'Refurbished' Schrader eyes return to victory lane today at Pocono New crew, new attitude give driver renewed hope

June 16, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. -- Everyone keeps telling Winston Cup racer Kenny Schrader to be patient. They tell him he is going to start winning again soon, maybe even here today in the $1.3 million UAW-GM Teamwork 500 at Pocono International Speedway. They tell him that once the winning starts, it will continue because it is being developed on solid footing.

But patience is a virtue Schrader is a little short on these days -- and for many days past. When he picked up a dog food company as an associate sponsor for his car last season and learned the company would donate $1 for every Winston Cup point he earned to various greyhound rescue programs, he empathized.

"They retire these dogs that don't win," he said. "I'm glad they don't do that to race car drivers."

In Winston Cup racing they do one of two things with drivers who don't win. They fire them, or they refurbish them.

Schrader is being refurbished.

After a miserable 1995, in which he finished 17th in points, Schrader has a new car, a new garage and a new crew.

"The only thing that isn't new on this team is the sponsor," said crew chief Phil Hammer.

Reminded that Schrader has been with the Rick Hendrick- Schrader owned team since 1988, Hammer laughed.

"I feel like Kenny's new, too," Hammer said. "He's 20 pounds lighter. He's working out. He has a new attitude. He's been rebuilt, updated and fine-tuned."

Twelve races into this NASCAR season, Schrader, 41, has climbed to sixth in points and has five top-10 finishes in his last seven races. Still, he is still looking to end a victory drought that dates to 1991 at Dover, Del. -- 151 races ago.

"I'm not letting it drive me crazy," he said. "But even if I knew I was going to finish second every time I went out to race, I'd have to go find something else to do. It's knowing that I have a chance to win that keeps me digging.

"They've been telling me to be patient, that we're building toward winning. But that's a hard thing to tell a guy who hasn't won since 1991. You don't want to have to go through the building. You just want to go ahead and win."

Schrader drives for Hendrick, one of the most successful owners in Winston Cup racing. He is teammates with defending Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and the sport's iron man, Terry Labonte, both of whom have found the winner's circle this season.

Gordon is on the pole today, while Schrader starts fifth. It is Schrader's best qualifying effort since the season's first race, when he started fourth at Daytona.

Hendrick, who says it is his No. 1 priority to put Schrader in victory lane, put Ray Evernham, Gordon's crew chief, in charge of revamping and reorganizing Schrader's team. In turn, Evernham put his assistant, Hammer, in as crew chief and he has set up Schrader's team to operate the same way Gordon's does.

"We thought since Gordon's team runs so well, the same plan could work for Kenny," said Evernham. "And I think it is. I know Kenny gets down, but he's smart enough to know that you can't fix it overnight.

"When we started with Jeff, we didn't win our first season. It took us 42 races before we finally won.

"Kenny's team has only been together for 12 races. But the thing they have now and are going to continue to have is continuity, with good young people who want to do it, who want to get better. When they finish ninth or 10th they're excited. But once they get that kind of finish, then ninth or 10th is no longer good enough. They want more."

Just as Schrader wants more. He has won four Winston Cup races and knows there are a lot of drivers in the garage and in the lineup today who would give all they have to be able to say they have won even one.

"A couple years ago, I doubted myself," Schrader said. "You start wondering if it's you. You wonder if you forgot how to race and the day you run well, you wonder if you just remembered how. But we've had chances to win and the reason we didn't doesn't seem to be the same thing twice. The motor blows up, a tire goes flat, we have a bad pit stop, I mess up.

"But It's getting better. I can feel it. I can see it."

Schrader has a new contract with Hendrick and Budweiser that runs through the year 2000, but said it's only good "as long as that's what they want to do." Still, he insists he isn't feeling any undue pressure.

The man who may be feeling some pressure is Evernham. When he took over Schrader's team, he predicted a victory by the second race here at Pocono -- and that's little more than a month away.

"I set high goals for people and I still think by the time we get back here in July that the team will win," Evernham said. "I only agreed to take this job because I have such belief in Kenny. I think if things go their way, they could win this race."

(Qualifying results, 13D)

Pub Date: 6/16/96

Teamwork 500

When: Today, 1 p.m.

Where: Pocono International Raceway, Long Pond, Pa.

TV: TNN

Pole-sitter: Jeff Gordon (169.725 mph).

Defending champion: Terry Labonte.

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