New record adds drama to NASCAR season

Joe Nemechek's win this past Sunday at Rockingham extended a new NASCAR Winston Cup record for the most winners over the course of a season.
   He became the 18th different driver to win on the circuit this year beating second place Kenny Wallace by nearly six seconds. It was also a gratifying moment for crew chief Chris Carrier of nearby Bristol. Carrier, who tasted great success on the Busch Series with car owner Ed Whitaker, grabbed his first trophy as a Winston Cup crew chief.
   As stated before, the tour continues to better the old record for 14 winners in a season. Nemechek joined Steve Park as drivers who got their second career win at North Carolina Speedway in 2001.
   Besides the win by "Front Row Joe", other drivers have made unexpected visits to victory lane this year. Michael Waltrip in the season-opening Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick at Atlanta, Elliott Sadler at the spring Bristol race and Ricky Craven a few weeks ago at Martinsville all broke through with first career wins.
   For drivers who have struggled getting a win, winning pole positions have been nice consolation prizes. Bill Elliott started the trend with his fast lap for the Daytona 500. He was followed by fellow Dodge driver Stacy Compton, who captured poles for both Talladega races.
   Rookies Kurt Busch, Jason Leffler, Ryan Newman and Casey Atwood, who haven't been able to fellow rookie Harvick to the winners circle, each held fast times on qualifying day.
   Making things more interesting are some of the big names that have been shut out this season. Terry Labonte, the two-time Winston Cup champion, and Mark Martin, who has won a race for 11 of the last 12 seasons, headline the group that is yet to win.
   Up-and-coming stars Jerry Nadeau and Matt Kenseth, teammates of Labonte and Martin respectively, were also good bets to have won by this point of the season. Yet, each has only been competitive at selected events.
   There's also the case of Jeremy Mayfield, who won two races in 2000. Mayfield is currently on the sidelines without a ride after being released by Penske Racing after making derogatory comments about the team after the Kansas race.
   Only three Winston Cup races remain in the record-making season of Kevin Harvick. Harvick looks to be on his way to clinching a top ten finish in the Winston Cup standings to go along with his 2001 Busch Series title.
   The championship comes on the heels of Harvick winning the Busch Series Rookie of the Year Award last season. He is also close to clinching the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year and would become the first driver to win the Rookie Awards in back-to-back seasons.
   Certainly the biggest highlights of Harvick's season marked with tire-burning celebrations included his first Winston Cup win at Atlanta, taking a second win at the inaugural Chicago race and tying up the Busch Series title this past Saturday at The Rock.
   Overshadowed by these major events included an exciting Busch Series win at Bristol, his second consecutive victory in the Food City 250, and finishing second at Charlotte's Coca-Cola 600.
   Next on the agenda is a full-fledged run at the 2002 Winston Cup title, where Harvick hopes to match his predecessor in the Goodwrench Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt, as the only driver to win the NASCAR title in his sophomore season.
   Harvick has recently been vocal in stating he hopes NASCAR does the right thing in retiring the number 3 from competition. Next season, it has been announced that Harvick will continue to run the No. 29 on the side of the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
   However, the team will have one link to the past as the familiar black and silver paint scheme will return to the Goodwrench car.
   One of the most outspoken voices on the other side of the debate is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who will run the No. 3 in a couple of Busch Series events next season for car owner Childress.
   Earnhardt will drive two Nabisco-sponsored cars in these races. One will be a yellow car with a white numeral featuring the Nutter Butter brand. The second car will have a blue paint scheme with Oreo cookies on the side of the machine.
   We'd like to know how you stand on whether or not the number three should be retired from Winston Cup competition. Please mail in or e-mail some of your thoughts to the address posted below. The results and some of your respones will be printed in this column in two weeks.