Viewpoints from BGN veteran

By Jeff Birchfield

STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   On the tube, the "McLaughlin Group" is a television show featuring loud and opinionated political discussion. At the race track, it means the roar of the No. 18 MBNA Pontiac driven by Mike McLaughlin in the NASCAR Busch Series and the teamwork featured by his Joe Gibbs-owned team.
   McLaughlin, a six-time winner on the Busch Series, also owns 7 Busch North Series wins and 16 Modified wins. He claimed the NASCAR Modified title back in 1988. The Waterloo, N.Y. driver's most recent triumph in the Busch Series came last April at Talladega, when he held off hard-charging Jimmy Spencer in a trophy dash to the checkered flag.
   This week McLauglin, 45, has been testing with his race team at Bristol Motor Speedway, but took time out Wednesday for this exclusive STAR interview.
   YOU'VE HAD SOME SUCCESS AT THE SHORT TRACKS INCLUDING A WIN AT NASHVILLE, BUT BRISTOL HAS BEEN TOUGH.
   McLaughlin: "This definitely hasn't been one of my better tracks. I did manage to run second here once, but I haven't been able to find that combination since. Last fall, we had a good car. (McLaughlin finished 16th in the 2001 Food City 250). We're just trying to improve on it. Hopefully we can put ourselves back in position to run well here. That will make it a whole lot more fun, that's for sure."
   YOU'VE BEEN WITH SOME GOOD BUSCH TEAMS, BUT NOW YOU'RE TEAMING WITH ONE OF THE TOP WINSTON CUP OWNERS IN JOE GIBBS.
   McLaughlin: "It's definitely an awesome opportunity for me. I've got good people here within the Busch organization. Joe, the guy, I don't know how to explain it. What he stands for carries throughout the organization. He's a good person. He's competitive and does what it takes to win. He puts every effort forth to do that and our Busch program is getting better because of that. He has shown a lot of interest in what we're doing and it has shown this year."
   THIS IS THE SECOND YEAR YOU AND CREW CHIEF TIM SHUTT HAVE WORKED TOGETHER. HOW'S THAT RELATIONSHIP?
   McLaughlin: "Tim and I are getting closer all the time. He's serious at what he does and gives 110 percent. He does a good job on the road and he's good with all the guys on the crew. We've got a good combination here and it's an opportunity for me to get to where I have always tried to be in the series. That is to win races and the championship."
   WHO IS PROVIDING THE CHASSIS FOR THIS TEAM?
   McLaughlin: "It's a Hopkins chassis that Tim has taken and has tried to make everything the same this year and make it consistent. Hopefully, that will show as the season goes on."
   YOU'VE BEEN PRETTY VERSATILE, WINNING BY CHARGING HARD AT TALLADEGA, WINNING ON FUEL MILEAGE AT CHARLOTTE, SCORING ON THE ROAD COURSE AT THE GLEN.
   McLaughlin: "Yeah, it's when the car is right, everything is pretty easy. Often, you spend more time struggling with a car that doesn't handle. When things are right, it makes your day pretty easy, no matter which kind of track you're racing at."
   HOW DO YOU FEEL WHEN YOUNG DRIVERS START GRABBING HEADLINES FROM THE VETERANS?
   McLaughlin: "Anybody that can come into the series and run good, more power to them. Right now, you look at a lot of the young guns and they deserve it. Who really is impressing me is Shane Hmiel. The amount of time that kid has got behind a steering wheel, he's going to be good."
   THE FIELD AT A NASCAR EVENT IS NOW MADE UP OF DRIVERS WHO'S RACED SINCE CHILDHOOD. COULD SOMEONE THAT STARTS LATER MAKE IT IN TODAY'S RACING WORLD?
   McLaughlin: "I don't know if there's an actual map to get to this level of racing. You see people come from so many different series and directions. When I first started on dirt tracks, just the thought of racing for a living was a dream for me. To be where I am today with Joe Gibbs and MBNA, I feel very fortunate to be playing the game."
   SPEAKING OF DIRT, BILL ELLIOTT AND TONY STEWART TALK ABOUT HOW THEY LIKE TO GET AWAY FROM THE PRESSURES OF THE BIG SERIES, RACING THEIR DIRT LATE MODELS. DOES THAT APPEAL TO YOU?
   McLaughlin: "I haven't run a dirt car in about 15 years, but it would be a lot of fun. My son, Max, I try to spend as much time with him outside of my race program. That's been a lot of fun and that's been my release."
   I KNOW HOW YOU ALWAYS TRY TO INCLUDE YOUR FAMILY AT THE TRACK.
   McLaughlin: "Katie (Mike's wife) goes everywhere. Max goes to 95 percent of the races, except for the West Coast races. I give them quality time. He travels with us a lot. I'm fortunate to be able to do that. A lot of people in a business like mine where you're on the road all the time, don't have that opportunity. I'm fortunate to take them with me."
   YOU TALKED OF RACING FOR A LIVING. DO YOU EVER JUST STAND BACK AND GIVE THANKS FOR THE DREAM JOB YOU HAVE?
   McLaughlin: "Yeah, sometimes, you do appreciate how fortunate you are to be doing something that you love to do. The majority of the time you're more caught up in what you're doing and trying to achieve more at your level, so you don't look at it. Sometimes you need to definitely just set back and look at it."