A-Ward winner

February 19, 2002 8:23 AM
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The dramatic series entitled “NASCAR ”” Winston Cup” drew rave reviews in the season opener.

The twists and turns of the Daytona 500 had all the makings of a ratings winner in the network television world and already has my vote for an Emmy in several categories. Everything was so out of the ordinary and on the fly, that it was perfect. The greatest screen writers in Hollywood couldn’t have created an episode of any kind that left you on the edge of your seat longer than last Sunday.

Ward Burton’s dramatic dash to the finish line, following the most unlikeliest of events that unfolded prior, was one of the most entertaining sporting events I’ve witnessed and reminded myself just how much I had missed the “good ole boys” circuit. Despite having outstanding times throughout the last two months of Daytona test sessions, Burton wasn’t among the glamour candidates with the betting public. The top five drivers in the tickets written category were all GM cars.

Dale Earnhardt (7-2) and Michael Waltrip (12-1) had the public believing they would finish 1-2 again just as they had in the last three Daytona races, which included last Saturday’s Busch Series. Tony Stewart (5-1), Jeff Gordon (4-1), and Kevin Harvick (10-1) rounded out the popular choices.

Station Casinos had a prop involving GM against the combined efforts of Ford and Dodge. Seeing how GM had dominated the three non-point races prior to the Daytona 500, it was hard to imagine a Ford or Dodge cracking the top 10. GM was bet up to a minus $2.10 favorite.

That was until NASCAR equalized the situation and appeased the whining of both Ford and Dodge by dropping their rear spoilers. That type of complaining occurs every year. Usually, the adjustment doesn’t have much bearing on the race, but you’d have to say that only one GM car finishing in the top eight shows that some teams were Sandbagging.

However, it sure wasn’t Burton. His car has been fast in every session of every track he’s tested. Burton’s success at Daytona is sure to catapult him to a stature he’s never been able obtain, which is one of NASCAR’s upper-echelon drivers.

Since January, Burton has been discussing how his team is more stable and focused with their current set-up than they’ve ever been. That cliché is common among drivers, but it holds much more weight when winning the Daytona 500. The next two tracks on the schedule (Rockingham and Las Vegas) have always been stellar for that driver.

Rockingham is the site of Burton’s first career Winston Cup victory. Las Vegas was where Burton finished second to his brother Jeff two years ago. If Ward gets through those races with a good showing, he’ll be a legitimate candidate to fight for the championship regardless of how early it is.

The favorite at this week’s Subway 400 at Rockingham is Jeff Gordon (7-2). He is a four-time winner at “The Rock,” the last of which came in a 1998 sweep. Gordon has posted three wins there in the race following Daytona. All of his victories came during the years he won his Winston Cup driving titles.

Last season was the first year Gordon didn’t win at Rockingham while capturing a driving championship. Gordon was third in this race last season where he played it safe, following a poor finish in last year’s Daytona 500. With a respectable 9th place finish last week and a more aggressive attitude look for Gordon to acquire wins with a hard nose approach starting this week.

Jeff Burton (12-1) and Roush Racing should see much more success in 2002. Whether or not their collective team struggles can be blamed on the new Goodyear tires is debatable. Up until last season, Burton had finished in the Top 5 in seven of 14 career starts at “The Rock.”

That kind of success has nothing to do with anything but liking and knowing the track. His odds are relatively high for a strong contender, but he definitely deserves a look.

Bobby Labonte (5-1) is always stable and tough in the second race of the season. In the last three spring races at Rockingham, Labonte has finished second, first, and third. Last season, he was nipped at the line by Steve Park. Look for a similar effort this week.

A few long shot contenders to look for include Johnny Benson (25-1), Kenny Wallace (12-1), and Jerry Nadeau (25-1). All three have improving results at the track over their careers.

Marlin at Palace

To further find out in detail what Sterling Marlin was thinking when he decided to go work on his front right fender during a red flag stoppage at Daytona last week, you can ask him in person at Palace Station.

Marlin will be signing free autographs Friday, March 1st prior to the Las Vegas race. It was one of the most classic moments in motor sports history watching Marlin, while in the lead with four laps to go, jump out of his car and attempt to fix his Coors Light Dodge. Red Flag rules state that the car must be left as is during the stoppage.

Next week: Las Vegas.

ROCKINGHAM TOP 5 ODDS

1) #24 Jeff Gordon 7-2

2) #18 Bobby Labonte 5-1

3) #99 Jeff Burton 12-1

4) #22 Ward Burton 8-1

5) #1 Kenny Wallace 12-1