Busch North Season Finally Ends, With Controversy

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

After two consecutive weeks of rainy weather, the 2002 Busch North Series, NASCAR Touring division finally concluded Saturday at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park, with home-state driver Denny Doyle claiming his first career BNS win, and Cherryfield, Maine, native Andy Santerre securing the 2002 series championship.

After two weeks of steady rain, and two additional trips to southern New England, you might expect the Busch North troops to be happy to see the season in the rear-view mirror. A controversial series of decisions in the season-finale, however, have at least one team crying “foul.”

Rain wreaked havoc with the program again Saturday. Persistent showers forced a late (approximately 3 p.m.) start to the race, and an hour-long red flag for another shower forced a 35 laps to be run under the yellow flag, as NASCAR attempted to dry the racing surface. Once the race was restarted, impending darkness and an inflexible local curfew prompted NASCAR officials to announce that the race would end promptly at 6 p.m. However, the checkered flag ultimately flew at 5:45, when series officials ruled it had become to dark to continue safely.

As a result, the scheduled 82-lap race ran only 63 laps, prompting Matt Kobyluck - who came up just three positions short of overtaking Santerre for the title -- to complain that he had been shortchanged. Kobyluck finished sixth to Santerre’s fourteenth, and after passing three cars in the race’s final five laps, said the race should have been allowed to run to its promised 6 p.m. conclusion.

"I'm disappointed," he said after the race. "It's a disheartening way to end a season. I have a problem with how the race was run today. We only ran a few laps of green after the rain delay, and that to me has not been what this series is about. When there have been questionable situations in the past, they've always said to come back,
or let's get it in the right way. Let's not nickel and dime it just for the sake of getting the race in.

"We had the fastest car at the end of the race," Kobyluck said. "With the proper circumstances to settle the championship, we could have had a shot at winning it. Maybe we would have, maybe we wouldn't have, but we at least would have had the opportunity. They didn't give us the opportunity to do that today. They took it out of
our hands and gave us fourteen laps to try and get a race in.

“(NASCAR) basically decided the championship by running all those caution laps. That's not the way our series should have ended after coming here three times to get the race in. There were other choices. We could
have run more laps under green, or we could have not gone on the track so early to dry it. There were a lot of things that could have been done differently, but (NASCAR was) feeling pressure to get the show in so everybody didn't have to come back again. That's not the way the championship should be decided. We should be given the opportunity to race for the championship."

Race-winner Doyle disagreed.

“Three laps before (the final restart), I was having trouble seeing the flagman,” he said. “It got that dark. I had a tinted windshield, and that didn’t help.”

While the 2002 Busch North championship is the first of Santerre’s career, it may not be one the Statesville, NC, resident cares to defend. In fact, Santerre and his sponsor, LesCare Kitchens, are already discussing plans to race elsewhere next season.

"We plan to continue our sponsorship of Andy Santerre," said Jay Lestorti, Chairman and CEO of LesCare. “With this championship, we can offer ourselves and Andy a lot of different scenarios. Although we will continue to run in the Busch North Series on a limited schedule, our new location in Statesville will give us the opportunity to run some Busch Grand National races, as well as a combination of ARCA, ASA, or both. The rapport we've established with Andy and his team is something we all want to grow on.”

Santerre was less committal, saying he wants to take some time to “wind down” from the grind of his weekly North Carolina commutes before making any decisions about 2003.

“I met with Jay (Lestorti) before Lime Rock, and told him we’d talk after the season was over,” he said. I have a few offers around here (in North Carolina), but they’re all to work on other people’s cars, not drive them. I’m not sure I’m ready to go that route yet. Jay seemed happy with the progress we made this season, and the success we had, and we talked about maybe running a limited Busch North schedule next year, then adding some ASA or Busch races. I’m pretty confident that when I come up with a plan for next season, he’ll be a part of it.”

Santerre admitted that he may have “undersold himself” to Lestorti at the start of this season.

“I hadn’t raced Busch North in a few years, and I definitely underestimated what it took to be competitive,” he said. “I knew it would cost a little more traveling back and forth from North Carolina, but I don’t think I realized just how competitive this series had become.

“I told Jay that if we do this (Busch North) deal again next year, we’re going to have to renegotiate my contract.”

Santerre will officially receive his championship awards at the annual Busch North Series Awards Ceremony on Saturday, November 9, at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Lowell, Mass.

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Kevin Lepage is out of a ride this weekend at Rockingham, and that may be good news. The Shelburne native, who has driven the last 19 Busch Series races in place of the injured Jeff Purvis in the #37 Timber Wolf Chevrolet, will be replaced himself Saturday, by Busch Series veteran Elton Sawyer.

"We are looking for two drivers for next season," said Todd Wilkerson, President and General Manager of Brewco Motorsports. "When Jamie McMurray decided to move to the Winston Cup Series next year, it opened up another seat for us to fill. With Jamie in a tight points race in the top ten, we decided to try out several drivers in the #37 car.”

After a strong start, Lepage has faltered in recent weeks, recording no top-10 finishes in his last nine starts. Engine problems sidelined him after just 67 laps last weekend at Atlanta, and the team lasted only eight laps the week before at Memphis before rolling behind the wall with a blown motor. Overall, Lepage has two top-five and four top-10 finishes in the Timber Wolf car, along with a pair of poles at Michigan and Dover.

"Kevin Lepage did an excellent job substituting for Jeff after his injury at Nazareth," Wilkerson said. "He is still under consideration for one of the two rides next season, but no decisions have been made for next year at this time."

Interestingly, Lepage’s name surfaced this week in a rumor concerning Winston Cup driver Casey Atwood. Published reports had Atwood being fired from the Ultra/Evernham Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge, to be replaced by Lepage. Sources with the team quickly denied those reports, however, saying that Atwood remains their driver for the remainder of the season. But while Atwood’s job is apparently safe for the moment, team owner Jim Smith said recently that neither he nor his sponsors were happy with the team’s 2002 performance, and that changes would almost certainly be made before next season. Asked if those changes included Atwood, Smith said everything on the team was up for review, “including the driver.”

Our southern spies say there could be a plan afoot for Lepage and Atwood to swap places next season, with Lepage steering the Ultra/Evernham Winston Cup car, while Atwood returns to the Brewco Motorsports Busch Series team. Lepage drove Smith’s #7 several times last season, after former driver Mike Wallace moved to Penske Racing South.

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Despite rumors of an early comeback, Sterling Marlin will not be back behind the wheel this season.

Marlin was examined by neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty and spinal injury specialist Dr. Dom Coric at the Carolina Neurological and Spinal Injury Clinic early this week. And while Marlin’s fractured cervical vertebra is healing nicely, he must continue to wear a cervical collar for at least two more weeks. He will be reevaluated at that point, but still must undergo a physical therapy regimen to regain strength in his weakened neck muscles.

Marlin is said to be on schedule to return to the Coors Light Dodge for 2003 Winston Cup preseason testing, but Jamie McMurray will run the final three races of the 2002 season.

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…Michael “Fatback” McSwain has interviewed with Joe Gibbs Racing, and could be in line to become Bobby Labonte's 2003 crew chief. Sources close to Robert Yates Racing say McSwain and driver Elliott Sadler have not jelled during recent testing sessions, despite the fact that McSwain initially recommended the Virginia driver to replace current driver Ricky Rudd. Sadler said this week that McSwain told him things “weren't going to work out” for next year.

"I was surprised more than anything,” said Sadler. “But if his heart isn't in it, he needs to go somewhere else.” McSwain has not commented on the possible move, but team owner Robert Yates said McSwain is under contract, and he expects him to honor it.

…Randolph’s Kip Stockwell locked up a $7,500 bonus for topping the year-long Busch North Series “Flowmaster Star of the Race” competition, which goes to the driver who improves by the most positions over the course of the season. Perennially underfinanced in comparision to the competition, Stockwell put his back-of-the-pack starts to good use this season, passing more cars than any other Busch North driver.

…Last week’s second-place finish at Atlanta has earned Joe Nemechek a ride for next season. Team owner Rick Hendrick gave Nemechek the thumbs-up to remain with the UAW/Delphi-sponsored #25 Chevrolet in 2003, even though Nemechek said new crewchief Peter Sospenzo and recent changes in the team’s car designs get most of the credit for his recent strong performances.

…White Mountain Motorsports Park has announced that this year’s Awards Banquet will be held Friday, November 29, at the Beacon Motel and Resort, Route 3 in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Honorees will include Late Model champion Pat Corbett of Williamstown, Mike Stygles in the Super Streets, Strictly Street king Todd Goodness, Strictly Mini champ Jerrad Ledger, and Jason Wyman in the Mini-Cup ranks. Tickets are now on sale, and must be purchased no later then November 10 by calling the track at (603) 745-6727.

…It looks like a full-bore battle for Rookie of the Year honors in the NAPA Flying Tiger/Sportsman division next season. As many as a dozen drivers are already making plans to graduate from the Street Stock ranks, led by last year’s top Thunder Road Street Stock rookie, Ryan Nolin. The second-generation driver has purchased the former David Warren Oldsmobile, and is joined by fellow T-Road frontrunner Kerry Henry, who has also purchased a new Tiger entry. In addition, Airborne Street Stockers Jim Bushey, Mike Wells, Matt Chandler, and Brian McGinley are all rumored to be planning a move to the Tiger ranks, as are Thunder Road regulars Jen Bigelow and Scott Coburn.

Bigelow, daughter of former Vermont State Flying Tiger champion Bob Bigelow, test-drove Pete Potvin’s Flying Tiger at New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway last month, with an eye toward moving up next year. Rachel Beede, daughter of four-time Thunder Road champion Chuck Beede, also has a Tiger in the garage, and is expected to run the car full-time in 2003. No word yet on whether little sister Renee might follow suit, or remain in the Street division for another year.

…Mike McLaughlin has new Busch Series ride. The former Featherlite Modified Series champion, who learned last month that he will not be back with Joe Gibbs Racing next season, has signed a contract with the new Angela's Motorsports team to drive their #03 entry in all 34 Busch Series races next season. The team, formed by 26-year-old Angela Harkness and her partner, Gary Jones, will field Fords in the final two races of this season, with Jay Sauter at the keyboard.

…Tim Fedewa has been released from the #92 Excedrin Chevrolet by Herzog Jackson Motorsports. Former driver Todd Bodine will be back in the car this weekend at Rockingham.

…Veteran Ken Schrader could be returning to Andy Petree Racing, where he last raced in 1999. Schrader is said to have the inside track for the Petree job, since he would bring along his current NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series sponsor, Federated Auto Parts. Schrader has already said he will not be back in his current ride, the M&Ms-sponsored #36, while Petree’s current driver, Bobby Hamilton, is also moving on next season.

…Ricky Craven will have a new crewchief next year. Team engineer Roy McCauley will call the shots for Craven’s PPI Motorsports/Tide Pontiac in 2003, with current crewchief Mike Beam becoming Craven’s spotter.

…Former Busch North Series driver Stanton Barrett will drive a Roush Racing Ford on the 2003 NASCAR Busch Series, replacing current series point leader Greg Biffle, who moves to the Winston Cup ranks. Barrett, who has competed in 11 Busch Series races this year and is 46th in points, brings his own sponsor, Odoban, to the package.