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NASCAR PREDICTIONS // Our pundit's picks: Irvan, Benson, Dale

Predictions for the 1996 NASCAR Winston Cup Series:

Winston Cup champion: Jeff Gordon really stunned us last year. In survey of the nation's motorsports writers, no one picked Gordon to win the championship.

While his "Rainbow Warriors" team remains intact, a repeat title doesn't seem likely. Gordon, no doubt, benefited substantially from the Chevy Monte Carlos' aerodynamic advantage over the Ford Thunderbirds and Pontiac Grand Prixs. And while Ford is still complaining about its cars being inferior, the gap has been narrowed by the redesign job to the Grand Prix and the new hoods and noses on the Thunderbirds.

The popular choices this year appear to be seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte. All certainly are legitimate contenders.

We like to go out on a limb here, so we'll say that this year's champion will be Ernie Irvan. Yes, get the hankies out, this season is going to be a tear-jerker.

Irvan, of course, is beginning his first full season since he nearly died in a crash at Michigan in August 1994. He came back late last season and looked strong, and he continues to be impressive in preseason practice. And let's not forget that he was right there in the thick of the '94 championship chase when the accident occurred.

Plus, who deserves a championship more than Irvan's racing team? That Robert Yates bunch has been through more adversity than any one team should be asked to endure. It's about time they had something to smile about, don't you think?

Rookie of the Year: After several years of outstanding rookie classes, this one is rather dull. You'd have to be sniffing exhaust fumes not to think Johnny Benson is a lock for the title.

In fact, the only other person who has stepped forward and announced he's going to shoot for the rookie title is Randy McDonald, but he probably will be able to run in only about 20 races, if that many. So, forget him.

Benson is your man. Not only is he the reigning NASCAR Busch Grand National Series, but he has also hooked up with a good team for his inaugural Winston Cup season. He's driving the No.

30 Pontiac Grand Prix vacated by Michael Waltrip.

If he doesn't win, NASCAR ought to send him back to racing go-karts.

Daytona 500 winner: Sterling Marlin is going for a Daytona three-peat. As usual, he's looking awfully stout at Daytona, but the odds say he won't pull it off.

Then of course there's Dale Earnhardt. He's won every race at Daytona except the 500. So why should this year be any different?

For one thing, he had never won the 500 pole until this year. Plus, he's been tearing up the track this week.

I'm a believer. I'm going to go with Dale. I'm just not sure if it's going to Dale Earnhardt or Dale Jarrett.