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Checkered finishes for auto racing in 2002

When Sterling Marlin got out of his car near the end of the Daytona 500 to pull a bent fender back into place, it was the first of a series of bizarre finishes in auto racing this year.

Marlin damaged his Dodge while blocking Jeff Gordon late in the race. As that was happening, a crash well behind the leaders prompted NASCAR to pull out a red flag and stop the race so it could finish under green.

Marlin scrambled from his car, walked around to inspect the right front, and began to reach for the bent metal. A NASCAR official shooed him back into the car, but it was too late.

He was sent to the rear of the field for the restart, and Ward Burton won a three-lap dash to the checkered flag, earning the first of his two victories of the 2002 Winston Cup season.

At least that race had a clear ending.

The Indianapolis 500 concluded in chaos when Helio Castroneves was declared the winner as the race finished under caution. Paul Tracy and team owner Barry Green insisted Tracy had passed Castroneves moments before the yellow was displayed.

Castroneves did his Spiderman act twice, climbing the fence in celebration once after he scrambled from his car on the main straightaway and again five hours later after Indy Racing League officials declared him the winner.

Green appealed. On July 3, IRL president Tony George ruled against him, and Castroneves officially became the first back-to-back winner at Indy since Al Unser in 1970-71.

In turning down the appeal, George said the split-second decision by IRL vice president Brian Barnhart that Tracy's pass occurred after the yellow flag flew, could not be appealed. George added that even if he could have changed the result, Barnhart still made the right call.

NASCAR's season ended with a controversial champion and an appeal before the final race.

On the last weekend, the National Stock Car Racing Commission appointed a three-man panel to hear an appeal by Mark Martin's Roush Racing team. Martin had been docked 25 points two weeks earlier after an unapproved spring was found on his No. 6 Ford. The team protested, saying it was an inadvertent error and that the part came straight from the box.

The appeal was heard, and turned down, the day before Tony Stewart ended the season in Homestead, Fla., by finishing 18th and wrapping up his first Winston Cup championship, beating four-time runner-up Martin by 38 points.

``At least it was more than 25 points,'' Martin said. ``That would have killed me to lose it by less than 25 points.''

Stewart became the first NASCAR driver to win the title while on probation.

The temperamental driver punched a photographer in August at the Brickyard 400, was fined $60,000, and underwent anger management counseling. He later was accused of shoving an EMT worker, and a Tennessee grand jury heard a complaint that he pushed a fan, but it refused to indict him.

It was the second season in a row that he ended on probation.

Stewart began the season finishing last at Daytona when he engine blew on the second lap, but he came back strong in the second half of the season, took the lead seven races from the end and held on to win the $4 million championship.

``I practically destroyed this team by midseason,'' Stewart said, adding that he was happy and relieved it was over.

``I've had enough trials and errors, and more errors than trials,'' he said. ``But, as you go on, you learn.''

The Roush team was in the news all year, with owner Jack Roush barely surviving the crash of a small plane in April and making a remarkable recovery. His team also won 10 races and placed all four full-time drivers in the top 12 in points.

Kurt Busch, a precocious 24-year-old, was the hottest driver at the end of the year, giving Roush three wins in the last five races. Busch wound up with four victories, one behind teammate Matt Kenseth. Martin added one.

Marlin took the series lead in the second week of the season and held it for 25 weeks. He was still in contention for his first title when a crash in Kansas City left him sidelined for the rest of the season with a broken vertebra in his neck.

His replacement, Jamie McMurray became one of 17 winners in 36 races, making history by winning in his second Winston Cup start. Newcomers Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman also turned heads, battling all season for Rookie of the Year, with Johnson becoming the first rookie to lead the standings and Newman getting the nod as the top rookie after matching Stewart and Martin's series-leading total of 21 top-10 finishes. They finished tied for fifth in the points.

Last year's top rookie, Kevin Harvick, had a tough sophomore season. Bad behavior on and off the track led NASCAR to park Harvick in March at Martinsville. It was an unprecedented penalty.

Four-time champion Gordon failed to defend his title and also had a difficult season, going through a very public divorce from his wife, Brooke. Still, he won three times after ending a 31-race winless streak at midseason and wound up fourth in the points.

Ricky Rudd broke Terry Labonte's Iron Man record with 680 consecutive starts but got into a fistfight with his crew chief, got a black eye in a confrontation with one of his team's engine builders, and raised a storm when he complained NASCAR's ``Young Guns'' were getting too much TV time.

In the end, Rudd left Robert Yates Racing, trading places with Wood Brothers driver Elliott Sadler for 2003.

Formula One was in the news for trading places in 2002.

Ferrari won 15 of 17 races, a record 11 by Michael Schumacher and four by Rubens Barrichello. Schumacher won his third consecutive driver's title and matched Juan Manuel Fangio's all-time record of five.

But Ferrari infuriated many racing fans when Barrichello slowed to let Schumacher win in Austria early in the season to build Schumacher's points lead. Then in September, with the title put away, Schumacher appeared to let Barrichello come from behind on the last lap in Indianapolis to win.

The Italian team was so dominant that F1 bosses Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley pushed through new rules for next season aimed at preventing another runaway.

The changes include new rules for testing, qualifying and the points system. They also ban teams from giving ``team orders.''

In American open-wheel racing, the Penske team moved to the IRL full-time but Sam Hornish Jr. was able to hold off the Penske duo of Castroneves and Gil de Ferran to win his second straight IRL title. In CART, Cristiano da Matta overpowered the competition with seven victories in 19 starts and won the championship with seeming ease.

Eight IRL races were decided by less than half of a second. There were nine different winners, six of them first-time winners, in the 15 races. Hornish won a record five races, but the 23 year-old driver had to win the last two, by a combined 12-thousandths of a second, to become the IRL's first two-time champion.

CART spent the entire season in uncertainty, with announcements that engine manufacturers Honda and Toyota, as well as several teams and top drivers _ including longtime star Michael Andretti _ would switch to the rival IRL in 2003.

Chris Pook, who took over as CART's president and CEO a year ago, tried to salvage what he could and started a rebuilding process that brought the Champ car series back from the brink of extinction.

Pook made a deal with Cosworth for engines for next year, got backing from Bridgestone and Ford for at least the immediate future, and coaxed several new teams to join the embattled series for 2003.

``Don't write us off,'' Pook said. ``There's still life in CART. We're going to have great teams, great drivers and great competition in 2003, although you might not recognize all the names.''

CART had an on-track controversy late in the season in Australia when officials started the street race in Surfers Paradise in a driving rain and ended it after 40 laps, the last 30 under caution. There was a nine-car accident on the opening lap that caused a long delay and CART announced it was cutting the race from 70 to 50 laps. In the end, officials stopped it five laps past the original halfway mark and after an irate Andretti lost the lead on a pit stop, leaving rookie Mario Dominguez to take the checkered flag for his first win.

In another blow to CART, da Matta said he will follow the lead of former series champions Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya and move to F1 in 2003.
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