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Winston Cup Series

Tuesday, October 28

Monday's race made a splash
By Mike Massaro

Mike Massaro HAMPTON, Ga. -- It was wet and wild at the Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend. Jeff Gordon won the rain soaked Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, which was appropriately dripping with sidebar stories.

Rocket wrecked: Rocket Ryan Newman's cruise through the season's second half came to a crashing halt Sunday afternoon when he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. got together in the closing laps.

The two were battling for position, nose to tail with Newman ahead of Earnhardt, when Newman's car spun and crashed.

"I had a run on the outside of him, he just slid right up the racetrack in front of me," said Earnhardt Jr. "(Newman's) a good driver but he took up the whole race track. There wasn't enough room for the both of us."

Instant replay proved inconclusive and there was question whether the No. 8 car hit the 12 car from behind. It was a question that Newman answered by simply saying, "oh yeah."

Junior didn't disagree.

"There was contact but it looked like he was out of control before I got there," said Earnhardt Jr. "I can't drive his car for him you know.

"I just hate I got into him, I think that's what initially sent him on around but he might have been a little free because when he slid up in front he kind of lost the back of it a little bit. He might have checked up some. But I can't tell, I wasn't in his car."

Coming into Sunday's race Earnhardt led Newman by just 17 points for the third spot in the standings. The incident put separation between the two. Finishing sixth, Junior jumped to second in the standings while Newman slipped to sixth after finishing 29th.

"It would be in my best interest and everyone else's best interest if I didn't say anything right now," said Newman. "Whatever I'd say would be wrong."

Since June 22, Newman has won six races and had jumped 13 positions in the standings. This was his first DNF since June 15.

Championship turning point: On the very first green flag lap following a 22-hour rain delay, Winston Cup point leader Matt Kenseth was involved in a multi-car accident during which he sustained minor left rear damage.

The turning point came immediately after the DeWalt team completed repairs. As the field streamed through the front stretch, Kenseth accelerated off pit road and somehow managing to stay ahead of the pace car and avoid losing a lap.

Tony Raines
For a team with no sponsorship, Raines and Co. have been respectable this season.

Kenseth was never a contender for the win. However, when then-second place driver Kevin Harvick collided with Dave Blaney, Kenseth's bad day turned good. Harvick ended the day, and perhaps his championship chances, by finishing 20th.

Kenseth finished 11th and now has a 258-point advantage over Earnhardt Jr. If Kenseth can add 113 points to his lead next week he will clinch the championship. If he pads his lead by just 45, all he'll need to do is start the final two races (Rockingham and Homestead) to wrap up the title.

Kenseth's Concern: Just because he controls his own destiny doesn't mean Kenseth is resting easy these days.

When Kenseth's Roush Racing teammate Mark Martin blew his second motor of the weekend on lap 161, the championship leader became a little worried that he might suffer the same fate.

"That was our backup engine and that was the second one this weekend," said Kenseth. "That was a motor that came out of our truck, so it's always a concern when one of your teammates breaks the same stuff that you're running."

'Blue' oval: It has been more than two months since a Ford has won and that has some who drive a Taurus on edge.

"Right now there's no Ford that can win," said Jeff Burton. "I don't know why. I'm not saying that we have some aerodynamic deficiency, we just aren't capable of winning right now for some reason.'

Fords have won seven races this year with Kurt Busch claiming the most recent victory at Bristol in August. Greg Biffle scored the last superspeedway win for Ford at Daytona in July. But that win had more to do with fuel strategy than aerodynamics or horsepower.

"It's tough driving these cars that aren't competitive that we can't get competitive. I don't know why we can't but I think a lot of it is the manufacturer," said Biffle. "I don't really see any Fords really dominating. I see Kurt run good one week and maybe Elliott (Sadler) one week but nobody can be consistent. And I'm not sure what it is."

By comparison, Chevrolet (six) and Dodge (three) have combined to win the nine races since Ford's last victory.

"I feel like it's been the same all year," added Kenseth, whose only win came in week three at Las Vegas. "I feel like we've been off a little all year but its been tougher lately for some reason. None of the rules have changed. We just can't seem to get ourselves much better."

Number of the week: 18. That's the number of times Gordon has recorded back to back wins during his career. In 1996, Gordon won three in a row. In 1998, he tied a modern-era NASCAR Winston Cup record by winning four consecutive races.

As far as extending his current streak to three in a row this coming week, consider this: Phoenix is one of just four current tracks where Gordon has been shutout. In addition to Phoenix, Gordon has never won at Texas, Homestead or Chicagoland.

Thumbs up: To Ward Burton, who finished 13th in his first race with the NetZero HiSpeed Pontiac team. That's the best finish that car has had all year. The previous best was 14th with Jack Sprague behind the wheel in the Daytona 500.

To Tony Raines and BACE Motorsports for leading their first lap of the season Sunday. The team is only 35th in the standings, but it's no small accomplishment considering they've run the whole season -- missing just one race -- without a sponsor.

Thumbs down: To Mother Nature. Rain in Atlanta created a 22-hour delay between lap 39 and 40. The postponement until Monday was the first this season.

Silly Season notes: Johnny Benson will have at least one solid option for 2004. Cal Wells is hoping -- contingent upon sponsorship -- to start a second team. Atop the list of driving candidates for the possible second PPI Motorsports team is Benson. Ricky Craven currently drives Wells' No. 32 Tide car.

Benson is also rumored to be a candidate for the RCR AOL Chevrolet and potentially one of the Petty Enterprise cars.

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and

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