Carter County racers going round and round

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff

   A couple of weeks ago, we updated you on how some of the Elizabethton based drag racers had been doing in 2002. This week, it's time to check in on how some of our Carter County oval track racers are faring.
   First, we visit Kingsport Speedway, where Stephen Storie finished 5th in the June 7 Late Model Sportsman race and is currently setting fourth in the point standings. That's five positions ahead of brother Scott, currently ninth in the points.
   Steve also has been running up at Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn, Va. He finished 8th in the Limited Sportsman race this past Saturday night. Storie sets 9th in the points at the Coeburn track.
   He's not the only one from Elizabethton making the trek up to Wise County as David Watson is 10th in the NASCAR Mod 4's division after finishing ninth place in his race on Saturday.
   Other notables racing at Lonesome Pine include Eric McClure, son of the famous Winston Cup car owner and Kingsport Times-News reporter Jeff Bobo. One of the top contenders in the premier Late Model class is Johnson City's Matt Wolfe, 22 points behind teammate Wade Day in the point standings.
   Other top runners include Nate Monteith of Bluff City, who had a very impressive run in the ARCA season-opener at Daytona, and Larry Utsman of the famous Bluff City racing family.
   Getting down and dirty at Volunteer Speedway have been a couple of Carter County racers. Hampton's John Patterson drove his No. 7 to a 16th place finish in last week's race. In the 4-cylinder division, Elizabethton's John Nichols has been competiting and is currently in the process of building a new engine. His son, Johnny Morris has been making the dust fly, ranking second in the points and already scoring a win earlier in the year.
   Dale Earnhardt may have been the Intimidator, and Jeff Gordon is doing his best to be the imitator this early part of the 2002 season. If Gordon wins this year's NASCAR points championship, he will accomplish one of the rarest of feats in Winston Cup racing.
   That is to win the title in a year when his race team is not performing at their top level and not providing Gordon with a car good enough to have a chance at victory in most races.
   The only time I can recall that ever happening before and a driver capturing the championship was in 1991, the last year of the Dale Earnhardt-Kirk Shelmerdine pairing.
   Earnhardt did win four races that year, but the '91 championship was won more on steady performances instead of domination and intimidation. Gordon did something last season only Richard Petty and Earnhardt have been able to do in the modern era, winning a championship after having his team restructured.
   If he can duplicate this other feat this season, it elevates Gordon to a whole new level, where any debate of NASCAR's all-time greatest driver will have to include the driver of the No. 24, along with the pilots of the No. 43 and No. 3.
   The way to traditionally win a championship has been to contend the year before, finish the year strong and use that momentum as a springboard to a title run. Off the top of my head, I can think of five occasions over the last 20 years when drivers did that.
   In 1983, Bobby Allison wins the title after two straight runner-up finishes to Darrell Waltrip. Fast forward to 1987, Bill Elliott uses a late season surge to build toward the Winston Cup crown the following season.
   One year later, Rusty Wallace, whom Elliott barely edged for the '88 title, wins the 1989 championship. Ten years later and Dale Jarrett, a contender for three years prior to his title season, takes the 1999 championship. Then Bobby Labonte, uses a similar path to the title, year later.
   There is the old racing adage, "You have to lose one before you win one." History tells us the proper way to win a championship is what points leader Sterling Marlin has been doing. Contend the year before and finish strong, then parlay that into a great jump the next season. It will be interesting to see how the 2002 battle plays out.
   There's always debate on which racing series boasts the world's best drivers. If you look at how they perform in other series, it would be hard to argue against NASCAR's Winston Cup drivers.
   Cup drivers Jeff Green, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. all scored wins earlier this season in the NASCAR Busch Series. Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick captured IROC wins, while Robby Gordon had a solid outing in the Indy 500, scoring an 8th place finish despite a fire on pit road.
   Then we look at last week's action at Berlin Raceway in Michigan. On the flat 1/3 mile short track, Cup driver Johnny Benson posted the fastest time in qualfying and later fellow Pontiac driver Tony Stewart dominated the 100-lap main event for Late Model Stock Cars. Stewart not only won, he whipped the track's regular competitors.
   This weekend, all three drivers for Richard Childress Racing -- Harvick, Green and Robby Gordon will race in Saturday's Southwest Tour event at Sears Point. Later in the summer, Winston Cup drivers Kenny Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty and Ken Schrader are all scheduled to race UMP Modifieds at I-55 Raceway, a dirt track Schrader owns in Peavley, Missouri.
   The record of Winston Cup castaways Ted Musgrave, Jason Leffler, Mike Bliss and Robert Pressley hasn't been too bad in the Craftsman Truck Series. While none of the three have captured a win in their Winston Cup outings, they have combined to win four races and six poles in 2002 Truck events.