History shows title chase far from over
Plenty of time to track down Labonte
By Bill Weber
(September 15, 2000)
Just like in Atlanta, the
points race could come down to a photo finish between Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte ...
but don't forget about Dale Jarrett.
There's something very interesting about returning to the
New Hampshire International Speedway this weekend. Here's the first thing: Bobby Labonte
has the biggest point lead of the 2000 Winston Cup season -- 158 points.
How is that interesting? Well ...
- In 1979, Richard Petty led the points by 160 with nine races
to go. He won by 11 points over Darrell Waltrip.
- In 1985, Waltrip trailed Bill Elliott by 138 points with nine
races remaining. Waltrip won the championship by 101 points.
- In 1986 Dale Earnhardt led Waltrip by 121 points with nine to
go, and won by 288 points.
- In 1992, Bill Elliott led Davey Allison by 99 with nine races
to go. Alan Kulwicki was 133 back. With just six races remaining, Kulwicki slipped to 278
points behind. Kulwicki won the title.
- In 1994, Earnhardt held a 201-point lead with nine races left.
He won the title by 444 points over Mark Martin.
- In 1995, Jeff Gordon led Sterling Marlin by 176 points with
nine races still to go. Earnhardt was fourth in points, 294 points back. Gordon won the
title by 34 points over Earnhardt.
You can draw you own conclusions from these recent, and
not-so-recent, point races. But simple mathematics will tell you that the chase for the
Winston Cup championship this season is far from over. Not when the top four drivers are
separated by less than 200 points.
Now, here's another curious note: the top three drivers in
the current Winston Cup standings have never won at New Hampshire, but the guys, fourth,
fifth and sixth in the points have each won the track.
In July, Tony Stewart won the race. Rusty Wallace won at New
Hampshire in the first Winston Cup race held at the one-mile flat track in 1993. Ricky
Rudd won the second race at Loudon.
In July of this year, Labonte finished 12th, Jarrett was
seventh and Earnhardt came home sixth.
I bring these points about points to your attention for a
simple reason. I look at the next two races as positioning races. Of course, this is a bit
of a cop out, because every race is a positioning race, and all 34 races pay the same
number of points. But because of the way the schedule is laid out, there are three real
tests that the eventual champion will have to survive. Those three races just happen to
come in a row about a month from now.
So the best-case scenario for any driver who wants to come
out on top after this 10-month marathon, should "position" himself as strong as
possible heading out of New Hampshire and Dover next weekend. The three races I'm looking
forward to are Martinsville, Charlotte and Talladega. Martinsville is a tough short track
where mistakes can be costly, and they don't even have to be your own! Charlotte is 500
demanding miles under the southern October sun. Talladega is always a roll of the dice,
and right now, no one is really sure what the rules for that race will be. Those three
races increase the value of the next two races.
||I think we have the capabilities of winning
at any of the nine tracks we have left on the schedule. I would say that between us we've
probably won a race at most of those. ... It's just going to be a matter that we're going
to be consistently in the top three or four.
|| Dale Jarrett
And by the way, this past weekend, Talladega got a big shot
in the arm on Saturday night when Earnhardt finished second and made himself eligible for
the No Bull Bonus at Talladega. If memory serves, he's pretty good there!
But back to this week.
The New Hampshire International Speedway is an endless
parade. The restrictor-plate rule for this race makes it tougher for teams to be at their
best, but the rule is the same for everyone. And for those chasing the championship, the
goal is the same: Get a good finish.
Labonte has just three top-10 finishes in his 11 starts at
the track, but he was third in this race last year. For the record, he has five finishes
of 15th or worse, including a 38th and 31st.
Earnhardt has just two top-fives in his 11 starts at New
Hampshire. He was 13th a year ago and has six top-10s there.
Jarrett has five top-seven finishes in the last six races at
the track. But in July of 1997, he finish 38th; and in July of 1995, he wound up 30th.
Jarrett is currently third in points, 164 behind Labonte.
"We've still got nine (races) to go and anything can
happen, " said Jarrett, the reigning Winston Cup champion. "Obviously, we just
have to out-run Bobby and Dale Earnhardt everywhere that we go. Every week we're going to
have to finish in front. Unless they have a problem that is what we have to do. It's a
very tough task.
"We could go to Atlanta down 100 points and still have a
chance of winning. But we'd like for it to be much closer."
But getting closer will be a challenge. No one has really
made a move on Labonte in weeks. The 18 bunch pulled out a great pit stop and a minor
miracle at Darlington, and even though they had the disappointing finish at Richmond, they
still gained ground. Just not as much ground as they would have liked.
So Jarrett, and the other hopeful, have to find a place and a
race that will enhance their chances. But where?
"If you are saying is there a place we are better than
they are, no," said Jarrett.
"I think we have the capabilities of winning at any of
the nine tracks we have left on the schedule. I would say that between us we've probably
won a race at most of those. So I can't say that I can look at the schedule and say this
is where we can pick up, because we are better than they are at this place or that. It's
just going to be a matter that we're going to be consistently in the top three or
But I think Jarrett and Earnhardt have an advantage heading
to Loudon. They know what it is like to be in a championship race and win it. The race is
just more than winning the championship; the mental race to stay in the chase is just as
important. Earnhardt knows the feeling from winning his seven championships. He has said
he will apply the pressure down the stretch. "I haven't paid that much attention to
it," said Jarrett. "I'm sure he's trying to do what he can to get this thing
closer. He's a veteran at that. He's won seven of them, and he's been in more championship
battles than that, so I expect he's going to do everything that he can to get his eighth
"He can have his fun at it, but you race on the track.
You don't get out there and think about what Earnhardt said. You get out there and
And that's exactly what the three points leaders, and the
rest of the field, will do this weekend. I know veteran race fans don't like the TV
graphic "Points As Of Now." Frankly, I really don't like it, at all. But I have
to confess, for the next two races, it does mean something.
Just like it did in '79 ... '85 ... '86 ... '92 ...'95 ...
And then when we get to those "Big Three" --
Martinsville, Charlotte and Talladega. Don't take your eyes off the track.
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
e c t i o n
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