Homestead: Championship battles rage in season finale

Stewart, Martin square off for NASCAR Winston Cup crown at season finale; other position battles rage among the top 10 in the championship. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (November 13, 2002) -- Tony Stewart and Mark Martin will culminate one of NASCAR's...

Stewart, Martin square off for NASCAR Winston Cup crown at season finale; other position battles rage among the top 10 in the championship.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (November 13, 2002) -- Tony Stewart and Mark Martin will culminate one of NASCAR's most competitive seasons in the modern era by settling their bids for their first NASCAR Winston Cup championship in Sunday's season-closing Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The first 35 races have produced 18 different winners -- one shy of the modern-era record set last season -- but all eyes will be on the duel between the 31-year-old Stewart and 43-year-old Martin for the ultimate prize in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac) enters the season finale with an 89-point lead over Martin, and is favored to become the fourth different champion in the last four years. He also would become the second champion produced by Joe Gibbs Racing in that span, joining 2000 champ and current teammate Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac).

"To me, I don't feel any pressure, in all reality. I've been in this situation multiple times," Stewart said. "In '95, we won three USAC championships in the same year. We won the midget championship in '94 and, obviously, the IRL championship in '97. After you deal with so many championships like that, you learn how to deal with it. Worrying is not going to do anything.

"We've just got to go out and race hard. I'm sticking to the plan that I've said every week for the last five or six weeks. We're not changing anything. I'm going to race to win and the rest of it will have to take care of itself. Just concentrating on the job at hand is enough of a task to keep you from worrying about the rest of it."

Stewart needs to finish 22nd or better in the 43-car field to clinch the title regardless of Martin's performance. If bonus points (five for leading a lap and five for most laps led) are factored into the mix, he can finish 24th or better if he leads a lap or 25th or better if he leads the most laps.

The maximum points available are 185, which would consist of 175 for the win, five for leading a lap and another five for most laps led, while a last-place finish with no bonuses is worth 34 points.

Both drivers fared well in their first two starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but struggled in their most recent appearances.

Stewart won the first two races at the 1.5-mile oval in 1999 and 2000, but a tire problem relegated him to 19th last year despite leading the most laps (72).

"That (past success at Homestead) is probably part of the reason that it's taken a lot of the pressure off, too," said Stewart, who has led 282 laps in three starts at the track. "Our past history before Winston Cup was actually terrible. In the Busch Series, I ran very poorly there (37th and 39th). It seemed like once I got into the Winston Cup Series, the difference in wheel bases and horsepower, and having a different team and crew and car, there is something about that track that has just been magic for us."

Martin scored top-four finishes in his first two starts (fourth in 1999, third in 2000) but finished 24th last season.

While Stewart and Martin tangle for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series crown, there is a battle royal brewing for positions three through seven in the championship. Only 23 points separate those five positions and at stake is plenty of prize money from the NASCAR Winston Cup point fund. The difference between finishing third or seventh is $500,000 as the third slot pays $1,050,000 and seventh $550,000. In between the extremes, fourth pays out $860,000; fifth $740,000; and sixth $630,000.

Kurt Busch (No. 97 Rubbermaid Ford) holds the third position and is arguably the hottest driver in the series over the last six events, dating to Talladega. During that span, he has two wins (Martinsville, Atlanta) and three other top-six performances to rocket from 11th to his current position.

Busch, however, will have to continue his recent tear to fend off the foursome trailing him. He holds a narrow eight-point lead over rookie Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) and Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Ford), who round out the top five. Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) sits in sixth, just a point behind Johnson and Wallace. Rookie Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL/Mobil 1 Ford) is seventh, 23 points behind Busch.

"But even if we can't win the thing, there's all that cash on the line as far as the final point standings go," said Wallace, who needs a win to extend his streak to 17 consecutive seasons with at least one victory. "We're tied for fourth right now, but we can take third outright with a good run."

The top 10 teams get invitations to the NASCAR Winston Cup Awards Ceremony, scheduled for Friday, Dec. 6 in New York City, and Ricky Rudd (No. 28 Havoline Ford) currently holds the final spot. However, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) and Jeff Burton (No. 99 CITGO SUPERGARD Ford) will make their final bid for a seat with a strong effort in the Ford 400. Rudd holds a 52-point lead over Earnhardt Jr. and a 123-point advantage over Burton.

"We've got a shot at moving up into 10th place in points if we can do well on Sunday," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I guess that means I'd be happy to have to sit on the beach and write my speech for the banquet. We'll go out strong -- and do what we can to convince all of those people who picked us as championship contenders this year that we're going to be the ones to beat next year."

Closest NASCAR Winston Cup points battles between 1st and 5th with 1 race remaining: <pre>

Year               Points leader                       Pts. diff. between 1st & 5th
1992               Davey Allison                         98
1984               Terry Labonte *                      203
2002               Tony Stewart                         238
1989               Rusty Wallace *                      366
1996               Terry Labonte *                      370

* Eventual champion

-nascar-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Terry Labonte , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Mark Martin , Davey Allison
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing