Momentum at New Hampshire rides on Gordon

September 10, 2002 9:32 AM
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The traditional Saturday night Richmond race halted a national head to head match-up of NASCAR vs. the NFL in the football leagues first weekend, but NBC is going to bat against the mighty league of leagues this weekend in a ratings battle. When NBC Sports lost football a few seasons ago to CBS, the executives came up with several ways to combat the league, but the best and most natural way because of contract situations was to land NASCAR for the second half of their schedule.

Ratings had always been great and competitive against the NFL and that was with being only on cable in a limited amount of households. The network figured they would fill all their markets with NASCAR and it would be a success. 2001 numbers proved them right and this week, NBC finally gets to reap the rewards in their network battle for ratings.

In Las Vegas Sports Books, most Directors will concede that NASCAR handle has dropped since the NFL pre-season started. "It’s a matter of the same type of clientele managing their weekly allowance into broader strategies," says Green Valley Ranchs’ Kelly Downey. "The average NASCAR bettor is an NFL fan and if they have a bankroll of $500 per week they were betting on NASCAR, when football comes, they may split that money into various ways."

Football Sunday is an institution, but the simple fact that NASCAR wagering has carved a niche for itself in the last few years to even have a few regular bettors divvying up their bankroll to accommodate NASCAR says something about the progress the sports has made universally across the country, wagering or not. NBC’s obvious faith, XFL withstanding, is another example of how far the sport has come in just a few short years. This week’s race at New Hampshire is not exactly Daytona, but the ratings will be competitive, if not better, in several areas.

Last week’s Richmond race shuffled the leader board even more making the last 10 races of the season a scramble for the championship. Jeff Gordon (7-1) had the ultimate opportunity to seize the moment and capitalize on point leader Sterling Marlin’s (18-1) misfortune of finishing last, only to find himself in trouble a few laps later. When the race was over, Gordon gained points on Marlin, but lost two positions in the standings to Mark Martin (12-1) and teammate Jimmie Johnson (12-1). Tony Stewart (6-1) came out of the situation worse than anyone because he only had three more laps to complete and he would have been second in points only to see a cut tire relegate him to 30th in the race and 5th in points.

Stewart is again the favorite this week. New Hampshire has seen Stewart compete with the best at all levels of his racing career that include the Busch Series, Indy Racing League, and Winston Cup Series. There is no one else that has such an impressive diverse Loudon racing resume as Stewart.

As far as Winston Cup alone, Jeff Burton (12-1) is head of the class. Four career wins in 13 starts at a track not considered to be particularly attractive in any way to any driver like a Superspeedway or Road course is outstanding. New Hampshire has it’s own unique facets by being a mile track relatively flat, but few drivers have taken care of business on it like Burton.

Ricky Rudd (14-1) was a driver that could have once been considered in terms of agreeing with the track like Burton, but that was until his hasty lame duck departure from Robert Yates Racing. Ever since the announcement of Rudd’s departure, he has been a non factor in any race. Last week at one of his favorite tracks, he qualified and practices well to give many the impression he’d do well, but didn’t. He’s a definite wild card in this race because of his great past on the track, but his current status makes him difficult to figure out.

Jeff Gordon’s chase for a fifth Winston Cup championship is something that should be considered with great importance. He showed a few weeks ago that he can take over a race and win and by doing so elevated himself farther in the standings. He liked being in the winners circle and getting back into the spotlight. Even though Marlin kept close, he still knows his best chance at winning the title will be by winning races. Don’t expect a slow down or staying close mentality to stay out of harms way. Gordon is back and determined as ever.

Matt Kenseth (14-1) has more wins on the season than anyone with four. He is one of the few drivers that isn’t in contention for the title, but as he has proven all season, never count him out.

Ryan Newman (10-1) gets the Mark Martin award for bridesmaid of the season. He has finished second five times in a race this season and though it’s great for the young driver’s confidence, it’s got to be ripping him apart. He finished a solid fifth in the first race there this season. There is this intangible that is starting to set in that maybe he’s happy by just doing well at this stage of his career. By all accounts, he’s had a phenomenal rookie season, but it really is hard to finish second that many times without winning. It’s possible that he doesn’t want to do anything that’ll get negative reaction like Kurt Busch (12-1) has where he has veteran drivers having ill feelings toward him. He is definitely gaining respect from all circles and perhaps that is the plan, but the name of the game is still winning and sometimes a little nasty bump is what it takes.