Lepage In The Hunt For Winston Cup Ride

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

 

Kevin Lepage never turned a lap last weekend at Rockingham. His customary seat in the Brewco Motorsports/Timberwolf Busch Series Chevrolet was filled by Elton Sawyer Saturday, and rumors that the Shelburne native would replace Casey Atwood in the Sirius Satellite Radio Winston Cup Dodge failed to pan out.

Despite that, Lepage received more press than most of the drivers who actually took part.

Published reports early in the week had Atwood fired from the Ultra/Evernham #7 Dodge, to be replaced by Lepage. Ultra/Evernham Motorsports spokesperson Amy Hunerberg spent most of the weekend emphatically denying those reports, however, insisting that Atwood’s job was secure through the end of the 2002 season. Atwood did drive the car Sunday, but sources behind the scenes continued to insist that negotiations were underway to remove Atwood from the car and replace him with Lepage, if a series of contactual issues could be resolved.

Monday, Atwood showed up for a testing session at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as scheduled. However, he did not drive the #7 car. Instead, he wheeled Ray Evernham’s #91 “research and development” Dodge; the car driven at Rockingham by Hank Parker, Jr. That move prompted rumors that Atwood would move to the #91 for the final two races of the season, and Smith confirmed that move Tuesday. However, Smith tabbed his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver, Jason Leffler, to steer the now-vacant Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge, leaving Lepage without a ride once again.

Monday, Lepage was tight-lipped about a possible return to the Winston Cup ranks, but admitted that he has spoken with Smith.

“I’ve had some dialogue with Jim, and I drove the #7 car in practice at Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. They’re obviously having some problems over there, and they asked me to take the car out, see what I thought, and offer them some feedback. Basically, they’re just trying to figure out where the problems lie.”

Lepage’s test session, in which he ran 7/10 of a second faster than Atwood, immediately set tongues a-wagging in the Winston Cup garage.

“The minute anyone climbs into someone else’s car, the internet explodes,” said Lepage. “By the time I climbed out from behind the wheel, (internet website) Jayski had Casey fired, and me taking over. That stuff takes on a life of its own.”

Lepage said he did not visit the Ultra/Evernham shop last week, as published reports have claimed. In his words, “I drove their car for a few laps at Atlanta, and that’s it.” The Shelburne driver admitted, however, that he would be interested in driving the Sirius Dodge, if the seat becomes available.

“I ran eight races for them a year ago, after Mike Wallace left the team. They’re a good bunch of guys to work with, and I know most of the people there real well. Unfortunately, their sponsor (Nation’s Rent) left, and things just didn’t work out for me to stay with them. If circumstances worked out right, and they needed a driver for next year, it’s no secret that my heart is in Winston Cup racing.”

Unfortunately for Lepage, that desire may be undermining his chances with the Brewco Motorsports Busch Series team.

“Clarence (Brewer) told me last week that he’s sick of being the training ground for young drivers,” Lepage said. “He spent two years working with Casey, and the last few seasons with Jamie McMurray. Both of them were real young, and they had a lot to learn. They wrecked a lot of cars, and then, just about the time they started figuring things out and winning races, they jumped ship to take Winston Cup rides.

“Clarence is looking for a veteran driver who will make a commitment to him, and not be like Todd Bodine, jumping back and forth between the Winston Cup and Busch garages. I can understand that, but he also knows that my ultimate goal is to get back to Winston Cup racing.

“I’ve told him that if he makes a commitment to run all-out for the Busch Series championship next season, I’ll make a commitment in return,” he said. “But at this point, I’ve got no job for next year. I’m in a position where I have to talk to everyone who’s willing to listen.”

The Shelburne native said he is not anxious to go into the off-season without a ride lined up for 2003, something he has done in each of the last two years. But he understands that the realities of the business may force him to do just that.

“The longest I’ve been with any team is 18 months,” he said. “It’s impossible to build a successful operation in that amount of time. My deals have all been `six races here, half a season there,’ and it’s impossible to be successful that way. Look at the teams that are running for championships, in Busch or in Cup. They’ve been together for three, four, five years. They know each other inside out.

“Both Jim Smith and Clarence Brewer know me,” he said. “They know what I can do, they know what I like in a race car, and they know how I interact with a team. I’m a known commodity, and hopefully, I can get something put together in the next few weeks and not have to be banging the bushes all winter.”

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For the second time in his career, Mark Martin may have cost himself the NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Officials announced Monday that Martin has been penalized 25 championship points for an illegal left-front spring in last weekend’s “Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400” at Rockingham. NASCAR rules require that springs have a minimum of 4½ coils. Martin’s left-front spring was approximately one-eighth of a coil too short.

Team owner Jack Roush was penalized 25 owner points, while crewchief Ben Leslie received a $5,000 fine; his third reprimand of the season. Leslie was fined $50,000 after Martin's winning car was found to be too low following the Coca-Cola Racing Family 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. He also paid a $1,000 fine for an unapproved window strap at Talladega in October.

Martin and his team were predictably upset with the ruling. "We used a spring manufactured by an approved NASCAR manufacturer, exactly as it came to us out of the box,” argued Leslie. “We are being (given) the same penalty as teams that materially altered springs in order to obtain a performance advantage, which is completely unfair."

"I feel like we got the death sentence for shoplifting,” added Martin. “(It was) an unaltered spring that provided absolutely no advantage at that track. This is a pretty steep penalty for what is essentially a meaningless violation."

Roush Racing President Geoff Smith said the team is “evaluating all avenues of recourse,” including appealing the ruling, and the possibility of legal action against the manufacturer of the spring.

Martin has been here before. In 1990, he was docked 46 championship points after being caught with an illegal carburetor spacer. He ultimately lost the Winston Cup title to Dale Earnhardt by just 26 points. The latest penalty leaves Martin 112 points behind leader Tony Stewart with only two races remaining.

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Just two more races, and Jimmy Spencer is a pedestrian. Chip Ganassi Racing announced Tuesday that the outspoken Spencer will be released from his contract to drive Ganassi’s #41 Target Dodge at the end of the 2002 season.

"When we first made this deal, Jimmy and I agreed what would happen if the results were not what either of us were happy with," said Ganassi. "Obviously, both of us are not happy. I feel bad, but I'm sure I'll remain friends with Jimmy. We all know he's a colorful character that no one can help but enjoy being around. No one can deny Jimmy has a lot of energy and excitement about him."

No replacement has yet been named.

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…There will be more NASCAR Winston Cup racing under the lights next season, beginning with the 25th annual “Budweiser Shootout At Daytona.” The event -- a non-points race featuring 2002 Bud Pole winners and past Bud Shootout winners - has traditionally been held on Sunday afternoon, the week before the Daytona 500. In 2003, however, the race will go under the lights for the first time. The race will be televised live by FOX Sports on Saturday, February 8.

The Bud Shootout field currently includes 18 drivers; Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman, Ward Burton, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Craven, Ricky Rudd, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Geoffrey Bodine, Ken Schrader, Todd Bodine and Terry Labonte.

…Second-generation Busch North Series driver Martin Truex, Jr. is testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway this week, and will attempt to qualify for next weekend's Busch Series finale.

…Jack Roush is talking to Hank Parker, Jr. and his Busch Series sponsor - General Nutrition Center -- about fielding a second full-time Busch team in 2003. Parker currently is without a ride for the coming season.

…Robert Yates is negotiating with former Caterpillar Dodge crewchief Tommy Baldwin about replacing the recently departed Michael “Fatback” McSwain at the helm of the #28 Ford. The car will be driven by Elliott Sadler.

…A bit closer to home, former Riverside Speedway Flying Tiger champion “Rocket” Roger Brown is the latest driver to graduate to the ACT Late Model ranks, after working an unusual “equipment swap” with Vermont driver Taber Gagne. Gagne was looking to return to the Tiger wars after experiencing two sparse seasons in the LMS ranks, while Brown was in the market for a reasonably priced Late Model operation. One trade later, Brown’s Tiger car now belongs to Gagne, while Gagne’s former Rich Lowrey Late Model is parked in the Rocketman’s garage.

…Just days after announcing that they will become the latest northeast speedway to drop the Pro Stock class from their 2003 program, officials at New Hampshire's Lee USA Speedway said this week that their annual “Lee Pro Stock Nationals” will now become the “Lee Late Model Nationals.”

In addition, track owners Red and Judy McDonald will utilize the General Motors ZZ4 “crate engine” in their Late Model class next season, following the lead of the American-Canadian Tour. Last weekend, ACT President Tom Curley spoke at the track’s annual post-season Flea Market, along with Dave McMaster of Butler and McMaster Racing engines; the exclusive builder of ACT’s spec engines. The move is the latest sign of success for an ongoing, behind-the-scenes campaign by ACT's Curley to get the region's various Late Model classes on the same sheet of paper, rule-wise.

The warming relationship between Curley and the McDonalds - who hosted two races a year on the old ACT Pro Stock Tour - has inspired speculation that Lee might be courting a spot on the 2003 ACT Dodge Tour schedule. In fact, don’t be surprised to see the new “Lee Late Model Nationals” boast an ACT sanction next season, pitting the track’s local drivers against the traveling ACT Dodge Tourists, and a few Maine invaders, as well.

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