DARLINGTON, S.C. - Five races, five different race winners. And five different leaders in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings.
Apparently, out front in the points race isn't the place to be this year. Everybody who has taken the lead Sunday has struggled through a long race the next week.
Jeff Gordon came into Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at the Darlington Raceway with a 37-point lead in the standings. A blown engine, however, relegated him to a 40th-place finish, and it knocked him down to fourth in the standings heading into next Sunday's Food City 500 at the Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
Michael Waltrip left the season-opening Daytona 500 with the points lead, but a 19th-place finish a week later made Rusty Wallace the new leader. Wallace crashed and finished last at Las Vegas, and that elevated Sterling Marlin to the top of the standings. Marlin finished 35th a week ago at Atlanta with a blown engine, and that moved Gordon into the lead heading into Sunday's race at Darlington.
Buoyed by his victory Sunday, Dale Jarrett is the new leader in the points race.
"Am I worried about being the leader?" he asked. "Let's see, Bristol's next. Oh, now, why would I be worried?"
Jarrett's deadpan answer was in response to Bristol's history of being tough on both driver and car. Just surviving 500 laps around the half-mile short track is an accomplishment.
Jarrett leads the latest edition of the point standings with 756. Marlin is second with 691, followed by Johnny Benson with 691, Gordon with 661, Steve Park with 615, Ricky Rudd with 609, Wallace with 606, Waltrip with 597, Bill Elliott with 589 and Ken Schrader with 585.
A HELPFUL HAND:
Johnny Benson's pit crew were so slow Sunday, they were benched for the final pit stop of the race.
Benson led for 25 laps late in the race, but he fell back to eighth when his crew changed four tires and added gasoline in 22.6 seconds. Once Benson got stuck back in traffic, his chances to win his first race were gone.
Crew chief James Ince hired Jeff Gordon's crew to complete the final stop of the race. Gordon's crew was finished early because their driver was out of the race with a blown engine.
Gordon's crew moved him up to seventh with their work on pit road, and that's where Benson stayed until the end of the race.
Afterward, Ince held a team meeting.
"We feel like that's three races in a row that we've had opportunities to win and we've hurt ourselves," Ince said. "We saw an opportunity to try to make up some of the spots we lost by leaving a lug nut off and to see where our problem was - where it lies and where we can improve. We might be at a disadvantage with that right now."
OUT IN LEFT FIELD:
Jeremy Mayfield said his third-place finish felt more like a victory Sunday.
After finishing ninth, 38th, 42nd and 38th in the first four races, a top-five run provided some much-needed optimism, especially after starting the race in 37th place.
Positions in the garage area are based on the current point standings, so Mayfield has been parked on the far end for the past couple of weeks.
"I've never walked so far down in the garage area in my life," he said. "When I got here (Saturday), we were so far down, I thought we were out in the grass somewhere."
The tension between driver Robby Gordon and car owner Larry McClure continued to grow Sunday after Gordon made several unscheduled pit stops early in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 and wound up 29th.
In five races this year, the former IndyCar driver from the CART Series has needed four provisional exemptions to make the starting lineup, and his best finish is 20th a week ago at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
McClure already has Kevin Lepage waiting to drive the car, perhaps as soon as next Sunday's race at Bristol, Tenn. Gordon, however, isn't willing to walk away from a newly signed five-year contract.
"Robby's a good race driver, a good seat-of-the-pants driver," McClure said. "But you have to be willing to listen sometimes. I wouldn't go over to CART and tell them how to drive their cars. Winston Cup is a whole different deal."
There were no incidents during the first three laps of Sunday's race, marking the first time since Dale Earnhardt's death that a race hasn't been under caution on Lap 3 - the number Earnhardt had on his car when he was killed Feb. 18 at the Daytona International Speedway. Despite winning Sunday, crew chief Todd Parrott said the Ford Taurus has an aerodynamic disadvantage compared to the Chevrolet, Pontiac and Dodge. "Chevy's won four times, Ford's won once," he said. "When that gets even, then we'll talk."