With only three races remaining on the 2002 Winston Cup season, the chase for the championship appears to be over.
Tony Stewart's fourth place finish last week at Atlanta, coupled with nearest competitor Jimmie Johnson finishing 18th, opened some breathing room. Stewart now closes the year at Rockingham, Phoenix, and Miami, where he does extremely well.
A number of scenarios could happen, but the Vegas bookmakers feel so good about Stewart winning that they have taken down the Championship odds. All Stewart has to do is finish ninth or better in each of the last three races and he wins regardless of what anyone else does.
The points title would be the ultimate culmination of Stewart’s rocky season. Stewart, a volatile personality and driver, has learned from the mistakes that come when dealing with the pressures of being a celebrity. The championship will reward him for his great on-track talents and validate him as one of the sport’s premier drivers.
Stewart (10-1) rolls into Rockingham this week as the hottest driver on tour. Over the last six races, he's accumulated 942 points that include four top five finishes. Not having won may have some thinking Stewart is merely racing for championship points.
Whatever the case may be, he's an excellent choice for match-up players because of his consistency. Stewart doesn't have a win at Rockingham, which is the toughest of the remaining three tracks for him. So he may drive cautiously.
Rusty Wallace (10-1) is the career active win leader at Rockingham with five. Wallace has gone 59 races without a victory, the longest drought of his career. Wallace also has only three races remaining to continue his streak of 16 consecutive seasons with a win.
The last victory for Wallace at Rockingham came in 1994. After placing eighth in the spring, better believe the streak is something Wallace wants to continue.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12-1) hasn't had much success at Rockingham but does have a few variables in his favor. Over the last six weeks, Junior has been only second to Stewart in consistency.
Last season, Junior’s teammate Steve Park (50-1) had a dominating performance at the Rock. The Pennzoil car has had five straight Top 10 finishes.
No driver is hotter than Kurt Busch (12-1) after winning his second consecutive race and third of the season. Busch has gotten progressively better each Rockingham start, both in race performance and qualifying. Look for another good showing in making a move for a top five points finish.
Bobby Labonte (14-1) has been running exceptionally well of late and has a great history at Rockingham. Labonte finished third in the spring and also won there during the 2000 season. It's been such a disappointing year for the Interstate Batteries team that longtime Labonte crew chief Jimmy Makar is leaving.
Top 5 at Rockingham:
1) #8 Dale Earnhardt 12-1
2) #2 Rusty Wallace 10-1
3) #1 Steve Park 50-1
4) #97 Kurt Busch 12-1
5) #18 Bobby Labonte 14-1