Single winners in NASCAR

April 24, 2001 7:58 AM
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The sunshine of Southern California is the next stop for the NASCAR tour.

After nine races this season, only Dale Jarrett (5-1) is a multiple winner. With the likes of Bobby Hamilton, Elliott Sadler, Michael Waltrip, Steve Park, and Kevin Harvick winning races this season, the question is, "When are the elite drivers of the Winston Cup Series going to wake up?"

The teams of Gibbs, Roush, and Penske have all been missing in action. Most of those drivers had expectations of a championship run and surely a Top 5 finish, but it hasn’t happened.

Rusty Wallace (10-1) has been the most consistent of the group, currently sitting sixth in the standings, but he hasn’t shown any signs of dominance like he did last season. California might be a track where he’ll run well. The Penske track is a replica of Michigan Speedway where Wallace has visited the winner’s circle five times, including last season’s fall race.

His teammate, Jeremy Mayfield (18-1), won this race last season so the winning set-up notes are available, but the two teams must talk to each other and that hasn’t ever been the case. Nice team effort!

The cookie cutter track, similar to Las Vegas, gives the drivers plenty of room and the long straights allow for the cars to display their brute power without restrictor plates as they’ll reach almost 200 mph. Because there is so much room, cautions are at a minimum, and the top two or three cars of the day will separate quickly from the rest. That leaves for little drama, especially considering what we all witnessed last week at Talladega.

With that in mind, you’ll want to know who is going to be fast that weekend and the best way to do that is pay attention to the practice speeds Friday and Saturday. A good start position from qualifying is nice, but that is only one lap. The information gained from the long runs of practice will be of more help and will be a better indication of who will run well Sunday.

When comparing notes with Michigan because of the similarities, be sure to keep in mind that all of Michigan’s races are 400-mile events while California’s is a 500-mile event. That means one extra pit stop and a complexion change from the first 400 laps. Mayfield led the last 25 laps of the race last season, his first lead of the day. He started 24th, but had good happy hour times. The next two finishers were Bobby Labonte who started 36th, and Matt Kenseth who started 23rd. Both Kenseth and Labonte have good happy hour times showing the importance of practice versus qualifying.

Without knowledge of those times right now, we’ll go through past history information we do know from the top candidates performances at both California and Michigan.

Jeff Gordon (5-1) has been the epitome of consistency at Penske’s two-mile tracks. In 16 races at Michigan, Gordon has only one win, but 11 Top 5 finishes. In four races at California, he has two wins, a 4th, and 11th, which came last year. Based on his performance this season, he looks closer to being the driver that won two races than last years version that finished 11th. His Las Vegas win is a good barometer as well because his set up will be almost identical for this race.

The fact that Gordon is from California and will have one of his best cheering crowds of anywhere, will also give him some added incentive. His team has managed to give him a competitive car every week and avoided the engine failures that plagued him last year. Expect Gordon to do very well this weekend.

The current points leader, Dale Jarrett (5-1), has always done well at Michigan, but has had problems at California.

In his 1999 championship season, Jarrett went wire-to-wire at a caution-free Michigan. Had that race been 500 miles, Gordon would have won that day. In California, his only Top 5 finish came during his championship season.

Tony Stewart (7-1) and Bobby Labonte (5-1) have the whole NASCAR world scratching their head. The slump Joe Gibbs is going through can only be matched in career from his football days, the year he didn’t make the playoffs after winning his last Super Bowl.

He’s on the brink of bettering that slump. Stewart’s 2nd place finish last week elevated him into the 10 in points, but that showing was with restrictor plates and is no indication that Gibbs racing is back.

Labonte also had a good late run last week, but the same applies for him. It’s hard to remember a top team falling so fast that didn’t have any staffing changes during the off-season.

The talents of these drivers are too great to be where they are, but they haven’t been given a competitive car all season. With this track being more about the car than anything else, be sure to definitely check the practice times on these guys. In this desperate stage, if they don’t run in the Top 10 during happy hour Saturday, it probably won’t happen on Sunday.

The Roush stable’s best money performer this season isn’t Mark Martin (10-1), Jeff Burton (10-1), or even Matt Kenseth (30-1), it’s rookie Las Vegan Kurt Busch (75-1). Busch’s Top 5 finishes (two), match the other three combined. For Martin and Burton, their performance thus far has been even worse than Gibbs. This would normally be the type of track where they would do well. Martin won in ’98, while Burton has finished in the Top 5 his last two races. Check practice times on the Roush boys before wagering. Other drivers to take a look at that have been performing very well week after week are of course Bobby Hamilton (32-1), Jerry Nadeau (20-1), and Johnny Benson (15-1).

INDY 500 odds released: The Imperial Palace and Station Casinos have released their odds to win the 85th running of the Indy 500. Panther Racing’s Sam Hornish has been installed at a 4-1 favorite...

OPEN-Wheel action: All three major open wheel series run this weekend. F-1 is in Spain, CART is in Texas, and the IRL is in Atlanta. Station carries odds on all three series. Park Place properties and the Imperial Palace carry odds on Formula 1 as well.

Napa Auto Parts 500
Top 5 Finish Predicton

1. No. 24 Jeff Gordon

(5-1)

2. No. 2 Rusty Wallace

(10-1)

3. No. 88 Dale Jarrett

(5-1)

4. No. 12 Jeremy Mayfield

(18-1)
5. No. 18 Bobby Labonte