Cal looks Sterling

April 23, 2002 6:16 AM
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Hard to believe it, but we are already a quarter of the way through the 2002 Winston Cup season. How the time has flown. During that portion, we’ve witnessed all aspects of NASCAR racing other than the road courses and through it all, Sterling Marlin is still the points leader.

That’s a definite surprise because there were so many expectations coming into the season for the Gibbs and Yates teams. Jeff Gordon appeared to be back to his old self and ready for another back to back championship for his fifth overall. But so far, the top six in points are least likely to contend, especially Rusty Wallace in third who doesn’t even have a Top 5 finish.

California Speedway is the sight of this week’s race. To breakdown this race and perhaps give a bit more insight, we’ll use recent history dating back to the last half of last season along with California and sister track Michigan Speedway history. Because of the similar banking and required set-up for the car, we can also mix in the Las Vegas race for a barometer.

Sterling Marlin (6-1) comes out with the highest marks as the top candidate to win. Marlin has all the momentum in his favor, having not experienced bad luck and likely not to see it soon. Though he hasn’t done particularly well at California in the past, Marlin has had success at Michigan where he won last fall. Marlin’s best performance at California was last year with a ninth place finish and has been dominant in Vegas.

Two-time California Speedway champion Gordon (5-1) comes in as the co-favorite. Only once in five races has Gordon not finished in the top four. Gordon grew up racing in Vallejo and has a huge following in California, which has helped him win half of the 10 Winston Cup races in the state since ’97. If we refer back to this year’s Vegas race, Gordon was non-existent.

Jeremy Mayfield (35-1) is a driver who does traditionally well on tracks year after year. Mayfield proved it again this year with a solid second place finish in Las Vegas. California is the sight for one of his three career wins, having captured the race two years ago. Last season, Mayfield had a strong fifth place performance. Mayfield has three Top 5’s in five races at California.

Every week after looking at the standings, we see the name of Matt Kenseth (18-1) and quietly ask ourselves, "When’s this guy going to go away? There is no way Matt Kenseth contends for a title." But every week, his name maintains the second spot. Kenseth won the first two Busch races at California Speedway there back to back. Last season, he had a mild 17th place finish. Kenseth is a solid contender and one most bettors will not leave out of equations any longer.

Another "Young Gun" is Las Vegan Kurt Busch (18-1). Who said a driver had to wait and pay his dues? Busch is a contender right now and the way he’s performing on all tracks, could be sneaking up on the whole series. He’s fourth in points, but more importantly, doesn’t seem to be fazed by anything on the track.

Crew Chief Jimmy Fennig had a great car set up for Busch in Vegas and he ran in the Top 3 for the entire race until a troubled last pit stop. Fennig was Mark Martin’s (18-1) crew chief and guided that team to victories at both California and Las Vegas.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5-1) is now officially crowned the heir to the throne as "Master of the Draft." His performance at Talladega and the way he manipulated the air in such dominating fashion makes it hard to believe even his father could have passed him.

Last season at California, Junior had problems in qualifying and started 38th in a backup car. That back-up car was the fastest on the track near the later stages of the race and the notes used from that race will be key this year. Earnhardt has a few mediocre performances at Vegas and Michigan, but is the most adorned and loved personality in NASCAR today.

Others to watch include Tony Stewart (7-1), last year’s Cal winner Wallace (10-1), and Dale Jarrett (8-1).

 

TOP 5 AT CALIFORNIA

1)

#40

Sterling Marlin

 6-1

2)

 #24

Jeff Gordon

5-1

3)

 #19

Jeremy Mayfield

35-1

4)

#17

Matt Kenseth

18-1

5)

#97

Kurt Busch

18-1