Winston title race thins out

By Jeff Birchfield

Star Staff

   The pressure to perform at the Winston Cup level has never been higher as we saw on Wednesday, when Hendrick Motorsports and driver Jerry Nadeau decided to part ways.
   Although Nadeau won his first race for the No. 25 team less than two years ago and came close to winning a second event this past November at Atlanta, he was released after currently being ranked 28th in the NASCAR standings.
   The standings is a key point of discussion with the circuit now taking this week off for the Mother's Day holiday and next week's The Winston All-Star race being a non-points affair.
   Sterling Marlin leads Jack Roush teammates Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin in the top four spots of the driver standings. None of the aforementioned have ever won a Winston Cup title including the 44 year-old Marlin or car owner Roush.
   Former series champion Rusty Wallace is fifth only 12 points out of third place, with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon lurking 13 markers back of Wallace in sixth. Surprisingly, neither Gordon or Wallace, who have a combined 112 Winston Cup wins between them, have visited victory lane so far in 2002.
   Rookie Jimmie Johnson in 7th place, won at California and was ahead of his teammate/car owner Gordon for most of the first part of the season. Tony Stewart, along with Marlin and Kenseth, the only drivers to win two races in 2002, rides in eighth with Jeff Burton and Ricky Rudd rounding out the top ten.
   Forty-three cars and drivers start the season with hopes of winning the Winston Cup, but realistically the chase is now down to 12 drivers with the final two contenders Bill Elliott in 11th some 346 points behind Marlin and 12th place Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 357 points out of first.
   Ryan Newman, the rookie who was second in points earlier in the season, is now over 400 points down. Traditional wisdom says that deficit eliminates Newman from contention. Other big names seemingly out of the running include Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, as well as ex-Winston Cup champions Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte and Bobby Labonte.
   Before the season, others expected to battle for the crown were Jeremy Mayfield, currently 19th in points and last year's Rookie of the Year Kevin Harvick in 31st place. With Gordon not winning, the rookie Johnson scoring a win, Ward Burton winning the Daytona 500, Sterling Marlin leading the points over Kenseth and Busch, and Harvick way back in 31st, labeling the first quarter of the 2002 season a surprise would be a big understatement.
   Greeneville's Allen Johnson left the Bristol Dragway a week and a half ago, totally frustrated after failing to qualify at his home track for the NHRA MAC Tools Thunder Valley Nationals.
   Adding insult to injury, a second car Johnson owns and Kingsport's Tom Lee drives, made the elimination round of 16, but was put out in the opening round.
   This week, Johnson stands atop the Pro Stock world after winning the NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. Lee was once again a first round victim in eliminations, but this time he lost to his employer.
   Johnson eventually rocketed through to the finals, where he bested top qualifier Greg Anderson. Amazing about the Atlanta race was that Johnson and his Dodge team had failed to qualify for 13 of the last 14 NHRA races, prior to this one and had not won a single round since last August.
   It was Johnson's second career victory, with his first win coming in 1999 at Richmond. He also continued a string of seven different Pro Stock winners in seven races this season.
   Another local entry Todd Paton of Bluff City again was a big part of the story in Funny Car. One week after making it all the way to the semifinals at Bristol, Paton solidly qualified for the Atlanta race at the No. 10 spot.
   For a second week in a row, he went up against the Skoal car of Ron Capps in round one and for a second straight week, Paton eliminated Capps. This time the Cinderella story ended in round two, as Paton couldn't get his engine fired, thus handing a win to Tim Wilkerson. Whit Bazemore, the Funny Car winner at Bristol, was the only repeat winner at Atlanta in the three major classes.
   A few notes about Atlanta. Many new race fans may not realize it, but for the first part of the 20th century, Atlanta rivaled Indianapolis as the top racing city in America. "Thunder Road", The Georgia Racing Hall of Fame opens this Saturday in Dawsonville and it will chronicle much of that early racing history.
   Presently, tracks bearing the Atlanta name are well outside of the city limits. The Atlanta Dragway is located 45 minutes northwest of the city in Commerce, while Road Atlanta is also northwest of the Georgia capital near Lake Lanier.
   The Atlanta Motor Speedway, which plays host to NASCAR, ARCA and IRL events, is 30 miles south of the city close to the town of Hampton, off highways 19/41.
   Finally, I want to close with kudos to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Tony George and company show they still are the leaders in the area of motorsports safety with the installation of soft walls.
   The new safety measure may have already saved one life. It was estimated that a crash on Tuesday at 227 mph, severe enough to break a bone in the neck of driver P.J. Jones, was reduced by 60 G's by the barrier. The accident very well may have fatal if not for the walls. Another IRL driver Robby McGhee also praised the new safety device after he also suffered injuries that potentially could have been life threatening, if his car slammed against concrete.
   New Hampshire International Speedway has also announced plans to install the walls and I hope all racing venues hosting major events will soon follow suit.