And Then There Were Five....


 by Doug Belliveau
June 22, 2001

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No surprise - Jarrett and Gordon up front with Marlin close behind.

Just fifteen weeks into the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup season, it is becoming more apparent that only five drivers will be seriously challenging for the championship. Even with 21 races remaining on the schedule, it appears as if Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Sterling Marlin and Tony Stewart will be fighting for the points lead this year.

How can one narrow down the contenders so early in the year? Although statistics can never predict the future, some of the results over the first 15 races speak for themselves. The top five drivers in the point standings have won 8 races and 8 poles, or more than half of the total events. And the group includes Sterling Marlin, who has managed some how not to win a race yet this year. Out of the 75 top-five finishes to date, these drivers have earned 32 of them. The top five drivers have also already amassed an average of $2.25 million in earnings.

Since it is consistency that wins championships, let's look at the results of the last five races. This group of drivers has won four of those five races. They have also had three 2nd place and three 3rd place finishes within the group. And they appear to be getting even stronger as the year goes on. At Michigan two weeks ago they took the top three spots. Last week in Pocono they garnered the top four positions, with Stewart finishing in seventh place.

As it stands right now, the sixth place driver, Rusty Wallace, would have to make up and average of 14 points per race to catch Jeff Gordon, the leader. Bobby Labonte, last year's champion, would have to make up 20 points per race from the tenth spot. That, in itself, doesn't sound like an insurmountable challenge, until you look at the remaining races on the schedule.

This week they head out to the Sears Point road course, where Jeff Gordon has won three years running. Last year, Sterling Marlin finished second, Ricky Rudd fifth, Dale Jarrett seventh and Tony Stewart in tenth position in that race. The next two races are at Daytona and New Hampshire, in which all the drivers but Marlin finished in the top ten last year. Gordon has also been dominant at Watkins Glen, except when he and Stewart got tangled up last August. In 2000, Tony Stewart won four races in the second half of the year.

 How soon before Marlin
gets to Victory Lane?

During the 2000 campaign, Rudd, Jarrett and Stewart were in the top ten in race miles led. Gordon and Marlin were in the top twenty, and both are having much better seasons this year. Words cannot describe the improvement Marlin has made since switching over to Dodge. Ironically, the next best Dodge in the point standings is Bill Elliott in 17th position. Did I just hear somebody say Ray who? Also, of the top five drivers, there were only a combined eight DNF's after week 15 of last year.

It does not seem that any one manufacturer is dominating this year, which is good for NASCAR. The top five drivers represent all four brands, with Yates' Fords having two drivers in Rudd and Jarrett. Gordon's Chevy teammates Jerry Nadeau and Terry Labonte are in 20th and 24th positions respectively, while Stewart's Pontiac teammate Bobby Labonte is currently in 10th position.

Could there be a championship contender other than the five drivers I've mentioned? It can't be absolutely ruled out; however, Bobby Labonte took over the points lead in week ten of last year and never relegated it on the way to his first championship. Certainly there are some other good drivers that have contended and even won championships in previous years. Rusty Wallace (6th place) has already won a race this year, has six top-tens and is always a threat. Similarly, Steve Park (8th place) has a win and seven top ten finishes. Bobby Labonte (10th place) is winless so far, but seems to be recovering from his terrible start and gaining momentum.

Can Kevin Harvick make up enough ground to challenge?

The driver who may gain the most ground is Kevin Harvick, currently in 9th position. A major hurdle he must overcome is that he didn't start his season until week two. One might think that running every race in Busch and Winston Cup would wear him down, but it appears to do just the opposite. Last week he beat the field at Kentucky and would have had a top ten finish at Pocono if he hadn't run out of gas on the last lap. He already has one trip to the Winston Cup victory lane and six top tens in his rookie year. With his talent and a top-notch team, he certainly has what it takes to break into the top five this year.

Out of the current top five drivers, my money is on Jeff Gordon to bring home his fourth championship in 2001. Beginning with the last ten races of 2000, Gordon has been gathering up a head of steam that may be unstoppable. There is collective egg on the faces of those who thought Jeff's career was over when Ray Evernham left the DuPont team in 1999, but you also have to give credit to Ronnie Loomis. After just more than a season as crew chief, Loomis has come to understand and communicate with Gordon in a way that is putting them in Victory Lane much like the 1997 championship season. I believe Jeff's most serious challenger will be Sterling Marlin, who is having a comeback year of epic proportions. Week in and week out, Sterling is somewhere in the front pack of cars towards the end of the race. Odds are that he will break through with two or three wins this year, especially given his prowess in restrictor plate racing.

The author can be contacted at dougb@autoracing1.com

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