Winston Cup winners and losers

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

The beauty of sports is that, unlike life, there always is an obvious winner and loser. In NASCAR's case Matt Kenseth was the 2003 season's all-around victor, Ryan Newman sprayed the most champagne throughout the year and some of the sport's great traditions took a worse beating than Kurt Busch did from Jimmy Spencer.

We aren't here to tell you who won the races. You already know that.

Instead here is Yahoo! Sports' subjective list of season-long winners and losers from the tumultuous, transitional 2003 NASCAR campaign.

WINNER: Young drivers
Aided by 25-year-old Ryan Newman's eight victories, the average age of this season's champions (31.9) was the youngest since 1967. Just two years ago that number was 35.5, a significant and telling drop in such a short time.

Newman set the pace, but he had company. A fresh generation of young drivers is emerging in NASCAR. Fellow top 10 finishers Jimmie Johnson (age 28), Kurt Busch (25), Kevin Harvick (27) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (29) are part of a new wave. It's reached the point that 32-year-old Jeff Gordon now is on the elder side of things.

NASCAR's youth movement only will gain speed. Brian Vickers, 20, became the youngest season champion ever on the Busch Series, claiming the season title despite not being old enough to drink beer legally.

LOSER: Veteran drivers
On the flip side of the changing of the guard, 47-year-old Rusty Wallace finished out of the top 10 for the first time since 1992. And vets such as Ken Schrader (48), Jimmy Spencer (46), Dale Jarrett (46), Kyle Petty (43), Dave Blaney (41), Kenny Wallace (40), Tony Raines (39) and Todd Bodine (39) couldn't crack the top 25.

WINNER: Darlington
The best race of the year went down at the venerable Darlington Raceway during the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 in March. The last-lap back-and-forth paint-rubbing heart-stopping finish between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch was NASCAR at its absolute finest.

Busch led going into the last lap, but Craven overtook him for his first lead of the race. The two then banged fenders down the entire Darlington front stretch before Craven won by inches. A classic last-lap pass.

LOSER: Darlington
Terry Labonte ended a 156-race winless streak at the Southern 500 in September. But the story of the event was what was lost: the Southern 500's traditional Labor Day weekend date on NASCAR's schedule. For 54 years Darlington was a South Carolina tradition, NASCAR's oldest 500-mile race taking place on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

But the sport's exploding popularity and greater competition for dates means concessions must be made. So the Labor Day date will go to the California Speedway in Los Angeles, where the huge Southern California market will be served. The Southern 500 in little 80,000-seat Darlington, meanwhile, will move to November. One more bit of NASCAR tradition fading to black.

WINNER: Driver safety
From softer walls to the elimination of the race to the line on the yellow flag, safety dominated the thought process of almost every decision this year. The loss of legend Dale Earnhardt should have been enough for NASCAR to prioritize this issue long ago.

WINNER: Driver feuds
There was Jimmy Spencer ramming Kurt Busch after the Michigan 500 and then punching Busch in the face as he still was belted into his car. There was Robby Gordon promising to pay Spencer's fine for doing what he claimed every other driver wished he had done. Then there was Kevin Harvick (and his crew) going nuts in Richmond after Ricky Rudd banged him with six laps to go.

NASCAR always is a soap opera. But this year there was some especially good feudin'.

NASCAR, of course, takes exception and is adamant that brawlin' drivers are not a positive for the sport. But forget that. Rivalries, fisticuffs and fines are what bring fans out to the track. You won't find many in the infield complaining. It may not be the way golf does it, but who wants to watch golf?

LOSER: The point system
Don't fault Matt Kenseth, who merely played by the rules and won the Winston Cup points championship with incredible week in, week out consistency.

But how exciting is it when the champion won just one race the entire year? Or the fact that eight-race winner Ryan Newman (plagued by six did-not-finishes) couldn't crack the top 5? A string of top 10 finishes are nice – and quite an accomplishment – but it isn't exactly the stuff legends are made of.

As a result the point system, which rewards consistency, is under attack. But it's too soon to overhaul it completely. This was just the fourth time since 1949 that the champion won just one race the entire season. It could be just a fluke, a cyclical occurrence. If consistency becomes the strategy – if drivers begin avoiding risks to merely finish near the top – then we have a real problem.

WINNER: Change
Like it or not, change won out this year. Brian France gained increased power from his father, Bill France Jr. Toyota's push to get into the sport got the official OK. Race schedules and rules were in flux.

And most notably, the change of title sponsors shifted from the decidedly Southern commercial crop of tobacco to a high tech, global product of cell phones. Gone is the Winston Cup, born is the Nextel Cup.

This all has been brewing for years, as the sport drew in more fans from all backgrounds. But the move away from NASCAR's roots will put 2003 down in history as a transition year for the sport.

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