Saturday’s rainy weather moved aside on Sunday and let some springtime in as fans and competitors braved winds in the 40 MPH range to see the Winston Cup guys go to North Carolina Motor Speedway at Rockingham. Known as the “Rock”, racing is always hard and fast on the one-mile high banked oval, and tires are always the issue with a rough surface dictating pit strategies.
Rusty Wallace in the Miller Lite Dodge raced to the front and became the early favorite as he took a commanding lead through the first part of the race. Wallace failed to win a race in the 2002 season for the first time in sixteen years and looked like he was hungry for his 55th win of his career. Wallace came out of the pits in second during the first three caution flags and quickly blew by Mark Martin in the Pfizer sponsored Ford to retake the lead. His car was very strong down the straights and he had a good handling car in the corners. Just after halfway, Wallace had a pit stop slower than usual and came out in tenth, and just couldn’t work his way back to the front. Other favorites coming into the race fared with worse days as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was involved with four of the first six caution flags, wishing his day would end, finishing 33rd. The finish didn’t help his championship hopes, and after a thirty-sixth place finish at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. has a great deal of catching up to do. Tony Stewart also had a mixed day, being as far up as fourth, but at the end of the day, a small altercation on track relegated him to twentieth. Stewart’s teammate, Bobby Labonte fared much better in the Interstate Batteries Chevrolet as he went a lap down at one point but came back to challenge for the lead late in the race after pit strategy put him up front. It wasn’t to be for Labonte as he used up his tires and came home in sixteenth.
After the race shook down for a while, Kurt Busch emerged as the front runner. His aggressive driving style had put him up front as he hoped to capitalize on his second-place finish at Daytona. Busch would lead through the yellow flags with great pit stops and with ninety laps to go made the decision that if the race went green, they would be able to make it. He wasn’t the only driver to make that decision and the race did indeed stay green. With ten laps to go Dale Jarrett had worked his way around Ricky Craven in the Tide Pontiac and then Martin. He drove hard to get on the back bumper of Busch and with five laps remaining made the pass for the lead down the back straight. Busch wasn’t just going to layover and let Jarrett by, and with three to go went to the inside and retook the lead. Lapped traffic was just ahead of the pair and played a part as the two cars battled side by side trying for the upper hand. When the white flag came out with one to go Jarrett worked his way ahead of Busch and took his thirty-first win of his career. Jarrett also gave his new Crew Chief, Brad Parrott his first win in Winston Cup.
Busch said after the race “This is more disappointing than last week’s second place finish, we just ran out of tires” Kurt Busch inherits the points lead for the coveted Winston Cup and keeps his momentum up for next week when they return to his hometown of Las Vegas. If you count the end of the 2002 season Busch has won the last three of five races and his worst finish in the last ten races is sixth. Dale Jarrett moves to second in the points, and his car is usually strong at Vegas also. Next week, we’ll see how strong they really are.
Top ten for the Subway 400 at North Carolina Motor Speedway
01. Dale Jarrett, UPS #88 Robert Yates Ford
02. Kurt Busch, Rubbermaid/Sharpie #99 Rousch Ford
03. Matt Kenseth, Dewalt, #17 Rousch Ford
04. Ricky Craven, Tide, #32 PPI Pontiac
05. Jamie McMurray, Havoline, #42 Ganassi Racing Dodge
06. Rusty Wallace, Miller Lite, #2 Penske Dodge
07. Mark Martin, Pfizer/Viagra, #6 Rousch Ford
08. Jimmie Johnson, Lowes, Hendrick/Gordon Chevrolet
09. Elliot Sadler, M & M’s, #38 Robert Yates Ford
10. Dave Blaney, Jasper Engines, Jasper Engines Ford