After what many in the Ricky Rudd stables would call a disappointing day last week at Loudon, Rudd returns to the track that gave him his first Winston Cup win in 88 races.
Rudd and his number 28 team, arguably had the best car on the track last week, but had to settle for a 3rd place finish, after his teammate Dale Jarrett passed him with five laps to go. Rudd admitted in post race interviews that Jarrett might have nudged him, forcing the 28 car to get just loose enough for the 88 car to pass him and eventually win the race.
Nevertheless, Rudd is still in the thick of a Winston Cup points race reminiscent of 1992, when three drivers ended the year with only 63 points separating them. Rudd has been a model of consistency in 2001, recording his 8th Top 5 and circuit leading 14th Top 10 finish. Dale Jarrett, although tied with Jeff Gordon atop the points, is in first place through 19 races by way of the first tiebreaker; total wins. Jarrett has four wins to Gordon’s three. Rudd, who came in to the New England 300 only 18 points behind the two leaders, lost only 10 points, and finds himself a mere 28 points out of the lead.
However, while Rudd returns to Pocono Raceway looking for a sweep of both 2001 events, his fiercest competition will be from the two men in front of him in the standings. Pocono Raceway, the odd shaped 2.5-mile triangular track located in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, has long been a favorite of both Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett.
While Gordon has not won at Pocono since the July race of 1998, he has had more than his share of dominating performances at the track. The 24 team has only finished outside of the top three at Pocono three times out of the last 11 races there. Gordon finished in 2nd place in the June race, and gained recorded ten bonus points for leading the most laps.
While that kind of consistency is outstanding, Dale Jarrett and his 88 team have to take the top honors for knowing how to get around Pocono Raceway. Amazing as it is, Jarrett has amassed 10 straight top five finishes since 1996, last winning in July of 1997. The 88 car finished 3rd in this year’s June race. Such consistency is unparalleled, as sooner or later, race luck usually takes over and turns a good run into a poor finish. That is the kind of luck Ricky Rudd will need on Sunday in order for him to sweep “Pocono 2001.”
There are, however, more than a few other drivers who could be heard from this upcoming Sunday, if the “Big 3” run into trouble. The Roger Penske teams of Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield have both had their share of great runs at Pocono, and will desperately need just that after a horrible race last weekend. Wallace, blew an engine 13 laps in and finished 43rd, while Mayfield encountered his weekly dose of horrible luck and finished 39th.
Rusty tamed Pocono in July of last year, when his teammate Jeremy Mayfield (what else?) cut a tire on the final lap. At the time, Mayfield was going for his own sweep, as he won the first Pocono race of 2000 with that memorable bump of the legendary Dale Earnhardt. Both Wallace and Mayfield have won twice at Pocono and with any kind of luck, could easily contend for their third appearance in Victory Lane.
A few other drivers to watch this weekend include Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, and Sterling Marlin. While Martin has somehow found a way to lead a lot of races in 2001, he really has not been much of a factor, but he returns to a track that has treated him very well in the past. Martin collected his eighth top five out of the last nine races here in June, and looks to rebound off a disappointing 18th place finish last weekend. Teammate Jeff Burton has arguably had the most disappointing year of any driver in 2001, but will look for a good finish at Pocono, where he claimed the 10th position in the first race this year. Burton was the favorite to bring Jack Roush his first Winston Cup title in 2001, but a string of 30th place finishes early in the year has made the 99 team play catch up ever since.
The Joe Gibbs Racing tandem of Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte should also produce solid runs this upcoming Sunday, as Bobby is a two time Pocono winner, and Tony always seems to contend at lower banked tracks. Stewart finally stayed above the “yellow line” and away from the wall, to finish a very respectable fourth last week. Labonte finished 8th in the June Pocono race, while Stewart finished in seventh position.
Both Gibbs drivers however, finished behind Sterling Marlin, who came in 4th at Pocono earlier this year. Marlin has had the most dominant Dodge in 2001, and has contented for more than a few race wins. He should have plenty of car to stay up front and contend for his first win of 2001.
Jack Sprague, Scott Riggs and the rest of the Craftsman Truck Series regulars are off this week, and will return to action on Saturday, August 3 for the Power Stroke Diesel 200 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
TOP 5 FINISHERS for the PENNSYLVANIA 500 at Pocono Raceway
1. Jeff Gordon
2. Dale Jarrett
3. Sterling Marlin
4. Ricky Rudd
5. Matt Kenseth