Michaud Seals Thunder Road Title
Lepage Out At Season’s End
By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
Cris Michaud has always taken a businesslike approach to racing. The Northfield resident - husband, father, and owner of a local market - approaches the sport methodically; serious about what he does, but secure in the knowledge that it is, after all, just a hobby. That approach served him well Sunday, when he outran former track champion Phil Scott and ACT Dodge Tour point leader Jamie Fisher to captured the 2001 Thunder Road Late Model title.
Sunday’s performance was vintage Michaud. He may or may not have had the fastest car on the track, but when the glare of the championship spotlight caused others to wilt under pressure, the Northfield driver kept his cool. He threaded his way through one of the roughest races of the season, narrowly avoiding no less than four skirmishes that threatened to gather him in, before making his move in the final laps to win the championship going away.
Scott’s title hopes effectively ended in qualifying, when his Northfield Savings Bank/Formula Ford Taurus failed to log the top-three finish necessary to advance to the semi-feature. Fisher’s bid fizzled in that bonus point run, when he was blackflagged for rough driving after an uncharacteristic bumper-swapping session with former track champion Dwayne Lanphear. Generally one of the coolest customers on pit road, Fisher appeared to lose his cool momentarily in the heat of the championship chase, allowing Michaud to enter the main event needing only a 23rd place finish - out of 24 cars -- to secure the crown.
The Northfield driver survived the nerve-wracking main event to claim a fifth-place finish; easily enough to claim his first career championship by a total of 52 points over Fisher.
“We came into this race wanting to do exactly what we’ve been doing all summer,” said Michaud afterward. “The last thing I wanted was to get too conservative. There’s no better way to get caught-up in a wreck than to be tiptoeing around out there, trying to stay out of trouble.
“Our first goal was to make the semi-feature, and we were able to accomplish that,” he said. “That way, Jamie and Phil would have had to make-up 35 or 40 points in the feature alone, and that’s pretty tough to do.”
In characteristic fashion, Michaud deflected most of the credit to his team -- a comparatively inexperienced group, headed by a 16-year old High School student -- who kept him in the title hunt all season. A disastrous crash in the double-point Midseason Championship threatened to end their title hopes, but the All-Fired Up Pizzeria/Vermont Quit Line team buckled down, rebuilt their battered race car, and began digging themselves out of their championship hole.
The end result? A Thunder Road championship for a driver who had never won a race before this year.
It’s already been a storybook season for Michaud, with his first career Thunder Road win, a victory on the ACT Dodge Tour, and now the 2001 “King of the Road” title. And with only a 40-point Dodge Tour deficit to overcome in the season’s final two events, the soft-spoken Northfield driver could see his resume grow even larger before it’s over.
As a result of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, NASCAR officials have announced that Friday’s Bud Pole Qualifying for the “New Hampshire 300” at New Hampshire International Speedway has been cancelled. The 43-car field for Sunday’s 300-lap event, the 27th in the 36-race season, will be set according to the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series rule book.
“Our country has experienced a terrible tragedy,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said. “All of the NASCAR community offers our sincerest sympathies to all those who have suffered losses. We will continue to monitor and evaluate this situation and make the appropriate decisions as the week progresses.”
Today’s NASCAR Busch North and Featherlite Modified Series activities at NHIS have also been canceled, NHIS public relations director Fred Neergaard said. Practice and Bud Pole Qualifying for those two series’ will be held this afternoon, however, with their races to be held as scheduled Saturday afternoon.
Kevin Lepage will not return to the Morgan McClure Motorsports NASCAR Winston Cup team in 2002. Team owner Larry McClure announced Monday afternoon that he has decided not to renew the Shelburne native’s contract for next season, after the team struggled throughout the 2001 campaign. McClure fired driver Robby Gordon after just five races this season, replacing him with Lepage. Neither driver has been able to record a top-10 finish, with Lepage finishing 30th or worse in eight of the past 11 events. Last week at Richmond International Raceway, Lepage needed a provisional starting spot to make the field, then finished 39th - out of 43 cars -- after a cut tire and a bout with the turn-four wall.
Despite his decision to hire a new driver next season, McClure said he does not believe the blame lies entirely with Lepage.
“The performance of the whole team hasn’t been what we’re looking for,” he said. “I’m not going to say what the problem is, because I’m not sure. I think we’ve had some problems in all areas, so I can’t point any fingers or put any blame on anybody.”
McClure said he has had his engines tested on the chassis dynos of other Chevrolet teams, and found that his cars’ horsepower and aerodynamic numbers are comparable to those of the competition. The veteran team owner said he has no timetable for deciding on a driver for next season, but has already spoken with Mike Skinner.
"I have talked with Skinner, but we're not negotiating anything," said McClure. There had been talk of a two-car team next season - with Skinner and Lepage at the wheels - but McClure now says a second team is not in his immediate future.
Lepage, meanwhile, said McClure’s decision may not be as final as it sounds.
“Larry is getting a lot of pressure from Kodak to fix the problems with this team,” he said. “He’s had to come up with a business plan than explains how he’s going to do it, and part of that plan is the possibility of putting someone else in the driver’s seat. But he assures me that if we can get things turned around in the 10 races we have left together, he’ll keep me in the car next season.”
Lepage said at least two drivers are actively courting McClure to take over his seat in the Kodak #4 next year.
“Robert Pressley and Mike Skinner are both looking at all their options, but the way I see it, neither of them has been able to get the job done in their current rides, with well-established teams. I don’t see what either one of them has to offer (McClure). But even if the Kodak ride goes away, I have already talked to two other car owners about doing a deal for next year. No matter what happens, I don’t see myself going without a Winston Cup ride next season.”
Lepage said he believes the Morgan McClure ride is “mine to keep, or mine to lose,” based on his performance in coming weeks. “All I can do is go to New Hampshire this weekend and take the car to the front. If I do that, everything will work out fine.”
Milton’s Bobby Dragon will return to NASCAR Busch North Series competition this weekend at New Hampshire, driving the Willoughby Motorsports/ Waste Management of New Hampshire #38 Chevrolet.
"I saw (team owner) Mark Willoughby at Canaan Speedway where I was racing a Pro Stock, and he offered me the chance to run New Hampshire," Dragon said. “We met again at Thunder Road, and he said he was still interested in running Loudon if I was still interested. I jumped at the chance."
Dragon is fourth on the all-time BNS winners list with 14 victories, but has not run a Busch North race since the 2000 finale at Lime Rock Park. His most recent win came in 1997 at Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway. Dragon has run a limited schedule of Pro Stock events this season. Willoughby Motorsports has run a part-time Busch North schedule this season with driver Babe Branscombe, and currently stand 34th in series points.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…Former Airborne Raceway Late Model Champion Mike Bruno of Castleton, VT, returns to the ACT Dodge Tour this weekend, in the 30th annual “Dodge Dealers Fall Foliage 200” at Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, NY. The former CVRA dirt modified champions and NASCAR Busch North Series Rookie of the Year will debut a new Kinney Drug-sponsored Chevrolet Monte Carlo at Airborne, in only his second start of the 2001 campaign.
Bruno previously finished 12th in the Subway Shops 100 at Riverside Speedway, in a car owned by Jacob McGrath.
…Brad Leighton didn't have a good day in the Busch North Series PTM Racing 150 at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, but he did visit victory lane. The defending Busch North champion won the accompanying Late Model feature at Beech Ridge, substituting for driver Jason Fowler, who was recovering from illness. Leighton began his racing career at BRMS, and won the Limited Sportsman division championship there in 1990.
…Quote of the Week: This week’s gem comes from Busch Series driver Jay Sauter, not long after finding himself on the receiving end of a post-wreck sucker punch from Greg Biffle. Asked if Biffle had connected with his punch, Sauter replied, “He was no Muhammad Ali." Apparently, Biffle was not satisfied with his pugilistic prowess, either. Sources say he went after Sauter again in the infield care center.
Sauter and Greg Biffle were involved in two separate crashes during Friday night’s race. The first came when Biffle spun Sauter into the wall in the opening laps. Later, after spending more than 100 laps repairing the damage, Sauter returned to the race and promptly “right turned” Biffle. Both drivers were summoned to the NASCAR trailer following the event, where Busch Grand National director John Darby reacted angrily to Sauter’s claim that the second crash was unintentional. Unnamed NASCAR officials said both Sauter and Biffle can expect heavy fines, with Sauter possibly facing a 2-3 race suspension.
…The ACT Dodge Tour has gone 29 races without a back-to-back winner. Five-time series champion Brian Hoar last accomplished the feat, doubling up at Montmagny, Quebec and Thunder Road late in the 1999 season. It will take a Tracie Bellerose win at Airborne this weekend to break that streak.
…And finally, in the aftermath of two thrilling races last weekend on the high-banked Richmond International Raceway, can anyone explain why promoters keep building flat, 1.5-mile, one-groove triovals? Just asking.