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Tears of joy this time for Junior

Jul 10, 2001 4:15 AM

With all the poor television programming on prime-time networks, it was refreshing to finally watch a really good drama.

Last Saturday night’s feel good story on NBC, the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, was the most watched show for the week and also one of the highest rated sporting events in television history. Dale Earnhardt Jr’s. emotional win captivated a large audience across the country. The popularity of the sport got yet another boost. The win appealed to everyone and it was a story that was just too perfect to good to be true.

“He was with me tonight,” Earnhardt Jr. said of his father in Victory Lane. “I don’t know how I did it...I dedicate this win to him.”

Las Vegas Sports Books may be the only group not attracted to the race.

“Everyone bets Junior, every week, regardless of what race it is,” says Mandalay Bay’s Nick Bogdonavich. “For this race, with all the hype and emotions surrounding it, nearly every ticket bet was on Junior.”

Mark Bryant at the Wild Wild West had the same type of action and atmosphere.

“We had an enormous amount of action on this race. Much of it centered around Earnhardt, but we had some big plays on Jeff Gordon and Sterling Marlin as well. The crowd was huge for the race here. We had the sound on and it was as loud as Sunday football,” Bryant says. “It was deafening when Junior took the lead for the last time, it was a real happening here.”

This weekend’s inaugural Winston Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois is sign of NASCAR’s growing popularity. The Winston Cup series now has races in every major market in the United States. For the track itself, all indications are that it is state of the art. Since we have no history at the track, what the drivers say about it are very important and become a major handicapping tool. Several drivers have run a few test sessions at the facility and are giving it rave reviews.

“The track is real fast,” Mark Martin said. “It’s not quite like anywhere else we’ve raced. I guess the most similar track would be Texas.”

“This is a beautiful facility,” Bobby Labonte said, “The slightly-bowed backstretch, smooth transitions and great grips in the turns will make for some exciting side-by-side racing.”

“They really have a great race track here. It is definitely unique and unlike any other track on the circuit today,” Gordon said. “I can’t find anything I don’t like about it.”

Rusty Wallace tested there most recently in June.

“The track is lightning fast and it has a lot of grip,” he said. “The track is a success and I think it is going to be fun to race on. The bowed backstretch gives the track its own unique character, which I think is really special.”

Though the track has it’s own flair, it appears it will run similar to Texas. The smooth surface has been compared to Las Vegas, but the banking will allow the drivers to reach speeds closer to what they do in Texas.

In the past we could mention the successes of Roush Racing drivers at the 1.5-mile cookie cutter tracks. Martin (12-1) and Jeff Burton (13-1) have always done well over the last five years on these types of tracks. The 2001 season has been unkind to both, however and it might serve best to leave the Roush drivers out of consideration.

Tracks such as California, Michigan, Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte, and Atlanta can be used to give some indication as to who will do well. Points leader Gordon (3-1) has been fantastic all season, especially on those tracks. Vegas and Texas were tracks in the past that had given him trouble, but he broke through this year with a win in Vegas and a fifth in Texas. Gordon is far and away the most consistent driver of the season, and based on what the drivers are saying about the track, Gordon will be the driver to beat.

TOP 5 PREDICTION:
1) Jeff Gordon (3-1)
2) Rusty Wallace (7-1)
3) Dale Jarrett (6-1)
4) Tony Stewart (6-1)
5) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12-1)