Winston drivers under eye of auto exec’s

Jun 5, 2001 7:01 AM

Race 14 of the Winston Cup season rolls into Michigan, home of NASCAR’s automobile manufacturers. Twice a year, top executives from General Motors and Ford sit high atop in their luxury boxes watching their products go head to head in what amounts to the real Motor City Bowl. Dodge has been, with exception to Sterling Marlin, a non-factor in most of the races this season. Their presence in Michigan puts the same amount of fear into GM and Ford executives as the XFL did to the NFL.

Station Casino’s offers a weekly manufacturer prop that has more meaning than at any other track. GM is a - 120 favorite over the combined efforts of Ford and Dodge. It’s simple - what kind of car will win the race? Based on the top drivers and their past history on similar tracks, GM shows a slight edge. You’ve got Jeff Gordon (5-1), Tony Stewart (5-1), Bobby Labonte (6-1), Steve Park (18-1), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (18-1) as the top five for GM, while Ford comes with Dale Jarrett (4-1), Rusty Wallace (10-1), Ricky Rudd (9-1), Mark Martin (11-1), and Jeff Burton (12-1). It’s a relative stand off in talents, but shades slightly to GM because of their combined exploits thus far this season.

If you look deeper into the history of the motor-city match-up, you’ll see that the clan from Ford has had the most bragging rights. Ford is 21-10 vs. GM since 1985. Rusty Wallace claims five of those wins, three in a Ford and two in a Pontiac, seemingly making Ford look all that more impressive coming in, while taking away from GM. Adding to the disparity between the two manufacturers is that Ford driver Ricky Rudd won his only career race at Michigan in a Chevy. That leaves only three current drivers for GM, Gordon, Labonte, and Stewart, as the only active GM drivers with wins at Michigan (five combined).

Looking at the last six races, it’s been an even split at three wins a piece. To dig deeper into dissecting the winning manufacturer, we get help from the five races at the sister Penske track, California Speedway, which is nearly identical to Michigan. The score there is Ford three, GM (Jeff Gordon) two. To get a more accurate gauge as to how they’ll run this week, we’ll use the April 29th California race. It’s only been six weeks since then, little has changed with the teams or standings, and the set-up for that race, if it was a decent one, will be the notes used for this one.

Three of the top four finishers were GM; however, the winning car was the Ford driven by Wallace. In that race, Gordon had the best car for the first half of the race, but then Wallace took over in dominant fashion relinquishing the lead only once to pit. Strategies will be a bit different for this race because there will be 50 laps less, but there was no doubt whether it would have been 400 miles or 500, Wallace was tops.

One of the intriguing candidates for this race that finished third in California was Junior. He had ruined his primary car in a wreck during qualifying that made him start from the rear in an untested back-up car. During the later stages of the race after a few adjustments, he was just as fast as Wallace. Those adjustments will surely be administered earlier this week, and his start position will enable him to get closer to the lead sooner.

Stewart won this race last season albeit shortened. He also managed to start a resurgence in the standings after his fourth place finish in California. Since then, he’s elevated himself all the way to fourth in points following last week’s Dover race. Both he and teammate Bobby Labonte have seemed to have found the gremlins that were infesting their engines for the first two months of the season and exterminated them.

Wallace won for Ford last fall in Michigan, but they had gone two straight without a win prior, the longest such streak since Labonte swept ’95. Jarrett, this week’s favorite to win, was the last Ford to win before Wallace. In that spring caution-free race of ’99, Jarrett cruised from start to finish giving him his third career win at Michigan. In April’s California race, Jarrett was in the top five all day until he lost a cylinder on lap 217. Engine problems are something Jarrett rarely has and Michigan only requires 200 laps to be run.

A longshot candidate on this track comes from Ford. Jimmy Spencer (55-1) has been driving his tail off and in one of these races, he’s likely to finish on top. He doesn’t come with any special credentials at Michigan where he’s had only one top five in 21 races, but his performances in the Busch Series and Cup race at California give an indication that he’s grown to like the configuration with age. The one deterrent from wagering on Spencer is his mouth. He’s been extremely outspoken and vicious to several drivers all season and may have created a few enemies that won’t think twice about giving a little tap to the big mouth in No. 26.

The IRL goes to the track for the time since the Indy 500. This week, they visit Texas Motor Speedway. Open-wheel race fans had hoped to see CART drivers race a month ago, but that race was canceled because the speeds obtained by the champ cars were causing dizziness for some of the drivers. So now the Texas fans must settle for the IRL’s version of open-wheel racing with slower cars and inferior drivers. Kelley Racing teammates Scott Sharp (3-1) and Mark Dismore (5-1) have this track dialed in along with Greg Ray (7-2). It would be a surprise if someone else won, but with the IRL, it’s just a matter of who can stay on the track.

The highlight of the Texas racing weekend will be Friday night when the NASCAR Truck series rolls out. As with Vegas, when the two series are paired up, NASCAR always rules the weekend attendance-wise. Look for Hendrick teammates Jack Sprague (5-1) or Ricky Hendrick (7-1) to get the first non-Dodge win of the season. Sprague is too good to be this far into a season without a win.

Top 5 finish prediction:
1. No. 88 Dale Jarrett, Ford (4-1)
2. No. 20 Tony Stewart, GM (5-1)
3. No. 24 Jeff Gordon, GM (5-1)
4. No. 4 Rusty Wallace, Ford (10-1)
5. No. 18 Bobby LaBonte, GM (6-1)