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Mar 12, 2002 8:17 AM

Though only four races have been run so far into the 2002 Winston Cup season, it’s apparent that we are definitely seeing NASCAR’s next crop of Âí­future stars unfold.

Every few years throughout the history of Winston Cup racing, a group of brash hot-shot drivers make names for themselves that stick around for quite a while. In the late 70’s, it was Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, and Terry Labonte.

A decade later, it was Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Dale Jarrett, and Sterling Marlin. Then in ’93-’94, we got Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Jeff and Ward Burton.

Since then, the only new drivers to really make any sort of impact have been Tony Stewart, on the brink of a championship in only his fourth season, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., because of his enormous fan appeal.

The 2002 season is showing signs of the next generation breaking through. Second-year Las Vegas driver Kurt Busch along with rookies Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson all find themselves in the Top 10, while perennial giants Gordon, Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, and Rudd are all outside the Top 10.

Four races is still premature to judge, but the likes of Newman and Busch have found themselves contending for wins in every start thus far, which is very uncharacteristic for such young, inexperienced drivers. It’s even more impressive considering this is the most competitive era in NASCAR history.

As for the Winston Cup points favorite, at this point it would have to be Tony Stewart, listed at 5-2 at Station Casinos properties. Stewart is currently in 5th place, 101 points leader Sterling Marlin who is 7-2 to win it all. The edge goes to Stewart simply because he is more diverse on all tracks. There isn’t any track that gives him trouble. Stewart is the only driver thus far to have three Top 5 finishes, not bad considering a last place finish in the Daytona 500.

Gordon, Jarrett, and Bobby Labonte will come around soon, but it will be tough to catch Stewart who had been a slow starter in each of his three previous seasons.

This Sunday’s NASCAR race at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway is  pivotal for  Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, and Jarrett to show something . . . anything. The trio have combined to win six of the last seven Winston Cup championships, but together have only one Top 5 finish this year.

Over their careers, they have nine wins at Darlington which include five by Gordon and Âí­Jarrett’s win in this race last season. Gordon is the only driver in the track’s storied history to win the prestigious Southern 500 four straight years.

The defending Winston Cup point champ has 10 Top 5 finishes in 18 starts. In recent history, Gordon has three Top 5’s in six starts. His consistency, makes him a 6-1 co-favorite with Ward Burton and Stewart.

Ward Burton loves Darlington. Of his four career wins, two have come there. Burton has finished second, first, sixth, 12th, and first in his past five races there. The one glaring inconsistency was the 12th place finish due to getting used to the new Dodge. He is now very comfortable.

Only two seasons ago, Jeff Burton (7-1) swept the season at Darlington. In 16 career Darlington starts, Burton has eight Top 5 finishes, all of which came in a row until being halted during a disastrous beginning to 2001. He righted himself in the fall with a 6th place finish in the Southern 500. Indications haven’t shown Burton to be back in his 2000 form, but Âí­Darlington brings out the best in him.

Jeremy Mayfield (18-1) has always been a live dog at Darlington. Mayfield has had five Top 5 finishes in his last eight starts there. This season, in his debut with Ray Evernham and Dodge, he’s already tasted some success with an outstanding second place finish in Las Vegas two weeks ago. Mayfield’s natural instincts at Darlington and Evernham’s successful set-ups in the past with Gordon make this team a serious contender.

Steve Park (18-1) returns behind the wheel of the No. 1 Chevrolet this week at Darlington, where he suffered a brain injury last September in a Busch Series event. Park temporarily had double vision and his speech is still slightly slurred.

“I feel good, there’s no ill effects other than the speech,” Park said. “But even though I can’t talk, I’ll let my right foot do my talking for me.”

Park was second last year, but taking him this year is a true gamble. However, based on his extensive testing two weeks ago at Darlington and the lightning lap times, he is someone to consider. His times were a full second faster than last year’s pole setting time by Gordon.

A few longshots come from the Roush Racing stables. Kurt Busch (18-1), Mark Martin (20-1), and Matt Kenseth (25-1) all are in the Top 10 point standings and have successes at Darlington.

Qualifying is always important when handicapping, but the better tool will be to watch the practice times. Two of the last three Darlington winners have started from the 37th position. In each of those cases, Bobby Labonte and Ward Burton had a Top 5 test time. Don’t let qualifying dictate your selection. Actively watch the practice times to get a bonus from the Sports Books that normally increase the odds of poor qualifiers.

Around town: The NASCAR Café has the new “Speed Channel” via Direct TV and will show all the replays of the race with sound. Fox SportsNet carried the replays last season, but the only way to see it now is through the Speed Channel. Palace Station has also purchased the package so all the live Formula-1 and CART Fed Ex series races can be viewed.

Marcus Hurd from The Palms Sports Book has released odds for the next four weeks of Winston Cup and Busch Series races. Hurd also releases his own unique match-ups he created five years ago during the week of the race. The match-ups have a finish position spread and are created solely on whatever the points standings are.