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 upstarts

Stewart 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 Roush

Roush 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 success

Some 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 equality

There 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

No DriverMakeSponsorTeam
0 Jack Sprague-rPontiacNet ZeroHaas
01 Jerry NadeauPontiacU.S. ArmyMB2
1 Steve ParkChevyPennzoilDale Earnhardt Inc.
2 Rusty WallaceDodgeMiller LitePenske
4 Mike SkinnerPontiacKodakMorgan-McClure
5 Terry LabonteChevyKellogg'sHendrick Motorsports
6 Mark MartinFordViagraRoush Racing
7 Jimmy SpencerDodgeSiriusUltra Motorsports
8 Dale Earnhardt Jr.ChevyBudweiserDEI
9 Bill ElliottDodgeDodge DealersRay Evernham
10 Johnny BensonPontiacValvolineMV Motorsports
11 Brett BodineFordHootersBrett Bodine
12 Ryan NewmanDodgeAlltelPenske
14 Larry Foyt-rDodgeHarrah'sA.J. Foyt
15 Michael WaltripChevyNAPADEI
16 Greg Biffle-rFordGraingerJack Roush
17 Matt KensethFordDeWalt ToolsRoush
18 Bobby LabonteChevyInterstate BatteriesJoe Gibbs
19 Jeremy MayfieldDodgeDodge DealersRay Evernham
20 Tony StewartChevyHome DepotJoe Gibbs
21 Ricky RuddFordMotocraftWood Brothers
22 Ward BurtonDodgeCaterpillarBill Davis Racing
23 Kenny WallaceDodgeStacker 2Bill Davis
24 Jeff GordonChevyDuPontHendrick
25 Joe NemechekChevyUAW/DelphiHendrick
29 Kevin HarvickChevyGM GoodwrenchRichard Childress
30 Jeff GreenChevyAOLRichard Childress
31 Robby GordonChevyCingularRichard Childress
32 Ricky CravenPontiacTidePPI Motorsports
37 Derrike CopeDodgeFriendly'sQuest Motor
38 Elliott SadlerFordM&M'sRobert Yates Racing
40 Sterling MarlinDodgeCoors LightChip Ganassi Racing
41 Casey Mears-rDodgeTargetChip Ganassi Racing
42 Jamie McMurray-rDodgeHavolineChip Ganassi Racing
43 John AndrettiDodgeCheeriosPetty Enterprises
45 Kyle PettyDodgeGa. PacificPetty Enterprises
48 Jimmie JohnsonChevyLowe'sHendrick
49 Ken SchraderDodge1-800-Call-ATTBA Racing
54 Todd BodineFordArmy Nat. GuardBelCar Motorsports
74 Tony Raines-rChevyTBABAC Motorsports
77 Dave BlaneyFordJasper EnginesJasper Motorsports
88 Dale JarrettFordUPSRobert Yates
97 Kurt BuschFordRubbrmaid/SharpieRoush
99 Jeff BurtonFordCitgoRoush


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 class

A 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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