Gordon grabs bouquets, but Skinner is running No. 1

On Motor Sports

February 28, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

With all the talk about Jeff Gordon, what a surprise to look at the Winston Cup leader board and find Mike Skinner No. 1.

It's even a surprise to Skinner.

"I think anything above a Top 10 finish would be unrealistic -- at this time," Skinner said. "But, you have to take your opportunities when they present themselves and we have. That's why we're at the top right now."

In the season's first two weeks, Skinner came within a drafting partner of winning the Daytona 500, finishing fourth. Last week at Rockingham, just hoping to keep the car in one piece, he claimed sixth. That consistency is better, points-wise, than anyone else, including Gordon.

Skinner, 41, drives for Richard Childress and is just two years removed from his Winston Cup Rookie of the Year performance. He says he is still in great need of "seat time" in his race car.

He said he would love to be 21 and know what he knows now. "That's Jeff Gordon," he said. "He's got experience and he's young. I'm not going to break records. But Harry Gant was 31 before he got his first Winston Cup ride and he had a great career."

Skinner said he believes he still has time to win a championship and "some" races.

"It's been getting better ever since Larry [crew chief Larry McReynolds] joined us in the middle of last season," Skinner said. "I need a guy like Larry, someone who is like a sideline coach. And he has everybody pulling the rope in the same direction. Everyone is working together and working smart. We're making the cars better every week. It's not like my rookie year, when I went out and tore up every car they gave me. It's a lot different when you bring the car home in one piece. When you do that, the crew doesn't have to spend the entire next week just trying to put it back together."

Part of the reason Skinner is better at avoiding crashes is that he has learned how to compete.

"I think my biggest improvement is realizing if I'm driving a 20th-place race car I'm not going to finish 10th," he said. "I've learned the important thing is to be around at the end. If your car is capable of 15th place and you stay on the track, you're going to pass other cars whose drivers are trying too hard."

The passing adds up. Witness Mike Skinner, who can enjoy being No. 1 until at least next Sunday, when the Winston Cup series rolls into Las Vegas.

As for next year, crew chief McReynolds says if he can put the right deal together, he will leave the Skinner/Childress team to become a car owner.

Dutchman calls halt

Two-time Indy 500 champion Arie Luyendyk said this week he will retire after the May race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Luyendyk, 45, holds The Speedway speed records in practice, qualifications and the 500. He also has won a record $5.2 million in 14 previous 500s.

He will continue as a Treadway Racing spokesman and as a Fox Sports commentator during telecasts of the Indy Racing League's nine other events.

Luyendyk said he began thinking about retiring three years ago when Scott Brayton was killed during practice for the 500.

"It wasn't just him passing away, but because of who he was and how the accident happened," Luyendyk said. "It really was out of Scott's control entirely, and I was thinking, `Man, it can happen to me. It could have been me.' It could have been anybody."

Playing `what if...'

One last Daytona 500 thought: What if, in that amazing, mad three-abreast dash for the lead in the dwindling laps, Rusty Wallace had held his line through the first turn instead of moving over and letting Jeff Gordon get past him on the race track?

My thought is that that's what Wallace would have done say, 10 years ago. And, if he had held that line, which was his right to do, would he have gone on to win the race instead of Gordon?

Wallace doesn't think so.

"In my mind, I did the only thing I could have done," he said. "I could have went down there and pushed the issue and he [Gordon] could have tried to get on the brakes to try and keep from hitting Ricky Rudd on the bottom. He could have got to sliding around. He could have got up in my quarter-panel. We both could have spun around and caused a 25-car pile up. Or he might have got down there running close to 200, couldn't stop and hit Ricky in the back. It would have been the biggest fire in the world. A couple people could have died.

"I mean, I still stand by what I did. I don't think it was the chicken way out. I think it was just the smartest way out and I hope everyone respects me for that."

Evidently, Wallace, 42, has grown up a lot through the years. He took the grown-up way out.

Wallace said a lot of crew chiefs and competitors told him they would have gone for it, and "whatever would have happened, would have happened." But Wallace, to his credit, didn't think like that.

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