Sunday, August 17, 2003

Lepage happy to be a factor again

Making 3rd Cup start of season

Associated Press

BROOKLYN, Mich. - Kevin Lepage looked around the Winston Cup garage area and said, "Man, it's nice to be here."

Lepage used to be a regular on the circuit, but he has competed only occasionally since the end of the 2001 season. So it was a bit surprising to see him near the top of the lineup for today's GFS Marketplace 400.

There were other unfamiliar names near the top of the lineup. Lepage will start fourth in the 43-car field, with Jason Leffler sixth, and Christian Fittipaldi seventh.

Lepage, driving a Ford for unheralded CLR Racing, is making only his third Winston Cup start this year and his sixth since the beginning of the 2002 season.

"I feel like Popeye right now after eating spinach," said Lepage, who has been trying without much success to get his own team off the ground. "Three weeks ago, I was very down in the dumps and doubted that I was going to get back in the car this year."

Lepage drove his own car in the Coca-Cola 600 in May, starting 27th and finishing 32nd. He then got a call from CLR owner Ted Campbell and made the Brickyard 400 lineup this month, starting 21st and finishing 30th.

Leffler, who also lost his Cup ride at the end of 2001 and is now a regular in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series, will make his second start with Haas CNC Racing Pontiac. His only other Winston Cup races since 2001 came last fall in Phoenix, where he started 36th and finished 31st, and at the Brickyard, where he raced for the Haas team, started 26th and finished 33rd.

The team, owned by Gene Haas, fired rookie Jack Sprague in July and has since filled in with John Andretti and Leffler.

"The equipment is good," Leffler said. "They just need somebody to get in there full time and they'll be a team to reckon with."

Rookie Fittipaldi is racing in a Dodge entered by Petty Enterprises. The Brazilian driver, a former Indy-car star, has driven in nine Winston Cup events, the last seven for the Petty team.

His best previous start was 17th in his debut at Phoenix late in the 2002 season. His best finish was 24th last month at Pocono.

"It's the first track I'm coming back to for the second time," Fittipaldi said. "I ran the whole race in June, and you're learning all the time what happens to the car during the race. I think that's going to make a big difference Sunday."

There's plenty of experience up front, too.

Former series champion Bobby Labonte will start from the pole, with Ryan Newman, last year's top rookie, alongside. Robby Gordon, who won his second race of the season last Sunday at Watkins Glen, will start next to Lepage on the second row.

The drivers involved in the series points race are all at the back of the field, with leader Matt Kenseth 33rd. Kenseth has a 258-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who qualified 19th. Third-place Jeff Gordon is 21st.

BUSCH: Pit strategy and rain helped Kevin Harvick win the shortened Cabela's 250 NASCAR Busch Series race at Michigan International Speedway on Saturday.

The race was scheduled for 125 laps but called after 110.

Reigning Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, making his first Busch start since 1998, dominated most of the day, leading 82 of the first 100 laps.

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