That was entertainment? Promised drama never materializes in Vegas, where Martin is winner

March 02, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS -- The great party that was the Las Vegas 400 Winston Cup race began with Wayne Newton giving the command to start the engines and ended with the Las Vegas entertainer handing the winner's trophy to Mark Martin.

In between was one of the least exciting Winston Cup races to be witnessed in a long time. It was probably the only disappointment in the sport's first visit to this city of bright lights and casinos.

Yet, Martin, who finished 1.605 seconds ahead of his Roush Racing teammate, Jeff Burton, found nothing wrong with the uneventful way this race unfolded.

"I didn't see much of the race," he said, after earning his first victory of the season and collecting $313,900. "I had a lot of other things on my mind. But I know I passed a lot of cars, and that's racing to me.

"Now, whether that's what everyone thought they wanted to see, I can't answer."

It certainly wasn't what the 107,000 fans here had been led to expect.

After days of hearing one driver after another praise this new 1.5-mile tri-oval and promise thrilling side-by-side competition with as many as four drivers barreling out of the turns, the race itself offered little such drama.

And it wasn't what the General Motor race teams of Chevrolet and Pontiac wanted to see either, though they, at least, expected it.

Martin's car owner, Jack Roush, saw all five of his Ford Taurus teams finish in the Top 10. Behind Martin and Burton, teammates Johnny Benson finished fourth, Ted Musgrave sixth and Chad Little 10th.

Dale Earnhardt had the only Chevrolet on the lead lap and the only Chevrolet with a Top 10 finish, eighth.

"We were on the edge all day," said Earnhardt. "Those other guys in those other kind of cars [Fords], those inventive cars, can go in the corner a lot deeper than we can. We could only run so fast because we were loose and on the edge all day.

"I don't know what they're [NASCAR] going to do. If they think [the Fords, Chevys and Pontiacs] are even, if the race fans think it's even, well, I just don't understand."

The Chevrolet drivers expected the Ford dominance. They had seen the first sign of it a week earlier at Rockingham, where Jeff Gordon, driving a Monte Carlo, managed to win, but had six Fords following him across the finish line.

The sudden reversal of fortune of the new Ford Taurus after its less than impressive debut in the Daytona 500 is due to NASCAR's allowing the Ford teams to raise the nose of the car five inches and lower the rear spoiler five inches. That change has given the Fords better grip on the non-restrictor-plate racetracks -- which means everywhere but Daytona, Fla., and Talladega, Ala.

Yesterday, it was a Ford jackpot, with eight of 12 race leaders driving Fords over the afternoon. There were 24 lead changes, but only Joe Nemechek, whose Chevy led for six laps, Ward Burton, whose Pontiac led for five, Earnhardt, who led for one, and Terry Labonte, whose Chevy led for two, could claim to have been in front of the field, and none of them made a pass for the lead. They were handed it, either through quick pit stop work during a caution or by staying out on the racetrack when the Ford leaders pitted.

A year ago this time, it was the Chevrolets that were state of the art and the Ford drivers who were crying the blues, a fact Martin recalled vividly yesterday.

"I got a box of crying towels thrown at me after the Winston in Charlotte," said Martin, referring to an incident in which Earnhardt had heard him complaining in a television interview after the race and threw a towel at him. "Now we're on top, and we'll let it ride. And when we're on bottom, we'll let that ride, too. All I can say is that you ultimately have to do the work."

And Martin and his revamped race team have been working. A year ago, he finished third in the Winston Cup championship race behind Gordon and Dale Jarrett. During the off-season, Roush reorganized his racing organization, adding two teams for a total of five and moving Martin under the wing of crew chief/general manager Buddy Parrott and giving him a completely new pit crew.

Yesterday, Roush said he had thought his efforts on Martin's behalf in chasing a Winston Cup title over the past 10 years had been "maxed out" and that new combinations created a new dynamic.

"We're cross-pollinating our teams to get all the flowers in our garden to bloom," said Roush.

Here, at Las Vegas, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, yesterday, Roush got his first blossoms, and car controversies aside, Martin enjoyed every moment.

"I'm a weird kind of guy," he said. "I think Las Vegas is awesome. I enjoy the lit-up palm trees. I enjoy getting up early in the morning here, going to the gym and seeing the lights on the palm trees. I didn't come to gamble. I came to race. Mission accomplished."

1. (7) Mark Martin, Ford, 267, $313,900.

2. (15) Jeff Burton, Ford, 267, $202.850.

3. (10) Rusty Wallace, Ford, 267, $156,500.

4. (16) Johnny Benson, Ford, 267, $121,200.

5. (32) Jeremy Mayfield, Ford, 267, $101,500.

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