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Winston Set To Return, Petty Still Unsure

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

With two on-track deaths in the last year, smiles have been few and far between at New Hampshire International Speedway. But when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series returns to Loudon this weekend, there will be something to smile about.

After weeks of speculation concerning the status of the series’ major sponsor, officials of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company announced Tuesday that they will continue their sponsorship of NASCAR Winston Cup Racing in 2002 and beyond, while severing ties with NHRA Drag Racing and the PGA Golf Tour’s $1.6-million Vantage Championship.

NASCAR officials had previously expressed confidence that RJR would not terminate their support of the series; which began with a $100,000 point fund in 1971, and has grown to more than $13 million this season. In all, the tobacco company has contributed more than $112 million to NASCAR’s purse and point fund coffers.

Under the terms of the 1998 tobacco company settlement, RJR was required to reduce its sponsorship to a single brand name by the end of this year. Experts says the company could legally continue their drag racing and golf sponsorships under the Winston banner, but have apparently elected not to do so. That decision removes a major cloud of uncertainty from the NASCAR horizon, and places the sanctioning body on solid financial ground for at least the foreseeable future. Why is RJR remaining with the Winston Cup Series? Officials say the brand's popularity with NASCAR Winston Cup fans is five times greater than its share among the general public.

RJR is expected to confirm its plans in a press conference this weekend at NHIS. Kyle Petty may or may not be there to see it.

Petty’s son, Adam, died at the track last May, while practicing for a NASCAR Busch Series event, and the elder Petty skipped two ensuing Winston Cup events at NHIS to drive his son’s car on the Busch Series. Wednesday, Petty said he has still not decided whether he can face the track where his son died.

"I haven't made up my mind yet, I don't know,” he said. “This team is still Adam's team. They still see themselves as Adam's team, and I see them as Adam's team. There are (days) when it's a little harder to do than others.”

Sources say that if Petty races at New Hampshire, he will do so in an all-black car with minimal sponsorship decals and a stark #45 on the door. Should he elect to bypass this weekend’s race, former Craftsman Truck driver Steve Grissom is slated to take his place. Petty said it may be tomorrow morning before he makes his final decision, but added that his absence, should it occur, should in no way be seen as a slight to the speedway, the Bahre family (owners of NHIS), or New England race fans.

"It has nothing to do with that," Petty said. "It's just…tough to go back. Even after years, sometimes, it's tough. So that's the way it is."

Petty has given each member of the #45 Sprint team the option of staying home this weekend.

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Ricky Craven is hoping a little home cooking will provide the final boost he needs to climb back to the top of the Winston Cup ladder.

''(Racing at New Hampshire is) like a home-court advantage for me,'' said Craven, a former Busch North Series champion who cut his racing teeth on New England’s myriad short tracks, before forging his career on the American-Canadian and Busch Tours. ''Most drivers don't have a home-court advantage, but when I go back there, I feel like I have one. Psychologically, I feel like I've got an advantage.''

With two career Bud Poles on the “Magic Mile,” the Newbergh, Maine native has proven he has what it takes to run with the big boys on his home turf. And while is inaugural season in Cal Wells’ PPI Motorsport Tide Ford has yielded inconsistent results so far, Craven said he has his sights set squarely on Victory Lane this weekend.

''We've always performed well there,” he said. “It’s home for me, and I look forward to seeing all my friends as much as I do the race itself. But make no mistake, utopia for me would be to win at New Hampshire.”

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Jimmy Spencer has always been outspoken. Often, that outspokenness serves as a refreshing change from the cookie-cutter commentary so prevalent on NASCAR’s senior circuit these days. Sometimes, however, Spencer’s propensity to shoot first and ask questions later lands him in hot water. This week, Spencer is battling yet another self-inflicted case of “foot-in-mouth disease,” after openly suggesting that Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s win in the Daytona Pepsi 400 was fixed.

"I said something about (the race) being fixed,” said Spencer last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. ”It really wasn't. It was dumb on my part.”

The Pennsylvania driver met with Earnhardt last Thursday, apologizing for his comments before taking that apology to the media.

“It was just dumb,” he said. “When I got to airport, the microphone and camera were slapped in my face. I should have thought of something a little more appropriate to say. I apologize for it because you can start a rumor and it really snowballs pretty good.

“The way it came out after the race was (the result of) two years of frustration for me in restrictor-plate racing,” said Spencer. "As soon as we got here, I told him I was sorry for what I said. I apologized to him. It was a mistake on my part."

Earnhardt said that while he had no problem with Spencer’s comments, he was upset with the controversy surrounding his storybook victory. "It was a great moment in NASCAR history and it got kicked in the (groin)," he said. "I feel like everybody I talk to about the race, I have to prove it was real. That's a shame."

Interestingly, just days after questioning the legitimacy of Earnhardt’s win, Spencer qualified his Kmart-sponsored car on the outside pole at Chicagoland. Was Spencer’s sudden burst of qualifying muscle what it appeared to be? Or could it have been (tongue firmly in cheek here) NASCAR’s way of shutting Spencer’s mouth; a little “hush money” for a loose cannon?

Let’s send a camera to the airport and find out.

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Second-generation driver Gary Drew claimed a surprise win Sunday night in the 28th annual “True Value 250” at Maine’s Oxford Plains Speedway. Drew, son of Maine racing legend Homer Drew and the point leader in Oxford’s weekly Pro Stock division, outlasted 61-year old veteran Ralph Nason, who dominated the first half of the race, then spent the remainder of the evening battling back from a spin, only to finish third. Nason, who was gunning for his fourth consecutive `250’ win, had lapped two-thirds of the field before pitting for tires and fuel, a lap before his off-track excursion.

Oxford regular Scott Robbins finished second, followed by Nason, Alan Wilson, and Mike Maietta. Lou Mechalides, Kevin Kimball, Steve Knowlton, Scott Moore, and Darren Ripley completed the top 10. There were no Vermont drivers in the 42-car field again this year, after Vermont’s Bobby Dragon failed to qualify in his new Pro Stock. In fact, 37 of the 42 starters hailed from the state of Maine. A total of 96 entries were received for the race, with 86 cars actually attempting to qualify.

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…NASCAR has pulled the plug on a new rule that would have limited teams to a single engine per weekend, beginning at Loudon. Officials say the proposed changes "have lost momentum," but sources close to the situation say intense lobbying against the rule by the Roger Penske camp may have turned the tide. NASCAR President Mike Helton confirmed last week that there will be no rule changes this weekend, other than a previously instituted ban on bump-stop rubbers.

…The Pro All Stars Series’ August 4th date at Quebec’s Circuit St. Croix has been cancelled. Despite rumors that the series may disband due to monetary problems, PASS organizer Tom Mayberry said additional events may be added to the schedule in the next several weeks.

…This week’s top quote comes from Oxford Plains Speedway Pro Stock driver Jerry Babb, commenting on the track’s efforts to eliminate tire softener from this year’s `True Value 250.’ Said Babb, “Some of us fools work harder to cheat than we do to win.”

 

…After a disastrous, first-man-out effort in the Times Argus Midseason Championships a week ago, Northfield’s Cris Michaud bounced right back into the championship hunt Thursday, outrunning Dave Whitcomb and Eric Williams to become the first repeat winner of the 2001 Thunder Road Late Model season. The Flying Tigers, meanwhile, staged another flag-to-flag dandy, running 70 laps without a stop in their WDEV Flying Tiger 70. Josh Lovely took the win, withstanding intense pressure from runner-up Roger Brown, with Reno Gervais finishing a distant third. Brown and Gervais - arguably the fastest cars on the track in recent weeks - both turned up too wide on the post-race technical inspection, and forfeited their spots to Airborne Raceway invaders John Langlois and Skip Liberty.

The T-Road troops face a doubleheader this week, with events scheduled both tonight and Sunday. This evening’s “Fisher/Federated Auto Parts Fan Appreciation Night” features a 20-year rollback at the ticket window, with adult admission reduced to just $5, kids (age 6-12) a dollar, and a family of four -- 2 adults, 2 kids -- just $10. Sunday’s twilight event is a makeup of last month’s rained out “Vermont Polaris Dealers Night,” and offers hardcore fans a chance to pull off the previously unheard-of Winston Cup/Thunder Road double in the same day.

We’re game if you are.