* Kenseth's dominance, Stewart's struggles big stories on track * Rookie battle one of best in years * Darlington in March easy choice for best first-half finish * Bobby Labonte back in 2000 form DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (June 24, 2003) --...
* Kenseth's dominance, Stewart's struggles big stories on track
* Rookie battle one of best in years
* Darlington in March easy choice for best first-half finish
* Bobby Labonte back in 2000 form
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (June 24, 2003) -- Technically, the midpoint of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series is still two races away. Traditionally, though, the series' return to Daytona International Speedway for the Pepsi 400 is viewed as the "halfway home" event. No matter how one slices it, as the season heads into its second-half stretch there is no shortage of intriguing on-track developments.
Matt Kenseth atop the NASCAR Top 10 while defending series championship Tony Stewart struggles to join that elite group; Jamie McMurray leading a hotly contested Raybestos Rookie of the Year battle; the March race at Darlington Raceway providing one of the best finishes in years; and the impressive return of Bobby Labonte, the 2000 series champion, to title contention;
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon is back in the hunt, standing second in the NASCAR Top 10; Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gunning for the best points season-end rank in his career;
Competitive balance remains the rule. After 16 races there have been 13 different winners with only two repeat winners, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.
And then, of course, there were those two major off-track developments of the last two weeks -- the first phase of "Realignment 2004 and Beyond" and the announcement of Nextel replacing Winston as sponsor of NASCAR's premier series starting in 2004.
With the second half of the season officially beginning after the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 13, here's a slightly early review of the season thus far, from a racing standpoint.
* Championship race -- one up, one down: Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford) was a contender coming into this year. Everyone knew that, after last season's series-leading five victories. But who would have thought he would lead the NASCAR Top 10 this season for 13 consecutive weeks, dating back to Atlanta in March? There was a brief period of uncertainty -- going into the Coca-Cola 600 Kenseth's lead had been cut to 20 points by his old friend and one-time NASCAR Busch Series rival Earnhardt (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), who was bidding to lead the points for the first time in his career. Kenseth finished second in the 600 while Earnhardt came in 41st. The result: Kenseth left Charlotte with a 160-point spread. Coming into the Pepsi 400, Kenseth has a 174-point lead over four-time champion Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and is looking more and more like a champion himself. ... Stewart (No. 20 The Home Depot Chevrolet) lurks just outside the NASCAR Top 10, a recent rebound having placed him in 11th coming back to Daytona. That's the good news. The bad news is he's 547 points behind Kenseth, a monumental deficit.
* Rookie rundown -- what a crowd: McMurray (No. 42 Havoline Dodge) leads the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings -- for now. Last year, McMurray was part of a pack of drivers that helped create an outstanding NASCAR Busch Series season. This season several of those drivers have moved on to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, creating a deep and talented rookie class. Coming into Daytona, McMurray leads the rookie points (173) with last year's NASCAR Busch Series champion Greg Biffle (No. 16 Grainger Ford) only eight points (165) behind. McMurray's Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Casey Mears (No. 41 Target Dodge) is third (146). Jack Sprague (No. 0 NetZero Hi Speed Pontiac), a three-time NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, is fourth (141), Tony Raines (No. 74 BACE Motorsports Chevrolet) fifth (135), and Larry Foyt (No. 14 Harrah's Dodge) sixth (77). All of those drivers were in the NASCAR Busch Series last season. Adding to the mix is Japanese driver Hideo Fukuyama (No. 66 Kikkoman Ford), who rounds out the rookie class.
* Best finish -- March madness at Darlington: A last-lap battle for the ages transpired in the closing moments of the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway. Ricky Craven (No. 32 Tide Pontiac) and Kurt Busch (No. 97 Rubbermaid/Sharpie Ford) bumped fenders, neither giving an inch. At the end, that's just about what the difference amounted to. When measured by time, though, Craven's margin of victory came out to 0.002 of a second. By any measurement, that is close.
* Best resurgence -- Bobby Labonte: Looking like the driver who won the 2000 series championship, Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) comes into Daytona fourth in the NASCAR Top 10. Labonte didn't exactly drop off the globe after winning the title -- he finished sixth in points in 2001 and 16th last year. This year, though, he has re-emerged as Joe Gibbs' top driver, as Stewart has slumped.
* Halfway point hard-luck award -- Ryan Newman: An accident at the Daytona 500 marred Newman's season-opening run. A Lap 3 accident ruined his run at Talladega. There was a brake problem at Martinsville, an accident at California and an engine problem at Michigan. Collectively, the five DNFs have obscured the fact that Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge) is one of only two multiple winners this year (Busch is the other), via victories at Texas and Dover. Newman also has four Bud Poles.
* Competitive balance becoming the rule: After 16 races, there have been 13 different winners. Kurt Busch (three victories) and Ryan Newman (two) are the only repeat winners. A fan survey by Sport Illustrated magazine last week (on SI.com) reported that 78% of those who responded said the current, even state of competition made for exciting racing.
* Second-half storm warnings; watch out for:
** Jeff Gordon. One of his nicknames in the garage area is "Four-Time". He would like nothing better than to start being called "Five-Time," as in five series championships, a level that would place him only two shy of the all-time record of seven titles shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. Gordon has closed to second place in the points -- to get Kenseth's attention.
** Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford). There's no way Jarrett and the No. 88 team can keep going like this. Jarrett has one victory this season but is mired in the points, back in 29th. Jarrett -- the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion -- hasn't finished outside the final standings top 20 since 1990.
** Terry Labonte (No. 5 Kellogg's/got milk? Chevrolet). In what has been a nice complement to his younger brother's comeback season, this quiet two-time series champion has quietly re-established his own competitiveness. He comes into Daytona 15th in the points.