The Fantastic Finish
by Doug Belliveau

September 25, 2002

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Always a bridesmaid and never a bride, can Martin win his first Championship this year.
Photo by Mike Veglia

What else could NASCAR ask for? The Winston Cup Championship battle is tighter than any in recent memory, setting the stage for a wild shootout to the end. And the top five drivers are a cast of characters that attract cheers and jeers from millions of race fans. Either the planets must be aligned just right, or someone has been doing some serious praying to the racing gods.

There’s no question that 2002 has already been a good year for NASCAR’s Winston Cup series. The level of competition has been excellent. Four drivers are within 91 points of the leader, and ten drivers are within 281 points. There have been 16 different drivers in Victory Lane, with only three drivers winning more than two races. In terms of earnings, 28 drivers have earned over $2 million and 42 have earned $1 million or more. Even Steve Park, now currently in 37th place in points, has earned $2,026,490!

There are many factors that should attract sports fan interest over the remaining weeks of the Winston Cup season. Major League Baseball’s regular season is coming to a close, and it will be the same Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees in the playoffs once again. Did I just hear someone yawn, or was that me? The football season has started up, but the NFL’s golden-boy St. Louis Rams are winless in the first three games. The Dallas Cowboys, America’s team, are so bad they couldn’t even beat an expansion team in the first week of the season. Maybe it’s already time for the two-minute warning. NHL hockey and NBA basketball still have at least a month before getting into full swing. Besides, they play well into June, so who’s going to pay any attention in October and November? The exciting IRL finale in Texas is in the record books, the F-1 championship was sewn up seemingly before the season started, and there are only a handful of CART races left.

Marlin was snake bit at Richmond, as road courses and short tracks are not to his liking.
Photo by Doug Belliveau

What will really pique fan interest is the hunt for the 2002 Winston Cup Championship. This season has been a roller coaster ride for many. Just when a driver is on a hot streak and becomes the favorite, that driver inevitably stumbles and falls in the standings. Earlier in the year, it was apparent that Sterling Marlin’s No. 40 Coors Light Dodge was the car to beat every week. Well, except for Sears Point and Watkins Glen, of course. After the midway point, Marlin’s consistency began to fade and his points lead started to shrink like a stock profit. His point lead went from being bullet proof to being full of bullet holes. Although Sterling is now in fourth place, he is only 81 points down, with many of his “good” tracks remaining on the schedule. Don’t plan on the crafty veteran to roll over and capitulate during the last eight weeks.

Enter Jeff Gordon, in search of his fifth championship. His back-to-back wins at Bristol and Darlington vaulted him to within an easy grasp of the points lead. The success was short lived, because in the three races to follow he averaged only a 30th place finish, relegating him to fifth place in the standings. However, he is still Jeff Gordon, and with the resources of Hendrick Motorsports and DuPont behind him, you just never know what he can pull off in the remaining few weeks.

Jeff Gordon has been hot and cold this year, in Richmond he was cold.
Photo by Doug Belliveau

And then there is Tony Stewart, the fabulously talented IRL champion who has managed to creep up into the top-five. Stewart is the anger management student who has been labeled with a “bad boy” image by fans. I never thought I’d live to see Jeff Gordon get out-booed by another driver, but Tony managed that task during introductions at Dover last weekend. Stewart is like a good baseball relief pitcher. He has always been a good closer, performing well during the last portion of the racing season. As a matter of fact, if his car didn’t give out on him with four laps to go in Richmond, Tony would probably be in first place now instead of third. The fact that Tony will be in the thick of the championship battle will help NASCAR put fannies in the seats and NBC put viewers on the couch.

There is no denying that there is a throng of Mark Martin fans. You see his No. 6 on everything from shirts, to bumper stickers, to seat cushions to flags waving above RVs in the infield area. He has been around for a long time, and that alone helps to build fan base. But it’s the fact that he has never won a championship that will keep people involved with the race to the finish line. Call it sympathy, call it empathy, call it whatever you want to. What it means is that fans will be interested to see whether the guy who finished second three separate times can finally win it all. Mark Martin’s performance has been known to fade towards the end of the year. In 2002, he may just get that monkey off his back and be the main guest of honor in New York City at the awards dinner.

Recently cleared of any wrong doing in the Bristol incident, can Tony Stewart focus on the Championship.
Photo by Doug Belliveau

And just when you thought the race couldn’t get any more intriguing, into pit lane walks a relatively unknown rookie driver hand picked by Jeff Gordon. As Jimmie Johnson said after his second win at Dover, his initial goal was to compete in as many races this year as possible. Jimmie – I think you can stick that modesty right in your back pocket – you’ve hit the big time! All he’s done is managed to win three races and finish with top-tens in 17 of 28 races. Is this guy really a rookie?? Maybe the pressure will rattle the good-looking California boy and his team down the stretch. Then again, maybe he’ll be the only rookie in history to win a championship.

Although it may be a long shot for positions six through ten to come up with the winner’s trophy, you can’t really count them out just yet. These five drivers bring with them quite a few fans and a ton of interest. Rusty Wallace is a two-time champion who can cut a tire but can’t seem to cut a break. Ryan Newman is another talented rookie who has come on like a firestorm the past two months and has moved into seventh place. Matt Kenseth has four wins, Bill Elliott has made a resurgence this year with Dodge, and Ricky Rudd has all the capabilities of bringing Robert Yates another title.

Well, as the flight captain says, “remain in your seat, put your tray in an upright position and buckle your seatbelt”. No matter the outcome, the last eight weeks of the Winston Cup season are sure to be a bumpy and enjoyable ride for millions of race fans.

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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