NASCAR rankings continue with Nemechek

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   We've almost reached the halfway point on our road to officially open the 2003 Winston Cup season. It's number three of our eight part series of statistically ranking 40 veteran NASCAR drivers. Today we will look at positions 29-25. To see where the others have ranked so far, you may get a copy of the past two days' STAR or visit our online edition.
   29. Joe Nemechek (16 points)
   Nemechek has two Winston Cup victories, including a dominating performance in the fall 2001 race at Rockingham in the Andy Petree 33 car. His qualifying skills are also excellent, as six poles and five outside poles, gives him the well-deserved nickname "Front Row Joe".
   Nemechek, originally a motocross racer, had little trouble switching over to four wheels as he is a former Rookie of the Year and champion in both the USAR Series and the All-Pro Series.
   In addition, Nemechek and Kevin Harvick are the only drivers in Busch Series history to score a trifecta of winning Rookie of the Year, Most Popular Driver and the series championship. Overall, Nemechek's Busch Series record is outstanding, winning 12 races and 13 poles.
   Joe was unexpectedly hurt at the beginning of the 2002 season when sponsor K-Mart left his Travis Carter Racing team. Nemechek was out of a ride until securing the Rick Hendrick No. 25 midway through the season. After uncharacteristically crashing in his first few races with the team, the combo showed they had turned the corner with a strong second place run at Atlanta.
   28. John Andretti (19 points)
   Another two-time Winston Cup winner, Andretti's best performance to date was beating Jeff Gordon in the late stages at Martinsville in 1999. Mirroring the rest of Petty Enterprises, John's team has struggled over the past three seasons as he has only five top ten finishes over that time period.
   Andretti had 10 top-tens in each of the two seasons before that, as well as finishing a career-high 11th in the points. He rivals Tony Stewart and Ken Schrader for having one of the most varied racing backgrounds, winning in everything from stock cars to Indy Cars to even taking an IMSA win in the 24 Hours of Daytona. It has been well-reported that John's attempt at NHRA drag racing was a success, beating four-time Top Fuel champ Joe Amato on his way to making the semifinal round in his first national event.
   Unlike Stewart, who made a smooth transition to the Winston Cup ranks thanks in part to racing a year and a half in the Busch Series, John jumped straight from CART onto stock car racing's premier circuit. Now a full-fledged NASCAR veteran approaching ten years of experience, the pressure is on Andretti to add to career totals of two wins and two poles.
   27. Jimmy Spencer (19 points)
   Although Spencer's 19 points tied with Andretti, he places higher by virtue of a better 2002 season. Despite being released by team owner Chip Ganassi at the end of the year, "Mr. Excitement" pulled off a near win in the spring Bristol race. That race re-ignited a feud with Kurt Busch, culminating at Indy, when Spencer's No. 41 sent Busch heading into the turn two wall.
   Once you get beyond the well-publicized instances of rough driving, you see that Jimmy is a solid racer. He is a two-time Modified Series champion, winning the title at a time when drivers like Mike McLaughlin, Jeff Fuller and 1988 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year Ken Bouchard provided some of his main competition.
   On the Winston Cup Series, Spencer's ability to hold it to the floor is evident. He won at the high-speed tracks of Daytona and Talladega in 1994, while driving for the legendary Junior Johnson. He also posted the best finishes ever for Travis Carter's team in the series, a pair of second place runs.
   In recent years, Spencer has found the Busch Series fertile hunting ground. Driving the No. 1 Yellow Freight Chevy, Jimmy won the night race at Bristol and in 2001 he captured three checkered flags on that circuit. He holds career marks of 12 Busch wins and three poles to go along with his three poles in the Winston Cup Series.
   26. Mike Skinner (20 points)
   Skinner finished the lowest (31st place) in the point standings of any driver who competed in all 36 Winston Cup races in 2002. However, that news is not as bad as it might sound. Making all the races was an accomplishment for the Morgan-McClure team, who in 2001 went through four drivers and missed two events, including the Brickyard 400.
   Ironically, one of those drivers was Robby Gordon, who successfully replaced Mike at Richard Childress Racing near the end of 2001. While Skinner's performances in the Kodak car weren't earth-shattering, they were an improvement over those of the year before.
   That being said, Skinner had some great moments at RCR, including winning the inaugural Craftsman Truck Series title. He was the career-leading winner in that series when he departed at the end of 1996. At the beginning of 1997, he started out his Winston Cup career with a bang winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and later Rookie of the Year honors.
   While he has come close to winning a Cup race on several occasions and has an exhibition win in Japan, Skinner is yet to taste the fruits of an official victory, making him the highest ranking non-winner on our list. On the flip side, he does have 11 front row starts including an outside pole at New Hampshire in 2002 that gave a huge emotional lift to his current team.
   25. Kyle Petty (24 points)
   Fans new to the sport know Kyle Petty more for his humanitarian efforts than for being a competitive race car driver. But, there was a time it seemed Petty was on the cusp of joining the sport's elite, ready to challenge for the NASCAR crown. Things never materialized for Petty driving the Felix Sabates No. 42 car and he went back to his family's operation in 1997.
   Leaving Sabco meant the end of Petty's days of winning eight races and eight poles. His stature as a driver has no doubt been hurt by the rebuilding process for Petty Enterprises and the constant demands on his time in his role as company CEO.
   His two most famous driving accomplishments are winning in his first ever professional race, the ARCA 200 at Daytona in 1979, and winning the World 600 while driving for the Wood Brothers.
   Kyle showed some rebound in his 2002 racing efforts. Despite scoring only one top ten in 36 races, Petty secured enough top twenty finishes to tie with Kevin Harvick for 21st in the series' final point standings. It was certainly an upswing from a horrendous 2001 season, marked by a career-low 43rd place finish in the year end rankings.
   Petty can boast of being only one of eight drivers currently in the series to have won races on all three major types of tracks - superspeedways, short tracks and road courses.