True Tests Remain

There's something about going to the race track for the first time in a new year. It's fraught with anticipation, full of wonder and joy... No, I'm not a cynic about rolling into a garage area for the first time, getting set for a new season.

I visited The Rock earlier this week. Traveling to what's now called North Carolina Speedway is like going home, putting on your favorite sweatshirt... the one you wear when you read the Sunday paper.

I began my professional motorsports broadcast career there, calling the fall Cup event from the third turn on MRN way back in 1981. Nineteen years ago I ascended to the mountaintop - actually a tiny perch inside an orange Union 76 ball via a shaky wooden ladder.

When I made my first climb, no one told me to be prepared to battle yellow jackets all afternoon. Fortunately, a North Carolina State Trooper had wasp spray (don't ask me why) in the trunk of his Ford, and I was able to kill the hundreds of nasty bees.

I thought I knew plenty about Winston Cup racing, but Mike Joy and Barney Hall knew a whole lot more... and were kind enough to teach me along the way. But I digress.

Earlier this week I drove the 90 miles from home to The Rock expecting to see some old friends, and get a feel for some of the new combinations that'll try to capture success in racing's toughest league this coming year.

In the garage, four teams: Michael Waltrip's new group for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Todd Bodine's Haas/Carter 66 bunch, and the PPI twins, Ricky Craven and Andy Houston. Four car-and-driver combinations with much to prove in the next 10 months.

My first stop: Michael Waltrip, Scott Eggleston, and Steve Hmiel... with a dozen of their closest friends.

Michael is in a relaxed mode while the team alternates between two new Monte Carlos. One is a former Steve Park car Michael was hoping to run at Homestead last fall; the second is a brand new DEI machine.

Mikey's getting comfortable in the two Chevys, taking wrenches in hand to adjust the seat, steering and belts. He's quick right away... the blue and yellow NAPA-painted machine sounding fine.

Waltrip tapes a couple-minute interview with me, telling me not only does his new team expect to win, they expect to be a top-15 points contender by midway in the season. High expectations, certainly, for a guy with no official Cup victories in a long career.

But after watching how his two teammates fared in the same equipment last year, and knowing how his boss hates to lose, it's easy to understand the reason for the optimism.
Here's betting that the 15 car will get to victory lane... maybe at Daytona next month.

A couple garage stalls down, Cal Wells has staked out plenty of space. He's brought four cars to The Rock, two each for Craven and Houston.

Both the Tide and McDonald's squads are cautiously optimistic, and the PPI tech team, a dozen strong, is working overtime to make sure the Fords are doing what they're supposed to.

As you'd expect, PPI has brought Indy-car technology to the Cup garage. They've set up a table in the middle of things, with half a dozen laptops on line to collate the onboard data they're capturing.

Both Ricky and Andy are working on qualifying, running one-lap bursts. They know they've got to qualify, at least the first four weeks of the new season. No point provisionals for either the 32 or the new 96 team for now.

Neither driver thinks they face an insurmountable challenge. In fact, Mainer Craven says he can't believe the opportunity he's received with Wells.

Ricky showed conclusively last year he's as fast as ever, and certainly as dedicated. You don't have the level of success he enjoyed with a lightly-funded 50 car without knowing what you're doing behind the wheel.

Now, united with the well-traveled Mike Beam, and backed by PPI's resources, Craven knows this could be the defining moment of his big-league career.

Victory validates all the promise, while failure could send him home to New England permanently. I think Ricky will prove his mettle once and for all in the 32 car.

Houston is quietly confident. Andy's learned how to go fast, how to win against the admittedly-middling Truck Series competition, and showed he can be very competitive in Cup in his five late-season starts last year. Now, the challenge is proving it every week for 36 weeks, starting at Daytona.

With the help of Joe Garone, and his dad's quiet support, don't be surprised if Andy doesn't carry home rookie-of-the-year honors come December in New York.

The fourth team on hand at The Rock is the hardest to quantify at this stage.

Todd Bodine is a driver of great skill, and unlimited potential. He's paid his dues in full. He's survived a couple of Cup deals that imploded around him, most notoriously the Tabasco fiasco of a couple seasons ago.

Now he's hoping to establish himself firmly, taking over the Travis Carter/Carl Haas 66 machine.

Compared to DEI and PPI, the Carter/Haas bunch looks overmatched. Just a handful of crew members, no computers in sight. But if drive and driving skill are still important, Todd just might surprise some of us this year. No one who knows really doubts his abilities... and he confirms for us that the race cars he'll wheel are really quite good (despite how things may have looked at times last year).

Maybe the 66 machines suit his style better than they did DW's.

Todd says he really likes a new Taurus his team built for Daytona this year, but he is also concerned about his ability to qualify on time the first few weeks of the new year. The 66 won't have provisionals to fall back on at first, either.

If I had to handicap this team's chances, I'd say they could score as many as six-to-10 Top 10s... but finishing in the Top 25 in Cup points will be a big order. Let's hope they make it.

Of course it's early. Everyone's undefeated. Visit any garage area in the land during preseason testing, and you won't find anyone who's preparing to lose.

But the truth is, these four teams - and the other 42 or so who will haul to every Winston Cup event this year - will have to deal with plenty of defeat and disappointment along the road.

For the four teams we saw at Rockingham this week, the stakes are plenty high this year. I think two of the four will thrive. The question is, which two?

We'll start to find the answers in the next couple of weeks.

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