Earnhardt Jr., Rudd make list of Top 10

By Jeff Birchfield

STAR Staff

   It's hitting the final stretch in our quest to see who ranks as the top drivers in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Today, we will see some of the sport's most popular racers as we go from No. 13 to No. 9.
   13. Kevin Harvick (59 points)
   Harvick came off the record year of 2001 when he won the Busch Series championship and finished ninth in the Winston Cup standings after winning in just his third start.
   Then a disastrous early 2002 season came, culminating with Harvick's one-race suspension at Martinsville. Things did eventually turn around in a summer stretch, highlighted with a win at Chicago, but Harvick ended the season sub-par leading to questions of whether he is that good or is he benefiting primarily from past success.
   His three wins have come at Atlanta, where the team won the year before his arrival, and at the similarly shaped Chicagoland facility.
   However, he won this year's prestigious IROC championship and finally ended a drought in Truck Series competition at Phoenix. Besides that, he has a bucket load of credentials, seven national go-kart championships, a Late Model track title at the famed Mesa Marin Speedway and a Southwest Tour championship.
   12. Sterling Marlin (62 points)
   One indisputable fact is that Marlin held the lead in the point standings (25 weeks) over three times longer than any other driver did this past season. It took Sterling 279 races before he ever reached victory lane in Winston Cup, but credit car owner Chip Ganassi for being a racer, someone who sees beyond the obvious in picking Marlin as his driver.
   His career stats aren't horrible mind you. Marlin is a ten-time winner with two wins in the Daytona 500, and has 11 career poles. He won three straight titles at Nashville Speedway and also is a former Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.
   11. Bill Elliott (63 points)
   The 16-time Most Popular Driver has his confidence back and is driving as good as ever. Some folks felt "Awesome Bill" got too much credit for being a great driver early in his career, as most of his record-setting 11 superspeedway wins in 1985 were Formula One style romps.
   He proved it wasn't all machine in 1988 beating Rusty Wallace in a tough title fight. Four years later, came close to scoring a second title while driving for Junior Johnson. However, Elliott won only two races the next two seasons and went winless for six more while fielding his own team.
   Certainly, he's driving a better car for Evernham than in recent years. But, Elliott has been best on flat ovals like Homestead, Indy and Pocono where it's vital to handle a sliding race car.
   His Hall of Fame numbers speak for themselves, 43 career wins (third among active drivers) and 55 career poles (number one among active drivers).
   10. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (67 points)
   There is no question on the plate-tracks that the No. 8 is the dominant car in the field. But you have to give the driver some credit. Earnhardt's first win came at Texas and his second at Richmond. In 2002, Junior more laps and more miles than any other Winston Cup driver and scored five top fives in six short track races.
   In the Busch Series, Earnhardt has set a high standard. There he was a two-time champion and has thus far amassed 17 wins. Starting out at a late age compared to most of the series' newer drivers, Junior wasn't a frequent winner in Legends cars and in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series. His learning curve was shortened however, by attending racing schools and playing a lot of the virtual racing computer games.
   There is also his celebrity status, which leads to dominance in souvenir sales. However, the mob scene that constantly surrounds Junior makes it difficult to maintain focus in trying to become champion.
   9. Ricky Rudd (69 points)
   Four seasons ago, Rudd was dangerously close to being stuck in the same rut as Elliott, playing the part of struggling owner-driver before teaming with Robert Yates.
   In a turmoil-filled 2002, Rudd won at Sears Point and finished tenth in points. Overall Ricky kept a pretty close pace with career numbers he has posted, as a winner of 23 WC races and 28 poles and a former IROC champion.
   What is most amazing about Rudd, whose racing background consisted of go-karts and motocross, is his first stock car race was a Winston Cup race at Rockingham. The concept of someone in 2003 going from karts to Cup is laughable.
   Even top open wheel racers get seasoning in a secondary series and that's generally been the rule throughout the sport's history. Take for example, Mario Andretti ran in the Late Model Sportsman race at Daytona for several years before his win in the 1967 Daytona 500. But, when Rudd won 1977 Rookie of the Year honors, he was a 21 year-old with less than two full years of stock car experience.