A Brief Respite

(May 7)- - The Winston Cup series is in the midst of its annual three week break from the points chase. With 11 races in 12 weeks, some time off is both welcome and necessary. Jeff Gordon posted a victory at Martinsville, a second place effort at Atlanta, and a third place finish at Texas among his stronger finishes to start the season. On the down side, an unavoidable crash at Las Vegas and overdriving the car at Darlington produced finishes of 37th and 33rd respectively.

Compared to one year ago, Gordon is nine points ahead of his total after the same number of races. However, he's much closer to the top spot. In 2002, Gordon was sixth in points trailing Sterling Marlin by 216 points after the Richmond race in May. This season he finds himself fourth in the standings, 178 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

One area the DuPont team looked to improve upon in 2003 was qualifying. Thru 11 races in 2002, Gordon's average starting position was 11.7. This season he has improved his average starting spot to 9.7. By comparison, Gordon posted a 9.2 average starting position thru 11 races in his championship season of 2001. Suffice to say, qualifying has improved this year and is nearly in championship form.

The points leaders after 11 races are Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. After 11 races last year, Kenseth was second in points while Earnhardt Jr was mired in 12th. Kenseth rode a hot streak in 2002 thru the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. However, the bottom dropped out on his season when the calendar turned to June. In an eight race span from Dover in June to Pocono in late July, Kenseth posted finishes of 40th, 35th, 1st, 39th, 30th, 14th, 33rd, and 8th. He went from second in points down to tenth which effectively ended any hopes for his first Winston Cup title. Earnhardt Jr on the other hand has exceeded his performance of 2002 by a wide margin. One year ago after 11 races, Earnhardt Jr was 12th in points trailing Sterling Marlin by 357 points. This season he's second to Kenseth by a mere 20 points.

Looking ahead, Gordon will likely need strong performances on the road courses during the summer. Last year Gordon posted finishes of 37th at Sonoma and 22nd at Watkins Glen. For the all-time leader in road course victories, it was a wake-up call. As such, Gordon has scheduled a test session at Watkins Glen to better prepare for this summer's race. Gordon's greatest asset is his innate ability to get the most out of his car-- even when it's not up to optimal performance. He struggled at Richmond battling a loose handling car, but made up ten positions in the final 70 laps to finish 16th. Victories are always special, but titles are won and lost on the mundane days and nights on the NASCAR tour. The difference between 16th and 26th is 30 points. That might come in handy when November rolls around.

An area of concern for the points leaders are the road courses. To say that Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr struggled on road courses in 2002 would be an understatement. Kenseth posted finishes of 39th at Sonoma and 33rd at Watkins Glen. Earnhardt Jr finished 30th at Sonoma and 35th at Watkins Glen.

Though he has struggled thus far in 2003, reigning Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart will likely be a force to be reckoned with as the season progresses. He's often been a slow starter but tends to heat up as the weather gets warmer. Stewart finished 2nd at Sonoma and won at Watkins Glen last year. Throw in top-seven finishes in both Charlotte races and both Pocono races, and you have the recipe for the Home Depot Chevrolet to make some noise. Of course, he was poised to make significant noise at California Speedway this year. He led the most laps but blew an engine after the halfway point. At Richmond he went high to avoid a wreck but wound up losing grip and slammed the wall. Avoiding trouble is what makes a championship season. Thus far Stewart has found more than his fair share of on-track problems. But it's impossible to talk about the 2003 title picture without mentioning the current champion.

Another driver making a strong bid for the title is Kurt Busch. He started the season with second place finishes at Rockingham and Las Vegas before finding victory lane at Bristol. In addition, he became the season's first two-time winner with his victory at California Speedway. Busch is currently third in the points standings and is poised as a threat to win on any track. The driver/crew chief tandem of Kurt Busch and Jimmy Fennig seems to be on the threshold of greatness. The next 15 races will determine whether they cross the threshold.

After a dismal two seasons after winning the 2000 Winston Cup title, Bobby Labonte is back in the title picture. With crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain calling the shots, Labonte has been strong in 2003. He muscled past Jeff Gordon to win at Atlanta and posted three consecutive runner-up finishes at Talladega, California, and Richmond.

While it's certainly possible that a driver not mentioned could wind up winning the Winston Cup title, after 11 races the previously mentioned drivers are the prohibitive favorites. Some lack the experience of being in a championship hunt, while others have been there many times before. Though one only needs to look to 1995 for an example when a relatively inexperienced team led by Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham put themsevles in the title picture early in the season and wound up beating Dale Earnhardt and the veteran RCR organization for the crown at the end of the year.

In this era of parity in NASCAR racing, one thing is for certain. It's anybody's title to win. Eleven races is hardly a season. Who knows, some of the drivers mentioned might not be in the title hunt when October rolls around. But the odds are in their favor thanks to a good start. There's still a long way to go. Dig in.

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