When the NASCAR Winston Cup Series hits Charlotte for this weekend's UAW-GM Quality 500, there will be only six races remaining in the 1999 season. While most of the attention is focused on those drivers competing for the championship,...
When the NASCAR Winston Cup Series hits Charlotte for this weekend's UAW-GM Quality 500, there will be only six races remaining in the 1999 season. While most of the attention is focused on those drivers competing for the championship, there is an equally intense battle being waged by those drivers looking to finish in the top 25. The difference between 22nd-place Chad Little and 30th-place Geoffrey Bodine is 173 points. Those Ford drivers looking to either stay or join the top 25 spoke about the importance of being in that group.
TED MUSGRAVE --75-- Remington Arms Taurus -- "It doesn't matter if you're in the top five, top 10, top 15 or top 25 -- right on down the line. You look at provisional stuff, you look at plan money for next year, you look at a lot of things. Even sponsors say, 'We want a top 25 team or a top 20 team to sponsor.' They look at that and kind of look up, so it doesn't matter where you're at there are points battles going on all the time. They fight just as hard as they do in the front for the point battle, they just don't get seen on TV or mentioned a lot. There's a lot of competition going on back there."
ARE YOU AWARE OF WHERE THE GUYS IN FRONT OF YOU IN THE POINTS ARE DURING THE RACE OR DO YOU LOOK AT IT AFTERWARDS? "Yeah, you look at it afterwards. You don't do that until maybe the last race or two of the season. I know I did that in my rookie season trying to win the rookie of the year against Bobby Hamilton and I know the last few races of the season it was like, 'OK, where's Bobby? Where's Bobby?' I know he was doing the same thing to find out where we were on the racetrack because we both wanted to finish ahead of the other. Even though there were other cars out there, the only race we worried about was each other. That may happen again where guys in the top five or top 10 in the last race or two will look for that. They'll try to win, but then again the first thing on their mind is that battle for a top-five or top-10 finish. Maybe the 11th guy in points or the sixth place guy in points will ask the crew chief where so-and-so is because they'll want to know if they should just ride around and protect their position or not. I've seen that happen a lot at the end of the season."
IT'S IMPORTANT TO FINISH IN THE TOP 25 IN POINTS ISN'T IT? "It's kind of like qualifying. First round qualifying stops at 25 and the points are the same way. If you're in the top 25 and you get a provisional it doesn't count against you. There are a lot of things at that particular cutoff line. Naturally, the further up you go the more money you make in the points system, but in all reality the provisional deal gets more precious, so the top 25 line is gonna be a dogfight."
NOTE: Musgrave is 32nd in the point standings and trails 25th-place Kenny Wallace by 216 points.
ELLIOTT SADLER --21-- Citgo Taurus -- "It gets tougher each and every week it seems like, to be in the top 25 in points. There's not a lot of room between 20th and 30th, there's about 20 or 30 points between each position, so we're all battling back there too. It's not only the guys battling up front for the Winston Cup championship, but we're battling for provisionals for the first four races of next year and extra point fund money from R.J. Reynolds and things like that. We've got our own little race going back there and I think we work just as hard or harder to try to get in a good position to be ready for next year so it's pretty tough. We're kind of looking at the scoreboard to see who is running fast in practice and where they're at in points. We really concentrate on the guys around us that we feel we need to beat. We've been doing that a lot here lately and it seems to be paying off for us."
WHEN YOU'RE RUNNING IN MID-PACK, DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU'RE RACING SOMEONE FOR POSITION WHO IS EITHER RIGHT AHEAD OR BEHIND YOU IN THE POINTS? "Exactly right. That's what we do. A lot of people try to practice and run the same times that Jeff Gordon does in practice or Dale Jarrett or Mark Martin. We do to, but we also concentrate on the people around us like Johnny Benson, Kenny Schrader, Bill Elliott, Steve Park -- people like that. That's who we've got to run with and that's who we've got to beat this week to get ahead in points, not Dale Jarrett or Mark Martin or people like that. We have to run these guys, so we pay attention during the race of who's doing what. If they get four tires, we might get four tires. If they get two, we might get two or something like that, so we really try to pay attention to what those guys are doing -- to try to race them and be competitive with them. Things have been working pretty well for us lately, so we've just gotta keep doing it and going in the right direction."
THE THING IS YOU CAN GAIN SPOTS QUICKLY OR LOSE SPOTS QUICKLY, RIGHT? "Exactly. We felt like we were gaining step by step until we got to Bristol and got in that big wreck with Dale Jarrett and Jeremy and all of us got in that wreck. We lost like two or three positions and it was like, 'Man, we've gotta start over,' so we started over and have been picking away at it. We've come from like 34th to 24th in points in the last 10 or 11 races and that's great. The team is doing their job and I feel like I'm getting more comfortable each and every week, but you've gotta finish. I think we've finished every race since Vegas and that's something we're pretty proud of, but that's what you've gotta do when you're in a points battle back there because it's so close. The guys who are back there aren't always gonna have top fives, but you've gotta make sure you finish every race and run every lap. That's what we've really been working on and lately we've been able to that and I think that's why we've moved up in the points so much."
NOTE: Sadler was 36th in points after the 11th race of the season at Richmond, but has moved up 12 spots to 24th. He moved into the top 25 for the first time all season after finishing 12th at Dover two weeks ago and did so on the strength of four straight top-20 efforts.
BRETT BODINE --11-- Paychex Taurus -- "There's a battle for 25th and there's a battle for the top 35. Twenty-fifth is very important because starting the year out the next season, if you need to use a provisional they don't count against you and for the first four races you're locked into that position in the point standings. That's real critical to get the season started off in a more comfortable situation. It certainly worked for us because we needed a spot at Daytona the first race and it didn't count against us as far as our total number of provisionals. Now 35th position, that's what I'm racing for this year unfortunately. But there's a lot of owner's plan money that is available for the top 35 in the points and if you're 36th you don't get any of that plan money for the whole next season. It's a substantial amount of money -- about $250,000. Probably the second-most important spot in the points standings besides first and second is 35th and 36th. That can mean a big difference in the plan money for the next year."
WHO ARE YOU MOST CONSCIOUS OF ON THE RACETRACK -- THE LEADERS OR THE GUYS AROUND YOU IN THE STANDINGS? "We've already made a conscious effort to race those people that we're racing for 35th in the points. You're certainly racing the rest of the field, but we don't want to lose sight of what those folks are doing. We want to position ourselves and try to beat them in every remaining event and, hopefully, we can pass them. We're in the catch-up mode and we've only got six races left that we feel we can do some business in, so it's very, very important to race those people that we're racing for those positions in the points."
NOTE: Bodine edged out Joe Nemechek by 10 points for 25th place last season and did so in the final race of the season at Atlanta. Bodine finished 31st while Nemechek was forced out with an engine problem and placed 40th.
RICK MAST --98-- Universal Studios Taurus -- "Number one, from a financial standpoint it behooves the owner to be in the top 30 because there's a significant amount of money a team gets for being in the top 30 from the previous season. Number two, you get points money paid back to 25th position. Most all of the drivers get a cut or percentage of the points money, plus it's more money for the team. From a financial standpoint you have that. Then, the first four races of next season are based on last year's finishing position in points so the better you are there, the better chances you have of getting a provisional if you need one. The points thing is just so important. We're 27th or 28th right now and we could theoretically get to 20th. Things have to go right the rest of the races to do that, and I think this team is capable of doing that, but it takes more than luck or chance or saying you want to do that."
WILL YOU CONCENTRATE ON RACING GUYS LIKE JARRETT AND GORDON, OR DO YOU LOOK AT THE GUYS AROUND YOU IN THE POINTS? "We've talked about that. When it comes down to the end of the race, maybe I look at the guys I'm racing with in the points but only towards the end of the race. Now I do notice during the race if one of the guys around us in points has a problem. If they have problems I will take account of that and notice. I do pay attention to that, but I don't really pay any attention to those guys as far as being able to race and what we've gotta do to beat them until you get down towards the end. You're so busy working on your car each stop. My deal when I'm running is what I want to do with my car the next stop. I always try to stay two stops ahead in my decision-making process and that's really based on what the car's doing and not what the guys around me in the points are doing."
THE RACING MID-PACK, THOUGH, IS JUST AS COMPETITIVE AS UP FRONT, RIGHT? "It's a hornet's nest. We were at Michigan and I had a real strong car, but whatever happened we got bad track position on a restart. Mark (Martin) was back with us and we took off under green. I got through a bunch of them and got towards the front and it took Mark a long time getting through there. The next week Mark said to me, 'Rick, your car was pretty good last week. How did you get through all that mess so quick on that one restart?' And I said to him joking, 'Mark, all year while you've been up front drinking martini's, I've been back here fighting this hornet's nest each week.' You learn the guys. You learn who to race with and who not to race with. I'm a little more accustomed to that, but it's very fierce back there. It's really hard racing back there. The easiest racing is when you get your car working good enough toward the front because those guys are just real easy to race with -- not with 20 laps to go. It's more fierce than it is in the back, but you're just trying to get the end at that point."
NOTE: Mast had been in the top 25 through the first 13 races of 1999, but goes into Charlotte in 28th place for the fifth straight week. He trails 25th-place Kenny Wallace by 130 points.
KEVIN LEPAGE --16-- TV Guide Taurus -- "It's very important to finish in the top 25. First of all, it creates provisionals for the first four races next year that don't count against you and being a top 25 car owner makes a difference in pay. There are just so many benefits by being in the top 25. There are about seven or eight drivers right now that are trying to stay in the top 25 or get in the top 25. With our team, about three months ago we were 20th in the points and then we went back to 28th or 29th. Now we're slowly gouging our way back up and we're 26th now. We've got a few races left. Talladega is a place you can gain or lose a lot of points. Charlotte, we run well there, so we're looking forward to Charlotte. Rockingham is a good track for us -- Phoenix and, hopefully, Homestead. I've won there and run every Busch race there and I'll run again when I get there so, hopefully, seat time will be beneficial but we're working really hard to get in the top 25."
WHO ARE YOU RACING EACH WEEKEND? "We're racing to win before the end of the year. We're racing to have a top five like we did at Darlington a few weeks ago. Right now we don't have a sponsor for next year, so we're trying to keep TV Guide happy and keep them on the car for next year. But we're also trying to attract somebody else in case they don't come back. I signed on with Roush Racing to be their driver next year, but, obviously, we need a sponsor, so week in and week out I go out and do the best job I can. Last week at Martinsville we were pushing the limit in practice to see what the point of no return was, the next thing you know I'm in the wall so I found the point of no return. Unfortunately, it put the guys in a hole. We had to get our backup car out and just barely made the show, but the guys on the team are working really hard to get us to victory lane or at least a top five."
SO BASICALLY YOU JUST TRY TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF, RIGHT? "That's true. A few weeks ago at New Hampshire we had a heck of a race car, one of the best cars we've had all year long and circumstances took us out of the top 10. I race week in and week out and do the best job we can with the car that's given to us. I'm not gonna sit there and say, 'I'm two spots ahead of Elliott Sadler, so that means I'm in the top 25.' No, I want to be 20 spots ahead of Elliott Sadler if that could be happening wherever we are. But to sit there and say I race for points...I'm racing for a sponsor, I'm racing for wins and I'm racing to do the best job I can. I'm racing to be the best Roush car week in and week out. We have the team to do that, we've just gotta put it all together one weekend."
NOTE: Lepage had a career-best fifth place showing at Darlington last month, but goes into this weekend's race in 26th spot, trailing Kenny Wallace by only 31 points.