Skinner Gets Picture-Perfect Ride

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Mike Skinner didn’t figure to be unemployed for long.

The former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion and NASCAR Winston Cup Series Rookie of the Year, who drove his last race for Richard Childress Racing at Dover on Sept. 23, signed a three-year deal Tuesday morning to be the driver of the No. 4 Kodak Chevy at Morgan-McClure Motorsports, beginning in 2002.

Skinner’s signing is just one of several rumblings around the Winston Cup Series the past few days. Monday night, it was announced that Kevin Lepage, who has driven the Kodak Chevy since March, was removed from the seat of that car Monday night in favor of Bobby Hamilton Jr., who will drive seven of the eight remaining races for Morgan-McClure in 2001.

On Monday afternoon, it was announced that Rich Bickle, who was recently released as the driver of the No. 59 Chevy in the Busch Series, will drive the No. 4 Chevy at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in the Old Dominion 500. Hamilton Jr. has a Busch Series conflict at Memphis Motorsports Park that weekend.

Jeremy Mayfield was removed as the driver of the No. 12 Mobil 1 Ford at Penske Racing, effective Monday morning. A driver for that car for this weekend’s UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway is expected to be announced later this week.

In addition, Jimmy Spencer has informed team owner Travis Carter that he would not return as the driver of Carter’s No. 26 Kmart Taurus next season. He is heavily rumored to be taking over the seat of the No. 01 Dodge at Chip Ganassi Racing, currently occupied by rookie Jason Leffler.

Chemistry is everything, Skinner said, and he said he believes he and the No. 4 team will have a good one.

“This is a good opportunity for Mike Skinner,” he said. “With an owner like Larry, who’s had a great deal of success in Winston Cup in the past, it was a no-brainer for me. Plus, the long-term relationship Larry has had with his sponsor (Kodak) really impressed me. We were very happy to get this thing put to bed, and now we’re going to have a lot of fun and just go racing.”

McClure said he believes Skinner is the perfect fit for his race team, which has struggled tremendously over the past two seasons.

“Mike is just what we needed for this race team,” McClure said. “We’ve had a lot of different drivers in the car, and we need to get back to where we used to be, and that’s up front in Winston Cup. We were so thrilled to get someone like Mike, who’s always a threat to win. He’s got a lot of desire, and he’s a great competitor. All of those things are really important. We’re excited to have him.”

After nearly five years with the No. 31 Chevy team, Skinner was told he would be released by RCR at the end of this season. Opting to prepare for the 2002 season, Skinner decided to remove himself from the Lowe’s Chevy following the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 and have surgery on his knee this week.

The injury-prone veteran missed four races in July and August after he hurt his knee in an accident at Chicagoland Speedway on July 15. Skinner is 34th in the Winston Cup points standings, and was replaced with Robby Gordon in the No. 31 Chevy at RCR for the remainder of the season.

“We’re going to do this thing first thing in the morning,” Skinner said. “We postponed it a day so we could talk to you folks. I can’t thank Richard Childress enough for giving me the opportunity to go and get healthy. Richard and Larry (McClure) are friends, and Richard was one of the people that recommended me to Larry.

“As a car owner, Richard wanted me to stay in the car until Talladega. As a friend, he wanted me to get out and get operated on. We’ve got a great doctor and I’m confident heading into the procedure. I’m not worried about making it back for testing at Daytona (in January), but I am concerned about other tracks with left-foot braking. We’ll just have to wait and see how it’s progressed then.”

Skinner had only one top-10 finish in 23 starts this season. In his previous four years with RCR, he made 129 Winston Cup starts with 37 top-10 and 10 top-five finishes. His best championship finish in the Lowe’s Chevy was 10th, in 1999. He was 12th in the points a year ago and had high expectations for the 2001 season, but they never materialized.

In addition to his Winston Cup duties, Skinner also drove the No. 21 Rockwell Automation for RCR in the Busch Series this season, and met with some decent success. In 14 starts, he managed nine top-10 and six top-five finishes.

Skinner will be the fifth driver in less than two years for Morgan-McClure Motorsports. Bobby Hamilton finished up a tough season in 2000, giving way to Robby Gordon, who was released five races in the 2001 campaign. Gordon was replaced in the Kodak Chevy by Kevin Lepage, but the results were less than desirable in the 21 events Lepage participated in.

Hamilton Jr., a Busch Series regular, follows in his father’s footsteps in the Kodak Chevy, and will get additional Winston Cup seat time. He drove a few races for Andy Petree Racing in May and June in the No. 33 Chevy in place of the injured Joe Nemechek.

Lepage was recently told by team owner Larry McClure that he would not be back as the driver of the No. 4 Chevy next season. Lepage does not have a top-10 finish since taking over the ride in March, and McClure is mired in 34th place in the Winston Cup owner points standings.

“As far as Kevin is concerned, when I put him in the seat of the car at that time, we knew it wasn’t a permanent position,” McClure said. “We came up with an agreement that would last as long as wanted it to last. For right now, we just wanted to look at someone else for the rest of the season, and that’s why we’ve got Bobby Jr. driving the car.

“We’re trying to see if we need to step up our performance, and that’s why we’re changing drivers right now before Charlotte. We’re just looking at every avenue to see where we are. We still believe we’ve got a great race team, but the last two years haven’t shown that. We feel that, with Mike driving the car, Scott (Eggleston) as the crew chief and with ‘Runt’ Pittman’s engines, we should be doing that.

“I really like Bobby Jr. because he’s a tough little race car driver, and he likes to go fast. His father and I are still close, we’ve got a good relationship and we’re good friends. We’re going to look at him really close because we’ve always been looking for a second team. It’ll be good for him to get a good feel of this car and maybe we can get Bobby Jr.’s Winston Cup career going on the right path.”

Stability has not been one of the Kodak team’s long suits since Hamilton Sr. left. David Ifft began the 2001 campaign as the team’s crew chief, but like Gordon, wasn’t around for very long. Ifft and the team parted ways soon after Gordon, and Eggleston was hired midway through the season as the crew chief.

Gordon has yet to be signed by RCR for next year and may not now with a few other eligible drivers out there.

Bickle has three top-10 finishes in 84 previous Winston Cup starts. He has one start this season, in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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