BUSCH: Series reaches midpoint

Championship contenders a varied mix, as NASCAR Busch Series season reaches midpoint. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 1, 2002) - Halfway through the NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division season, highlights abound. Jack Sprague has the most ...

Championship contenders a varied mix, as NASCAR Busch Series season reaches midpoint.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 1, 2002) - Halfway through the NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division season, highlights abound. Jack Sprague has the most points, but Jason Keller has the most victories. Scott Riggs, a Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate, also is challenging for the overall championship.

Parity is a byword. In the 17 races thus far in the NASCAR Busch Series season, there have been 10 different winners. There also have been eight different polesitters.

Heritage is a staple. There is an Earnhardt, striving to honor a family legacy. Ditto for other drivers with tradition-rich surnames such as Wallace, Hamilton, Bodine and Hendrick.

There is a Foyt racing regularly on the circuit. A Mears, also. And a Fittipaldi trying to work himself onto the scene, in the nation's No. 2 motorsports series.

The midpoint of the 34-race season has been reached. The second half starts in a big way, with Friday night's inaugural Stacker 2/GNC Live Well 250 at Daytona International Speedway.

Here's a look at the first half, which transpired in a big way, grandly setting the stage for the balance of the year.

Championship race - Coming into the Daytona event, Jack Sprague (No. 24 NetZeroChevrolet) leads the points standings with 2,413, only 46 ahead of second-place Greg Biffle (No. 60 Grainger Ford) and 75 ahead of third-place Jason Keller (No. 57 Albertsons Ford). Sprague has led most of the year, despite having won only one race (Nashville Superspeedway, June 8). Keller has a series-high four victories but some back-in-the-pack finishes have caused a slight drop in points. Many people, though, maintain that rookie Scott Riggs (No. 10 Nestle Nesquik Ford) is the man to watch, with two victories already under his belt. Bottom line: The second-half battle is going to be intense, and tight.

Rookie battle - The Raybestos Rookie of the Year competition is being dominated by Riggs. His mercurial start in the NASCAR Busch Series has overshadowed credible efforts by Shane Hmiel (No. 47 Goulds Pumps Chevrolet), Kerry Earnhardt, (No. 12 Supercuts Chevrolet), Casey Mears (No. 66 Phillips 66 Dodge) and Johnny Sauter (No. 2 ACDelco Chevrolet). Riggs is chasing history: No driver has won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title and the NASCAR Busch Series championship in the same season.

Best finish - The Kroger 300 Presented by Oreo, at Kentucky Speedway, was spread over two days (June 15-16) because of rain. Fans who did not return for the completion missed a door-to-door last-lap duel between Todd Bodine (No. 92 Excedrin Chevrolet) and Biffle. They bumped and banged down the home stretch, Bodine winning by .036 second. Biffle's car crossed the finish line almost sideways, as it was amid a wild spin caused by the contact with Bodine's ride.

Best resurgence - Randy LaJoie (No. 7 Kleenex/Nortel Networks Chevrolet) is seventh in series points, a strong contender to win a third NASCAR Busch Series championship. LaJoie has bounced back after finishing 12th in last year's standings. LaJoie, the series champion in 1996-97, could be poised to start a second-half charge. He has three series wins at Daytona International Speedway, taking the annual preliminary to the Daytona 500 in 1997,' 99 and 2001. LaJoie is having an experience this season similar to the veterans in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, in that he is being overshadowed somewhat by the emergence of various" young guns." That said, it would nonetheless be unwise to count this veteran out of the championship chase.

Keep an eye on... - Start with LaJoie, and continue with two guys who represent both sides of the competitive divide. Kenny Wallace (No. 48 Stacker2/Goulds Pumps Chevrolet) is the veteran; Bobby Hamilton Jr. (No. 25 U.S. Marine Corps Ford) is the youngster. Wallace is fifth in points while Hamilton is eighth. Both are within striking distance of first place.

The graduates - The excitement generated by this season is due, in large part, to drivers who formerly raced in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Sprague is the only driver to win three NASCAR Craftsman Truck championships - (1997,' 99, 2001). Biffle won that series title in 2002. Riggs raced in the series from 1999-2001, winning four times. Ron Hornaday Jr. (No. 26 Dr Pepper Chevrolet) won the NASCAR Craftsman Truck title in 1996 and' 98. Ricky Hendrick (No. 5 GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet) finished sixth in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck points last year.

Open-wheelers - The exodus is rampant. Drivers of open-wheel lineage are choosing to compete in NASCAR. Larry Foyt (No. 14 Harrah's Casino Chevrolet) is the son of four-time Indianapolis 500 champion A.J. Foyt. Casey Mears (No. 66 Phillips 66 Dodge) is the nephew of three-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears. Christian Fittipaldi (No. 30 mike's hard lemonade Chevrolet) is the nephew of two-time Indy winner Emerson Fittipaldi. Foyt and Mears have forsaken their open-wheel roots to go stock-car racing fulltime; Fittipaldi is trying to fit NASCAR into a season that also includes a fulltime open-wheel deal. In addition to these drivers, there's also Kasey Kahne (No. 98 Channellock Ford), a series rookie with a history of open-wheel accomplishments. Also, word is Indy Racing League 2001 champion Sam Hornish is contemplating running a limited schedule next year in the NASCAR Busch Series.

Car sponsors flocking to series - The NASCAR Busch Series season began with 12 new primary sponsorships in place, including high-profile deals like Toys R Us for Kevin Grubb's No. 54 Chevrolet, Stacker2 for Wallace and Supercuts for Kerry Earnhardt.

First-timers - After 17 races, there have been three first-time race winners (Sprague, Riggs and Hamilton) and four first-time polesitters (Hornaday, Hmiel, Riggs and Johnny Sauter).

Who's watching? - NASCAR Busch Series competition, through the first 16 races of the year, had been watched by a total of 37,858,000 television viewers according to Nielsen Media Research, a 26% increase compared to last year's viewership at the 16-race juncture. The NASCAR Busch Series has consistently posted TV numbers underscoring its status as the nation's No. 2 motorsports series.


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Drivers Bobby Hamilton , Todd Bodine , Jason Keller , Kenny Wallace , Greg Biffle , Casey Mears , Christian Fittipaldi , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Larry Foyt , Ricky Hendrick , Jack Sprague , Kevin Grubb , Scott Riggs , Kerry Earnhardt , Rick Mears , Shane Hmiel , Johnny Sauter , Kasey Kahne , Emerson Fittipaldi , A.J. Foyt , Sam Hornis