As the season rounds its halfway mark, NASCAR's race for the 1999 Winston Cup championship is shaping up as a four-way battle among three Fords, one Pontiac and fresh faces all around.
Dale Jarrett extended his lead to a season-high 177 points with Saturday night's victory in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Bobby Labonte held on to second, and teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Burton were within 234 and 255 points, respectively, of catching Jarrett.
Everyone else, including three-time champ Jeff Gordon, is at least 400 points behind, making it highly unlikely NASCAR's 1999 champion will be anyone outside the top four.
A change in the running order might be good for NASCAR, whose brand of big-time stock-car racing has become a bit predictable during its recent popularity boom.
Neither Jarrett, Labonte, Martin or Burton has won the title, though Martin has been runner-up three times (1990, '94, '98) and Jarrett once (1997).
None of their car owners have won the title: Robert Yates (Jarrett), Joe Gibbs (Labonte) and Jack Roush (Martin and Burton). For the past six years, NASCAR's championship has gone to either Richard Childress Racing (1993, '94) or Hendrick Motorsports (1995-98).
While the outcome of Saturday's Pepsi 400 didn't shake up the points standings much, it did underscore the strengths that have made these four drivers championship contenders:
Jarrett's is his rapport with crew chief Todd Parrott, whose aggressive strategy in the pits put Jarrett in the lead with 15 laps remaining. With Jarrett's car needing about a four-second splash of gas to finish the race, Parrott gambled and shaved one second off the fill-up. The move got Jarrett back on track ahead of leader Rusty Wallace, but he nearly ran out of gas before taking the checkered flag.
Labonte's is his even keel behind the wheel. He salvaged a fifth-place finish Saturday in a Pontiac that wasn't up to his team's normal standards.
Martin's is his tenacity. Driving one-handed in excruciating pain from a broken left wrist the night before, Martin still came home 17th.
Burton's is his quick ability to learn. After pitting for right-side tires with 15 laps to go, Burton latched onto the bumper of drafting whiz Dale Earnhardt and took off for the front. He finished third, after starting 37th. "I was committed to going with Earnhardt no matter where he went," Burton said, "because he knows a whole lot more about this racing than I do."
The Pepsi 400 underscored another point about the season: Gordon seems snake-bitten. His 24th-place finish--the result of a rare error on his part--left him 403 points behind Jarrett in his quest for a third consecutive Winston Cup championship.
After smooth running in the first half, the race boiled down to a 10-lap shootout that was settled primarily by pit strategy and drafting acumen.
At Daytona, a fast car gets a driver only so far. Far more important is the ability to use the air from other cars to make yours go faster. It makes for heartless racing, with drivers' moves in the draft based not on loyalty but on naked opportunism.
Wallace led the most laps (75 of 160) but was shuffled back from second to 11th in the wild jockeying at the end. Afterward, he was stunned Earnhardt, whom he considers a friend, hadn't helped him in the draft.
"That was unreal," Wallace said. "I was sitting there running second and had a run on [Jarrett], and I looked up and I thought Dale would go with me and stay up high, but he hung me out to dry. I couldn't believe it. I thought of all the guys, he'd help me."
Gordon's mistake simply was being too careful. With two laps to go, the caution flag waved for a three-car wreck in Turn 4. Under NASCAR rules, drivers may continue racing for position under caution until their cars cross the flagstand at the start-finish line. Knowing the race would likely end under caution, everyone scrambled to gain spots before taking the caution flag. Gordon, however, eased up rounding Turn 4 because it was still shrouded in smoke and littered with debris from the crash.
"We probably got passed by six or eight cars," Gordon said. "I just didn't know there was going to be enough boneheads to want to race me back to the caution. That's what I get for thinking that way."
Since 1993, the driver who has led the points race at the season's midpoint has gone on to win the championship. Should Jarrett extend that streak, he and his father, Ned, would become only the second father-son duo to win a Winston Cup championship. Lee Petty and son Richard, both retired from driving, share 10 titles.
"I've always hoped I could get one of those trophies because how much they mean to him," said Jarrett, 42. "It would mean a tremendous amount to me to say that my dad and I had accomplished that."
CAPTION: Dale Jarrett, left, crew chief Todd Parrott are all smiles after winning the Pepsi 400.