ATLANTA - The NASCAR Winston Cup Series is only 16 races deep into a 36-race journey that doesn't end until the weekend before Thanksgiving.
The racing community considers the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway to be the halfway point of the season. Actually, it's two stops short of being the mathematical halftime of a season that includes 1,4745.4 racing miles, but the off week leading up to the 400-miler at Daytona lends itself to midseason awards - especially since there are no more open weekends for the rest of the year.
This year forever will be remembered for the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup Series champion, died instantly when his Chevrolet slammed head-on into the fourth-turn wall. Seconds later, cars driven by Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - cars from Earnhardt's own race shop - finished one-two in the biggest race of the year.
But there have been other developments that are worthy of first semester grades. Among them are:
Biggest surprise: Michael Waltrip broke his 462-race losing streak by winning the Daytona 500.
No surprise: Michael Waltrip has not posted a top-10 finish since. In fact, he's dropped to 28th in the current point standings and already is working with his second crew chief.
Biggest thrill: Kevin Harvick, driving in his third race after replacing Earnhardt, beat Jeff Gordon by less than five inches in a photo finish at the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
No thrill: Watching Jeff Gordon lead 381 out of 400 laps at the MBNA Platinum 400 at Dover (Del.) Downs International Speedway, then hearing how he had to fight with the car all day.
Impressive debut: Fox. The television network that brought us glowing hockey pucks revolutionized the way America watches stock car racing. Crank It Up and the Hollywood Hotel became as popular as one of Larry McReynold's anecdotes or Darrell Waltrip's one-liners.
Best Larry McReynolds anecdote: "See them flaps on top of the roof? Them's roof flaps."
Best Darrell Waltrip one-liner: He sang, "You picked a fine time to leave me loose wheel," after one of Elliott Sadler's tires fell off while leaving pit road.
Biggest hype: The return of Dodge to the Winston Cup Series. Not only did Dodge return after 18 years, it came back with drivers such as Bill Elliott, Ward Burton and Sterling Marlin. Elliott only intensified the fervor by winning the pole position for the season-opening Daytona 500.
Biggest flop: The return of Dodge to the Winston Cup Series. The new Intrepid hasn't been close to winning this year.
Best comeback: Ricky Rudd, by proving after two winless seasons, he's still got what it takes to run out front. His victory at Pocono, Pa., earlier this month also ended a four-year drought for the famed No. 28 Ford owned by Robert Yates.
No comeback: Bill Elliott was hoping the new Dodge Intrepid would be a personal fountain of youth. Not so fast. The Intrepid has done little to revive a career that hasn't enjoyed a victory since 1994.
Biggest threat: Rising costs. Race teams are spending money at an alarming rate, but what's demanded of race fans is even more alarming. It costs a family of four more than $1,000 to travel to a race - if they don't fly. Hotels quadruple their prices and demand multi-night stays. Tickets cost $100 a piece, and a soft drink at the race costs $6.
Biggest waste: Scheduling 36 official races and two all-star events. Places such as Pocono, Pa.; Dover, Del.; Loudon, N.H.; Darlington, S.C.; and Rockingham, N.C., don't need two racing dates, especially when there are more modern, more popular venues at Las Vegas; Fontana, Calif.; and Fort Worth, Texas, that only have one.
Biggest mystery: Who's going to drive the third car for Richard Childress Racing next year?
No mystery: Mike Skinner, the second driver for Richard Childress Racing, will be fired.
Biggest mystery, Part II: Who's going to drive the second car for Richard Childress Racing next year?
Best sure bet: Jeff Gordon will win the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.
Best long shot: Ricky Rudd will win the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.
Best news: This report card is done.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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