Sunday, February 9, 2003
2003 is anybody's race
NASCAR Winston Cup preview
The Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Young guns or old hands, it doesn't matter; the 2003 Winston Cup season is going to be a shootout.
With Daytona 500 qualifying set for today, it seems just about every driver in the series considers himself a contender to take the season title from Tony Stewart.
"I guess everybody is saying the same thing right now: 'We can win a race and finish in the top 10,'" four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. "Heck, I'm sure they believe it. With the way this thing is shaping up, the competition is going to be even closer than it was last year."
In 36 races last year, 18 drivers won at least once, including five for the first time. No positions in the top 10 in the points standings were decided until the final race.
Strong finishes for upstartsStewart is hoping 2003 will be a "very uneventful, unemotional year."
"I just want to defend my championship, win more than the three races we won last year, and have some fun," Stewart said.
Despite all that drama, perhaps the biggest story of 2002 was the continuing saga of the "young guns."
Stewart started the trend in 1999 at age 28, winning an unprecedented three races and finishing fourth in the points. Twentysomethings Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth became winners and immediate stars in 2000, as did Kevin Harvick in 2001. Last season, it was Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson who raised the bar as rookies. Newman, 24, won once, finished in the top 10 in 22 of 36 races, was fourth in points and won rookie-of-the-year honors.
Johnson, 27, won three times, had 21 top-10 finishes and became the first rookie in modern times to lead the points before winding up sixth.
"Some of it is coming in with really good equipment and really good teams," said Sterling Marlin, a 45-year-old who led the points for 25 weeks last year and was still in the title battle when he crashed late in the season and broke a vertebra in his neck.
Marlin was replaced by 26-year-old Jamie McMurray, who won in his second Winston Cup start. McMurray and Casey Mears, 24, will join Marlin as full-time teammates this season.
Watch out for RoushRoush Racing became a juggernaut in 2002 and could be even better this season.
Mark Martin had a great year, earning his fourth second-place finish, and young teammates Kenseth and Kurt Busch established themselves as likely title contenders this year.
Busch, 24, won three of the last five races and vaulted from 12th to third in the standings in the last eight weeks.
"The biggest key is we had everything rolling in our direction," Busch said. "There's no reason, though, that we can't start the season just like we ended last year. All the pieces are still there."
Kenseth, 30, led everyone with five wins in 2002 and finished a career-best eighth in the points.
Veteran successSome of the veterans, of course, can't be counted out.
Gordon, 31, a four-time series champion, faded at the end of the season after working his way into contention. Martin and former champions Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett, along with Ricky Rudd - all over 40 - finished in the top 10 last season.
"I don't know about those other guys, but I'm not giving those guys anything," said the 46-year-old Wallace. "I know how good my teammate (Newman) is and some of those other guys, too, but some of us old guys still have some life in us."
Wallace, whose Penske Racing team is switching from Ford to Dodge, has added motivation after failing to win a race last year. He won at least once in each of the preceding 16 seasons.
The biggest driver change this year is Rudd switching rides with Elliott Sadler. Rudd joins the Wood Brothers; Sadler goes to Robert Yates Racing.
"It's a great opportunity for me," Sadler said. "This team is a proven winner with great cars and engines, and I can't wait to get started."
More equipment equalityThere is no clear favorite heading into Daytona, thanks to major equipment changes.
There will be new versions of Chevrolet's Monte Carlo and Pontiac's Grand Prix, and Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte have switched from Pontiac to Chevy.
Dodge, which had no drivers finish in the top 10 last season, added Newman and Wallace into its lineup.
NASCAR has been criticized in recent years for its frequent aerodynamic rules changes to try to create parity, but its latest effort may actually get the job done. All of entries now must fit 18 of 32 templates, meaning the general shape of most of the cars will be the same.
But Doug Duchardt, general manager for GM Racing, said the fabricators still can find an edge working on the areas of the cars not dictated by the so-called "common templates." Those areas include the front and rear fascias, the hood, the wheel openings, the sides of the car, excluding the doors, and the window trim lines, excluding the windshield.
"The brand characteristics will still be there. The fans will still be able to tell a Dodge from a Chevrolet or a Ford," said John Fernandez, new head of Dodge Motorsports.
Virtually all the drivers agree, though, that the new aerodynamic rules will help even the competition further.
"Just look at the numbers," said Kyle Petty, driver and CEO of the Petty Enterprises team. "In testing at Daytona, there was about three-tenths of a second between fifth and 30th."
A closer look at this year's Winston Cup racing teams
|0 Jack Sprague-r||Pontiac||Net Zero||Haas|
|01 Jerry Nadeau||Pontiac||U.S. Army||MB2|
|1 Steve Park||Chevy||Pennzoil||Dale Earnhardt Inc.|
|2 Rusty Wallace||Dodge||Miller Lite||Penske|
|4 Mike Skinner||Pontiac||Kodak||Morgan-McClure|
|5 Terry Labonte||Chevy||Kellogg's||Hendrick Motorsports|
|6 Mark Martin||Ford||Viagra||Roush Racing|
|7 Jimmy Spencer||Dodge||Sirius||Ultra Motorsports|
|8 Dale Earnhardt Jr.||Chevy||Budweiser||DEI|
|9 Bill Elliott||Dodge||Dodge Dealers||Ray Evernham |
|10 Johnny Benson||Pontiac||Valvoline||MV Motorsports|
|11 Brett Bodine||Ford||Hooters||Brett Bodine|
|12 Ryan Newman||Dodge||Alltel||Penske|
|14 Larry Foyt-r||Dodge||Harrah's||A.J. Foyt|
|15 Michael Waltrip||Chevy||NAPA||DEI |
|16 Greg Biffle-r||Ford||Grainger||Jack Roush |
|17 Matt Kenseth||Ford||DeWalt Tools||Roush|
|18 Bobby Labonte||Chevy||Interstate Batteries||Joe Gibbs|
|19 Jeremy Mayfield||Dodge||Dodge Dealers||Ray Evernham |
|20 Tony Stewart||Chevy||Home Depot||Joe Gibbs|
|21 Ricky Rudd||Ford||Motocraft||Wood Brothers|
|22 Ward Burton||Dodge||Caterpillar||Bill Davis Racing|
|23 Kenny Wallace||Dodge||Stacker 2||Bill Davis|
|24 Jeff Gordon||Chevy||DuPont||Hendrick |
|25 Joe Nemechek||Chevy||UAW/Delphi||Hendrick |
|29 Kevin Harvick||Chevy||GM Goodwrench||Richard Childress|
|30 Jeff Green||Chevy||AOL||Richard Childress|
|31 Robby Gordon||Chevy||Cingular||Richard Childress|
|32 Ricky Craven||Pontiac||Tide||PPI Motorsports|
|37 Derrike Cope||Dodge||Friendly's||Quest Motor|
|38 Elliott Sadler||Ford||M&M's||Robert Yates Racing|
|40 Sterling Marlin||Dodge||Coors Light||Chip Ganassi Racing|
|41 Casey Mears-r||Dodge||Target||Chip Ganassi Racing|
|42 Jamie McMurray-r||Dodge||Havoline||Chip Ganassi Racing|
|43 John Andretti||Dodge||Cheerios||Petty Enterprises|
|45 Kyle Petty||Dodge||Ga. Pacific||Petty Enterprises|
|48 Jimmie Johnson||Chevy||Lowe's||Hendrick |
|49 Ken Schrader||Dodge||1-800-Call-ATT||BA Racing|
|54 Todd Bodine||Ford||Army Nat. Guard||BelCar Motorsports|
|74 Tony Raines-r||Chevy||TBA||BAC Motorsports|
|77 Dave Blaney||Ford||Jasper Engines||Jasper Motorsports|
|88 Dale Jarrett||Ford||UPS||Robert Yates|
|97 Kurt Busch||Ford||Rubbrmaid/Sharpie||Roush |
|99 Jeff Burton||Ford||Citgo||Roush |
Note: Drivers running partial schedules, with car number in parentheses: (No. 02) Hermie Sadler; (No. 07) Ted Musgrave; (No. 09) Mike Wallace; (No. 27) Scott Wimmer; (No. 44) Christian Fittipaldi; (No. 59) Carl Long.
2003 Cup rookie classA glance at the six Winston Cup drivers competing for Rookie of the Year this season:
Greg Biffle, 33, Roush Racing; 2002 Busch Series champion.
Larry Foyt, 25, A.J. Foyt Racing; struggled in Busch Series past two seasons.
Jamie McMurray, 26, Chip Ganassi Racing; set record in 2002 by winning in second start.
Casey Mears, 24, Chip Ganassi Racing; open-wheel native who raced in Busch Series last season.
Tony Raines, 38, BACE Motorsports; former Busch Series Rookie of the Year.
Jack Sprague, 38, Haas CNC Racing; three-time NASCAR Trucks Series champ.
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