Stewart In The Driver’s Seat For Winston Cup Title
By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
It’s down to a two-man dance for the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup championship, and Tony Stewart is calling the tune.
Only Stewart and Mark Martin have a chance to win the title this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And in reality, it will take a major mis-step by Stewart to bring Martin into serious play. All Stewart needs to claim the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup championship is a 22nd-place finish Sunday, no matter what Martin does. If Stewart leads a lap, he can finish 24th. If he leads the most laps, he can finish 25th.
In fact, even if the Home Depot team shoots itself in the foot with a last-place finish (43rd) at Homestead, Martin still needs to finish 13th or better to steal the championship. So while Martin’s title hopes aren’t dead yet, they’re definitely on life support.
In reality, Martin’s best chance to win the championship went by the wayside last weekend at Phoenix, when Robbie Gordon bumped Scott Wimmer from behind coming off turn four, sending Wimmer into the outside wall and forcing Stewart to take evasive action. It was a close call; too close for Stewart, who minced no words in his criticism of Gordon.
"That idiot Robby Gordon, if he can't race guys, he just wrecks guys," Stewart said. "He's been a weapon ever since he's been in Winston Cup racing. I like the guy. He's fun to hang around with. But he's the worst racecar driver I've ever seen. His helmet…must be four sizes too tight. He about cost us an opportunity when we’re running for a championship.”
Not surprisingly, Gordon saw the incident differently. In his words, "Wimmer and I got together, he spun, and I held my line. I don't know what Tony's problem is.”
Close calls notwithstanding, last week’s run at Phoenix was just the latest in a series of nails in the coffin of anyone hoping to overhaul Stewart. In fact, of the half-dozen drivers who remained in title contention just a month ago, only Stewart has been able to avoid tripping over his own shoelaces. Sterling Marlin was forced to withdraw due to injury, and Rusty Wallace’s inability to win a race has slowly (but surely) doomed his hopes. Rookie Jimmie Johnson has hit everything but the lottery lately, and two weeks ago, Martin suffered a self-inflicted wound of his own, forfeiting 25 championship points to a post-race penalty for an illegal spring. That penalty turned what had been a realistic title chance into a long shot bid, at best, leaving Stewart as the model of championship consistency.
While the competition has fallen by the wayside, Stewart remains cool, calm, and collected; three words with which he had never - until recently - shared a sentence. His 2002 season was not without challenge -- at one point, even he questioned his fitness for the job -- but through all the distraction and controversy, Stewart has remained focused squarely on the job at hand.
Barring a major turn of events Sunday, Joe Gibbs will hoist his second NASCAR Winston Cup championship trophy, just like he did three times in the Super Bowl. And Tony Stewart will complete his unlikely transformation from NASCAR’s bad boy to NASCAR’s Golden Boy. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll be able to smile when it’s over.
Ultra/Evernham Motorsports is no more.
In one of the more acrimonious breakups in recent memory, the partnership between Ray Evernham and Jim Smith came apart at the seams last week, with Smith buying Evernham out of his share of the #7 team after reportedly finding the team’s Rockingham motor - provided by Evernham -severely lacking in horsepower when compared with Evernham’s own cars.
The breakup is the final chapter in what has been a frustrating and tumultuous season for the team; a season that saw driver Casey Atwood routinely run at the back of the back. Two weeks ago, with 150 laps still remaining in the race at Rockingham, crewchief Tony Furr reportedly walked out of the team’s pit area, after telling Atwood “if he wasn't going to race, he was heading for the house.” The next day, Atwood was released, and Evernham and Smith began the process of dissolving their partnership.
"Jim and I formed this team at the end of last season to give Casey some seat time in Winston Cup," explained Evernham. "Without Casey, there was no reason for us to continue our relationship.”
Smith is now the sole owner of the Sirius Satellite Radio-sponsored team, which will finish the season with Jason Leffler at the wheel. After that, Smith would like to speak with Jimmy Spencer, who unexpectedly found himself “at liberty” for next season, much to his dismay.
Spencer was informed by team owner Chip Ganassi last Tuesday that he would not be returning to the Target Dodge next season. In fact, Spencer said he got the heave-ho via telephone, just as Ganassi was announcing his dismissal to the world.
"I was shocked," said Spencer this week. "I got the phone call Tuesday. He said, `You gotta look for a job next year, and I'll talk to you in Phoenix.' Pretty cold.” Spencer also took issue with statements by Ganassi that implied the decision was mutual. "I didn't decide nothing,” said Spencer. “Chip's the one that made the decision.”
Spencer, who has a year remaining on his contract with Ganassi - and an option year after that -- said he had recently been assured that the contract would be honored, despite the fact that the team has struggled to 27th place in Winston Cup points.
"I had a deal with Chip for two years,” said Spencer. “He had told me I would be driving for him next year, and then Tuesday came."
The Pennsylvania native has already spoken with Smith about the seat in the #7 Dodge, and Smith sounds interested.
"We need to get this car in the top 20 next season," he said. "We need stability. Spencer has a lot to prove, and so do we."
Among the drivers near the top of the list to replace Spencer are Bobby Hamilton and Dave Blaney. Both could be just stop-gap drivers, however, since Ganassi is said to have his eye on either Bobby Labonte or Jeff Burton to steer the #41 Target Dodge. Both have time remaining on their respective contracts, though, meaning that Ganassi will have to wait a year.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…MB2 Motorsports announced last week that Jerry Nadeau will steer its Winston Cup cars next season, with sponsorship from the U.S. Army. The deal is for just 27 races, however, with the Army serving as an associate sponsor for the other nine events. Additional backing is being sought for those races. Nadeau replaces Kenny Schrader in the MB2-owned #36 Pontiac.
…As if any further proof is needed that pedigree is as important as performance in NASCAR Winston Cup racing, we offer 2003 Rookie of the Year candidate Larry Foyt.
Foyt, son of the legendary A.J. Foyt, will graduate to the Winston Cup ranks next season, despite a Busch Series career that has seen him capture just two top-10 finishes in 65 career starts. The younger Foyt began his career in karts and Formula 2000 racing, before moving to the Midwest American Speed Asssociation circuit in 2000. He moved to the Busch Series the following year, and currently ranks 9909th in points.
A.J. Foyt Racing hopes to expand to a two-car Winston Cup team in 2003, with the owner promising to spend more time on the NASCAR circuit after being "embarrassed (with) the sorry showing we've had since I first started." His current sponsor, Conseco, has one more year remaining on its contract, with the new team reportedly being backed by Larry Foyt’s Busch Series sponsor, the Harrah’s Casino chain. A.J. Foyt said that while he does not have contracts in hand with his current Winston Cup driver, Mike Wallace, he has generally been pleased with his performance.
"Mike has done a good job for us,” he said. “I've been happy with Mike."
Papa A.J. attempted to play apologist for his son last week at Phoenix, saying, ”Larry don't have near the experience that a lot of people think. He's done a good job for the experience, and he's come along real good." And while A.J. clearly believes his boy is ready for the big time, Larry Foyt seems to be somewhat more grounded in reality.
"I'm excited, (but) it's a big step for me," he said. "It's tough, because we never had the success I wanted to have in the Busch Series before making that next step. Everyone has seen that both of our teams have struggled. We've had some great drivers in our Cup car, and it still hasn't run up front like it needs to.”
…Thunder Road/Airborne Street Stock driver Justin St. Louis is the latest to step-up to the Flying Tiger ranks. The Vermont driver has purchased Craig Bushey's Flying Tiger/Sportsman entry, with preliminary plans calling for a full schedule of weekly racing at Airborne Raceway, and a more limited slate at Thunder Road.