Driver Auditions Go Well

Two NASCAR Winston Cup Series teams went into last weekend at Lowe’s Motor Speedway with a lot of uncertainty and several unanswered questions and came out smelling like a rose.

The No. 12 Mobil 1 Ford team at Penske Racing and the No. 7 NationsRent Ford team at Ultra Motorsports are both searching for drivers for the 2002 season, but got strong efforts from their interim drivers in Sunday’s UAW-GM Quality 500.

Mike Wallace ran in the Top 10 throughout most of the afternoon in his debut in the No. 12 Taurus before his engine gave out, and he eventually finished 34th. Wallace, the former driver of the No. 7 Ford, is scheduled to drive the Mobil 1 Ford for the remainder of the season, as a teammate to older brother Rusty.

Lepage’s efforts were even more heroic. Hired on Wednesday on a race-to-race basis to drive the NationsRent Taurus, Lepage stayed up front for most of the afternoon and wound up with a respectable 13th-place finish only days after he was released as the driver of the No. 4 Morgan-McClure Motorsports Chevy.

Clearly, it was a day of redemption for both Wallace and Lepage.

“Charlotte was a great start for us,” said Wallace, who replaced the departed Jeremy Mayfield at Penske Racing. “We had a good car. (Crew chief) Peter (Sospenzo) made good calls in the pits. The guys did an incredible job with the pit stops. And, we were able to show what we could do. Things didn’t end quite the way we had hoped they would, but you’re going to have stuff like that from time to time in this sport.

“All we can do is what we did – work hard to get to the front and work hard to stay there. We all showed what we are capable of doing.”

After a few years of mediocrity in Winston Cup, Wallace couldn’t find a job and moved over to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for four seasons, where he won races and consistently finished near the top of the championship chase. Wallace has contended all along he belongs in the Winston Cup Series if he could get with a team that had the potential to run up front. He returned to the big-time with Ultra Motorsports in the No. 7 Taurus this season.

The 2001 campaign, however, had been nothing but disappointment for the middle brother of the Wallace trio. After struggling to make races, he was removed from the seat of the car for a couple of races and was set to ride out the remainder of the year in that car when he got the call to drive the No. 12 Mobil 1 Taurus.

There wasn’t much thinking to do about it, and he and Ultra Motorsports mutually parted ways. Racing as a teammate to his older brother (Rusty) sounded very appealing, especially in a car that had won races with Mayfield in the past.

“I always thought I could do it, but I just needed a race car to get it done,” Wallace said. “When a crew blows off 14-and-a-half to 15-second pit stops time-in and time-out, and you’ve got a good race car, you can finally show what you can do. I’m just thrilled and I thank the Penske organization and Mobil 1 for believing in me and giving me a shot.”

If they’re to prove Charlotte was no fluke, both Wallace and the team will have to improve upon their performances earlier this season at Martinsville, the site of this Sunday’s Winston Cup event.

Wallace finished 31st at the half-mile track in April, while Mayfield and the Mobil 1 team finished a disappointing 30th.

“We’re coming off a little bit of momentum at Charlotte and we want to keep that going,” Wallace said. “The way the schedule is, there isn’t much time to celebrate how well we did run or worry about what happened at the end.

“Right now we have to forget Charlotte – the good parts and the bad – and start thinking about Martinsville. There isn’t a whole lot of time in this sport to do much of anything except move forward. Anybody who isn’t moving forward is moving backward.”

Lepage had a bit more at stake at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Sunday than Wallace did. It is still not certain whether Lepage will drive the No. 7 Ford for the remaining seven events of the 2001 season, but he did get a positive response out of team owner Jim Smith following the UAW-GM Quality 500 and will be in the car this weekend at Martinsville.

“We’re sticking with Kevin for now, and I’m pretty sure we’ll probably run the rest of the year with him,” Smith said. “With what he did (Sunday), there’s no reason to make any changes. He likes us and we like him, so we’ll just keep chugging. We finished 13th and we’re pretty happy with that. Kevin did a great job and the crew did a great job, so we’ll go on to Martinsville.”

Lepage didn’t have a job at the beginning of the season, except for driving his own Busch Series car. After being passed over at the last minute last fall for the No. 4 Chevy in favor of Robby Gordon, Lepage bided his team until McClure booted Gordon out of that ride just five races into the 2001 season.

He started off with a couple of decent runs, but the team, as it has for the past couple of seasons, struggled mightily again. Lepage was then informed that he would not return next season as the team’s driver, and McClure decided not to wait until the season was over to make a change.

Last Monday, it was announced that Bobby Hamilton Jr. would drive seven of the eight remaining races in the No. 4 Chevy, and Lepage was left searching for a job again.

Fortunately, Wallace’s decision to leave the No. 7 car came at the right time for Lepage, and Smith gave Lepage a call. Lepage qualified fifth for Sunday’s race, then responded by running up near the front most of the day.

“We had an excellent day (Sunday),” Lepage said. “We got beat up a little bit in the pits, but the guys tried real hard and I’m just real happy to come home with a 13th-place finish. Some people are telling me I’ll be in it the rest of the year and some are saying just for Martinsville, for now, so we’ll see what happens.”

Lepage finished a respectable 18th at Martinsville in April.

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