Competition Green With Envy

There aren’t many second chances in NASCAR Winston Cup racing.

The most competitive form of stock-car racing chews people up so fast that if you’re not ready, you’re out of the sport before you can say Daytona International Speedway. And don’t you dare come back.

Jeff Green wasn’t ready for Winston Cup when he came around in 1997, and he was gone at the end of the next season. Inadequate rides can do that to a driver, but even Green concedes he shouldn’t have been at NASCAR’s highest level.

So Green was gone, banished to the Busch Series, never to be heard from again.

Well, that’s not exactly what happened now, is it? Green was gone from Winston Cup, banished to the Busch Series – though banished is a bit harsh. And Green was certainly heard from again.

He finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Busch Series points standings in 1999, won the title by the biggest margin in history in 2000, and finished second to Kevin Harvick last year. In three seasons, Green won 13 races.

Those gaudy numbers won him a rare second chance in Winston Cup. And it’s not with a run-of-the-mill team, either. It’s with the powerful Richard Childress Racing team.

“I don’t think (the transition) is going to be hard at all,” Green said. “I’ve got a great race team and a great sponsor. These guys know how to race. I feel like my job is going to be pretty easy.

“The time I was here with before, I was probably out of my league as a driver because I didn’t have the experience I do now. And also, I don’t think we had quite as good a team as we needed at that point. Now, I’ve got a great race team and a great bunch of guys to give me a car that can win each and every week. It’s going to make it easy on me.”

Of course, nothing is easy in Winston Cup. Green knows that. But it doesn’t keep his confidence from wavering. And he’s right about his current situation. The No. 30 Chevy was destined to be Kevin Harvick’s ride, but that changed, of course, when Dale Earnhardt was killed last February.

Childress still wanted to do a Winston Cup program with sponsor America Online, and he needed a driver. Green was the hottest property in the Busch Series, and Childress went after him. Green didn’t really want to go anywhere, but the lure of Winston Cup was too great.

Perhaps Green also wants to erase the bad memories of his premature entrance into Winston Cup. He drove 20 races for Gary Bechtel in 1997 as his Diamond Ridge team moved up from the Busch Series. That team was ill-prepared, and Green was gone after three Cup races in 1998. He drove one race for Chuck Rider before moving to Felix Sabates’ team. Three teams, 22 races, no laps led, seven DNFs. No, it wasn’t a pretty year.

All is well now, though. RCR has all the resources a Winston Cup driver needs, meaning Green will have no excuses this time around.

“We want to win,” Green said. “We want to win races. My goal is just to be competitive each and every week. That will bring us a lot of points. If we can do that, we’ll be pretty close to the Top 10 when it’s all said and done.

“Our goal is to be in the Top 10 – at least the Top 15. We want to be on stage (at the Winston Cup Awards Banquet) for sure, but it’s all about winning races. If we can win, we’ll get the points, and that’s what we’re concerned about.”

Green ran six races with the team last year to prepare for 2002, and he didn’t exactly show he’d run up front. He did win the pole for the Bristol night race but crashed after 82 laps. In seven races – he subbed in RCR’s No. 31 at Homestead – Green had three DNFs and only one top-10 finish. And that was in the No. 31.

Qualifying will be important for Green early in the year. The team finished 48th in car owner points, upon which provisionals for the first four races are based. Chances are they won’t get to use a provisional in those races, meaning they’ll have to qualify. Green missed two races last year when he wasn’t fast enough, so Fridays will be very important to him.

And so will qualifying for the Daytona 500. No one wants to miss the series’ biggest race, and if you aren’t among the Top 2 in qualifying, you’ll have to make the race in one of the Gatorade 125-mile qualifying races or be among the fastest drivers who didn’t get in through the qualifying events.

Green was only 30th fastest in non-drafting speeds during testing at Daytona, meaning he’ll be on the bubble during Speedweeks if the team can’t find any more speed.

“We’re three or four tenths off of where we need to be,” Green said. “We need to make sure we have enough speed when we come back. We don’t have much else to fall back on.

“You need to be in the Top 10 or Top 15 when it’s qualifying day for the Daytona 500.”

It could be an exciting time for Green at Daytona next month. Whatever happens, it will be different. Green will be without crew chief and good buddy Harold Holly for the first time in many years, and he’s still getting used to new crew chief Todd Berrier.

“He’s not Harold, but I’m not Kevin (Harvick, Berrier’s former driver) yet,” Green said. “We’re working really good together. Todd really thinks like I do. He’s probably not as outspoken as Harold was, so I’m probably going to have to get used to that.

“It’s just going to take a little time. Harold and I had three years together. We really worked good right off the bat, but I think Todd and I are working good right now. We worked good last year in the races that we ran, and so far I’m pleased.”

He should be. Second chances are rare in this business.

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