Hut Finally Feels At Home

Junie Donlavey was all smiles Sunday. That’s nothing new for the 50-year NASCAR veteran, though. He just doesn’t let too many things prevent him from smiling.

But Sunday, Donlavey saw something promising. His team was laughing and having a good time.

“They’re getting more together each race,” Donlavey said. “I noticed (Sunday) the team was having lots and lots of fun. When they have lots of fun, they work hard and try to make sure they don’t make mistakes.

“That’s the name of the game. Racing was started as a fun deal. For me, if it ever gets to where it’s strictly a business, then I don’t want no part of it.”

Sunday sure was fun, though, as Stricklin and the No. 90 Hills Bros. Coffee team finished sixth in the Kmart 400 at Michigan International Speedway. That’s the best finish for Stricklin since ending up fourth at Martinsville in 1997, and it’s the best for Donlavey since Dick Trickle was sixth in the spring race at Atlanta in 1998.

“I’m having more fun right now than I’ve had since the No. 12 car days,” said Stricklin, who drove Bobby Allison’s No. 12 in the early 1990s. “It just brings back memories of those days when we used to run good week-in and week-out. It feels like I’m back home again.”

Home is where Stricklin has spent several of his weekends this season, as he’s failed to qualify for five races, including the Daytona 500. But the addition of Philippe Lopez as a team consultant, plus the use of Robert Yates engines, has helped the team pick up the pace.

After missing two straight races, Stricklin was 12th at California, a track similar to Michigan, then finished 16th at Charlotte. A 30th-place effort at Dover preceded Michigan, but the team sees progress.

“They’ve picked up a whole lot of confidence,” Lopez said. “The cars have gone out better. Confidence goes a real long way. It goes back to the shop on Monday and the cars are better prepared when we get to the tracks the following week.”

Lopez started the season at A.J. Foyt Racing as crew chief for Ron Hornaday. That didn’t last, but Donlavey offered Lopez a part-time job. Bobby King is the full-time crew chief, but in a unique arrangement, Lopez is on the headset to Stricklin during races.

“Bobby is a very, very good crew chief,” Donlavey said. “He’s a real hands-on crew chief. He loves to get in there and do a lot of work.

“When Hut would call in and say, ‘I’m a little loose, I’m a little tight,’ Bobby would start thinking about what he was gonna do and not really have a conversation with Hut. I’m sure that Hut didn’t understand a crew chief like that.

“Philippe does all the talking, and Bobby does the work. It’s starting to work pretty good.”

Stricklin seems to like having Lopez on the radio.

“He’s getting real spunky now, a smart aleck on the radio,” said Lopez, who worked with Stricklin in 1996 at Stavola Brothers Racing. “But that’s good. That’s the Hut I remember.”

Lopez and King also seem to understand who makes the calls.

“We’re not going to have a boss around here,” Donlavey said. “I’ve been doing this for 50 years. If it boils down to a boss, that’s going to be me.

“But they all get along very well together. I don’t interfere with what they’re doing. At the moment, it’s working very, very smooth.”

Sponsorship from Hills Brothers has allowed the team to build some new cars. The Michigan car made its debut at Charlotte, and the team has some other new cars on the way.

“When we get a new stable complete we will be something to reckon with,” King said. “Philippe coming over to help us has been important.”

Donlavey isn’t sure if Lopez will stay part time, saying Lopez doesn’t want to move his family from the Charlotte area to Richmond, Va., where Donlavey’s team is based.

But Donlavey isn’t too worried. If Lopez wants to work full time for another team, he’ll have Donlavey’s blessings.

If he wants to stay, who knows? You could see Stricklin up front some more.

“We’ve basically got a pretty new team this year,” Donlavey said. “The over-the-wall crew, they’re getting a lot better, Hut’s getting better working with Philippe and Bobby King. They’re all getting to know each other a little bit better.

“We’ve got good equipment, as good equipment as anybody out there. It comes down to, if everybody’s working good, Hut feels good, the car feels good, he should be running a pretty decent race.”

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