Feels like old times on Sundays
While NASCAR's new generation of stars have dominated headlines the past couple years, the recent resurgence of the old guard has gotten surprisingly less attention. With a fifth-place finish in Sunday's Samsung/Radio Shack 500, Sterling Marlin returned to the top 10 of the points standings for the first time since 2002.
And with strong starts to their own respective seasons, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett all join him there, marking the first time in three years that these long-time Cup stars each shared such a lofty rank at the same time. "I think it's about time," Wallace said.
To varying degrees, each of these four drivers has endured slumps since 2000. Martin's was early on, but he hotly contested the 2002 Cup title and made last season's Chase for the Nextel Cup.
In 2001, Marlin had 20 top 10 finishes and wound up third in the final standings. Since then, he's finished 18th twice and was 21st last season. Jarrett and Wallace also have struggled in recent years. But this season, each has improved vastly, and with Martin's continued success and Marlin's re-emergence (he's sixth overall currently), old school is now in session. And Wallace is leading the charge. The veteran who announced he will retire at the end of this year is off to a roaring start with six top-13 finishes in seven races, including a 10th-place effort Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
"We were tight all day and we finally got it balanced there at the end," Wallace said. "Then when the clouds came out [the car] got a little free. We were a little too loose at the end."
But with so many drivers fighting to get through slow traffic, Wallace was able to hang on to a top 10. What's more, he moved up in the points race.
"We're looking at the big picture and we moved up to third in the points today," he said. "We've got four top 10s in the first seven races, but we haven't won yet and that's what we're really wanting to do right now. Our goals are to win and be a part of the Chase."
Martin is the only one of these four veterans to make last year's Chase. A crew chief switch in 2002 has ignited a second wind that has had the often-frustrated racer on the brink of claiming his first Cup trophy. He fell short of his ultimate goal last season, but after remaining a contender for two straight seasons he believes that if he keeps knocking, the door might finally open.
Although Martin finished only 20th on Sunday, he's still riding a high from finishing uncharacteristically high in Martinsville the week before.
"The team did a great job at Martinsville," Martin said. "That's not my favorite track by any means and to get out of there with a third-place finish and a chance to win, well that's almost even more than we can ask for. [Crew chief] Pat [Tryson] and the team have really been on their game this year."
As has Jarrett's team. After regaining their stride last summer and narrowly missing the playoffs, Jarrett and Co. have come out of the gates stronger this year.
"We haven't been running quite like we were last summer and fall," Jarrett said, "but we aren't completely off. We've had some lucky breaks and we've had some unfortunate incidents, like in Atlanta, so we're very happy to be in the top 10 and working to stay there rather than trying to fight our way into the top 10.
"So, we know we are in much better shape than we were a year ago and we know we haven't done our best yet. So knowing all of that we feel pretty good about it."
Which driver from this old Fab Four is feeling best right now? That distinction has got to belong to Marlin, who snapped out of his funk in '02 only to snap his neck and be forced out of contention for his first title. Following that was yet another rough year, but '05 looks like a breakthrough.
Marlin credits his crew for the change in fortune.
"If the car drives good you can run good," he said. "If it doesn't drive good you don't look good. The boys on the crew have done an excellent job, and it's showing up on the track."
It showed on Sunday when he joined his two teammates with a top-five finish. This, despite starting out behind with mechanical difficulties.
"We just got a vibration early and had to pit and got way behind," Marlin said. "We got in all that traffic and it's hard to come up through there. We gambled and put on two tires, and that's the best the car drove all day." That gamble made the difference, because even with some behind him on fresher tires, nobody could get through traffic in time to steal fifth from his grasp. "The guys have really worked hard on the cars and bodies and chassis and stuff," Marlin said. "That's what it takes, a good-handling car. The motor room has really stepped it up and we're all picking up steam."
All of which means the Young Guns might have to watch out for some old classics this season, like they did on Sunday in Texas. Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.