ATLANTA -- Lost in the mountain of legal paperwork that's become the beacon of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season is a little matter of races.
In the first 15 races, there have been 11 different winners, and defending series champion Bobby Labonte isn't one of them. Neither is Mark Martin. Or Dale Earnhardt Jr. Or Jeremy Mayfield. Or Terry Labonte.
Dale Jarrett threatened to make it a runaway early in the season with three victories. Then Jeff Gordon won his third race to become the front-runner.
Now, the championship is anybody's race.
Ricky Rudd celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Pocono 500 at Pocono International Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., Sunday, June 17, 2001. He is third in points, 130 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.
AP Photo/Russ Hamilton
The sport, at long last, is heading into the kind of finish that can help us forget all the courtroom wrangling and legislative posturing that followed Dale Earnhardt's death at the season-opening Daytona 500. Those of us who knew Earnhardt agree the greatest tribute to the seven-time champion would be a season that's most remembered for competitive races, not lawsuits and constitutional challenges.
Only 147 points separate the top-four drivers in the current standings. Gordon has used three second-place finishes and two victories in his last six races to propel himself into the points lead, but his advantage over Jarrett is a meager 36 points.
Ricky Rudd, who won last week at Pocono, Pa., is 130 points behind and gaining momentum, while Sterling Marlin, who's winless but a constant top-10 performer, is only 147 points in arrears.
The fact that Rudd, Gordon, Jarrett and Marlin were the top-four finishers at Pocono is no accident. A week earlier at Michigan, Gordon, Rudd and Marlin finished in the top three. And the week before that at Dover, Del., Gordon, Jarrett and Marlin were in the top six.
''We had two mechanical failures in a row early this season and we sort of said, 'Man, there goes the points championship.' We basically wrote it off after about four races in,'' Rudd said. ''We're third in points now, and all of a sudden, we're back in the points battle.''
This Sunday's road-course race at the Sears Point (Calif.) Raceway favors Gor don. He's won the last three races at Sears Point, and counting the only other road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y., Gor don has won six of the last seven races that require both left- and right-handed turns.
But Rudd is an accomplished road racer, too. Three of his 21 career victories have come on road courses. Marlin was second at Sears Point a year ago and Jarrett posted two seventh-place finishes at the road courses a year ago. If Jarrett, Rudd and Marlin can keep it close after Sears Point, the rest of the summer should be interesting.
''We're gaining on it,'' Marlin said. ''If you keep putting yourself in position to win races, eventually you're going to win one. We're staying close in the points race, too. We're getting better and better.''
''We can win the championship,'' Rudd said. ''I haven't been a contender like this in a long, long time. It's going to be fun.''
The last time stock car racing had an interesting points race was 1992. The battle between Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and Davey Allison was both dramatic and magical. It forever will be remembered as the most exciting season in the sport's history.
All three drivers came into the season finale separated by only 40 points. Harry Gant was only 97 points behind, and Kyle Petty trailed by 98 points.
Kulwicki won the title by finishing second and leading the most laps in the race. Elliott won the race but finished 10 points the difference of two finishing positions behind in the final standings. It remains the closest finish in stock car history.
If Gordon, Jarrett, Rudd and Marlin continue at their current pace, the 1992 season may prove to be a good opening act. If racing ever needed a lift for all the right reasons, it's now. It helps us forget about lawyers, autop sies and the way NASCAR does business off the racetrack.
But is anybody noticing?
REACH Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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