Just as team owner Felix Sabates and Joe Nemechek prepare to part ways, the driver is starting to turn things around.

Too late, though. This season will be their last together.

Nemechek, who came to Sabco Racing in 1997, earned his first victory in 180 Winston Cup starts last Sunday in New Hampshire. It was also the first win for Sabates since Kyle Petty's victory in 1995 in Dover, Del., site of today's MBNA Gold 400.

"We made a decision, and you can't look back on the decision you make," said Sabates, whose team also fields stock cars for Sterling Marlin. "I made a decision based on what I thought was best for my race team long term and Joe Nemechek long term. I'm not saying it did or didn't, but maybe that put a spark in Joe, a desire in him.

"I never had any question about Joe's ability. It's just that things were not meshing the way they should have been. . . . All of a sudden we made the changes and he finished sixth at Darlington and he won at New Hampshire. I hope he wins two or three more this year. That would make for a great story."

Sabates watched the race on television in a suite at the Carolina Panthers football game. Even though he wasn't there to celebrate with Nemechek, Sabates plans to reward the driver, who turns 36 today.

"He's got a big bonus coming," the free-spending Sabates said. "I don't know what it is yet. I gave Kyle a Rolls-Royce and a motorcycle. I gave [then-crew chief] Gary Nelson a '57 T-Bird. I gave the crew a boat.

"Every time we win a pole or race, somebody in the race shop gets a watch. This year I've given away three Rolexes."

Although he says Nemechek and Marlin have a decent chance to win today in Dover, the outspoken Sabates will not be there.

"I'd rather drink a bottle of laxative than go to Dover," he said. "I don't like that place. I've won there before, and we always run good there. But it's too long a race. You go out and wear out tires and have a lot of wrecks and the purse pays nothing. They should cut it to 200 laps."

Temper, Temper

Sensational rookie Tony Stewart has proved to be quick on the racetrack and quick with his temper.

Several times this year, Stewart has become difficult or simply ducked out of interviews after having problems during a race.

"I always get in trouble when I lose, whether I blow an engine or get crashed or whatever," he said. "That's when I stick my foot in my mouth. Then everybody seems to be like a vulture flying over my head."

But Stewart, who is fourth in the points race after a victory and a second-place finish in his last two starts, isn't about to apologize for his actions.

"If I accepted losing, why would you want me to drive your race car?" he said. "There are times I get sick of being politically correct. I got into Winston Cup because I wanted to be a race car driver. If I wanted to be a politician, I would be in Washington."

Monster Effort

Dale Jarrett, who heads into Dover leading runner-up Bobby Labonte by 254 points in the championship race, has found his stride on Dover's Monster Mile. After only three top-10 finishes in his first 19 Dover starts, Jarrett has now finished seventh or better, including one victory, in five of the last six Delaware races.

NASCAR

Winston Cup

Upcoming event: MBNA Gold 400, Dover, Del., Today

Points Leaders

1. Dale Jarrett 3,972

2. Bobby Labonte 3,718

3. Mark Martin 3,700

4. Tony Stewart 3,683

5. Jeff Burton 3,576

6. Jeff Gordon 3,554

7. Dale Earnhardt 3,415

8. Rusty Wallace 3,163

9. Terry Labonte 2,966

10. Ward Burton 2,933

Money Leaders

1. Jeff Gordon $4,646,111

2. Jeff Burton $4,588,856

3. Dale Jarrett $2,991,369

4. Bobby Labonte $2,642,406

5. Dale Earnhardt$2,210,809

6. Mark Martin $2,112,376

7. Terry Labonte $1,945,626

8. Tony Stewart $1,844,146

9. Mike Skinner $1,759,761

10. Rusty Wallace$1,735,244

-- Through New Hampshire 300, Sept. 19

Busch Grand National

Upcoming event: All Pro 300, Concord, N.C., Oct. 9

Points Leaders

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3,828

2. Matt Kenseth 3,715

3. Jeff Green 3,614

4. Todd Bodine 3,346

5. Elton Sawyer 3,257

6. Jeff Purvis 3,197

7. Jason Keller 3,110

8. Randy LaJoie 2,972

9. Dave Blaney 2,963

10. Mike McLaughlin 2,829

-- Through MBNA Gold 200, yesterday