Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 Preview
By Bryan Van Stippen
After the longest stretch between visits to a track, the Winston Cup series returns to North Carolina Speedway, home of the second race of the season. Much more is at stake this weekend at North Carolina, or "The Rock" as most people know it, than in the first race. Matt Kenseth can lock up the points championship by finishing seventh or better. The track is just over one mile in length and is hard on tires and drivers. With a lot on the line, expect to see some aggressive driving.
The Roush Racing crew had a solid effort last week in Phoenix, as every driver finished in the top 15. That could happen again this week, as each Roush driver has been solid here in recent years. Younger drivers Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth struggled here early in their careers but have rebounded nicely. Busch has a pair of top 3s in the last two races, narrowly losing the spring race to Dale Jarrett. Busch has struggled some this season and will be looking to duplicate last season's strong finish. Kenseth finished third in the spring event, giving him his four consecutive top 10 finishes at the track - the only driver on the circuit to do so. He won a race here in 2001 and is looking to post just his second win of the season.
Roush Racing veterans Jeff Burton and Mark Martin both finished in the top 10 at Phoenix and you can again expect to see them run up front. Burton's 12th-place average finish is the best among Roush drivers. He has six top 10s in the last 11 races here, with a trip to victory lane in 1999. At one point, Martin was dominant here, with five consecutive top 10s (1998 to 2000) before problems in 2001 and 2002 relegated him to several finishes of 20th or worse. However, he finished second in last year's fall race and took home a seventh-place finish in the spring race this season. Martin has won here twice -- most recently in 1999 -- and holds the track record with five poles.
Dale Jarrett has not had the year he expected after winning the spring race here, but he has looked much better in the last few races. He had a pair of finishes just outside the top 10 at Martinsville and Atlanta before having problems in Phoenix. Unfortunately, he's still searching for his first top 10 since late August. Jarrett does like "The Rock," with the highest average finish on any driver on the circuit -- eighth place. He has won two out of the last six races, to go with nine top 10s in the last 11 races. If not for losing an engine in the spring race last season -- finishing 42nd -- he would have an average finish of fifth, finishing no worse than 12th since 1998.
Rusty Wallace is another veteran driver who likes racing here. Wallace has won here five times -- although not since 1995 -- and is just one of three drivers to average a top 10 finish in the last 11 races. He has not finished higher than third in any of those events but did lead the most laps in the spring race before finishing sixth. Wallace is looking to end a 95-race winless streak and has a good opportunity to do so this weekend.
The hottest driver in the series has his own history working for him. Jeff Gordon is just one of two drivers to have multiple wins in the last 11 races here, sweeping the events in 1998. He averages an 11th place finish with nine finishes in the top 15. More impressive, Gordon has not finished worse than seventh in this season's last seven races. Gordon is battling for second in the championship standings and a solid run could propel him to that spot.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., has not had the best of luck at "The Rock." He has finished no higher than 15th in seven career races, averaging a 29th place finish. That ties him with Robby Gordon for the worst average finish of any driver who has raced in every event since 2000. Avoid Gordon, too, as he has just one finish higher than 24th and has been slumping lately, with just one finish in the top 20 in this season's last 10 races.
Looking for some of those lower echelon drivers to fill your roster? Don't select Todd Bodine. Bodine has not finished in the top 30 in the last five races here, with an average finish of 38th. He has done even more poorly in the last two races, posting a pair of 42nd place finishes after getting involved in wrecks. Also avoid Kyle Petty, who averages a 34th place finish and has not finished higher than 23rd since 1998.
Rookie Jamie McMurray is a driver that you can expect to have a good run here. McMurray ran in this event last season -- subbing for an injured Sterling Marlin -- and finished 15th. He took home a fifth place finish in this season's spring race. He has six top 10s in the last 11 overall races, finishing in the top 20 in each event. McMurray is the leader for Rookie of the Year honors and can solidify the title with a good run this weekend.
Bryan Van Stippen is the ESPN fantasy racing correspondent and senior staff writer for www.fantasygms.com. Email any questions or comments to email@example.com.