ATLANTA -- Ward Burton won the season-opening Daytona 500 and Tony Stewart finished last. Ten months and just under 13,971 racing miles later, Burton was 25th in the final standings and Stewart was the champion.
The 2002 season of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series will be remembered as the year that broke from tradition. Nobody dominated. Matt Kenseth had the most wins with five the fewest of a season leader in 10 years.
Rusty Wallace was seventh in the points race without a win. Johnny Benson, Burton and Kevin Harvick all won races and finished outside the top 20.
Veteran drivers buckled under the pressure of a 36-race season; Stewart was investigated by a grand jury, then fined and placed on probation by his sponsor; rookies displayed amazing savvy and resilience during the stretch.
It took nearly seven years for Benson to win his first race; it took only eight days for Jamie McMurray to pull the same trick.And in a Sherman, Texas, courtroom, Francis Ferko took two successful steps in his attempt to dismantle NASCAR.
The Daytona 500 set the stage for the season. Sterling Marlin led the race with six laps to go when NASCAR threw a red flag to clean up a mess caused by a crash along the frontstretch. Marlin got out of his car during the delay and pulled the fender away from his right-front tire. That violated a NASCAR rule against working on a car during a red-flag period. He was forced to stop on pit road, and that allowed Burton to assume the lead and eventually win without a competitive pass.
A week later, Marlin was second to Matt Kenseth at the North Carolina Speedway with eight laps to go when NASCAR decided not to issue a red flag during a caution for debris along the frontstretch. That triggered a debate on NASCAR's unwritten policies concerning red flags.
If that wasn't enough, Marlin won the next week at Las Vegas. There was no red-flag controversy, but NASCAR admitted it caught Marlin speeding on pit road an offense punishable by a stop-and-go penalty but the official on pit road didn't hear the command tower to stop Marlin. He avoided the penalty to turn even more attention to the way the sanctioning body conducts business on race day.
It took months, but Stewart slowly worked his way through the rankings. He won three times and took the lead in the standings for good after the Oct. 6 race at Talladega, Ala. What helped most was a prerace crash between Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin, who were 1-2 in the standings before the race. Martinhad a steering problem on the warm-up lap and ran into Johnson. Both needed repairs and finished 30th and 37th.
During his run, Stewart was cleared by a Tennessee grand jury after a woman claimed he knocked her down following a race at Bristol. He was fined and placed on probation by NASCAR for striking a photographer at Indianapolis, and his sponsor, The Home Depot, followed with probation and a $50,000 fine of its own.
Brooke Gordon filed for divorce from four-time points champion Jeff Gordon in March, citing "marital misconduct."
Another photographer and a safety worker also claimed Stewart struck them, but NASCAR cleared the temperamental driver in those cases.
When he won the pole position at Indianapolis, he celebrated by saying, ''You guys (in the media) can take all the poles and do whatever the heck you want to do with them. Wherever they fit, insert them.''
He spared no one. His own team was berated, forcing some members to either quit or ask for reassignment within Joe Gibbs Racing. Later, Stewart admitted his actions ''tried to tear the team apart.''
After winning the championship, he said 2002 was the most difficult of his young career.
''I'm hoping and praying that I got the worst of it behind me,'' he said.
Johnson and Ryan Newman, both rookies, combined to win four races. Johnson was fifth in the final standings; Newman was sixth.
McMurray won a race, and he won't even start his rookie season until 2004. NASCAR allows drivers to make seven or fewer starts in one season and maintain their rookie status for the future.
Kurt Busch, a second-year driver, won three of the last five races to finish third in the points. If not for consecutive finishes of 41st, 41st and 39th in August, he may have challenged Stewart.
Wallace's streak of winning at least one race a season came to an end after 16 years.
Mark Martin finished second in the standings for the fourth time in his career. His car owner, Jack Roush, crashed a lightweight airplane into an Alabama lake in April and was saved by a former Marine who was standing along the shoreline.
Brooke Gordon filed for divorce in March, claiming her husband Jeff, the defending series champion, was guilty of ''marital misconduct.'' She has asked for exclusive use of their $10.2 million mansion in Highland Beach, Fla., half of his reported $48.8 million in assets, alimony, the use of his yacht and jet as well as him being responsible for the salaries of the housekeepers, maintenance workers and chef.
But if Ferko is successful, he can make out even better than Brooke Gordon.
The race fan owns stock in Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. He is suing NASCAR because the track only gets one racing date each year while most raceways get two.
Part of that lawsuit also claims NASCAR violates anti-trust laws because the same people who own NASCAR, the France family, also own the majority of raceways on the circuit. Ferko's legal team includes Johnny Cochran.
NASCAR unsuccessfully attempted to have the suit thrown out of court several months ago. And last week, a U.S. magistrate judge set a tentative trial date for January 2004.
Ferko has done his part to make the sport's future every bit as unpredictable as the 2002 season. The drivers will do their part by returning to the track for Daytona 500 testing in two weeks.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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