A Short Off Season

by Dave Yaeck
January 16, 2003

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Itís nearly that time again. Time to get the fire suits and helmets out, time for teams to go to Sears to stock up on those Craftsman tools, time to figure out if Goodyear is going to actually make a tire for all tracks. Yes, itís that time again, itís time for NASCAR!

But how do you top the excitement of the 2002 Winston Cup Season that had the closest points finish in quite awhile? Well this year, there is one thing that is for sure and that is nothing is for sure. If we look at the last 4 years, you will find that the previous Winston Cup Champion, which this year the representative is Tony Stewart, has not faired well in the coming year. But I think thatís about to change. Tony has already declined his invite to the International Race of Champions series and trying to pull double duty, which some really thought he would go back and try this year, to concentrate on trying to become one of the elite who have won this series back to back. He wants to keep 100 percent concentration on a possible second title. Stewart will also be driving a new manufacturer in a Chevy Monte Carlo. Joe Gibbs Racing announced their decision to change over to Chevrolet back in August but this has been one of the most anticipated changes to come in 2003.

Does he have a chance? Lotís of early reports predict that not only will Stewart go back to back but could dominate this sport for up to the next five years. But when you are the hunted, the hunters come at you from everywhere.

Let us take closer look at who will be gunning to take the HOME out of THE HOME DEPOT. First off, you have to look no further than last yearís runner up, Mark Martin. Driving the #6 Viagra Ford for Roush racing, Mark has developed a reputation of the small man who carries a big stick. He will be more determined than ever to pick up that ever elusive trophy, since out of all the veteran drivers that have repeatedly been secured in the top ten in points in their career, Martin is the lone ranger with no titles under his belt. Combined with the resurgence of Roush racing in 2002, Martin is a top contender for the coveted title.

Next contestant has to be the hard luck kid, Sterling Marlin, in the #40 Coors Light Dodge. Marlin dominated the point standings for most of the season until September and subsequently had to bow out due to a severe neck injury. He feels more determined than ever to regain his dominance in the series. Marlin is also a veteran who is looking for his first cup title.

One person you can always count on to give you a run for the money is 4-Time Winston Cup Champion, Jeff Gordon, in the #24 Dupont Chevrolet. In 2002, Gordon weathered through some tough storms and also concentrated on the business end of the sport with his rookie driver Jimmie Johnson, to finish 4th in the standings. Robbie Loomis and company along with Gordon will be more focused than ever to add another cup to the mantle.

Speaking of Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, two of the hottest rookies ever to join this sport, will they be able to avoid the sophomore jinx that Kevin Harvick was not? Only time will tell.

Last, but not least in drivers to look out for the cup in 2002, has to be that ever impressive driver of the #97 Rubbermaid/Sharpie Ford, Kurt Busch. Busch, who won 3 races in the 2002 season including, the last 2 races of the year, has improved greatly and is a viable contender for the 2003 championship races.

I believe that drivers like Matt Kenseth in the #17 DeWalt Tools Ford and Dale Earnhardt Jr. should also have stellar seasons. Kensethís six wins last year was the most in the series and Earnhardt Jr. along with his team mate, Michael Waltrip, dominated the superspeedway. If these teams can stay out of DNF trouble and be consistently in the top 20 they too will be up there in the top of the charts as well.

2003 will be a comeback year for the 2001 Champion, Bobby LaBonte, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Monte Carlo. LaBonteís crew chief of the last 4 years, Jimmy Makar, decided to take a new position as team Manager leaving the door open for Michael ĎFatbackí McSwain to step in and have a little change of scenery. McSwain had his ups and downs in 2002. Matter of fact he probably would want to forget this last season after the stormy relationship with Ricky Rudd and Robert Yates ended. McSwain hopes with LaBonte and Joe Gibbs racing, to bring a team back to its winning ways of yesteryear.

Over the off season, there were many changes in lineups. You will see some new faces in old cars and some old faces in new cars. Among the biggest stories of the 03 Silly Season, was the driver switch of Elliott Sadler and Ricky Rudd. While Rudd faked us all out by pondering retirement, Sadler picked up the ride of a life time by teaming up with Robert Yates Racing and the first time with a team mate in Dale Jarrett. With that ride secured, it was then announced the very next week that Ricky Rudd would not retire but secure the ride that Sadler vacated with the Wood Brothers.

Among other notable changes are Joe Nemechek joining Hendrick Racing in the #25 UAW/Delphi Chevrolet, Jimmy Spencer to the #7 Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge, Ken Schrader to the #49 BAM Racing Dodge, and Jerry Naedau to the #01 US Army Pontiac.

We canít forget about the Rookie class of 2003. Some rookies have already gotten their feet wet as Jamie Mc Murray, driving the #42 Havoline Dodge. He filled in for the injured Sterling Marlin last year in the #40 Coors Light Dodge and ended up winning the fall Charlotte race in only his second start. Look for him to do some serious damage in 03. Along with McMurray is his new team mate Casey Mears, driving the #41 Target Dodge. Mears got the call of a lifetime when Chip Ganassi tabbed him to replace Jimmy Spencer. On top of that, coming into the mix is 2002 Busch Series Champion Greg Biffle in the #16 Grainger Ford, Jack Sprague in the #60 NetZero Chevrolet, and Larry Foyt in the #14 Harrahís Pontiac.

So there you have it, with all that talent, along with and ever growing fan base, NASCARís Winston Cup Series looks to be better than ever. If you can make it to a track near you, I highly recommend it, and just remember to:


The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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Others by Dave

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A Short Off Season 1/16/03

Stewart Turns a Minus to a Plus 8/13/02

Kevin Harvick - NASCAR's latest example 4/17/02

Redemption in Atlanta for Stewart and Pontiac 3/11/02

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