Jeff Gordon’s third-place finish last week at Bristol increases his lead to 308 points over second place Ricky Rudd and 379 points over third place Dale Jarrett. If the two Yates racing drivers were hoping for some slack being cut this week at Darlington, they had better pray awfully hard. The only way for Rudd or Jarrett to make up ground in the championship chase is to finish extremely well and have Gordon run into some bad luck, otherwise known as a wall.
Both Yates drivers can take care of business by finishing well at Darlington, but the other equation necessary to move up in the standings is a tall task to ask for. Gordon is going to a track where he has dominated over his career. He is the only driver to ever win four straight Southern 500s, a race regarded by some experts as the most prestigious in NASCAR history. Since 1950, the Southern 500 has been run on Labor Day weekend. This week Gordon attempts to tie Cale Yarborough with five career Southern 500 wins and sixth overall win at Darlington, which would make him the career active leader.
During his great career, spanning eight Southern 500s, Gordon has finished in the top five in six of the last seven races. He already is the track’s fourth all-time money leader with only 17 races run. There is little doubt as to why he is a prohibitive 7-2 favorite, despite not having won at Darlington since ’98.
We shall see if there is a correlation between Gordon winning championships and the Southern 500. The years he won all three of his titles, he also won the Southern 500. In all three of his championship seasons, this is also the time Gordon seals the deal going “unconscious” for the remainder of the schedule, putting the aura of doubt to rest.
For Jarrett (4-1), with 12 races to go, it’s still not over . . . especially with Darlington on the schedule. In the last nine races Jarrett has finished in the top five eight times, winning three. However, all three of those wins came in the spring race at 400 miles.
Ricky Rudd (6-1) may be in for a bit of trouble if his career performance at Darlington gives any indication. In 49 career races he’s posted only seven top five finishes, managing to win one race. In that lone spring victory in ’91, it came when only 300 miles were required.
Bill Elliott (40-1) was a prominent figure at Darlington until he became CEO of his own operation. The last win of his career came at Darlington in ’94. All told, before his unwise decision to form his own team, Elliott had accumulated 19 top-five finishes, a mark only Dale Earnhardt had been able to tie, and five wins overall. Now with only being required to drive, perhaps Elliott could tie Yarborough and become the second driver to win the Southern 500 in three different decades.
Tony Stewart (6-1) is a driver to look out for as well. The second half of the season has been where he has made his mark during his first two years. He only has one top-five finish in five races, but has finished on the lead lap of every race participated in at Darlington.
Jeremy Mayfield (16-1) has always been strong at Darlington. He finished third in this year’s spring race after starting 37th, and in a two-year stretch from ’98-’99 he finished in the top five of all four races.
The Burton brothers have a special bond at Darlington. Between them, Jeff (10-1) and Ward (18-1) have won three of the last five races including a 1-2 finish in the ’99 Southern 500. Neither has done very well this season. Jeff has been a monster over his career at Darlington, finishing out of the top five only seven times in his 15 career starts.
One of the greats of all time, Rusty Wallace (12-1) has surprisingly never won at Darlington. In a span of 35 races covering 18 years, his best finish has been second, which he’s done twice.
Sterling Marlin (16-1) had one of his seven career wins at Darlington and managed a fifth-place finish in the spring.
The Dodge advantage will once again be prevalent at Darlington. The extra two inches on the front air dam will create more downforce and better handling enabling Marlin, Elliott, and Ward Burton to whip around each of the four different corners at a faster pace. On the manufacturer prop offered by Station Casinos, GM is a —125 favorite over the combined efforts of Ford and Dodge.
TOP 5 finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (7-2)
2) #40 Sterling Marlin (16-1)
3) #99 Jeff Burton (10-1)
4) #12 Jeremy Mayfield (16-1)
5) #88 Dale Jarrett (4-1)