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Irony in NASCAR

Mar 13, 2001 8:03 AM

We all knew the 2001 NASCAR season would always be remembered by drivers and fans as the season of Dale Earnhardt Sr. memories. What we could have never imagined is how the season has unfolded after four races.

Whether it’s coincidence or divine intervention, all four winners this season had a strong link to Dale Earnhardt Sr. The first two winners were on the team owned by Dale Earnhardt Sr.: Michael Waltrip’s first career win and Steve Park’s second.

Earnhardt Sr.’s arch-rival throughout the ’90s was Jeff Gordon. While the fans and a few Earnhardt Sr. quotes made them seem like enemies, they were business partners in several ventures and respected each other.

Gordon managed to win in Las Vegas, one of the few tracks on which he’d never scored a victory.

The biggest oddity happened last Sunday in Atlanta where 50-1 long shot Kevin Harvick, was driving in his third career Winston Cup race. Harvick drove the GM Goodwrench car to win at the line in nearly the same fashion that Earnhardt Sr. won this race last year. Tears of joy and pain swept through nearly everyone watching the race. Harvick’s win set a Winston Cup record for the fewest races before winning. Compare his three races to Michael Waltrip’s 463 before he won and it appears even stranger.

"I think Dale Earnhardt was in the passenger seat of this car," said Harvick. "Somebody was making me go a lot better than I was."

On the emotional level, nothing will compare to when Dale Earnhardt Jr. eventually wins his first race of the season. And you better believe he’ll have the same passenger Harvick had helping him.

In the whirlwind of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s friends and foes winning the first four races, the normal top Winston Cup drivers have struggled. Top candidates such as Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart have seen their seasons unravel. Upstarts like Johnny Benson, Jerry Nadeau and Sterling Marlin are tearing it up.

Coming into Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway, the top two in the standings are also the top two favored to win. Jeff Gordon (7-2) and Dale Jarrett (5-1) are the only two doing as expected. Gordon and his team may even be raising a few eyebrows with their strong performances. It appears the Gordon of old is back.

If he is, Darlington is as good as any to prove it. The high banks of this 1.3 mile, high-banked track with four different corners make it one of the most difficult for drivers to tame. Mix in the sandpaper asphalt surface that’s murder on the tires, and you’ve got a track that might be the toughest on the tour.

Gordon has five career wins at Darlington in 16 career starts. His win (31%) and Top 5 (56 percent) there are unmatched by any other driver with as many starts. His fourth straight Southern 500 win may stand forever, considering that the most anyone had done before was two in a row. To put a further perspective on how tough it is to win at Darlington, the great Richard Petty won only three times in 66 starts throughout his career.

Dale Jarrett has finished in the top five in six of his last seven Darlington races, including two wins. This season, Jarrett has won the last two poles and has been extremely tough, as well. He’s settling into the mode that made him a champion two years ago. However, his tenacious run for the victory last week in Atlanta sends a signal that he doesn’t just want to finish well. He’s going for big wins.

All signs point to either Gordon or Jarrett to be in the winner’s circle this week. Their knowledge of the track will make them tough to beat.

Two drivers who’ve always performed well at Darlington find themselves deep in the standings, so deep that Buckshot Jones (200-1) is ahead of them. Jeff Burton (6-1) is 38th and Jeremy Mayfield (14-1) is 40th in the Winston Cup standings after four races. Both will certainly pass Buckshot, but the disappointment from each camp is evident. Burton was supposed to be a contender for the championship. Mayfield’s goal was to break into the top five.

In 1999, Burton swept Darlington for his two career wins there. His consistency in his 12 other starts is what’s attractive for the bettor. In those 12 other non-winning starts, Burton has six top five finishes. Is this the week Burton finally finishes a race? Probably yes — though Jarrett has the only Ford that’s able to do anything,

Burton’s skills on this track can outweigh the disadvantage of an inferior car.

Last season, Mayfield’s experience at Darlington was a mirror of what’s happened to him this season — endless problem after problem, whether it’s an engine problem or just a wall that always seems get in his way. He finished in the top five in all four Darlington races prior to last year. He likes this track while so many drivers don’t.

With Sterling Marlin (12-1) back in the mix of things, it should be noted that his third career win came at Darlington in 1995…Ward Burton (10-1) dominated last season’s race, picking up his second career win.