefully managed parity, Jack Roush’s Fords have risen to assert themselves, especially the two young veterans, Matt Kenseth and Busch. While Kenseth has scored only one win, at Las Vegas in March, he took over the Winston Cup points lead in week four and has held it ever since.

He leads by 165 points, the largest margin at midseason since Dale Earnhardt dominated the 1993 campaign. He has done it with consistency and late-race charges to strong finishes. After Chicago he has 14 top-10s and seven top-fives, with a worst of 22nd and no DNFs. Meanwhile, Busch is the rabbit. Though he has suffer-ed three DNFs, he still lies ninth in points on the strength of three convincing wins at Bristol, Fontana and Michigan. Busch and Ryan Newman (three wins, at Texas, Dover and Chicago) are the only repeat winners.

The Roush drivers are carrying Ford’s flag in the manufacturers’ title chase nearly single-handedly, scoring all but 15 of its 102 points before Daytona. Ford’s other traditional NASCAR powerhouse, Robert Yates Racing, has struggled. While Dale Jarrett won at Rockingham, he now lies 29th in points; first-year Yates driver Elliott Sadler took a pole at Darling-ton but has an average finish of 20.9. Going into New Hampshire, Chevrolet led the manufacturers’ race with 121 points, with eight wins by eight drivers. Two of Chevy’s wins were delivered by DEI’s all-conquering restrictor-plate program, as Michael Waltrip scored his second Daytona 500 win and Dale Earnhardt Jr. collected yet another Talladega victory. Earnhardt Jr. has run well everywhere in 2003, emerging as a genuine title threat. With seven top-fives and 11 top-10s, he now lies third in points, with teammate Waltrip a surprisingly strong fifth. Last year’s champ Tony Stewart, eighth in points, has one win at Pocono but little else to show for his season thus far.

In its quest for a manufacturers’ title, Dodge sits well back in third with 78 points, boosted mainly by Newman’s three wins. The company continues to search for the balance with its version of the common template aero package, its cars often falling back through the field on long runs. Dodge’s title contender last season, Sterling Marlin, lies 10th in points, while the two Bill Davis Dodges of Ward Burton and Kenny Wallace have been out of contention.

Perhaps reflecting the frustration in the Dodge camp, Bill Davis has lost his factory deal and is now being sued by the auto-maker for his participation in Toyota’s NASCAR truck R&D program. Pontiac brings up the rear with 64 points. Its only bright spot is Craven’s Darlington win.

So much for background. The one driver everyone, especially points-leader Ken-seth, is watching now is Jeff Gordon. NASCAR’s leading active driver with 62 wins, Gordon got off to a slow start this season with a 12th-place in the Daytona 500, 15th at Rockingham, and ouch, 37th at Las Vegas, which nearly dropped him out of the top-20 in points. The lackluster performance and his widely publicized divorce troubles had many counting him out of this year’s title run. But after the crash at Vegas, the next week Gordon came back to finish second at Atlanta.

By Texas he had jumped to sixth in points, and a win on the half-mile at Martinsville moved him to third. With a third-place at Michigan and a second to Robby Gordon at Sears Point, his average finish was 5.6 in the five races before the Daytona break. Jeff Gor-don is now second in points.

Of the top-three in the Winston Cup points—Kenseth, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr.—Gordon might be the one with no real weaknesses. While he has had some bad luck of late at the restrictor-plate venues, he can win on any given track in any given week. He is strong on the big ovals, solid on the short tracks, and he is NASCAR’s leading road-course driver as well, with seven wins.

And then there are the four previous Cup titles. It’s been said that before you can learn how a Winston Cup title is won, you have to learn how one is lost. With the incredible pressure of 18 races in 18 weeks, there are an awful lot of ways to lose. While it’s far too soon to make any reliable predictions, this could be the year Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. receive some final tempering, and Jeff Gordon collects his fifth Winston Cup champion-ship.
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