The Race Is On
As Dale Jarrett slumps, his rivals close in on the Winston Cup lead
NASCAR'S Winston Cup championship, which only two weeks ago looked as if it had been locked up by Dale Jarrett, has turned into a crapshoot with 10 races left in the season. Jarrett hemorrhaged more of his points lead on Sunday by finishing 16th in the Southern 500 at storied Darlington Raceway, giving him back-to-back bobbles in eight days. On Aug. 28 he came in 38th after wrecking on the 188th lap of the Goody's 500 at Bristol and dropping out of the competition. "One more like this, and the race is on" said Mark Martin on Sunday after closing to within 168 points of Jarrett with a fourth-place finish.
Martin's teammate, Jeff Burton, won the 50th running of NASCAR's oldest superspeedway event and collected a race-record $1,148,170, including a $1 million bonus from series sponsor RJ Reynolds. Burton's older brother, Ward, finished second to bring in a Brothers Burton perfecta for the second time this season. Jeff and Ward were one-two in the Las Vegas 400 on March 7.
Before the Bristol race Jarrett had 20 top 10 finishes—the key to winning the season tide—in 22 races and led Martin in the standings by 314 points. At his current rate of erosion (an average of 73 points a race), Jarrett would fall behind Martin after three more races. Bobby Labonte, 320 points behind in the standings after the Darlington race, would catch Jarrett in five races.
Jarrett was doomed in Darlington when a flat tire caused his Taurus to spin out during last Friday's first-round qualifying, which meant he would start 36th in the 43-car field. "The qualifying effort just killed us. We didn't realize how much of a disadvantage that would be," Jarrett said after the race, which was shortened to 369 miles because of rain.
Jeff Burton loved the drizzle—the win was his second in a rain-shortened race at Darlington this season. "I've been called Rain Man all my life," he said jokingly, referring to the autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman.
"That's because you thought you were an excellent driver," someone cracked, parroting one of Hoffman's lines from Rain Man.
Turns out Burton, who's now tied with Gordon for most wins this season (five), is an excellent driver.
Veteran Driver Retires
Injuries Sway Swervin' Irvan
Last Friday, after Ernie Irvan had tearfully announced his retirement from NASCAR racing because of a series of head injuries, his wife, Kim, explained the simple arithmetic of the decision: "He's like a cat with nine lives, and he has used up eight of them."