Gordon ‘Dodges’ bullets

August 14, 2001 5:38 AM
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The NASCAR Winston Cup Series returns to Michigan for the second time this weekend. The first go around saw Jeff Gordon dominate the weekend by winning the pole and holding off Ricky Rudd for the win, his 2nd at Michigan. The added importance of bragging rights by the manufacturers takes center stage in Michigan. General Motors executives gloated as their star driver won and vowed to sweep the season when returning in August.

If GM does manage to get a season sweep, it would be only the second time since 1984 that they would have done it, the last time being ’95 when Bobby Labonte won both races driving a Chevrolet. Ford has dominated Michigan since 1984 winning 22 of the 35 races, sweeping the season on six occasions. For betting purposes, Station Casino books offer a weekly manufacturer prop, this week making the combined efforts of Ford and Dodge a —135 favorite to win the race.

This race will also mark the third time that Dodge will get to use their two-inch front air dam advantage over the rest of the field. At Watkins Glen, the advantage was void because of all the turns and low speeds, but two weeks ago at Indianapolis, the change was very advantageous for Dodge. Sterling Marlin almost got Dodge their first win of their new era but had to settle for second. Sunset Station’s Fred Crespi thinks that because of the change, Dodge will be in the winner’s circle soon.

“On the big tracks like Michigan, the change is going to be huge for Dodge. Their handling and aero-dynamics will be greatly enhanced. A driver like Marlin was already competing at a high level before the change, I’d expect to see him get a win real soon.”

Crespi’s assertion is correct if using Indianapolis as a barometer. During that first race with the change, three Dodges made into the top eight. Of the three drivers in 21 career Brickyard starts, only Bill Elliott had ever cracked the top 5 there.

If Dodge is destined to get it’s first win this week, the top candidate is Sterling Marlin (7-1). He’s currently 4th in the standings and has come the closest of anyone this season to near victories. Two weeks ago at the Brickyard was probably his best shot. His pre-Dodge days were less than spectacular at Michigan. In 29 career starts, he was able to manage only two top 5 finishes.

Where Marlin has faltered throughout his career at Michigan, Bill Elliott (25-1) has shined. Despite not doing much in the last decade, Elliott still remains the tracks’ all-time leader in wins and earnings. In a stretch from 1984-87, Elliott won six of seven races that included a five race win streak. In all, Elliott has won seven times at Michigan, the last coming in ’89. Elliott has qualified very well on all the larger tracks and could be a great candidate to capture the pole this week, a prop that Station Casino’s is offering at 4-1. How he maneuvers during the actual race is hard to gauge. He hasn’t won a race since ’94 at Darlington, but the extra two inches on the front air dam at his most successful track could give him his best shot since.

The other Dodge candidate is Ward Burton (22-1). It was odd to see Burton’s team make the change to Dodge after having so much success last season driving the Pontiac. They finished a strong 6th at Indy and could be on the upswing, however the engine must run properly for the extra 2 inches to be used as an advantage. In the June race at Michigan, Burton used a provisional after a poor qualifying session, and followed that up with an equally poor 38th place finish on race day.

The way Jeff Gordon is going (4-1), NASCAR might makes things easier for Dodge by raising his front air dam 2 inches. Gordon will be going for his third win in a row and sixth on the season. He’s got a commanding 194 point lead in the standings and is poised to finish the season with double digit victories which would be the 4th time in his brief nine year career to do so. To further illustrate just how great of an accomplishment that would be, legends such as Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, and Bill Elliott have had double digit win seasons only once each in their great careers. We are all witnessing greatness with Gordon and some of the fans who have always disliked him are finally realizing it themselves.

The top candidates from Team Ford are the Yates duo of Ricky Rudd (9-2) and Dale Jarrett (5-1). Until June’s race, Jarrett was on a remarkable roll of top 5 finishes at Michigan. In 26 career starts, Jarrett has finished in the top 5 eleven times with eight of those coming in succession. He is a three-time winner there, the last coming in ’99 where he led the last 147 of 200 laps in dominating fashion.

Both Rudd and Jarrett could be looked at as desperadoes as well. It’s too early to crown Gordon the champion just yet, but the Yates duo knows time and races are slipping. With the way Gordon is running, they know it’s going to take victories to catch him. There will be no happiness with just a good run for these two, especially if No. 24 has a better run.

TOP 5 Finish Prediction:

1) Dale Jarrett (5-1)
2) Sterling Marlin (7-1)
3) Jeff Gordon (4-1)
4) Bill Elliott (25-1)
5) Ricky Rudd (9-2)