In control

June 25, 2002 11:03 AM
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With 18 races left in the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup season there are five drivers separated by a mere 88 points in the chase for the championship.

Following last week’s race at Sears Point where the top three finished 35th or worse led by points leader Sterling Marlin’s last place finish, the season is up for grabs. Marlin’s finish in Sonoma was by far his worst of the season. Fortunately for him, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon had mechanical failures.

All it would have taken was a Top 10 finish by either Gordon or Johnson to assume the points lead. Marlin dodged a bullet, but in the process allowed for Tony Stewart to roll up two spots into fifth due to his solid second place finish.

A few weeks ago we discussed this stage of the season and how important it was for Marlin to maintain his consistency. On the most difficult track of the bunch, Marlin failed miserably.

However, history is in Marlin’s favor. At this point in the season over the last 16 years, the driver leading in points has gone on to win the championship.

The two drivers Marlin should fear most are Gordon and Stewart. Gordon hasn’t even won a race this season and got the luckiest break of all at Sears by gaining points on a bad day. Stewart, like Gordon, will be tough for the remainder of the year because of his diversity on all tracks. So who’s it going to be?

Mandalay Bay’s Hugh Citron says Gordon will get his fifth championship.

"There are two additional races this season, which gives Gordon’s sands of time additional opportunity. Gordon hasn’t even toyed with being dominant yet and look where he’s at. Over the long haul, Gordon will be the one vying for the title. I actually think he’s having fun with the idea of not winning races but being in great position to win the championship."

Boulder Station’s Kelly Airgood is leaning towards Stewart. "Since his rookie season, Stewart has always been a closer, but he’s never been in a position like he is now. He’s always had to make up so much ground and it’s been against machines like Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, and Gordon who were in a season-long groove. None of the four drivers in front of Stewart have been consistent in a dominant way like the last three seasons."

MGM Grand’s Gregg Fisher concurs with the Stewart selection. "Stewart definitely is a second half driver and I think he’s poised to break through and become part of the select few who have become champions. Look throughout NASCAR history and you won’t see any of the greats not win a championship. I think Stewart is in the grade-A elite category and belongs with the best."

A few books around Las ­­Vegas such as Park Place properties, Mandalay Bay, and Station Casinos properties still have odds to win the 2002 ­­Winston Cup title available.

Green Valley Ranch’s Kelly Downey said action on the championship has heated up. "I think bettors are starting to see value on several drivers at this point and are throwing history out the window. Usually, the championship has been settled after the first eight races. Someone steps up and takes control, but everyone is seeing Marlin struggle a bit with so many other drivers being competitive. Anything is possible and at least the top nine in points have a chance at winning."

Next week’s Pepsi 400 at Daytona will be the last race of the season for FOX television before coverage is taken over by NBC at Chicago for race 18. This season FOX has once again elevated its coverage to heights that NASCAR has never seen before.

The entire package that FOX brings from the on-air talent, camera angles, statistics/information, and proper commercial breaks makes watching a race on TV more enjoyable than actually being at the race, other than the tailgate parties.

NBC coverage will have the same announcers as last season. Fortunately, NASCAR is so strong in demographics that not even Allen Bestwick can hurt the ratings. The countdown to Daytona 2003 has already started. That’ll be the next chance we have to listen to Darrell Waltrip, the best auto racing color commentator ever.

For next week’s Daytona race, Dale Earnhardt Jr (4-1) has been installed as the favorite followed by Jeff Gordon (5-1).

Other than the Winston Cup series, all the other major betting series are in action this weekend. The Busch and Truck series visit the Milwaukee Mile.

Before the season started there was plenty of skepticism about the quality of racing, but each has developed new stars and has been very competitive.

The Truck series has been very exciting, especially with Las Vegan Brendan Gaughan (10-1) getting his first series win at Texas two weeks ago.

The series that has really taken off as far as competition goes has been the Indy Racing League. Though the Penske drivers and Panther Racing’s Sam Hornish are going to be tough to beat, there are at least 10 other drivers who have a great chance to win every week.

This week the series rolls into the short track at Richmond which will be very interesting to watch as opposed to the heavier slower stock cars.

The normal paint trading and fender bumping we are used to seeing with NASCAR at Richmond will be very different this week considering the Indy cars have no fenders.

As always, every major series may be wagered on at any one of the 10 Station Casinos sports books.

Because of the competitive nature of the IRL, matchups have been offered for the last five events along with the regular odds to win.

ON A ROLL ”” Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan won his first Truck Series event just two weeks ago.

WINSTON CUP

Standings  

Margin  

 Odds

S. Marlin  

 0  

 even

M. Martin  

 -62  

 7-2

J. Gordon  

 -82  

 6-5

J. Johnson  

 -86  

 5-1

T. Stewart  

 -8  

 5-2

R. Wallace  

 -144  

 18-1

R. Rudd  

 -148  

 20-1

M. Kenseth  

 -178  

 8-1

K. Busch  

 -195  

 10-1

B. Elliott  

 -226  

 50-1