THE RACE IS ON
As Dale Jarrett slumps, his rivals close in on the Winston Cup
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 title--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
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."
Irvan, 40, sustained what doctors termed a mild head injury in a
crash at Michigan Speedway on Aug. 20--five years to the day
after he had suffered life-threatening head and chest injuries
at the same track. The night of the 1994 accident, Irvan was
given only a 10% chance of survival, yet he was up and about by
October and resumed Winston Cup racing a year later. Then last
October, in a crash at Talladega, Irvan suffered a concussion
and missed the last four races of the season.
In the wake of his most recent accident, Irvan asked his
personal physician to evaluate his condition. "The doctor said
that the first time I came back to racing was a full-fledged
miracle," Irvan said. "Then he said, 'How many miracles can you
have?' That woke me up. I don't want to retire, but it's the
smart thing to do. I don't know if I could survive another wreck
like the two I've had at Michigan."
Nicknamed Swervin' Irvan for his wild driving style, Irvan won
15 races in a Winston Cup career that began in 1987.
FOYT TO FOCUS ON NASCAR
A sign of the times: A.J. Foyt, arguably the biggest name in the
history of Indy car racing, will field a NASCAR Winston Cup team
next season and is looking for a driver. Although Foyt says
he'll keep his IRL team going, he will attend "99 percent of the
NASCAR races." Given a Winston Cup schedule of 34 events, Foyt
clearly won't have much time left to focus on Indy cars.... CART
CEO Andrew Craig was to meet with San Francisco mayor Willie
Brown this week to discuss a possible downtown street race,
beginning next year.
COLOR PHOTO: MARY ANN CHASTAIN/AP Mike Skinner hotfoots it from his flaming car following a collision at the Southern 500.