New softer tires
may bother E at Rock

Feb 17, 2004 6:34 AM

ROCKINGHAM, NC - The biggest question surrounding this weekend’s race at North Carolina Speedway is how the new softer tires will hold up.

"The Rock" has always been one of the toughest tracks no matter what kind of tire is being used, and the driver’s patience and intelligence will be tested. Do you stay out on the track until your fuel cell is near empty, but risk having a tire blow or do you strategize towards having fresher tires, pit earlier than usual, eliminate some risk of a tire blowing, and getting consistently better times?

There is merit to each strategy.

Though the driver has the crew chief to help guide him through the race, and suggests when and what to do, it’s still ultimately up to the driver how he approaches the track. A driver like Ryan Newman (8-1) runs very well on this track, but he goes all out or nothing and has the extreme risk of having a short day despite how good he is.

On the other side, a driver like Matt Kenseth (10-1), who has a more subtle "see you at the end approach," may fare better because he is a cautious driver. Kenseth’s past successes at "The Rock" also make him a strong candidate to win the race. In his last 4 races here, he has a win, 8th, 3rd, and 4th. Look for a strong day from reigning series champion.

Kurt Busch (8-1) falls into the same category as Newman. He goes all out and will drive the wheels off the car with absolutely no rubber on the tire. He’s one of the better drivers in the circuit at handling a loose car and performed well here last season with a second and 17th place finish. The 17th can almost be thrown out the window because of the state of mind he was in after the whole Jimmy Spencer fiasco. Busch has put that behind him and is ready to roll for a title.

Dale Jarrett’s (14-1) last victory came at Rockingham last year in this same race. It’s been a tough year for him since then, but changes in the Yates engine program are encouraging if looking to wager on Jarrett. His past successes here are one of the best of all current drivers. He’s the leading money winner at the track and has finished among the top 5 in 12 of his 33 starts which includes two wins.

Jeff Gordon (8-1) has four career wins at Rockingham in 22 starts, with the last coming off a sweep of the ’98 season. Since then, he’s been very mediocre. Nevertheless, his skills of the track, knowledge of it, and his overall intelligence make him a strong contender this week. We know he’ll have a fast car.

Jimmie Johnson (8-1) finished strong last season and picked up right where he left off at Daytona with another top 5 finish. Last season in the fall, Johnson recorded a second place finish here. Johnson’s approach is somewhat in between Kenseth and Newman which may be the perfect mixture to win this race.

In the last 11 races at Rockingham, there have 10 different drivers to win. Only Jarrett has won multiple times over that span and six of the drivers that won were sort of a surprise. It could come down to that again this week, but we like the conservative calculating nature of Kenseth this week coming in.

Everyone has been talking about Kenseth as though it was his championship season that caused the point system to be changed and he hasn’t really said much to deflect the charges. However, it has to irk him a bit and you have to believe that he’s burning pretty bad for a win.

Fans adore Junior

Last week I had the honor to witness Dale Earnhardt Jr’s terrific win at Daytona in person and above all else, the thing I’ll always remember is the love and passion that his fans have for him.

There literally was a sea of Red across the entire seating arrangement at Daytona International Speedway and all Junior did was endear himself to the fans even more. There has never been anyone like him before and probably never will be after him. He’s a one of a kind because there is nothing bad anyone can say about the kid.

Every race fan, no matter who their favorite driver is, is a Dale Junior fan and all knew just how special the Daytona 500 win was for him. Rather than going to victory lane, he parked his car on the finish line and celebrated in front of all his fans. That is mutual respect and part of the reason that makes Junior a legend already.