Kenseth has a big points lead, but bigger comebacks do happen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After last night's Sharpie 500 in Bristol, Tenn., Matt Kenseth held a 351-point lead in his pursuit of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series title.

A comfortable lead. Is it insurmountable, as well?

No one knows because over the years Winston Cup drivers have demonstrated a wonderful ability to stage the kind of comebacks that dramas are made of. Teams can make up a maximum of 151 points in a single race - a race win with a maximum of 10 bonus points vs. a last-place finish.

The biggest comeback of all time was made by Darrell Waltrip, who in 1981 overcame a 341-point deficit in the final 17 races and won the title.

Here are NASCAR's top three rallies under the current point system that was installed in 1975.

No. 1: Waltrip, 1981. He was third in the points race 14 races into the 31-race season, trailing Bobby Allison by 341 points. Waltrip claimed his first of three championships with a torrid 11-race run that included nine top-three finishes, including four wins. He never finished outside the top 10 and took a two-point lead over Allison in Dover, Del., with six races remaining.

He shut the door on Allison by following up Dover with four consecutive victories, a second-place performance and a sixth-place effort in the season finale in Riverside (a race Allison won) to take the series title by 53 points.

No. 2: Tony Stewart, 2002. Stewart was 301 points behind after the first 10 races, and with 10 races left in the season, he still trailed by 118 points.

Stewart made his breakthrough in Talladega in early October. With Sterling Marlin out with a season-ending injury from the previous week's race at Kansas, Stewart took advantage by finishing second in Alabama (Race 30 of 36) and overtook rookie Jimmie Johnson for the championship lead.

He maintained the advantage in the final six races and edged Mark Martin by 38 points.

No. 3: Alan Kulwicki, 1992. The Wisconsin native overcame 278 points in the final six races. During that span, he made up an average of just over 48 points a race to beat Bill Elliott in the closest NASCAR Winston Cup championship finish.

In four of the final five races, Elliott finished 26th or worse to allow Davey Allison to take a 30-point lead over Kulwicki heading into the season finale in Atlanta. An accident took Allison out of the title picture and left it to Kulwicki and Elliott.

Elliott won the race and Kulwicki finished second, and the difference was the laps-led bonus. Kulwicki led one more lap than Elliott to claim the five-point bonus.

Had Elliott claimed that bonus, he would have tied for the title and won on the tiebreaker (most wins, five). The result was a 10-point edge for Kulwicki in final count.

Going for nine

Paul Efantis, of Ijamsville, has won eight straight NOPI Race Wars Sport Compact Drag Racing events in the BFGoodrich Street Tire class. Last Sunday, he won in Dinwiddie, Va., with the flashy time of 8.420 seconds at 168.280 mph in the finals.

Efantis will be looking for his ninth straight victory Saturday and next Sunday, when the NDRA heads to Houston.

Highlights of Efantis and the NOPI Race Wars can be seen on NOPI TunerVision, which airs Oct. 12, on Spike TV(formerly the New TNN) at 11:30 a.m.

New team in town

Baltimore Autosports Group has joined the USAR Hooters ProCup Series and ran its first race this month at the Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville, Ind.

Lead driver Tim Richardson of Owings Mills qualified 25th and finished 19th.

Richardson is a five-time WORLD Karting Association national champion and also has competed in the open-wheel Hooters Formula Cup Series. He said he has chosen to compete in the Hooters ProCup Series for the opportunity to compete in the popular stock car category.

When not racing, Richardson, who has a mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech, teaches evasive driving skills as an anti-terrorism instructor. The car is maintained by crew chief and backup driver Terry Johnson of Glen Burnie.

The team's next race will be the Hooters ProCup 250, Sept. 5, at the Motordome Speedway in Smithton, Pa.

Nuts and bolts

Renegade Dirtcar Racing Series driver Mike Balzano of Parkersburg, W.Va., turned back the hometown competitors in the fourth and final round of the Winchester/Hagerstown Shootout at Hagerstown Speedway last weekend.

"I am not sure I had the best car tonight," said Balzano, who won $4,000 in the late model competition. "But the car kept getting better, and the track came around to us."

Gary Stuhler of Greencastle, Pa., who had two wins in the Shootout, was the overall winner of the four-race series for the second year and picked up an extra $2,000 for his performance.

Davey Johnson of Greensburg, Pa., won last weekend's 22nd annual Conococheague 100. Johnson earned $10,000 for his third Renegade Dirtcar Racing Series win of the year and 50th of his career.

The American Le Mans Series will return to the SPEED Channel for live coverage of the Road America 500 presented by the Chicago Tribune today from Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.

The Indy Racing League has announced a 16-race schedule for the 2004 season, highlighted by the 88th Indianapolis 500-Mile Race and a new event at The Milwaukee Mile. All 16 events will be broadcast live on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.

The card: Feb. 29, Homestead-Miami Speedway(ESPN); Mar. 21, Phoenix International Raceway (ABC); Date TBA, Twin Ring Motegi (ESPN2); May 30, Indianapolis Motor Speedway 88th Indianapolis 500 (ABC); June 12*, Texas Motor Speedway (ESPN); June 26*, Richmond International Raceway (ESPN2); July 4, Kansas Speedway (ABC); July 17*, Nashville Superspeedway (ESPN); July 25, The Milwaukee Mile (ABC); Aug. 1, Michigan International Speedway (ABC); Aug. 15, Kentucky Speedway (ABC); Aug. 22, Pikes Peak International Raceway (ABC); Aug. 29, Nazareth Speedway (ABC); Sept. 12, Chicagoland Speedway (ABC); Oct. 3, California Speedway (ESPN); Oct. 17, Texas Motor Speedway (ABC). * - night race

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