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Winston Cup Series




Friday, October 3

Nemechek likes his chances in Kansas
By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to ESPN.com

Jerry Bonkowski Just like Dorothy was glad to find her way back to Kansas in "The Wizard of Oz," Joe Nemechek is equally happy to be back in Kansas as well.

The driver of the No. 25 Chevrolet had an outstanding weekend at the 1.5-mile racetrack last year, recording top-five finishes in both the Busch Series and Winston Cup events he competed in. Furthermore, his fourth-place Cup finish there helped propel Nemechek to a pair of season-high runner-up finishes at both Atlanta and Homestead-Miami.

"Kansas was a big stepping stone for us last year," Nemechek said. "It's kind of where we turned our season around. I'm looking forward to getting back out there, as well as the Busch race, and we have a shot at winning both those races.

"I definitely think the weekend's going to be a success. We just need to have Lady Luck on our side."

Joe Nemechek
Joe Nemechek has one Winston Cup victory this season -- at Richmond in May.
And with the kind of luck he's had of late in 2003 -- he's finished 21st or worse in four of his last five starts, sandwiched around just one top-five showing in that same stretch (third at New Hampshire three weeks ago) -- Nemechek truly needs a repeat performance this weekend of the type he had at Kansas last year.

"We've had some awful luck over the past couple weeks," Nemechek concedes. "We finished third at New Hampshire, which was the bright spot, but at Dover I was involved in an accident that put us in the Turn 1 wall.

"Then last weekend (at Talladega) we were caught up in another one. It's tough to compete with the front-runners at Talladega with body damage. We're looking to improve this week at Kansas. We ran well there last season, finishing fourth, and I feel like we should be contenders this weekend."

Like last season at Kansas, Nemechek will compete in both Saturday's Busch event and Sunday's Banquet 400 Winston Cup battle.

And if those events are anything like many of the Busch and Cup races contested this year -- where races on many of the middle-distance tracks have been won in a boring fashion based more on pit strategy and fuel consumption, rather than on-track performance -- this weekend could be more of the same, laments Nemechek's crew chief, Peter Sospenzo.

"I have no doubt that fuel mileage will play a role, just like it has in about every other race this year," Sospenzo said. "A well-handling car, track position, good pit stops, fuel mileage, and being the first one to the checkered flag -- it's all important."

Kansas has some other added significance for Nemechek. It's the first of the final seven events remaining on the Cup schedule. And with team owner Rick Hendrick already having informed Nemechek that he will be released from the team at the end of the season, a strong showing in these final races could go a long way toward determining his driving future for 2004.

Rumors have surfaced in recent weeks that Nemechek may be headed to PPI Motorsports, where he'd become Ricky Craven's teammate, as the team expands from a single-car operation. But because no deal has been finalized, Nemechek is playing his cards close to the vest.

"It's just one of those things that has to be worked on," Nemechek said. "I've definitely talked with (team owner) Cal Wells, they've got a lot of neat things going on over there, and Ricky (Craven) is a good friend of mine.

"But also, you've got to look at all the other opportunities that are out there and weigh each one of them and decide which is going to be the best avenue to go. I definitely want to keep racing still, and I will be racing next year. We're just trying to get that all figured out in the next couple of weeks, and I think we will get it done.

"I know I can still get the job done and still think I can win an awful lot of races in my career. That's why I'm here."

Not only is Nemechek a talented driver, one of his hallmarks is being one of the most resilient drivers in Winston Cup. He bounced back from losing a lucrative sponsorship with Oakwood Homes at the end of the 2001 season to the promise of a blockbuster sponsorship with Kmart entering the 2002 season.

Unfortunately for Nemechek, Kmart filed for bankruptcy just days before the start of last season, and pulled all its funding dollars a few weeks later. While he tried to piecemeal a few things together, Nemechek bounced around until he found his way into the seat of the No. 25 Chevy when Hendrick fired Jerry Nadeau midway through last season.

And once again, the man they call "Front Row Joe" for his penchant at winning poles, now finds himself looking to rebound yet again with a new team for next season after Hendrick chose not to renew his contract for next season, coupled with Hendrick losing the UAW-Delphi sponsorship that funds Nemechek's car at the end of this season.

"Unfortunately, that's kind of how my career has went," Nemechek said. "I've been involved in some great race teams, I've been able to win races and an awful lot of poles over the years, but it just seems like something happens.

"You just somehow have to overcome this stuff. When you don't have a guaranteed job (Nemechek has been racing under a one-year contract this season), there's a lot of uncertainty. That's just a part of racing that almost everybody seems to go through at some point in time or another. Unfortunately, it seems like I've been in the middle of it here quite a bit lately.

"I feel like I know what I need in a race car, and on occasion this year we've been able to hit that and had the cars real good. But there's also been an awful lot of races that I feel we've given away this year, where something's happened. You need an awful lot of luck on your side to make all this stuff work."

Nemechek has admittedly struggled this season, but numerous times has also been the victim of misfortune not of his own making, such as getting collected in crashes caused by other drivers.

But at the same time, he's had several bright spots, the biggest being his win and starting on the outside pole at Richmond in early May.

"I'm not a new guy, it's not like a rookie," he said. "I've won three Winston Cup races and 15 Busch races. I know what needs to happen to get the job done. But in this sport, you're graded on your last race. That's what's tough about this sport.

"Every race is important to me. Rick Hendrick gave me an awesome opportunity to drive this race car, the team is behind me and they're giving me 100 percent, Rick's giving me 100 percent and I'm giving 100 percent behind the wheel.

"This is one of the best opportunities I've had for winning races and I still think we can win some races before the year is over."

Sospenzo echoes his driver's sentiments. With Nemechek preparing to pack his bags to leave the team at season's end, he'd love nothing more than to help his driver go out with a bang of success.

"We're definitely looking forward to this final stretch of races," Sospenzo said. "Kansas is where we had our first top-five finish last season. Really, we've had good cars all year, but we've also had some bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We've been involved in wrecks with no place to go. It's just been the way our whole year has been. It hasn't been very satisfying, but it's part of the racing business."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

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