NASCAR Winston Cup season at the half-way point
2 July 1999By David Treffer
The Auto Channel
DAYTONA BEACH, FL: Unlike last year's race, which was not run until October due to the wildfires in Florida last summer, this year's annual Pepsi 400 comes at the time of the well-known heat and humidity of July. The Pepsi 400 marks the halfway point of the NASCAR Winston Cup season. Saturday's race is the 17th race of the 34 race season. In other words a long way to go before a Winston Cup Champion can be declared.
Defending Pepsi 400 champion Jeff Gordon arrives here in fifth place, 314 points behind current point leader Dale Jarrett. Gordon has whittled 80 points off of Jarrett's lead in the last two races and arrives in Daytona with a lot of momentum. A victory at Sears Point last week, coupled with a strong second at Pocono, seems to indicate that the Dupont sponsored Hendrick Motorsports Team is poised to challenge for another Winston Cup title.
Following in second place behind Jarrett is Bobby Labonte in the Interstate Batteries Pontiac. Labonte is 157 points behind Jarrett. Labonte's season so far has been one of consistency. In 16 starts, Labonte has won two times, has 11 top five's and 12 finishes in the top ten. Labonte is the only driver among the top five who has not had a DNF (did not finish) this year. Daytona has been a track Labonte likes but has yet to visit victory lane. Last year Labonte won the pole with a speed of 193.661 mph. Labonte certainly has to be considered a favorite to repeat.
Questioned about winning the pole as opposed to winning the race. Labonte responded, "Our time will come, maybe this is the race. We've been their at the finish several times, we just have to close the deal."
Therein lies part of the problem with restrictor plate racing. Closing the deal. At Daytona and Talladega you need a drafting or "dance" partner as the Winston Cup driver's like to say. Labonte's search for a dance partner will be one that every driver in the 43-car field will contend with.
Third place is held down by Mark Martin in the #6 Valvoline sponsored Taurus. 166 points behind Jarrett, Martin has put together another strong season. Daytona is one of the tracks where Martin is still looking to reach victory lane in Winston Cup racing. Maybe this will be the breakthrough race.
Fourth place in points is Jeff Burton in the #99 Exide Batteries car. Burton is 240 points behind Jarrett. With three victories so far this year, Burton has found the year to be a continuing process of learning.
Commenting on racing at Daytona Burton said "You learn to follow the guys that have won here before. You can really learn a lot real quick. I like to watch videos of the races here to pick up little hints about things that I need to improve on."
Burton is also taking this year's success in stride. "I don't want to get too up or down emotionally. You have to approach each race individually and let the results speak for themselves."
Burton gives you the impression that he is learning what it takes to not only contend for a championship, but also to win one.
Saturday's race will be one more step toward the finish of the season. The fight for the championship is only in the middle of the eighth round.