Three big upsets mark 2001 NASCAR season

In a year filled with surprises, the wins of veterans Bill Elliott, Michael Waltrip and Robby Gordon had to serve as the biggest upsets for the 2001 Winston Cup season.
   Elliott won at Homestead on Nov. 11, a stretch of over seven years since his last victory. His last win before joining Ray Evernham's Dodge team was behind the wheel of Junior Johnson's No. 11 Thunderbird at the '94 Southern 500.
   Comparing Bill's streak to other famous droughts in NASCAR's modern era. Harry Gant went from 1985 to 1989 without winning before snapping his streak at the TranSouth 500 at Darlington.
   Terry Labonte had another famous dry stretch going from 1989, his last season with Johnson, until 1994 when he joined Hendrick Motorsports. Given the opportunity with Hendrick after stints with Richard Jackson and Billy Hagan, "Texas Terry" won three races in the '94 season. Labonte followed that up with his second Winston Cup title in 1996. His championship in '96 came 12 seasons after his first one in 1984 for a NASCAR record.
   Elliott now can shift his attention to breaking the record held by Labonte as his lone Winston Cup title came back in 1988 when he was driving the No. 9 Coors Ford for now deceased car owner Harry Melling.
   Waltrip's win in the season-opening Daytona 500 was equally surprising. He came into the year winless in 462 starts with his best career finish a second at Pocono way back in 1988. Waltrip had two pole positions, but none since 1990 when he was still driving the No. 30 Pennzoil Pontiac for Chuck Rider.
   This season, not only did Waltrip win the Daytona 500, but finished second to teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at the other Daytona race, July's Pepsi 400. Showing he finally had mastered a track other than Daytona, Waltrip charged to a second place at the Homestead event which Elliott won.
   Gordon won the last race of the season, not at a road course long considered his speciality, but at a flat one-mile oval. He bumped the non-related Jeff Gordon out of the way to win the New Hampshire 300.
   To put things in proper perspective, this was the same Robby Gordon who was fired by the No. 4 Kodak team just four races into the season after being blamed for triggering a 19-car pileup at Daytona.
   This was the same driver shown the door in similar fashion four years earlier by Felix Sabates. Robby Gordon had his first career win wrapped up earlier in the season at Sears Point, only to race the lapped car of Kevin Harvick and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
   Everyone knew he had the talent. Opportunities for top rides in the open-wheel CART series were abundant if Gordon decided to move back there. But, to his credit Gordon stuck with it in the hard times, never wavered from his stance that he wants to be in NASCAR and that he would someday show how good he was. To Elliott, Waltrip and Gordon only one word seems appropriate, congratulations.
   Other surprises of 2001 was Harvick winning in only his third start at Atlanta. No one questioned his talent, as many applauded Richard Childress bringing Harvick up to the Winston Cup Series. However, no one thought the rookie would be able to actually beat Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and the other top drivers at the Atlanta race.
   Harvick certainly showed he was no flash in the pan with his second win at Chicago and the way he dominated the Busch Series this past season.
   Elliott Sadler's win at Bristol was special for several reasons. His 38th place starting position was the worst ever for a winner at BMS, defying the conventional wisdom that you can't win at Bristol pitting on the backstretch.
   It was Sadler's first Winston Cup win in 75 tries and the first for crew chief Pat Tryson in 90 attempts. Their Wood Brothers team is the fourth winningest team in NASCAR history, but hadn't been to victory lane since Atlanta 1993 with Morgan Shepard.
   Ricky Craven's win at Martinsville was also a shocker to many, as Craven had been counted out of the sport following a head injury he suffered at Texas in 1997.
   It was notable that it came behind the wheel of Cal Wells' Tide Ford. Wells had made a terrible entry into NASCAR, being vilified for taking away sponsors from then driver-owners Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd before he even fielded a race car.
   His teams' performance on the track made the situation even worse. Former Trans-Am champion and CART series winner Scott Pruett found the NASCAR waters rougher than expected and Wells turned to Craven, a once promising driver who was down on his luck.
   The combination was magic. The team almost won at Michigan until rain intervened, giving Sterling Marlin his first win since 1996. At Martinsville, Craven won in a fashion that a racer dreams of, beating Jarrett to the finish line in a thrilling last lap battle.
   Here's one sure to test the knowledge of the most ardent NASCAR fan. Name all the winners of non-points events in 2001. The races are the Bud Shootout at Daytona, the two 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona, the NO BULL Sprint at Charlotte, the Winston Open and finally the Winston.
   I'm guessing most of you got a couple right. Tony Stewart won the season-opening Bud Shootout, while Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag in The Winston, NASCAR's annual all-star event.
   The other winners of special races this season were Sterling Marlin and Mike Skinner in the two 125-mile qualifying races, Todd Bodine in the NO BULL Sprint and Johnny Benson in the Winston Open.