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A final fling for the Rock?

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2003

North Carolina Speedway, affectionately referred to by NASCAR old-schoolers as the Rock, put on a humdinger of a Winston Cup race Sunday, which only makes it worse.

Goodbyes are painful enough.

Chances are, the Rock is going to lose its spring Winston Cup race. And for those who fell in love with stock car racing for its paint swapping -- something we see far too little of nowadays -- that's too bad.

"Why would we want to leave here?" said Dale Jarrett, winner of Sunday's Subway 400. "I hope in my heart that we don't, not just because I won here. It's a great racing facility, and I certainly would hate to see us lose one here."

The Rock's ragged 1.017-mile oval treated fans to a fantastic finish, a thrilling side-by-side duel between Jarrett, the cagey veteran, and Kurt Busch, the hottest young driver in NASCAR. The two used the outside wall, traffic and their own bumpers to swap the lead three times in the final 10 laps.

Don't look for that in Kansas City. Or Chicago. Or Los Angeles.

Sparkling facilities near those metropolitan cities stand to inherit a second Winston Cup race if International Speedway Corp., the France family's track-operating conglomerate, moves dates from old-timey North Carolina Speedway or Darlington International Raceway.

Which, of course, it will.

The Rock, located in Rockingham, N.C., and Darlington in rural South Carolina gave NASCAR its start. Darlington hosted its first race in 1950, Rockingham in 1965. But now, with Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta Motor Speedway within a four-hour drive, the market is saturated. Each of those four tracks has two events, and none can sell out both.

Rockingham and Darlington are targeted because their amenities are not up to snuff. No luxury suites, no five-star hotels, no lights to accommodate popular night racing. Capacity at the Rock is 60,000, but half that many attended Sunday's race.

In that regard, Kansas City and Chicago and Fontana can do better. For some reason, fans there buy every last ticket and beg for more, even though the single-file racing the tracks produce is about as exciting to watch as a rousing game of pinochle.

So NASCAR, under the well-intentioned guise of "growing the sport," will take from the Rock and give to the radiant. The Midwest and California are bold, new markets for NASCAR.

Just don't expect much action.

You'll be longing for the Rock.

ARRIVING IN STYLE: Busch heads to his hometown of Las Vegas this weekend as the Winston points leader after runner-up finishes in the season's first two events. Dating to 2002, the 24-year-old Busch has three wins, two seconds and a sixth in his past seven races.

"That young man is the hottest driver out here," said Jarrett, the 1999 Winston Cup champion. "And the scary thing is he's getting really smart out here, knowing when to push it and when not to."

SORRY, NO MULLIGANS: After his preseason declaration that the No. 8 Chevrolet was a top-five team right out of the box, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a long way from backing up that statement.

Try 38th.

Earnhardt was favored to win the Daytona 500 but had an alternator problem and finished 36th. At Rockingham, not one of his better tracks, he spun three times because his team missed the setup so badly. He finished 33rd, three laps down.

He trails Busch by 121 points.

"This is not a 38th-place team, and I think everyone knows that," Earnhardt said. "But we need to start putting together some finishes to get closer to the front of the points. There's some heartache and frustration about how we've finished, but no one is panicked and we're getting ready to go at it again."

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