Report from Motorsport News International
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Top-10 season summaries
NEW YORK (Dec. 5, 1997) Each of the top-10 drivers who will take their turns at the podium during the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Awards Banquet earned the right to come to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City and enjoy themselves. Each of these competitors not only withstood the long, grueling NASCAR Winston Cup Series season, but excelled throughout the year.
Here are the season summaries from each of the drivers who finished the year in the top-10 of the point standings:
1. Jeff Gordon -- No. 24 DuPont Refinishes Chevrolet
Turning Point: Winning the Mountain Dew Southern 500 and The Winston Million at Darlington Raceway.
Quote: "In 1997, it seemed like a year where it was meant to be, but we had a little more competition. And then we had to go and make it tougher on ourselves at the final race. So I guess after that, it was definitely a year where it was meant to be."
Summary: Ten victories were still not enough to guarantee a second championship, nor were trips to Victory Lane in three of the five biggest races on the calendar. His first Daytona 500 was a harbinger of what lay ahead in 1997, as was the follow-up win at Rockingham the next week. He followed up his win at Darlington with five consecutive top-10 finishes to hold off the challenges of a tandem of Ford drivers.In the season finale, despite having two strikes against him in the form of a crashed primary car and a poor starting position, Gordon drove a tactically flawless race to preserve his position atop the standings and bring him a second title in three years.
2. Dale Jarrett -- No. 88 Ford Quality Care Ford
Turning Point: Winning for the first time at Darlington, in the TranSouth Financial 400.
Quote: "The year that we had would have won a lot of championships in a lot of years, but it didn't in 1997. That's the one thing you have to look at. But regardless of what happens, I can look back and say that we finished second to a great competitor, a great race team, that did things just a little bit better than we did."
Summary: Seven wins, and a season of milestones were not enough to deliver Dale Jarrett his first NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. His win at Bristol Motor Speedway was among the most notable, a victory that silenced the misplaced criticism that he was unable to win on a short track. He won two of the final five races, and finished second in two of the others, but it was his trip to Watkins Glen that made have been the difference in his championship charge. Mechanical problems and a black flag penalty pushed Jarrett to 32nd-place finish. It was a hole out of which he ultimately could not climb.
3. Mark Martin -- No. 6 Valvoline Ford
Turning Point: Winning at Sears Point to end a victory drought that extended to 1995.
Quote: "It was a good year. We were a championship contender right down to the last lap at Atlanta. I'm thankful for what I have accomplished, and not bitter for what I haven't."
Summary: A great driver, a great car and a great team, all led by one of the most respected owners in the sport, made for the closest three-way championship finish in the history of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Martin's wins at Sears Point, Talladega, Michigan and Dover put him back on track to contend each week, something he did without fail in 1997. He finished the year with a career-high $1,877,139 and a third-place finish in the season finale that kept the pressure on the eventual champion until the last laps were run at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
4. Jeff Burton -- No. 99 Exide Batteries Ford
Turning Point: His win at Texas in the inaugural race there, the first victory of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career.
Quote: "We had a great year. We had as good of ayear as we probably could have hoped for with the amount of experience we have as a race team, and with me as a driver."
Summary: Burton established himself as one of the sport's stars of tomorrow with three wins -- including his first career in the inaugural race at Texas Motor Speedway. His last-lap duel with Gordon at the Mountain Dew Southern 500 was one of the year's defining moments, but one that hinted of what's in store for this talented native of Virginia. Consistency was elusive at times, but his brilliance and daring behind the wheel was unmistakable. When he returns to Texas, Loudon and Martinsville in 1998, he'll do so as a defending race-winner, a list he's sure to add to in the coming year.
5. Dale Earnhardt -- No. 3 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet
Turning Point: A second-place finish at Winston 500.
Quote: "Hey, we didn't win the championship, it's over with, I can't do anything about it. I can lick my wounds, I can lay around and heal up. And I can focus on getting better and stronger for next year. And that's what I'm going to do."
Summary: Waiting for Earnhardt to win became a vigil of sorts for the man who has defined the sport for the past decade. His gutsy finish at Daytona in February set the tone for a year in which the No. 3 team and its driver battled to re-establish themselves at the top of the game. While the preseason optimism may have been a bit misplaced, save for a scary incident at Darlington where Earnhardt was overcome and had to be hospitalized temporarily, it was a season most drivers would have bronzed. Earnhardt, however, is not most drivers.
The last eight races provided the best indication of that; six times he was in the top-10 and twice he was runner-up.
6. Terry Labonte -- No. 5 Kellogg's Corn Flakes Chevrolet
Turning Point: The win at Talladega in the DieHard 500.
Quote: "It was going to be hard to top 1996, but overall we had a pretty decent year. I think we have a great team and we ended the year on a high note, and that was pretty important."
Summary: Posted 20 top-10 finishes in defense of his 1996 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. Finished second as part of a 1-2-3 Hendrick Motorsports sweep in the Daytona 500, then broke a dry spell with a victory in the DieHard 500 at Talladega late in the season. The two-time champion collected $1,951,844 for his troubles.
7. Bobby Labonte -- No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac
Turning Point: The Brickyard 400, posting a strong second-place finish from a disappointing 25th-place starting spot.
Quote: "We're glad we out-did some guys on multi-car teams, we're proud of it. But we are still hungry. We want to be a little further up in the points."
Summary: Put up the best numbers of any Pontiac driver in his first year behind the wheel of a Grand Prix model. He won the season-ending NAPA 500 for the second consecutive year, and finished second on three other ocassions. In addition to his trip to Victory Lane, he posted three Busch Pole awards for owner Joe Gibbs on his way to his highest career finish in the point standings.
8. Bill Elliott -- No. 94 McDonald's Ford
Turning Point: SpeedWeeks '97 at Daytona, with a third place in one Gatorade 125 and a fourth in the Daytona 500.
Quote: "I think for the most part we ran very competitively. We led a lot of laps, and though we didn't end up in Victory Lane, we showed we can be very competitive."
Summary: Elliott returned to form in 1997, and his fans responded by making him the NMPA Most Popular Driver for the 12th time in 14 years. He had a chance to win at Daytona, but fell prey to a pack of Chevrolets late. His best finish came at Michigan in June, a second. He gave Gordon a run for the money -- literally -- in the Mountain Dew Southern 500. He started on the outside of the front row, and controlled much of the race before finishing fourth. As well as winning a Busch Pole Award, his pit crew won the Unocal/Rockingham Pit Crew Championship.
9. Rusty Wallace -- No. 2 Miller Lite Ford
Turning Point: Winning at Richmond, his only victory of the season.
Quote: "I think I'm the only driver in history to have 11 DNFs and still finish in the top-10 in points. It's crazy, but at the same time it shows how strong we were when we were running."
Summary: Wallace showed the form that made him a NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion at times in 1997, but the 1989 trophy winner also suffered from problems with engine reliability and accidents. Still, he found his way to Victory Lane, winning the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond to lift his impressive career victory total to 47.
10. Ken Schrader -- No. 33 Skoal Chevrolet
Turning Point: Taking both Busch Poles at New Hampshire International Speedway, one with a track record July 129.423.
Quote: "We didn't win a race and we sure would have liked to have done that. But when we started out we wanted to be top-10 in points. We thought that was a good goal for us. We got'er done by not much -- but we got er done."
Summary: A new team and a new owner in Andy Petree breathed new life into Schrader's still potent career. He captured two Busch Poles, and following a slow start which included an early exit in the Daytona 500 this year, Schrader concluded the season with an average finish of 17th, enough to slip into the coveted 10th spot on the final day of the season. His margin was only one point, but it was enough to propel him to New York City and the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Awards Banquet.