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Kenseth sets early pace

Mar 11, 2003 5:06 AM

After 4 of 36 races on the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, light has been shed on how the season may end. The story has been Las Vegas race winner Matt Kenseth, the current points leader.

Kenseth is still the fourth choice at 6-1 to win the driving title, but those figures will drop dramatically if he continues to pile up top 5 finishes. So far, Kenseth is the only driver to have three top 5 finishes. Sitting second is Tony Stewart, at 3-1 the favorite to repeat as points champion.

Stewart has three top 10’s and is 49 points behind Kenseth. The biggest shock this early may be the amazing consistency of Johnny Benson, who is sixth in points. Benson, at 30-1, is the only driver in the top 20 without a top 10 finish.

This series rolls this week to Darlington, the Grand-Daddy of NASCAR tracks. Sunday’s race in South Carolina marks the 100th Cup race held at The Track Too Tough To Tame. It’s hard to imagine, but Darlington was the first asphalt track that raced stock cars. Prior to the 1950 Southern 500, the cars raced on dirt and sand. Darlington is the Fenway Park and Wrigley Field of motorsports.

Through the first 99 Darlington races, only 38 drivers have claimed a victory. David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt Sr, and Jeff Gordon have combined to win 30.

Gordon (6-1) is favored in part because of his terrific second place Atlanta run last week and his six career victories at Darlington. The Rainbow Warrior is by far the most successful active driver in track history. His four consecutive Southern 500 wins from ”˜95 to ”˜98 is an accomplishment no driver has ever come close to matching.

The other top drivers in recent Darlington history are Dale Jarrett (10-1), Sterling Marlin (10-1), and Ward Burton (20-1). Jarrett has three career wins, all coming in the 400-miler during a five-year stretch from ”˜97 through ”˜01. Jarrett won three weeks ago at Rockingham, another track known for being tough on tires.

Sterling Marlin is the defending champ, also winning in 1995. Last year Marlin dominated, giving early notice from his win at Las Vegas and having run the fastest group of laps during the Saturday Happy Hour session at Darlington.

The second fastest lap during Happy Hour was run by Dale Earnhardt Jr, who finished fourth in the actual race. The fourth fastest was Elliott Sadler, who surprised everyone with a second place finish. The moral is practice times at Darlington provide more value than at most tracks.

Ward Burton’s win in 2000 was much the same as Marlin’s last year. Not only did Burton have several good practice runs, but he also had great runs there over his career. Overall, Burton has two victories wins at Darlington.

Elliott Sadler at 30-1, had his best finish last year but also comes off his best performance this season with Robert Yates. With the past success of teammate Jarrett, there already is some built in value with Sadler. If he has a top 5 practice time, he is a strong contender. Keep your eyes on him.

Ricky Rudd (40-1) got rolled out of the top 20 in points last week. His built in value rests with the Wood Brothers, who produced a Darlington record 10 wins for David Pearson. Rudd won the 400 in ”˜91, and has six other top 5 finishes in 52 starts.