Class of 1998 : Final Thoughts

Another racing season has come to a close with Jeff Gordon winning his third Winston Cup title. Along the way, there were dramatic moments, memorable finishes, and big checks handed out. So, at the conclusion of the year, it is time for the Class of '98 commencement exercises.

The drivers, owners, and distiguished guests have gathered at 'The Bull.' A delightful outpost on Duval Street in Key West, Florida. Maybe that's sugar-coating it a bit too much. 'The Bull' looks as it sounds; there are open holes where the windows should be and the interior is very dark. Suffice to say, it has local flavor. The emcee for the evening will likely surprise some people. Please welcome sports talk host Jim Rome to the podium. The crowd is hushed

"I'd just like to say that Neckar sucks," Rome says. Rick Mast quickly takes out his Remington Arms and does away with Mr. Rome. Next in line to be host is former Key West mayor Captain Tony Tarracino.

Captain Tony, once the proud owner of Captain Tony's Saloon in Key West, strolls to the podium and says, "I know, uhh, Jim Rome had big shoes to fill but I, uh, umm, anyone got a cold Corona beer for the Captain?" Kenny Irwin walks to the podium to hand Captain Tony his beverage of choice. Robert Yates does not look happy.

"Ok, yeah, that's better," Captain Tony says. "Now come and get your diploma when I call your name. Anyone venturing up here early gets shot." If there are no comments next to a driver's name it's because they had an unremarkable season. Any comments would disrupt the NASCAR equilibrium and we certainly wouldn't want that to happen. Well, in the words of David Van Driessen, "on with our ceremony."

Jeff Gordon
Grade: A
Thirteen victories and the Winston Cup title. Aside from Las Vegas and Atlanta in March, he was on top of his game every weekend.

Mark Martin
Grade: A-
Seven victories highlighted a season of triumph and personal tragedy. At Daytona and Talladega, Martin lost 250 points to Gordon. He still wouldn't have won the title, but it would have been closer. Thankfully, his car owner, Jack Roush didn't overshadow Mark's remarkable season. In August, Roush accused Gordon of cheating. By December, he was wearing a straw hat with a tuxedo. "You dress like that in public and people are gonna think you aint right."

Dale Jarrett
Grade: B+
Started the season with a few lackluster performances, won a few races, struggled in late September at Martinsville and Charlotte, but finished with determined efforts at Rockingham and Atlanta despite gallbladder problems.

Rusty Wallace
Grade: B+
Much more consistent in 1998 than he was in 1997. Though he only posted one victory, Wallace led the points until early May and had a number of strong runs to close the season.

Jeff Burton
Grade: B
Someone get this team a qualifying setup. Visited victory lane twice but probably should have been there more often.

Bobby Labonte
Grade: B
By far, this was Bobby's most consistent season in Winston Cup racing. He won at Atlanta and Talladega.

Jeremy Mayfield
Grade: A-
From a part time fabricator in 1995 to a rising star in 1998. Mayfield posted his first career win this season and led the points from May until late June. Expect big things from the #12 team in 1999.

Dale Earnhardt
Grade: B-
It was another lackluster season for the 'Intimidator.' He posted 13 top 10's and won the Daytona 500. The Daytona win created a lot of interest. The post race inspection was interesting too. But some things are best left unsaid.

Terry Labonte
Grade: B-
For all the rumors about Terry in 1998, he still managed to finish in the top 10 in points. New crew chief Andy Graves and Terry spent the season adjusting to one another's styles. By next season, this team should be a weekly contender.

Bobby Hamilton
Grade: C+
He dominated at Martinsville but rarely ventured into the top 3 at other tracks.

Positions 11-20

John Andretti: C+

Ken Schrader: B-
Tore up a few race cars, had some strong qualifying runs, and still hasn't won since 1991.

Sterling Marlin: C

Jimmy Spencer: B-
Sat out a few races in mid-summer. Chose to heal his brain instead of racing. Not counting the races he missed, Spencer had a solid season.

Chad Little: C

Ward Burton: C
An unremarkable season for the MNBA Pontiac. Will be remembered as the driver that triggered the big wreck at Talladega in April.

Michael Waltrip: C-
Bill Elliott: C-
Ernie Irvan: C
Johnny Benson: C-

Positions 21-30

Mike Skinner: C
If only all the races were held in Japan, Skinner would be the champion.

Ricky Rudd: C-
Had an amazing performance at Martinsville but that was the only highlight.

Ted Musgrave: C
After getting the shaft from Roush Racing in August, Musgrave drove every available car... and was competitive each week.

Darrell Waltrip: C
Who could forget the Pennzoil summer? Too bad DW couldn't stay with that team. He made a mockery of the champions provisional, but he was driving for ISM/Tyler Racing, the worst team in motorsports.

Brett Bodine: D+
His year, and his career, are typified by the following:
He needed to lead at Atlanta in November to get 5 bonus points. Brett was angry after "Last Lap" co-star Dave Marcis decided to lead a few laps under caution. After all, Marcis had failed to qualify for almost the entire season. He finally gets into a race and wanted to give his sponsor some on-air TV time. Sorry Brett, but the world doesn't revolve around you. By the way, Junior Johnson called to thank you again for his "golden parachute."

Joe Nemechek: C-
Ho hum. That about explains his season and well as his Winston Cup career.

Geoff Bodine: C-

Kenny Irwin: C
Learned a lot about the cars this year. Learned a lot about the Charlotte nightlife as well.

Dick Trickle: D+

Kyle Petty: F
I'm sure going back to his dad's organization seemed like a good idea. But, when it's all said and done, he'll regret ever leaving Felix Sabates.

Positions 31-40

Kenny Wallace: C-
Engine failures, wrecks, and engine failures.

Robert Pressley: D+
Ran well at Texas; that's all.

Rick Mast: D
Won a pole position but never was near the front at the end of a race.

Steve Grissom: C-
Released from the 41 car, Grissom drove a few races for Buz McCall's "Gypsy" team.

Kevin LePage: D
Couldn't say no to Jack Roush. Good career move; bad PR move.

Jerry Nadeau: D
Won the pole at Sears Point, drove through the dirt embankment on lap 1. Released from the #13 team, found a home with Harry Melling's #9. His road racing talent is unquestionable; his oval racing talent is in question.

Derrike Cope: D

Wally Dallenbach: C-
Had some impressive efforts in the Budweiser Chevrolet in June.

Rich Bickle: D
Jeff Green: D

Positions 41-50

Drivers listed below did not compete for the full season. However, in lieu of giving them all "INC" for incomplete, here are their grades for the events they participated in.

Steve Park: F
Finished 3rd in the 1997 BGN standings and expected to win Rookie of the Year. Had a few sub-par performances to start the year and then crashed in Atlanta. After returning, he was still pretty awful. When Darrell Waltrip took over in mid-summer, he was competitive in the #1 Chevrolet. So, it wasn't the car.

Todd Bodine: B-
You might be asking, "Why such a high grade?" Well, Todd deserves a medal for what he had to put up with in 1998. He was jerked around by ISM Racing (the worst organization in motorsports) and fired when the car couldn't qualify. He went down to the Busch series and ran well. By September, he was driving the #91 Joe Falk owned car. He finished fifth at Atlanta to conclude the season. Great job.

Lake Speed: F
Got hurt in June and was never heard from again.

David Green: D-
Dave Marcis: D

Ricky Craven: D
Underachiever throughout his career. Maybe he can shake that label in 1999. Of course, starting out with a new team he doesn't have any owners points. Might be looking at a few DNQ's to start off.

Morgan Shepherd: D+
Drove a few races for Joe Falk. But will be remembered as getting in the way of the 'Pit Bull' at Atlanta in November. Put some mustard on that concrete sandwich.

Gary Bradberry: D

Randy Lajoie: B-
Had a few strong runs in the #50 car during the Spring.

Hut Stricklin: D-

Positions 51-60

Dennis Setzer: D
Drove a few races in the #13 car. Hardly competitive.

Buckshot Jones: C-
Strong run at Dover in a limited schedule.

Greg Sacks: D
Got hurt and vanished from the scene.

Andy Hillenburg: D+
Billy Standridge: D+
Tommy Kendall: D

Matt Kenseth: A-
Yes, a driver 57th in points gets an "A-" because he only started one race. Kenseth, driving for Bill Elliott at Dover, turned lots of heads by finishing sixth in his first Winston Cup start.

Mike Bliss: D
Elliott Sadler: D

Ron Hornaday: D-
Truck champion wrecked at Sears Point and Darlington.

Positions 61-68

Tom Hubert: C
Impressive qualifying effort at Sears Point.

Mike Wallace: D-

Ron Fellows: C-
Strong qualifying effort at Watkins Glen. The road racer looked out of his element in the #96 car at Loudon.

Butch Gilliland: D
Frank Kimmel: D

Mike Dillon: C-
Gained some experience starting a race for an injured Mike Skinner.

Robby Gordon: C-

Dan Pardus: D+
Failed to qualify at Daytona in February. Made the race in October but lost the car and crashed.

Miscellaneous Features

Driver of the Year- Jeff Gordon.
Did you expect anyone else to win this one?

Crew chief of the Year- Ray Evernham.
Did you expect anyone else to win this one?

Quote of the Year- Jeff Green.
Green accidently hit a pit area photographer while pulling into the garage area. When asked about the incident, Green described it like an on-track racing accident:
"I hate that I got into that lady but it was one of those deals."

Save of the Year- Jeff Burton at Richmond.
After getting hit by Rusty Wallace on the backstretch, Burton slid sideways into turn three. He managed to save the car and went on to win the race. Kim Burton sheds many tears as her husband accepts the award.

Car Owner of the Year- Joe Falk.
Good things come to those who wait. So why can't this team land a sponsorship deal? Honorable mention goes to John Hendrick for keeping the standards set high at Hendrick Motorsports.

Worst Team of the Year- The #35 team (ISM/Tyler Racing).
Todd Bodine started out the year in the #35 car. The organization was a mess and it showed on the track as Todd was unable to get any qualifying performance out of the car. Team owner Bob Hancher fired the driver. Later in the year, they merged with Tyler-Jet Racing. Of course, the merger was done without notifying Tabasco, the sponsor. From lousy cars, to lousy ethics, to lousy people, this team was by far the worst in 1998. A case of Corona to the drivers that sat in the #35 car this season; they've earned it.

Rising Star of the Year- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
A typical Dale Jr. interview at the start of the 1998 season:
"Yeah, man-I-tell-ya-what, that dang-gun-'ol turn three, I reckon we was gonna race..."
A typical Dale Jr. interview at the end of the 1998 season:
"I'd like to thank AC-Delco, Snap On Tools, Burger King, and all the sponsors for supporting us all year long."
Amazing what a BGN title can do for a driver's public speaking ability.

On that note, the evening comes to a conclusion. Captain Tony announces, "Shows over folks. We will reconvene in Daytona Beach in February. Thank you. Get out." However the crowd seems in no hurry to move. He adds, "Anyone still here in ten minutes will have to drive on the outside of Buckshot Jones for five laps or until he puts you in the wall." The room clears out in a hurry.

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