NASCAR Winston Cup fans have watched the first two races of 2002 and have seen just about all the unexpected that a 36-race season can produce.
Daytona saw a winner who only led for five laps, and won under the strangest of circumstances. Last week at Rockingham, Matt Kenseth in the 17 Dewalt Ford, made use of his award winning pit crew, led the most laps, and won the second Winston Cup race of his career under caution.
Kenseth, running third behind Sterling Marlin and Bobby Labonte with six laps to go, dove low under Labonte and even lower under Marlin to snag the lead just before the caution flag flew for tire debris at the start/finish line.
What was so strange about that? Well, starting 25 in the field, Kenseth was not among any of the favored drivers. His average finish position was 27 in his five Winston Cup races at the North Carolina Motor Speedway.
Kenseth was a 35-1 choice at Station Casino properties, and became the eighth different winner at The Rock in the last eight races, The pattern continued the unbelievable level of parity in Winston Cup racing. The equality bodes well for many race teams coming to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the 5th annual 400.
However, if history holds true to form, team owner Jack Roush will be smiling for the second consecutive week. Ever since NASCAR decided to add Las Vegas, whether it’s the Craftsman Truck Series, Busch Grand National Series, or the Winston Cup Series, owner Jack Roush has made this speedway his favorite track. The Roush teams have won eight times, including three straight from 1998 to 2000.
Among the contenders this week, we have to look at Jeff Burton (8-1) in his No. 99 Ford Taurus. Burton won two straight races here in 1999 and 2000 and has always felt comfortable with this 1.5 mile tri-oval. Burton failed in his “three-peat” attempt last year with a 39th place finish but will be one of the drivers to watch this weekend. He sits fifth in the Winston Cup point standings, 45 points behind leader Sterling Marlin.
Next on the list of contenders may be a surprising one. Local boy Kurt Busch (55-1), currently third in the overall standings, comes home this weekend and looks to give himself the first victory of his short career. Unlikely? Perhaps, but let’s consider this. Busch followed up a tremendous fourth place run in the Daytona 500, with a gritty 13th at Rockingham. Busch had placed 39 and 37 in his first two visits there.
Combine that with a very respectable 11th place finish in last year’s UAW-Daimler-Chrysler 400, and you have yourself what is considered a “live dog.” Look for Busch, a Roush driver, to be very competitive come this Sunday.
Next in our top five, we will be looking at a couple of drivers who have had previous success at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and have been running very well so far in 2002. The No. 40 Coors Light Dodge of Sterling Marlin (8-1) was one of the strongest cars last year before succumbing to poor handling late in the race. Marlin will be a factor this week, having been the most consistent driver so far this year with finishes of ninth and second.
Another driver you can expect to see near the front of the field this Sunday is the No. 88 UPS Ford Taurus of Dale Jarrett (7-1). Jarrett had his worst Rockingham finish in over seven years last week, blowing an engine while comfortably leading the race. In addition, the 88 team has improved each year at Las Vegas, finishing 40 in the inaugural race, 11 in 1999, seventh in 2000, and an impressive second place run last year.
In additional news concerning the 88 team, it is likely that they will be finally racing “The Truck” this week, giving them the additional advantage of being very tough to pass.
Closing out our top five, we will include another Roush driver that has simply owned this speedway. Although he had what was arguably the worst season of this career in 2001, Mark Martin (22-1), in the No. 6 Pfizer Ford Taurus, will look to right the ship this weekend. Martin has top 10 finishes in all races here, including his inaugural win in 1998 and a third in 2000. The 6-car had a great run at Daytona but followed it with a poor week and a 21st place finish at Rockingham. Look for this team to rebound Sunday.