Lepage Still Hoping For Winston Cup Rebirth
By DAVE MOODY
It’s not a full-time NASCAR Winston Cup ride. But for Kevin Lepage, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Last weekend, the Shelburne native surprised everyone with a fourth-place qualifying run for last weekend’s “GFS Marketplace 400” at Michigan International Speedway; only his second outing of the season in Ted Campbell’s CLR-sponsored #57 Ford. Lepage qualified 21st and finished 30th in the Brickyard 400 two weeks earlier, and drove his own Ford to 32nd place (after starting 27th) in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May.
While Sunday’s results were not as impressive as his qualifying effort - 31st place, three laps down to winner Ryan Newman -- the Vermont driver said he was happy to compete again on a track that has been good to him in the past.
“If you look at my past qualifying efforts, we've always done fairly well at Michigan,” he said. “I qualified fifth one year with the #91 car, so it's always been a good racetrack for us. We thought the early qualifying draw was going to hurt us -- with the sun and stuff -- but I think it worked in our favor.”
Lepage said that Campbell’s team is a small one, but tightly knit and hard-working.
“Ted has seven full-time employees, and I've worked with 90 percent of them with my own deal. I tried to get in his car last year, but they decided to go a different way. They haven't raced a lot as a team, so there are a lot of things that they don't understand as far as what Winston Cup cars want. I think I was able to help them with that. We were able to click right off, and we had a good, solid effort.”
Despite having no solid sponsorship prospects, Lepage continues to plan for the future. Work continues at his North Carolina shop - albeit with a skeleton crew - in an effort to be ready immediately if backing can be found.
"I built a brand new (Winston) Cup car that we're trying to complete, and I've been working out in the gym, hoping that someone will believe in me,” he said. Lepage said he is anxious to shed the “recycled driver” label that has haunted him since his release from Jack Roush Racing three years ago.
“I’ve heard a lot of comments -- indirectly -- that car owners won't put a ‘recycled driver’ like me in their cars. But if you look at my career, I’ve only really gotten one decent chance to succeed. I was with Roush Racing for two and a half years, and that's been it. With Joe Falk, the Kodak car, the NationsRent car, and last year with the Brewco Motorsports Busch team (replacing the injured Jeff Purvis), I was always a part-time or replacement driver. Roush Racing is the only full-time operation I went to as a hired driver.
“I don know how I got labeled a `recycled driver.’ I kind of take that as an insult, but for whatever reason, people don't want to give me a chance. I've got a car owner right now that believes in me, though. Hopefully, we can get a sponsor. I would love to come back full-time next year and show people what we can do.”
Lepage said he feels he can still compete at the Winston Cup level, and said he is a perfect match for a new or less-financed team.
"I qualify well, and I race well,” he said. “I don't tear up a lot of equipment. I feel like I could finish somewhere in the top 15 (in points). I had confidence going to Indy that I was going to make that race, and I had confidence going to Michigan that we were going to be competitive.”
While Friday’s fourth-place qualifying effort was a major boost, Lepage said his team worked at a disadvantage on race day.
“(The other teams) have notebooks, but all we've got are blank pages,” he said. “Everyone else was here in the spring, so they knew what the track was going to do. They knew how the tires were going to work. We had two 45-minute practices to play catch-up, and that’s tough to do. Also, this weekend was also only the fourth or fifth time these guys have gone over the wall this year, and when you lose 6-8 spots on pit road, it’s tough to make up them up on the track.”
Lepage said both he and Campbell are hoping to put together a bigger, better deal, and that the ingredients are there for a successful partnership.
"We're trying to find a sponsor,” he said. “Between my team and his team, we have about nine race cars. They're mainly intermediate track cars, but we have a few speedway cars, too. Obviously, we're not going to Bristol, but there's a possibility for Darlington, Charlotte, Kansas, Atlanta, or Homestead. If we get close on a deal for next year, we might go to Rockingham just to get that race under our belts.”
The Vermont driver said the summer of 2003 has been difficult for him, both emotionally and financially, adding that he recently began considering liquidating his team and doing something else for a living.
“Three weeks ago. I was very down in the dumps,” he said. “I doubted that I was going to get back in a car this year. We were talking to people about buying my facility, and I was looking at maybe becoming a mechanic instead of a driver. Donna and I had a little nest egg put away, but recently, we had to sell off some a couple of Busch cars to pay the bills.
“But this is a shot in the arm,” he said. “I feel like Popeye after eating a can of spinach."
Lepage said his recent performances have gotten his phone ringing again.
“Believe it or not, I’ve talked with two teams this week,” he said. “When you’re not out there (on the track), you’re `out of sight, out of mind.’ People forget about you. But between Indy and Michigan, I think I’ve been able to show people that I can still do this.”
Lepage said his first loyalty is to Campbell and the CLR team, but added he would certainly entertain any offer that came his way. “I just want to get back in a racecar on a weekly basis,” he said. “Driving racecars is all I’ve done since I was a teenager, and it’s what I want to do.”
Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch were penalized by NASCAR this week for their roles in a post-race altercation following Sunday’s race at Michigan. Officials suspended Spencer from all NASCAR-sanctioned competition until August 26, effectively barring him from this weekend’s Winston Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, as well as the Craftsman Truck and Busch Series events there, which he had planned to run. Spencer received a $25,000 fine, and was placed on probation until December 31.
Busch was placed on probation until December 31 for his actions, which witnesses said consisted mainly of being punched in the nose.
"I ran out of gas when I got into the garage area, and Jimmy Spencer ran into the back of my car,” said Busch afterward. “I was still in the car when he approached me. Words were exchanged, but I was still strapped in my seat with my helmet off when he struck me in the face. He broke my tooth and bloodied my nose."
Busch also said he has swelling on the left side of his face that could take as much as three months to heal. In addition, Busch said his breathing has been affected, and while it will reportedly not compromise his ability to compete, he said he expects the situation will make breathing with his helmet on more uncomfortable.
“I have been told that there is some tissue damage, and
there is a 15-percent chance that I will require
reconstructive surgery to repair the damage,” said Busch, who underwent surgery a few months ago to correct a deviated septum in his nose.
Busch also took issue with media reports characterizing the incident as “a fight,” calling it “a unilateral assault” on Spencer’s part. Team-owner Jack Roush went a step further, calling Busch’s probation “incomprehensible. (Busch’s) only involvement was to be the recipient of a blow struck by an individual that is twice his size,” he said. Roush vowed to appeal the ruling, but expressed little confidence that the NASCAR will rule in his favor.
Spencer said he will appeal his suspension and fine, as well. "I will always protect myself and my race team," he said. “We are going to appeal the penalty, and we are going to do so in accordance to the NASCAR rulebook."
While NASCAR’s sanctions against Spencer are among the most serious ever levied by the sanctioning body, they pale in comparison to the legal charges being contemplated by the Lenawee County (MI) Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Paterson took statements Sunday for what he called "an investigation into the alleged assault," and said he will submit his findings to a prosecutor.
Should Spencer be brought up on assault charges, it will break new legal ground in the world of professional sports. Guilty or not, if Spencer is legally answerable for bopping Busch, it’s only a matter of time until long lines of NHL players are marched into court to answer similar charges. From now on, every baseball brawl must produce multiple assault charges, and every professional prizefight should result in an immediate court date for both combatants.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…There’s a change of ownership in the wind at Groveton, New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway. Loudon, NH, businessman Jeff Kennett told Big Bigelow in the Caledonian Record recently that he is looking into buying the track, if he can agree on price with present owner C.J. Robinson.
”My wife and I spent the weekend of August 9 and 10 there looking it over from top to bottom…taking notes of what we saw,” said Kennett, who said he is putting together a financial package to finance the purchase, and will be making an offer to Robinson soon. In his words, “"The only snag I see at this point is whether (we) can arrive at a mutually agreeable price."
…There could be more nighttime racing during Daytona Speed Weeks next season, if Daytona International Speedway President Robin Braig gets his wish. Braig said last week that he is continuing discussions with NASCAR about moving another event under the lights next season. Sources say the season-opening NASCAR Craftsman Truck and Busch Series events could be shifted from day to night, in an effort to increase in-person attendance and television ratings. Last year’s inaugural nighttime Bud Shootout gave FOX the highest prime time rating in network history.
"There is no discussion of moving the Daytona 500 to night," assured Braig. "That's not on the table."
…It’s no longer “one big happy family” in the Rusty Wallace pit. Wallace has become increasingly unhappy with crewchief Bill Wilburn in recent weeks, after a series of botched strategy calls cost the team multiple shots at Victory Lane. Last week, an indecisive call by Wilburn during a caution period on lap 86 triggered a wreck between Martin and Dale Earnhardt that damaged Martin’s car and eliminated Earnhardt from contention.
Initially, Wilburn told Wallace to “do whatever the leaders do,” prompting the driver to head down pit road with the rest of the pack. After Wallace had already committed himself, Wilburn changed his mind, yelling “stay out, stay out.” When Wallace attempted to swerve back to the right, he collided with Earnhardt’s Chevrolet.
After the race, a clearly annoyed Wallace called the move, “a mistake. I changed by mind…actually we changed our minds, and it was too late. We tore up two good cars, and it shouldn’t have happened.”
…The weekly racing wars begin tonight at Thunder Road, with “Vermont State Employees Credit Union Night.” The Late Models, Tiger Sportsman, Street Stocks and Warriors will all be in action, with kids’ racecar rides from 4-5 p.m. Post time is set for 7:00.
Tomorrow night’s program on the Canaan (NH) Fair Speedway dirt track features a full card of events for all the Canaan weekly divisions, plus the Granite State Mini Sprints, with the green flag waving at 7:00 pm.
Saturday night, the ACT Dodge Tour travels to White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, with a special early post time of 5 p.m. The WMMP Late Models, Super Streets, Strictly Mini's and Mini-Cup cars are also on the docket. NASCAR’s Busch North Series returns to the Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough, Maine that night for the “Irving Oil 150.” At Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, NY, the Tiger Sportsman Subway Grand Slam Series returns to the track, when PrimeLink presents the “Dick Nephew Memorial 100.” More than 35 Tigers are expected, along with a regular program for Street Stocks, Renegades, and Junkyard Warriors. Post time is 6:30 PM.
It’s “Swenson Insurance Night” at Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway Saturday, with the sprint cars joining the regular weekly divisions. At Riverside Speedway in Groveton, NH, the Enduro racers headline a shortened race card, with four and eight-cylinder enduros, a ladies race, and spectator drags, beginning at 6:35. Last week’s rainout on the Canaan (NH) Fair Speedway asphalt track results in double features for the Super Streets and Late Models Saturday, along with single events for the Pro Stocks and Mini Stocks, and a full-sized enduro. The action starts at 6:00 p.m.
And finally, on Sunday night, Devil's Bowl Speedway in West Haven returns to action, with all divisions scheduled.