King of New Hampshire expects another victory

July 17, 2001 5:46 AM
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The 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup season has officially made it to the halfway point. Jeff Gordon has been the most consistent driver through the first half, but doesn’t have the sole lead in the standings. After faltering late last week in Chicago, Dale Jarrett and Gordon are tied at exactly 2,515 points. There hasn’t been any driver to surpass the halfway leader in nine seasons. The last driver to win the championship that wasn’t leading at the halfway point was Alan Kulwicki in 1991, the tightest margin of victory in NASCAR history. With Ricky Rudd only 18 points behind the leaders, that record could also be broken.

It’s going to be an interesting race to the finish. Sitting fourth in the standings is Rusty Wallace, 207 points behind. Wallace’s strategy this week at New Hampshire’s 300 mile race may be patience and to just finish. It’s been a while since Wallace has been a legitimate candidate in the championship chase, but with 18 races left, that’s right where he is.

“I really think we have a shot at winning another title, but we want to just take it one race at a time and focus on running in the top five. Enough top five finishes and the wins and the points will be there,” he said. “It’s a long season and the really strong teams show their stuff in the second half when others run out of steam.”

Wallace (7-1) has fared well at “The Magic Mile” of New Hampshire. He’s recorded five top five finishes and nine top 10 finishes in 12 starts.

The all-time King of New Hampshire is Jeff Burton (8-1). In 10 starts, he has seven top fives that include three victories. His average finish position over his career is fourth, an unprecedented stat for anyone on any track with that many starts. Think of Jeff Gordon on the road courses and that is Burton in New Hampshire.

That was then and this now. Burton has struggled throughout the 2001 season, currently 25th in the standings. Once the master of top five finishes, he claims only two this season, one of which was a win at Charlotte.

Things may be different this time around. Horsepower has found its way back into the Roush Racing stables. If there is any track Burton is set to do well on, it’s New Hampshire. He manages to run the perfect lines during his laps and has a secret that apparently, some of the other drivers don’t know. Last year’s fall race was ran with restrictor plates for safety precautions. Burton was so methodical with his lines, that he led all 300 laps of the race. So far this season, it’s looked like he’s been using plates in every race, but look for a revival of sorts this week for him.

This week’s favorite is Gordon (4-1) who is second in all-time finish percentage with an average of ninth. He claims three wins and seven top fives, tying him with Burton in those categories, but he’s had two more starts. Gordon’s either going to contend for the win or he’ll finish out of the top 10. Through 18 races, he’s finished first through fifth on 11 different occasions. He is always there. Expect him to be there again this week.

Tony Stewart (9-2) got his taste of the New England victory chowder last season in this race. He got a head start on liking the track when he won there as an IRL driver in 1998. He continued his favoritism at New Hampshire into the NASCAR series, both Busch and Cup. In his second Cup attempt there, he finished second. In his third attempt, he won. Look for Stewart to be near the front for most of the day.

OTHERS TO WATCH: Ricky Rudd (6-1) has a NHIS win”¦Dale Jarrett (6-1) and Mark Martin (12-1) always seem to be the bridesmaids to Gordon and Burton at NHIS”¦Joe Nemecheck (55-1) followed his surprising 75-to-1 long shot win two years ago with a second and ninth place finish last year”¦Ricky Craven (75-1) may actually know his home track better than Burton, it’s just unfortunate for him that he drives the Tide scented Lemon.

TOP 5 FINISH PREDICTION:

1) Jeff Burton (8-1)
2) Jeff Gordon (4-1)
3) Rusty Wallace (7-1)
4) Joe Nemechek (55-1)
5) Tony Stewart (9-2)

Other races to bet on this weekend with driver to watch: Saturday: NASCAR Busch Series at Gateway International Raceway: Greg Biffle (7-2)

NASCAR Truck Series at New Hampshire: Ted Musgrave (3-1)

IRL at Nashville Superspeedway: Buddy Lazier (4-1)

Sunday: CART FedEX Series at Michigan International Speedway: Adrian Fernandez (7-1)