Winston Cup has odd early look

Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2002

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) -- NASCAR has an odd look.

Tony Stewart is in the chase for the Winston Cup championship after four races while Jeff Gordon is way behind.

Stewart, a traditionally slow starter, enters Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway in fifth place in the standings. Gordon, usually quick out of the gate, is 11th.

''I don't have an explanation for any of it,'' said Gordon, who won his fourth series title last year.

''We've had a rough start and Tony, someone who usually doesn't come on until later in the season, is right there. But we're not going to panic. ... I've seen guys have much rougher starts than we have and come back.''

Gordon denied that personal problems have affected his racing. His wife, Brooke, filed for divorce after seven years of marriage, The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post reported Saturday.

''Anything we've experienced this year has been from either not working hard enough or poor qualifying,'' Gordon said. ''My focus has 100 percent been on racing.''

But if Gordon doesn't get with it, and quickly, he might not have a chance.

Sure, it's still early. But Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing team are the hottest thing on the track right now and could make it hard for Gordon to catch him.

He closed last season on a roll, finishing a career-best second -- to Gordon -- in the standings.

Stewart was dominant in Daytona and considered the driver to beat in the season-opening 500. But he blew a motor after just two laps and left the race 43rd in the points standings.

He's bounced back in dramatic fashion. He was fourth in Rockingham, dominated the race in Las Vegas before traffic slowed him to a fifth-place finish, then won last week in Atlanta.

The Atlanta victory came in the fourth race of the season. It marked the earliest part of the year Stewart has notched a victory and has him at his highest spot in the standings at this point. He enters Sunday trailing leader Sterling Marlin by just 101 points.

''We've been in the top five for the past three weeks, so that right there makes me extremely excited about the possibility of what might lay ahead of us,'' Stewart said. ''We've just got to keep our nose to the ground and keep pushing. If we can be consistent, we're going to keep knocking those points down. Hopefully, we'll get there before the end of the year.''

Gordon, conversely, has a season-best finish of seventh three weeks ago in Rockingham and followed it with a 17th and a 16th. He's particularly struggled in qualifying, but bounced back this week to earn the second starting spot for Sunday's race.

One thought is that his poor qualifying efforts have led to his lack of competitiveness on the track.

''Because I've qualified up front as many times as I have, I'm maybe not as good at getting from the middle or the back of the pack to the front like some other guys are,'' he said. ''Hopefully, we can capitalize on it this weekend.''

Stewart started a season-worst 36th Sunday at a track where he's never led a lap. He'll need to get to the front of the pack and stay there if he wants to further distance himself from Gordon. Gordon is 28 points -- but six spots -- behind him in the standings.

''It's just a tough place to get around well, and there's a group of guys that get around there well every time we go there,'' Stewart said.

''It's like we're right on the verge of being one of those guys. We just need to find a little something that can help us get into that elite group.''



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