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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR ACING

NASCAR Has Rare Opportunity

February 09, 2001|SHAV GLICK

Only twice in NASCAR's Winston Cup history have there been different champions in four successive seasons.

With the 2001 season about to get underway--qualifying for the Daytona 500 pole is set Saturday at Daytona International Speedway--it seems likely that this year's champion can add his name to Jeff Gordon's, Dale Jarrett's and Bobby Labonte's.

It happened earlier with Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip from 1978-1981, and Bobby Allison, Terry Labonte, Waltrip and Earnhardt from 1983-86.

Three strong choices this season are Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. Here's why:

* Stewart won six races in his Joe Gibbs Pontiac, two more than teammate and 2000 champion Bobby Labonte, and starts the year with the advantage of having seen what it took for Labonte to win--patience and the ability to stay out of trouble.

"I've got a better idea of how we have to work to accomplish our goals this year," he said. "I've had a great career so far, and if I don't ever get [a Winston Cup title], my career's still been good. But at the same time, it's kind of like the Indianapolis 500. I don't think my resume will be complete until I get a Winston Cup championship and an Indy 500 win knocked out."

Also on Stewart's list before last Thanksgiving was to win the Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix. After he'd won it, he said, "That's one I always felt I had to win. It cost me more money for gas in my jet to get out [to the Irwindale Speedway] than the prize money, but it was worth it."

* Burton was third last year after chasing Labonte for most of the year. Driving a Ford for Jack Roush, Burton impressed by running second to Jarrett in the Daytona 500 and then winning the summer Pepsi 400 at Daytona. He will be assisted by crew chief Frank Stoddard's record-setting pit crew.

* Martin has finally dropped his busy Busch Grand National program and had back surgery, two items that should help him return to NASCAR's leader board.

After finishing second three times and third four times, Martin fell to eighth last year. Now that he's free of back pain and not running two races on some weekends, look for the Arkansas traveler to challenge for the championship once again.

Others who figure to be in the running are Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd and the two sophomore sensations, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Not likely to become championship contenders, but certainly worth watching will be the new Dodge contingent, led by veteran Bill Elliott, and A.J. Foyt's Pontiac team with 42-year-old rookie Ron Hornaday. After winning Craftsman Truck championships in 1996 and 1998 and two Busch Grand National races last year for Earnhardt, Hornaday was dropped. Foyt then picked up racing's prize free agent.

*

Ken Schrader, who will be going for his third Daytona 500 pole on Saturday, got his 2001 season off to a flying start last Sunday in Phoenix, where he won both the NASCAR Winston West and Featherlite Southwest Series main events.

The versatile veteran from Missouri led 178 of the 250 laps in the two events and collected $28,000.

Best of all, he said, "Was knowing when I get to Daytona, I'll hear people say, 'Good job at Phoenix,' instead of, 'You mean, you went all the way to Phoenix for a Winston West race to finish sixth?' "

Finishing 14th in the Winston West was 73-year-old Hershel McGriff, who won the 1950 Mexican road race.

50 BEST HOT RODDERS

In celebrating its 50th anniversary season, the National Hot Rod Assn. had a panel of drag racing experts select the NHRA's 50 greatest drivers.

They will be announced in reverse order until the No. 1 choice--undoubtedly either Don Garlits or John Force--will be revealed at the Auto Club Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11.

Elmer Trett, a top-fuel motorcycle racer, was named No. 50 during last week's Winternationals. Trett recorded the first 200-mph motorcycle run on a Kawasaki on Sept. 5, 1983. He also became the first to exceed 210, 220 and 230 mph on two wheels. He was killed during an exhibition run in 1996 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Richard Tharp, 1976 top fuel champion and one of the sport's more colorful characters, is No. 49. Although he won his only NHRA title driving for Paul Candies and Leonard Hughes, Tharp was best known as driver of the legendary Blue Max funny car.

He was even better known for his off-track adventures. He once held a dirty-eating contest, dismaying a roomful of friends by swallowing a handful of detergent powder, cigarette butts, raw eggs and goldfish.

Another time, he blocked a car in downtown Amarillo, Texas, and strolled around it--completely naked--because he felt he had been insulted.

The criteria for selection included on-track success, contributions to the growth of the NHRA, technological breakthroughs, marketing-sponsorship breakthroughs, fan popularity, and innovations.

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