Racing's midterm report

Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2002

ATLANTA -- While the third and final off weekend of the NAS CAR Winston Cup Series isn't the mathematical midway point of the racing season, drivers traditionally have considered it the start of the second half.

The schedule closes with 20 races on 20 weekends, starting with the Pepsi 400 at the Day tona International Speedway on July 6.

For race fans, however, the break is a perfect chance to reflect on the first 16 races, and to think what's likely to happen in the final 20.

Sterling Marlin took the lead in the point standings in the second race of the season, and he's stayed there ever since.

Matt Kenseth is the only driver to win as many as three races.

Marlin, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart have each won two races, while Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have each won once.

With the formalities out of the way, here are the stories at the mid-season break:

Biggest Story: The lack of competitive racing. Body styles created by engineers, not mech anics, have turned stock cars into rocket ships that can't race. The lead car can get air to the front bumper and get traction for the front tires, but the trailing cars don't get clean air. That creates a condition known as ''aero-push.'' Cars stuck in traffic lose too much traction to make passes, turning most races into nothing more than follow-the-leader.

Biggest Surprise: The return of Roush Racing. A year ago, teams owned by Jack Roush won only two races and none of his drivers were among the top 10 in the final point standings. Now Mar tin, Kenseth, Jeff Burton and Kurt Busch have combined for five victories and three of the four Martin, Kenseth and Busch are ranked in the top 10.

Biggest Rise: After finishing last at Daytona, Tony Stewart has rallied to fifth in the points, only 88 points behind Marlin.

Biggest Fall: After winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Ward Burton has dropped to 25th in the point standings. His victory at Daytona is his only top-five finish of the year.

Biggest Hope: NASCAR changes the rules by cutting down the rear spoiler, demanding softer tire compounds and expanding the width and height of the driver's compartment to eliminate ''aero-push'' and make the cars more stable.

Biggest Anticipation: A dramatic points race be tween Marlin, Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Mar tin in the final two months.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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