RICHMOND, SEPT. 8 -- While the Mark Martin-Dale Earnhardt battle atop the Winston Cup standings has received most of the attention, lesser-known Ernie Irvan has quietly become one of the hottest drivers on the circuit.
And after running the fastest lap in qualifying Friday, the Modesto, California native will start on the pole when the green flag drops for Sunday's Miller Genuine Draft 400 at the Richmond International Raceway at 1:15 p.m.
A capacity crowd of over 60,000 is expected for a race that may be run under threatening, overcast skies. But it's been all sunshine lately for Irvan and his Kodak Film Chevrolet.
He won the Busch 500 at Bristol two weeks ago for his first Winston Cup victory and finished second to Earnhardt last week at Darlington. He is ninth in the points standings and hopes his recent success will give his career momentum.
"We're working right now on having enough brains to run for the championship next season," said Irvan, who qualified at 199.872 miles per hour. "I'm working on being smart enough to be a top contender."
In the meantime Martin and Earnhardt have made the points chase a two-team affair with eight races remaining in the season.
Martin leads the standings with 3,169 points (26 more than Earnhardt), but Earnhardt has been the dominant driver this year with seven wins and $1,450,780 in prize money.
Earnhardt will start in the sixth position Sunday, one spot in front of Martin who could surely use the points he lost here in February despite winning the Pontiac Excitement 400.
Martin won that race but was hit with the biggest penalty in stock car history when NASCAR took away $40,000 and 46 valuable Winston Cup points for having an illegal spacer between the carburetor and intake manifold in his engine.
Though Martin returns here clinging to his series lead, Darrell Waltrip is happy to simply return.
After shattering his left leg in a July 6 accident while practicing for the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, Waltrip has been sidelined except for a one-lap stint at Pocono six weeks ago.
With an 18-inch metal plate in his leg holding the bone together, Waltrip will start in the 27th position and has back-up driver Bobby Hamilton standing by should he be unable to drive the entire race.
For Michael Waltrip, Darrell's younger brother, the racing weekend has already paid dividends. He won the pole before finishing third in today's Busch Grand National event and will start Sunday's race on the first row after posting his best Winston Cup qualifying run. Complete Richmond Lineup on C22