NEW YORK -- A year ago, Jeff Gordon and car owner Rick Hendrick sat near the back of the main ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during the NASCAR Awards Banquet.
''I told Rick right then, 'We won't be sitting here again,' " Gordon said. ''We made a commitment right then and there that we'd be a lot closer to the head table next year.''
Gordon and Hendrick will be at the head table this year as the champions of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. The rest of the sport's stars will be in the Bob Uecker seats.
For each of them, there are problems to solve. Here's a look into each of the top-10 drivers and what they need to fix to win a seat at the head table in 2002:
JEFF GORDON: Engine builder Randy Dorton is one of the best on the circuit, and he should be able to manage the new single-engine rule without a problem. Unless somebody else puts together a flawless season, the 2002 crown is Gordon's to lose.
TONY STEWART: When he learns to choose his battles more wisely, he will mature into a contender.
STERLING MARLIN: Ernie Elliott has regained his prowess as a top-flight engine builder, and Marlin seemed to grasp the nuances of the Dodge Interpid quicker than anyone else.
RICKY RUDD: He needs to find the magic that made him a contender early this season. His team needs to take an inventory of what worked and what didn't this season.
DALE JARRETT: He was the early points leader with three wins in the first eight races, but he faded during the stretch run. His team might have to rethink the way it goes about the setups.
BOBBY LABONTE: He finished strong in the final two months, and he needs to carry that momentum into 2002.
RUSTY WALLACE: He will have to out-work everyone else.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: He will win a lot of races and run with the lead pack on most weekends, but he lacks the consistency that wins titles.
KEVIN HARVICK: He needs to find a better balance between the lead pack and being parked in the garage area.
JEFF BURTON: He showed promise in the final two months, but he still has a long way to go.
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