Local Racers Cramming For “Midseason Exams”

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

 

            For racers at Barre’s Thunder Road , it’s time for the midterm exams.

 

No diplomas will be handed out tonight, no degrees awarded, no one named Magna Cum Laude. But the results of tonight’s “Times-Argus Midseason Championships” – like a college midterm exam -- will go a long way toward determining the final grades for the year. Point leaders Phil Scott (Late Model), Reno Gervais (NAPA Flying Tiger Sportsmen) and Brendan Moodie, Jr., (Allen Lumber Street Stock) have all earned solid “A’s” in the first semester, and tonight’s double-point main events could either cement their status as the men to beat, or toss them into a black hole they’ll spend the rest of the season climbing out of.

 

Of the three, two-time champion Scott seems to be the best bet. After winning the Thursday night opener on June 6, the racing Senator from Washington County reeled off three consecutive runnerup finishes to put himself firmly in the LMS driver’s seat. A fifth-place showing in last Thursday night’s Coca-Cola Trophy Dash lowered his five-race Thunder Road average (ACT Dodge Tour events do not count toward the T-Road championship) to an amazing 2.4, but with a healthy, 47-point lead in hand over Pete Fecteau, it will take a major stumble by his Northfield Savings Bank/Formula Ford team tonight to get the rest of the field back in the hunt.

 

Gervais, meanwhile, has a bit more company at the top of his division, despite an enviable record that has seem him finish among the top 10 in six of his seven Thunder Road starts. The “King of the Northeast Kingdom ” has yet to carry the checkered flag this season, but with an average finish of 7.8 in the hotly contested Flying Tiger Sportsmen class, the former Riverside (NH) Speedway champion has made the most of consistency. Main rivals Travis Calkins and Chip Grenier both lurk less than 25 points behind, making tonight’s double-point run crucial in the battle for “King of the Road” honors.

 

            Moodie, meanwhile, surged to the head of the Street Stock class with a season-best second place finish in last week’s rain delayed WDEV Radio Trophy Dash, followed by an eighth-place run in the regularly scheduled Coca-Cola main event. Like Gervais, “Little Brendan” has strung together an impressive series of top-15 finishes in a notoriously competitive division, and while his slim, 27-point lead over Rusty “The Logger” Dewees virtually guarantees more shuffling at the top of the Crunch Bunch points list, the second-generation driver has matured into a bonafide title contender.

 

            No championships will be won tonight at Thunder Road . But with a wrong turn of the cards, a title or two could easily be lost.

 

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Confirming what we first reported here a week ago, Shelburne’s Kevin Lepage said Monday that he has a contract in hand to steer the Brewco Motorsports/Timber Wolf Busch Series Chevrolet next season, if he wants to.

 

“We have a contract for 2003,” said Lepage, “but nobody has signed it yet. With so many Winston Cup rides up in the air right now, they have agreed to let me test the waters and see what might be available for next year. In return, they have the option to put someone else in the car for the last six races of this season, if we don’t have a signed deal by then.”

 

Lepage said he has enjoyed his stint in the #37 car, replacing Jeff Purvis, who was injured two months ago at Nazareth . And unless a top-notch Winston Cup team comes calling, he said he will almost certainly be in the Timber Wolf entry next season.

 

“I had one (Cup) offer a few months ago, but it wasn’t a good one,” he said. “I turned it down, because at this stage of my career, I have no interest in running at the back of the back. I would rather be with a championship-caliber Busch Series team like Brewco Motorsports than a struggling Winston Cup operation.

 

“I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open for the next few weeks, but I’ve told (Brewco owner) Clarence Brewer that if there’s nothing there by September 1, I’ll sign the contract and be ready to go for 2003. In fact, I’ll sign a multi-year deal if that’s what he wants to do.”

 

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With Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart defecting to the Chevrolet camp next season, General Motors brass is reportedly considering withdrawing the Pontiac nameplate from NASCAR racing altogether. Sources say it will take five solid teams to keep Pontiac in the mix, with only three teams currently slated to run Grand Prix sheetmetal in 2003. In addition, one of the three -- A. J. Foyt Racing – has still not made an official announcement that it will remain in the Pontiac stable.

 

That’s where Cal Wells comes in.

 

Wells, owner of Ricky Craven’s PPI Motorsports/Tide Racing Team, is being courted by the Pontiac brass these days, in an attempt to get him to leave the Ford camp at the end of this season. And while no decision has been made yet, Wells said the offer is a tempting one.

 

“Our current relationships (with Ford) are good relationships with real good people,” said Wells last week at Daytona. “But this is a unique window of opportunity. It’s good for the ego. I don’t want to make anyone unhappy. I just want to do what’s best for Tide.”

 

If he stays with Ford, Wells knows he will continue to play second (or third, or fourth) fiddle behind juggernauts Robert Yates, Jack Roush and Roger Penske. It’s a role he has accepted, but doesn’t necessarily enjoy.

 

“We haven’t earned an opportunity like that,” he said. “The guys that are there have earned it, and will be there for life. To catch those guys would take an awful long time. With Pontiac , the numbers are not there. It’s a great opportunity.”

 

An alliance with Pontiac would mean a major increase in financial, technical, and engineering support for Wells’ PPI Motorsports team. On the down side, it would also mean the end of their longstanding engine deal with Robert Yates Racing, plus an estimated $1.1 million expenditure to change the entire operation over to Pontiac livery.

 

“That’s to hit the ground running at Daytona (next season) and keep the total existing program running unencumbered,” Wells said. “It is a significant amount, no question about it, but we would be able to manage that part of it. It’s not the biggest stumbling block.”

 

The PPI Motorsports owner admitted that he’s on a very short timetable to make a decision.

 

“We need to know where we’re headed,” he said. “Realistically, it should have been (decided) a while ago. But the facts are, it just isn’t.”

 

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After weeks of having his future dissected in the media, Steve Park has had enough. The Long Island native finally sounded off this week, saying that if his current employer, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, does not want him around any longer, they should cut him loose.

 

"Until June 15, DEI had the right of first refusal as far as signing a contract,” said Park at Daytona. “Now, I'm a `free agent’ as far as next season goes. If they decide I'm good for the team and we're going to stick together and try to win races, then that's fine. (But) if they have other ideas of what they want, I'm not going to be around for them to fall back on."

 

Park’s current sponsor, Pennzoil, announced last week that it will return as sponsor of the #1 car next season. But the New York driver, who suffered a severe head injury last September at Darlington that sidelined him until March of this year, continues to work without a contract for 2003, and said Friday that he will not be "strung along" by DEI any longer.

 

"They talked about a one-year deal. With a one-year deal, this time next year we'll be in the same exact boat, and that doesn't interest me," he said. "All I read about is Steve Park is hanging on to his job, and I'm tired of hearing that. We can win races, (but) if management feels like the team needs to be torn apart, I can't do anything to change their decision. Either I'm their driver, and they have confidence that I can get the job done, or get somebody else.

 

Park said the current situation is an insult to the memory of DEI’s founder, the late Dale Earnhardt.

 

“If I didn’t do a good job, he’d tell me straight out and I’d be gone,” said Park. “No beating around the bush. He wouldn’t make you feel like a second-rate guy. All the stuff that’s going on right now would not be going on if he was here.

 

“It’s easy to point the finger at me, but if you go back and look at how we’ve run, either we’ve had bad luck, or had the car break or the engine blow up or something. If they think a driver change is in order, then they will do it, not matter what I do or say. If they feel I can’t win here, then I’m going to go beat them somewhere else.”

 

While Park seethes, teammate Michael Waltrip seems to have successfully dug himself out of a identical career hole. In Daytona’s Victory Lane Saturday night, DEI Executive Vice President Ty Norris said his number two driver has “solidified his position” in the last two months. “He decided to put this team up on his shoulders and carry it to where it has been,” said Norris. “He's has a lot of top-fives and top-10s, he's been qualifying really well, and this is the icing on the cake."

 

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The saga of Ricky Rudd continues. Rudd says he made current owner Robert Yates an offer to stay in Yates’ #28 Havoline Ford next season, but did not receive a positive response. Anxious to avoid the kind of silly season upheaval that has dogged the team this season, Yates wants Rudd to sign a multi-year contact. Rudd, however, is insisting on a one-year pact.

 

"I've been spoiled by some good runs here lately,” said Rudd this week. “If I could get Robert to agree to a one-year agreement, then retirement would not happen this year."

 

Rudd would clearly prefer to remain with Yates’ championship contending team, but the Virginia native admits he has spoken to a number of other operations recently. Foremost among them is Andy Petree Racing, which still has not finalized a long-rumored partnership agreement with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Petree and Rudd were seen together at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, on their way back from Infineon ( Sears Point ) Raceway two weeks ago. That sighting lends credence to a story we reported here three weeks ago, that Rudd is set to join the new Petree-Jones team, once the situation is finalized, as soon as this week.

 

While Rudd may be close to signing with Petree, current driver Bobby Hamilton is on his way out.

 

"I don't like change,” said Hamilton this week, after neither he nor Petree exercised a 2003 contractual option by the June 30 deadline. “I'm afraid there might be changes in the organization, and I just don't like change. Andy is a good car owner, and he'll land on his feet in the future, but I don't want to be in the middle of change. It's too damn hard. I like to stay with established stuff."

 

Hamilton will likely land at Petty Enterprises -- where he worked from 1995 to 2000 – replacing Steve Grissom, who has steered the Georgia Pacific #44 Dodge since Buckshot Jones was released earlier this season.

 

While the sponsorship situation on that team is secure for next season, Kyle Petty’s #45 Dodge is in the hunt for a new backer. Petty said last Friday that Sprint will not return as major sponsor of the team in 2003.

"We continue to keep our options open with Sprint, and we fully expect that we will continue to be involved with them in some way,” said Petty, “but the bottom line is that Sprint has not exercised its option to continue as primary sponsor. We need to look at other opportunities for the #45 Dodge.

 

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Short (Track) Subjects…

 

…It may not pack the star power that it used to, but the 29th Annual “True Value 250” rolls to the line this Sunday at Maine ’s Oxford Plains Speedway. The field will be comprised mostly of northern New England Pro Stock drivers, headlined by three time `250’ winner Ralph Nason, but at least four current NASCAR Busch North Series stars -- Jamie Aube, Tracy Gordon, Dave Dion and Dale Shaw – are expected to attempt qualifying for the midsummer classic. Also on the list of entries is an old friend, 1990 NASCAR Busch Grand National Champion Chuck Bown, who will drive a Gary Modugno-owned Pontiac in the event. Best remembered for steering the revolutionary, V6-powered Skoal Bandit “Six Shooter” on the old NASCAR North Tour in the 1980s, the 1976 NASCAR Winston West champion is a two-time winner of the “True Value 250.”

 

…Our Quote of the Week comes from Michael Waltrip in Victory Lane at Daytona, after driving through a backstretch blizzard of seat cushions, beer cans and trash thrown by irate fans, after NASCAR allowed Saturday night’s “Pepsi 400” to finish under the caution flag. In his words: "I thought they were congratulating me. I thought it was like a ticker-tape parade. You mean they were mad? I'm so stupid sometimes." 

 

…This week’s schedule begins tonight with the aforementioned “Times-Argus Midseason Championships” at Thunder Road , with post time of 7 p.m. The Canaan USA dirt track in Canaan , NH , is back in action tomorrow night, with all four weekly racing divisions scheduled, with a post time of 7 p.m.

 

Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh presents one of its biggest shows of the season Saturday night, with the rescheduled “Remington 4-10 Shootout” all-star race for ACT Late Models, along with the rained out “Leo’s Furniture Late Model 100.” The Flying Tigers, Streets and Renegades are also on the jam-packed card, beginning at 7 p.m. The Busch North Series, NASCAR Touring Division runs the “Pepsi Racing 150” Saturday night at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway, with Bud Pole qualifying set for 4:15 p.m., and the feature race at approximately 8:30. Also Saturday, Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford presents “Mekkelsen R.V. Mid-Season Championship Night,” featuring a 40-lap Twin State Modified Series event, along with the Coupes, Pro-Street Stocks, Fast Fours, and a V8 Enduro. Post time is 6:30 p.m.

 

At Riverside Speedway in Groveton, NH, the Flying Tiger/Sportsmen will make up last week’s rained out feature Saturday night as part of their “Budweiser Midseason Championship,” along with a 50-lap ACT Tri-State Street Stock/Cyclone Special, with a post time of 7:05 p.m. White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, features a full card of Super Street, Strictly Street, Strictly Mini, Mini-Cup and Late Model racing that night as well, beginning at 7:00.

 

The NEKC Kart Tour returns home to Barre’s Thunder Road Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., while Sunday night at West Haven’s Devil’s Bowl Speedway, it’s “Full Fender Frenzy,” featuring a 100 Lap Enduro, 50-lap Hobby Stock feature, 30 laps for the Cruisers, post time 7:00.