Print and Go Back ESPN.com: WinstonCup [Print without images]

Wednesday, April 16, 2003
Parity is great for the sport

By Rupen Fofaria
Special to ESPN.com

Rupen Fofaria If I told you I thought Elliott Sadler was going to win the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, would you call me crazy?

How about if I told you it would be Ricky Craven, Terry Labonte or Dave Blaney. Would you call me crazy? Or at least a little loopy?

Things are changing in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, and its not that there's a group of guys on the rise while another is in decline. That's far from the truth. There's merely a large group of competitors who have risen and caught up with another group that has leveled out.

The result? Parity in NASCAR. Which is a good thing. A very good thing.

Parity in NASCAR accomplishes two major things which maintain excitement for fans all season long. Every weekend, there are no fewer than 30 racers who legitimately believe they will win. Also, if any of them do win, you can believe they realize -- as surely their fans must -- that it is a big deal.

That's something that NASCAR needed, since the current points system has crowned champion a guy who has not won the most races in three of the past four seasons. But even as that trend seems likely to continue, race victories won't become less important. Not when they are this hard to come by.

"You win now and you have to stop and enjoy it, because you never know when it's going to happen again," four-time champ Jeff Gordon said. "When we say anybody can win, we mean anybody."

I mean, Sadler, with one career victory on his resume, really could beat Gordon, he of 62 wins, next weekend. Seriously.

Now tell me that doesn't excite you.

Tell me you weren't up out of your seat screaming when Craven, labeled a has-been after a couple of hard hits in his career, beat Kurt Busch, a fast, young, up-and-comer whom many predicted would win the title this year, at Darlington Raceway.

Tell me you weren't a little shocked, in a that-was-pretty-awesome kind of way, to see Johnny Benson beat Busch, as well as the wily Mark Martin, for his first career victory at North Carolina Speedway last season.

And you had to be flat-out amazed when, last year, Jamie McMurray won a race in his second try and, two seasons ago, Kevin Harvick edged Gordon to win a race in his third attempt.

Anybody can win. And every one of those anybodys will cherish that victory. These are good things. And it's due to parity.

Gone are the days when Richard Petty had the field two laps down halfway through a race. Gone, too, are the days when the question isn't, "Who's going to win this weekend?" but rather, "Who's going to try to beat Gordon?"

It doesn't look like anybody is going to win 13 races in a season, the modern-era record set by Petty in '75 and tied by Gordon in '98. And it certainly doesn't look like anybody's going to win 33 races in three seasons, like Gordon did by posting back-to-back 10-win seasons before '98.

Those days seem way in the past. Now, guys like Gordon, Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott have endured winless streaks longer than 30 races. Wallace is in the midst of a 71-race draught. Ask him how much victory No. 55 would mean.

"Definitely, I think it means more now than ever before, because it's harder to win than ever before," he said. "Believe me, we're trying."

In today's NASCAR, fans of every driver can have hope his or her favorite will prevail. This season, through nine events, there have been nine victors.

That's what parity does for the sport. The current points system puts such a premium on points racing that victories don't necessarily do a whole lot in getting a driver closer to his goal: To win the championship.

Last season, Matt Kenseth won five times. He didn't finish in the top-five in the points race.

He still had a heck of a smile on his face when the year was over, however. With so many drivers capable of winning, and with so many drivers actually doing it, just to get into Victory Lane once is a big accomplishment. To get there more than that is huge.

"I never thought we'd have five wins," Kenseth said. "I knew that we'd be competitive and I knew that we'd be successful, but five wins? These days, that's really hard to do."

And the harder, the better, right? Call me crazy, but I have no idea who's going to win at California. And I love it.

Rupen Fofaria covers NASCAR for The Raleigh News & Observer and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@newsobserver.com.