Jarrett beats Busch in late battle at Rockingham
By JENNA FRYER, AP Sports Writer
February 24, 2003
ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) -- Add Dale Jarrett to the list of drivers who love racing at Rockingham.
Always successful at North Carolina Speedway, Jarrett proved how good the racing can be at the endangered track by besting Kurt Busch in a stirring 10-lap duel Sunday in the Subway 400.
The track is expected to lose one of its two Winston Cup dates when NASCAR realigns its schedule next season. But Jarrett, who has two victories, six second-place finishes and 13 top 10s in the past 15 events, made a plea for the 1.017-mile track.
``Why would we want to leave here,'' he asked. ``I hope in my heart that we don't, not just because I won here today. It's a great racing facility and I certainly would hate to see us lose one here.''
About 30,000 fans spread out in grandstands that hold 60,000 to watch Jarrett and Busch's back-and-forth battle.
Busch had the strongest car late in the race, leading 150 laps with few challenges from the rest of the field after he got up front.
But Jarrett passed him 10 laps from the finish by first pinning him against the wall, then using lapped traffic to box him in and slide past.
Busch regained the lead with five laps to go, passing after a stirring side-by-side duel.
Jarrett, conserving his tires while Busch burned rubber trying to keep the lead, went by him one more time and led the final three laps for his 31st career victory.
``I'm real proud of the way Dale Jarrett and I raced,'' Busch said. ``If that doesn't get you pumped, I don't know what to do. I don't know what we need to do to get to Victory Lane, but we'll get there.''
The 24-year-old Busch, who closed last season with three wins in the final five races, emerged as the early favorite for the Winston Cup championship. He takes a 31-point lead over Jarrett in the standings into next week's race in Las Vegas, his hometown.
``That young man is the hottest driver out here,'' Jarrett said. ``And the scary thing is he's getting really smart out here, knowing when to push it and when not to.
``I told someone earlier this week when talking about who would be a surprise for a championship that Kurt Busch is really a guy we're going to have to contend with.''
Matt Kenseth, who won this race last year, was third to give Roush Racing second- and third-place finishes and a Ford sweep of the top-three spots.
Ricky Craven was fourth in a Pontiac and rookie Jamie McMurray finished fifth in a Dodge.
Rusty Wallace, making his 600th career start, led a race-high 182 laps early in the event but faded to a sixth-place finish. Roush Racing driver Mark Martin was seventh and was followed by Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler -- Jarrett's new teammate -- and pole-sitter Dave Blaney.
The Chevrolets were expected to be strong Sunday after winning everything at Daytona last week, but Johnson's eighth-place finish was the best showing for the Monte Carlos.
Bobby Labonte actually was racing for the win late in the race, but gambled on fuel strategy and had to give up the third position to stop for gas with less than 10 laps to go. He ended up 16th.
Michael Waltrip, winner of the Daytona 500 last week, was never a factor and finished 19th.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., his teammate, had a miserable day. He made contact with Jeff Gordon early in the race, causing him to eventually blow his left front tire.
But the timing was perfect: The tire gave way just as NASCAR threw a planned caution 45 laps into the race for teams to make adjustments on their cars.
It saved Earnhardt from going a lap down, which was eventual anyway. He was involved in three of the seven cautions for spinning out and ended up 33rd, three laps down.
``We just didn't have a very good day,'' Waltrip said. ``The DEI cars looked about the opposite of what we looked at Daytona. We're just missing something here.''