NASCAR Has Rare Opportunity


Only twice in NASCAR’s Winston Cup history have there been different champions in four successive seasons.

With the 2001 season about to get underway--qualifying for the Daytona 500 pole is set Saturday at Daytona International Speedway--it seems likely that this year’s champion can add his name to Jeff Gordon’s, Dale Jarrett’s and Bobby Labonte’s.

It happened earlier with Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip from 1978-1981, and Bobby Allison, Terry Labonte, Waltrip and Earnhardt from 1983-86.


Three strong choices this season are Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. Here’s why:

* Stewart won six races in his Joe Gibbs Pontiac, two more than teammate and 2000 champion Bobby Labonte, and starts the year with the advantage of having seen what it took for Labonte to win--patience and the ability to stay out of trouble.

“I’ve got a better idea of how we have to work to accomplish our goals this year,” he said. “I’ve had a great career so far, and if I don’t ever get [a Winston Cup title], my career’s still been good. But at the same time, it’s kind of like the Indianapolis 500. I don’t think my resume will be complete until I get a Winston Cup championship and an Indy 500 win knocked out.”

Also on Stewart’s list before last Thanksgiving was to win the Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix. After he’d won it, he said, “That’s one I always felt I had to win. It cost me more money for gas in my jet to get out [to the Irwindale Speedway] than the prize money, but it was worth it.”

* Burton was third last year after chasing Labonte for most of the year. Driving a Ford for Jack Roush, Burton impressed by running second to Jarrett in the Daytona 500 and then winning the summer Pepsi 400 at Daytona. He will be assisted by crew chief Frank Stoddard’s record-setting pit crew.

* Martin has finally dropped his busy Busch Grand National program and had back surgery, two items that should help him return to NASCAR’s leader board.


After finishing second three times and third four times, Martin fell to eighth last year. Now that he’s free of back pain and not running two races on some weekends, look for the Arkansas traveler to challenge for the championship once again.

Others who figure to be in the running are Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd and the two sophomore sensations, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Not likely to become championship contenders, but certainly worth watching will be the new Dodge contingent, led by veteran Bill Elliott, and A.J. Foyt’s Pontiac team with 42-year-old rookie Ron Hornaday. After winning Craftsman Truck championships in 1996 and 1998 and two Busch Grand National races last year for Earnhardt, Hornaday was dropped. Foyt then picked up racing’s prize free agent.


Ken Schrader, who will be going for his third Daytona 500 pole on Saturday, got his 2001 season off to a flying start last Sunday in Phoenix, where he won both the NASCAR Winston West and Featherlite Southwest Series main events.

The versatile veteran from Missouri led 178 of the 250 laps in the two events and collected $28,000.

Best of all, he said, “Was knowing when I get to Daytona, I’ll hear people say, ‘Good job at Phoenix,’ instead of, ‘You mean, you went all the way to Phoenix for a Winston West race to finish sixth?’ ”


Finishing 14th in the Winston West was 73-year-old Hershel McGriff, who won the 1950 Mexican road race.


In celebrating its 50th anniversary season, the National Hot Rod Assn. had a panel of drag racing experts select the NHRA’s 50 greatest drivers.

They will be announced in reverse order until the No. 1 choice--undoubtedly either Don Garlits or John Force--will be revealed at the Auto Club Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11.

Elmer Trett, a top-fuel motorcycle racer, was named No. 50 during last week’s Winternationals. Trett recorded the first 200-mph motorcycle run on a Kawasaki on Sept. 5, 1983. He also became the first to exceed 210, 220 and 230 mph on two wheels. He was killed during an exhibition run in 1996 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Richard Tharp, 1976 top fuel champion and one of the sport’s more colorful characters, is No. 49. Although he won his only NHRA title driving for Paul Candies and Leonard Hughes, Tharp was best known as driver of the legendary Blue Max funny car.

He was even better known for his off-track adventures. He once held a dirty-eating contest, dismaying a roomful of friends by swallowing a handful of detergent powder, cigarette butts, raw eggs and goldfish.


Another time, he blocked a car in downtown Amarillo, Texas, and strolled around it--completely naked--because he felt he had been insulted.

The criteria for selection included on-track success, contributions to the growth of the NHRA, technological breakthroughs, marketing-sponsorship breakthroughs, fan popularity, and innovations.

Garlits, the old Swamp Rat who came out from Seffner, Fla., to show the West Coast hot rodders a thing or two about horsepower in the 1950s, should be at the top of the list in almost all categories. As a champion, record-setter and innovator he is without parallel.

Force, the darling of today’s hot rodders, is far and away the sport’s most popular and most successful winner, having dominated his funny car class for more than a decade. The former truck driver from Bell Gardens elevated drag racing to motor racing’s top echelon when he was named driver of the year in 1996.

A step down from those two come a group that includes Don Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney, Bob Glidden, Kenny Bernstein and Joe Amato.

Then another step down to many, many other champions of straight-line racing.


Former Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan lives in the south of France, but he is back in Los Angeles for the Paralysis Project of America’s Great Sports Legends awards dinner Saturday night at the Century Plaza Hotel.


Sullivan will be one of the honorees, along with baseball’s Yogi Berra, pro football’s Kenny Stabler, golf’s Billy Casper and Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone.

“So many race drivers have suffered spinal cord injuries that when I was invited to be an honoree, I didn’t hesitate to come,” Sullivan said. “I felt very honored to be able to do what I could.”

Sullivan, 50, has competed in stadium ice races in Paris.

“It’s been fun,” he said “They’re little cars with a couple of hundred horsepower, but they’re exciting. We run on about a quarter-mile track and it seems like we’re going sideways all the way around. The finals are March 3 and they’ll have about 60,000 in the stands.”

Dinner details: (818) 754-2874.


Hey, who needs the Angels at Edison Field? If the Disney people are interested in making money, perhaps they should think about leaving the 1.5 million pounds of dirt that has covered the entire field for the last month.

In five Saturday night events, the SFX Motor Sports Group had three 45,050 sellouts for supercross and came close to that with a pair of monster truck events that drew 44,981 and 39,642.

The Angels had only five sellouts, also 45,050, in 81 home games last season.

The supercross, featuring champion Jeremy McGrath against challenger Ricky Carmichael, was so successful that SFX officials are considering four events in Anaheim next year. Supercross will be at Indianapolis’ RCA Dome on Saturday night.



Jerry Tolliver and his World Wrestling Federation funny car racing team, which had Los Angeles Xtreme cheerleaders parading around for him at Pomona Raceway last Saturday, will reciprocate at Sunday’s Xtreme home opener in the Coliseum against the Chicago Enforcers. Tolliver will have his colorful car on display and will greet fans, starting at 3:30 p.m.

Perris Auto Speedway will open its 2001 season Saturday night with a mixed program of stock cars, trucks and Lightning mini-sprints on the half-mile dirt oval. The Sprint Car Racing Assn. will make its Perris debut Feb. 17.


Daytona 500

All events taking place at the Daytona International Speedway:

* Saturday: Qualifying, 10 a.m., Channel 11.

* Sunday: Bud Shootout, 11 a.m., Channel 11.

* Feb. 17: Busch Series, 9:30 a.m., Channel 11.

* Feb. 18: Daytona 500, 9 a.m., Channel 11.

* Defending champion: Dale Jarrett.

Last Year

NASCAR Winston Cup winners in 2000:

Driver Events won

* Tony Stewart 6

* Rusty Wallace 4

* Jeff Burton 4

* Bobby Labonte 4

* Jeff Gordon 3

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3

* Dale Jarrett 2

* Dale Earnhardt 2

* Jeremy Mayfield 2

* Steve Park 1

* Matt Kenseth 1

* Jerry Nadeau 1

* Ward Burton 1

* Mark Martin 1