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RACING: MIDSEASON REPORT

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Plucked from the obscurity of the Busch Grand National Series to replace Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick has been spectacular with two wins in Winston Cup, where he ranks seventh in the standings despite having run one fewer race than his competitors.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Everybody knew Dodge would experience growing pains in its first season, but the manufacturer boasts just one driver in the top 10 (Sterling Marlin) and is winless. Petty Enterprises' efforts have been particularly dreadful. Only John Andretti ranks in the top 35.

BEST MOVE

In the first race at Daytona since his father's death, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went from seventh to passing Johnny Benson with 4{ laps remaining in the Pepsi 400 to win in storybook fashion. Junior's car was so dominant _ he led 116 of 160 laps _ and the story so good that conspiracy theorists wondered whether Oliver Stone had a hand in the script.

WORST MOVE

After being black-flagged in the Pepsi 400 for driving too low on the race track, Tony Stewart charged after Winston Cup competition director Gary Nelson following the race and then swiped a veteran reporter's tape recorder to the ground. The $10,000 fine and season-long probation levied by NASCAR isn't enough to teach this hot-headed talent some restraint (remember pit road at Bristol in March?). One only wonders how long Home Depot will put up with such actions.

WATCH OUT FOR

Ricky Rudd. He broke an 88-race winless streak at Pocono in June and is third in the standings driving the No. 28 Ford for Robert Yates Racing. A couple more victories and continued consistency will put the 44-year-old in serious contention for his first Winston Cup championship since he started racing in the series in 1975.

WHO WILL BE THE NEXT NEW WINNER THIS SEASON

Sterling Marlin. If Dodge is going to win a race this season, you have to believe Marlin will do it. Fifth in the points standings, Marlin has 5 top-fives, 10 top-10s and one pole position.

CLOSE, BUT Johnny Benson is the only other driver besides Marlin and Bobby Labonte in the top 10 without a victory this season. Unfortunately, this veteran appears to be on the downslide after an impressive start to the season, including third at Texas. Benson has finished 20th or lower in five of the past seven races.

MOST INTERESTING STORY

Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in February is the most significant story to come out of NASCAR in decades. NASCAR's discovery of a separated left lap belt. From the sanctioning body's secrecy about its investigation into the crash tothe court battle over the release of Earnhardt's autopsy photos, the push for a safer sport after four deaths in 10 months, the implementation of the HANS and Hutchens devices, energy-absorbing bumpers, the rush on Earnhardt merchandise, the grieving fans, this is an interesting story. But it's also one of the most important.

BEST RACE

The Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick fought through a bumper-to-bumper, five-car battle for almost 10 laps, then took the lead on a three-wide pass of Jerry Nadeau and Dale Jarrett. Then, Harvick held off Jeff Gordon and beat him to the finish line by .006 seconds, the edge of his front bumper.

WORST RACE

The Daytona 500 had 49 lead changes and all the excitement of Michael Waltrip winning his first race in 463 tries. But a fascinating story turned tragic when the biggest name in the sport _ Dale Earnhardt _ died on the last lap.

BEST UPCOMING STORIES

What will NASCAR reveal about its investigation into four drivers' deaths since May 2000?

What safety changes will come about as a result of the investigation?

Will NASCAR do away with the aerodynamic rules package it has used at Daytona and Talladega this season?

What does the 2002 schedule hold?

Can Kevin Harvick win the Winston Cup rookie of the year honors and the Busch Grand National championships?

Who will win the 2001 Winston Cup championship?

BEST QUOTE

"We not only lost a father and a race car driver, we lost our leader. We lost a living legend. We lost our guidance."

_ JEFF BURTON

On the death of Dale Earnhardt

_ Compiled by Kevin Kelly.

Chosen to replace Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick won a close race at the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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