Spencer Shooting For The Top

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Throughout his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career, Jimmy Spencer has almost always been considered a “fringe” driver.

He’s been on the fringe of breaking into the club of “elite” drivers in the series – such as Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett, to name a few – but he just hasn’t been able to knock down that barrier.

With a new gig at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2002, however, he finally may have found the team that could help put him over the top.

Spencer has never finished higher than 11th in the Winston Cup points standings during his sometimes “stormy” career, but with the resources he has at Ganassi, he says he’s confident that will change this season.

“I feel like the No. 41 team will be a top-10 car at Daytona and until the end of the season at Homestead,” Spencer said. “I really feel we can be a top-10 car and win some races.

“Can I contend for the championship? Time will tell with that. I’m going to contend
for wins. I want to win. Points will fall as they go. But I want to win.”

Which is something Spencer hasn’t done in more than seven years, back when he drove for Junior Johnson. He won races at both Daytona and Talladega in 1994, but a trip to victory lane has eluded him ever since.

From 1995 to 2001, he drove for team owner Travis Carter. The two parties had a great relationship, but Spencer made headlines more for his aggressive style of driving than he did with his results.

In 2001, he won a pair of poles in the No. 26 Big Kmart Taurus, but managed only three top-five and eight top-10 finishes and finished a disappointing 16th in the Winston Cup points standings.

During the latter part of the season, when it was widely known in NASCAR circles that Spencer was shopping himself around to other teams, Spencer received a phone call from Ganassi about the possibility of Spencer driving his second car alongside Sterling Marlin.

With as much success as the Dodges were beginning to enjoy, and the signing of Target as a primary sponsor for the No. 41 Intrepid, it didn’t take much coaxing to get Spencer into the fold at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Just look at his organization and what he’s done over the past year,” Spencer said of Ganassi. “He’s come out of the box with the No. 1 Dodge team (Marlin’s No. 40 Coors Light team). When I walked into their operation, I said, ‘Man, this has got to be the place to be.’ To see where the operation has come from (in 2000) to where Sterling is contending every week for wins, I’m very excited about being at Ganassi. Chip’s track record is incredible.

“I think Chip’s a people person. I think he’s shown how to organize a team from Indy cars. You look at what he’s done in CART and you look at the success he’s had going to Indy and winning the 500 the first time back. You look at a lot of things he’s done in the past, and you come and look at what he’s done in his Winston Cup organization in just one year. He’s made that thing a top-10 team, boom, right out of the box; actually a top-five team.

“That’s pretty impressive, and that’s what he’s hoping for with the No. 41 Target Dodge. He just probably needed some experience in the driver’s seat, and I’m glad he picked me. The team we’ve assembled, a lot of guys worked on the No. 40. The way (team managers) Andy (Graves) and Tony (Glover) work together, we know what’s in everybody’s car. It’s going to be the best opportunity for me, without question, to win races lately.”

Ganassi has won four CART FedEx Series titles as a team owner. In one year, he took a team headed backward in the Winston Cup points standings and molded it into a third-place team by the end of the season. Marlin finished with two victories and many are touting him as one of the favorites to win the Winston Cup championship this season.

Ganassi said Spencer’s team has the potential for the same turnaround. A year ago, rookie Jason Leffler finished a disappointing 37th in the points.

“I think he (Spencer) has a chance to win some races this year,” Ganassi said. “You know when you start talking about championships you’re talking a lot more than car and driver. You’ve got to have Lady Luck and a lot of other things. You’d like to think there’s momentum, but at the same time in this business, it's like your wife, she can come up and give you a kiss and make you feel really good or she can slap your face and you don’t know why.

“But Spencer is very motivated and energized. The way (team minority owner) Felix (Sabates) and I have the team set up, the fact we’re not there every day, we probably work better with guys that are a little more mature and know what they want. I don’t know that we bring out the best in rookie drivers. That’s probably a fault of ours. We like guys who know what they want, what's slowing them down and what they can do to go faster. Jimmy is the card-carrying member of the Jaws Club. There’s something to be said for that.”

And there may be something different to be said for Spencer’s status as a Winston Cup driver in 2002. The word “elite” may just be attached to his name by season’s end.

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