Hot topics easily found surfing net

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   For this week's racing column, I spent some time surfing the internet, wanting to see the hot topics amongst columnists and fans. Two drivers are right in the middle of rumor mill central -- Ricky Rudd and Elliott Sadler.
   Speculation with Rudd includes everything from him staying with Robert Yates Racing for three more years to looking for a new ride at the end of the season to retirement. An official announcement from Rudd is expected in about a month.
   Sadler is the hottest driver in rumor circles with he being mentioned as a possible replacement for Rudd if retirement is in the cards for the No. 28 driver. The other big rumors have him unseating either Michael Waltrip or Steve Park at DEI. The only sure thing is that Sadler won't be back behind the wheel of the Wood Brothers No. 21 cars next season.
   Among the most interesting things I stumbled across was NBC broadcaster Wally Dallenbach's picks to win at Michigan this weekend. His favorite was rookie Jimmie Johnson, who won at the sister track of California earlier in the season.
   Second through fifth on his list of favorites were this past weekend's winner Dale Jarrett, Rudd, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart. Noticeable in his absence was defending race champion Jeff Gordon.
   Gordon is hardly the favorite of internet pollsters, ranking as low as seventh in one major listing to his highest position of fourth in Charlotte Observer writer David Poole's poll. Keep in mind the defending NASCAR champ is actually in third place in the point standings and still very much in the hunt to win a fifth championship.
   Sterling Marlin, the actual points leader, is also atop most of these internet standings, although Johnson occupies the No. 1 spot in Poole's rankings.
   The other bashing of Gordon concerned his spinout in the pits at Pocono and a single car wreck at Bristol earlier this year. Speaking of bashing, Jimmy Spencer ruffled some feathers this past weekend in an article with a Pennsylvania newspaper, where he proclaimed the races at Pocono were too long for television and that many races on the schedule now are boring.
   The best thing I found while surfing the net. Both Winston Cup drivers Tony Stewart and Johnny Benson were driving Tuesday night in a Late Model Stock car race at Berlin (Mich.) Raceway. Next week, I will give you the results of how they fared against the local competition in that area.
   ANOTHER BLOW FOR SAFETY
   Tragedy was a visitor again this past weekend in a NASCAR race, with Southwest Touring Series driver John Baker, 49, killed in a crash at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway. Baker was wearing a neck restraint, but the track itself seems to have a severe safety lapse with an opening in its wall similar to what Bristol used to have before the famed Michael Waltrip crash.
   This was the fourth fatal crash at the facility that opened in 1999 with rave reviews about being a state of the art facility.
   Interesting is that the soft wall issue again came up on a national scale with the news appearing Tuesday that NASCAR has asked New Hampshire International Speedway to hold off on installation of the SAFER barrier system.
   The system is in place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with additional energy absorbing materials to be added before this year's Brickyard 400. The barrier did an incredible job last month with practice crashes by Robby McGhee and P.J. Jones resulting in much less severe impacts than a wreck by Eliseo Salazar before the system was installed. Why is NASCAR taking so long?  
   POCONO REMEDIES JARRETT'S EARLY SEASON WOES
   Dale Jarrett scored his third career victory at Pocono Raceway on Sunday. The first-place finish also gave Jarrett his sixth consecutive top-three finish in the Pocono 500. It was his twenty-ninth career Winston Cup win and first this season for Jarrett.
   The win at Pocono was the 51st NASCAR Winston Cup win for Robert Yates Racing.
   The ARCA Series raced at Pocono on Saturday prior to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Jarrett watched from atop the UPS Racing hauler as son Jason raced to a second-place finish.
   Jarrett had plenty of reason to celebrate in his post-race comments.
   "It feels great," he said. "I've heard Mark Martin say it a number of times, you get in a slump and you honestly wonder when and if another win is going to come.
   "Being with a team such as what I'm with I knew we were going to work through these things, but just how long that's going to take you really don't know. I think in my mind I was okay with the fact that this could take a while before we get back to victory lane. But, it couldn't have happened at a better time for a lot of different reasons.
   "For a driver to have a good mental picture of what you want to do and a good state of mind, a win sure helps all of that kind of fall into place."
   It's been well-documented that Jarrett was both a star football player and golfer in high school. Another driver with a great athletic history also had a big weekend. Brendan Gaughan, a former basketball player at Georgetown and roommate of Allen Iverson, won his first career Craftsman Truck Series event on Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway.
   Next week's racing column will bring you fans up to date on how some of our local round trackers have been doing at Kingsport, Lonesome Pine and other area tracks.
   One local person, who has been doing very well recently, is Brandon Thomas, a former Sullivan Central graduate. Thomas was named crew chief of the most famous car in racing last week, taking over the reigns of the No. 43 driven by John Andretti.