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NASCAR WCUP: On to Darlington

By David Treffer
Contributing Editor, The Auto Channel

March 16, 2001

Darlington, SC-"The track too tough to tame" is the site of this week's NASCAR Winston Cup and Busch Series race. The famous egg-shaped oval in Darlington, South Carolina will be hosting Round 5 of 36 on the Winston Cup schedule.

The mood around the garage area is still somber. Some people will no doubt be grieving the loss of Dale Earnhardt for the remainder of the season and beyond. Everywhere that you look a remembrance of the now-legendary driver is prevalent.

Perhaps Kevin Harvick's victory last week in Atlanta will help to begin the end of the grieving process. Will Earnhardt be missed? That goes without saying. But he will not be forgotten.

The racetrack in Darlington is called "The Lady in Black." It is said about Darlington that there are only two kinds of drivers. "Those that have hit the wall and those that will." To have a Darlington stripe on the outside of the car is seen by some drivers as a badge of honor. A bit of bravado was no doubt getting in the way of common sense. No driver wants to wear a part of the whitewall paint on the side, front or rear of their car. Undoubtedly before the race ends on Sunday afternoon a few drivers will have a new color scheme on their respective chariots.

The driver leading the standings coming into the weekend is Jeff Gordon. Buoyed by his victory in Las Vegas and scoring 3 top five finishes so far this year has propelled the Dupont sponsored Hendrick Chevrolet team (613 points) to a 37 point lead over Dale Jarrett. Ironically these two drivers have inherited the torch that Earnhardt carried for many years. They are now seen as the face and therefore the standard bearers of Winston Cup racing.

One of the nice surprises of the season is seeing Johnny Benson occupying third place in the standings. The likable Benson has shown time and time again that he is just a rabbit's foot away from victory lane. With a little bit of luck, Benson might just break that victory barrier this weekend.

Dodge driver Sterling Marlin currently holds down fourth place. The distractions of the after-math from the Daytona 500 are still around. The death threats against Marlin and his family were not fantasy. Fortunately cooler heads are prevailing as people find their respective senses. However, Marlin will probably have extra security all season. A sad reflection of our society is that some people will never realize that it was just a racing incident. Anyone who has followed racing long enough knows that Marlin is one of the cleanest racers out there. Marlin, to his credit remains mum about the issue.

The one driver that everyone is waiting to see break out of his slump is defending Winston Cup Champion Bobby Labonte. After his terrifying crash at Daytona, Labonte seems to be slowly putting the pieces back together. Mired in 26th place in the point standings, Labonte will be looking to gain some points this weekend. Fortunately with the season being two races longer this year a driver can afford a couple of off weekends. But not too many.

So the Winston Cup season rolls on. The lingering pall is slowly but surely beginning to lift. No doubt that Earnhardt would want it that way.

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