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Grueling stretch ahead for Winston Cup crews

Published July 1, 2003

The Winston Cup series just enjoyed its last weekend off.

NASCAR's top series is scheduled to race for 20 consecutive weeks, from Saturday's Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway through to the season finale Nov. 16 at Homestead.

What a grind.

Though drivers are the most vocal in complaining about the crammed Cup schedule, the stretch is toughest on the people who put in a full week at the shop before heading to the track.

"I'm more concerned about the team," said driver Matt Kenseth, who leads the standings by 176 points over four-time champion Jeff Gordon after 16 of 36 races.

"A lot of the crew guys, they'll work all week on the car and then they'll travel all weekend and they don't really get to see their families. They don't get a chance to have any down time, so I worry about them more than myself."

With little time to regroup after a tough weekend, finger-pointing and frowns can tear a team apart.

"A little dissension in an organization really starts to snowball," driver Jimmy Spencer said. "You have to have a smile on your face even when you don't want to smile at the crew members, and you have to keep thinking positive all the time. That rubs off on everyone in the shop and the road crew.

"That really establishes how good a summer you have. The next 10 or 12 races establish where you're going to be in the points and how well prepared you are and how well you stay focused. You keep building on that situation for the final third of the season and on into next year."

ALMOST A THREAT: Tony Stewart climbed nine places to 11th during four events in June. He trails 10th place Sterling Marlin by 43, but the defending Winston Cup champion is not paying attention to points.

"Not at all," he said. "As a matter of fact, I stopped doing that a while ago. We just need to go out and race hard and win races, plain and simple. You do that, and the points take care of themselves. I said that last year when I was running for a championship and I'm saying it now."

MR. CELLOPHANE: Kenseth is being chased in the standings by two of the sport's most popular drivers: Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. While those superstars are hounded by fans and media every week, the low-key Kenseth has been able to race below the radar.

"It's been cool because mostly everybody's been leaving us alone and we've been able to concentrate on the car," Kenseth said. "But if we can continue doing what we're doing, it's going to get busier and more people are going to talk about it and more people are going to be on you about it. I've already seen that the last couple weeks."

GETTING CLOSER: NEMCO Motorsports, owned by Winston Cup driver and Lakeland native Joe Nemechek, is pursuing a sponsor for a full-time Busch series entry for Zephyrhills driver David Reutimann in 2004. Reutimann, 33, is running seven Busch races this season.

FIRINGS AND HIRINGS: Two-time Busch champion Randy LaJoie was fired Monday from his ride with Evans Motorsports, the Charlotte Observer reported. 2002 Busch champion and current Winston Cup rookie Greg Biffle will drive the No. 7 Chevrolets Friday night at Daytona. Nemechek, whose Nemco Motorsports is a partner with Evans Motorsports, also will drive some races in the No. 7. ... Joe Gibbs Racing extended Winston Cup driver Bobby Labonte's contract through 2008. His deal was to expire after next season. ... Morgan-McClure Motorsports hired Busch driver Stacy Compton to drive its No. 4 Pontiac Saturday at Daytona.

DRIVER Q&AS: Several drivers will answer questions during fan forums Thursday and Friday at the Daytona USA attraction adjacent to Daytona International Speedway. The forums are included in the price of admission, $20 for adults, $17 for ages 60 and over and $14 for ages 6-12. There will be no autographs.

The schedule is subject to change:

Thursday - Rolex sports car drivers David Donohue, Hurley Haywood and Darren Law, 2 p.m.; Jimmie Johnson, 2:30 p.m.; Johnny Sauter, Brian Vickers and Scott Wimmer, 3:30 p.m.; Larry McReynolds, 4 p.m. Friday - Biffle, Nemechek and David Green, 1 p.m.; Dave Blaney, Mike Wallace and Jeff Burton, 1:30 p.m.; Elliott Sadler and Jeff Hammond, 2 p.m.; Marlin and Casey Mears, 2:30 p.m.; Dale Jarrett, 3 p.m.; Michael Waltrip, 3:30 p.m.; Kurt Busch, 3:50 p.m.

- Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 1, 2003, 10:05:35]


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