Rain foils relief driver's opportunity

By Jeff Birchfield

   MARTINSVILLE, VA -- Saturday, rain in Memphis looked to give relief drivers at the Martinsville NASCAR race a rare opportunity to hop in first class cars. Sunday, rain at Martinsville washed that opportunity away.
   With drivers Kevin Harvick, Bobby Hamilton, Jr. and Kenny Wallace stuck in Memphis due to commitments to their Busch Series teams, their respective Winston Cup rides were to be piloted in the Old Dominion 500 by relief drivers.
   Rick Mast, who recently saw his No. 50 team temporarily cease operations, was slated to drive the prestigous Goodwrench Chevrolet. Short track specialist Bickle was to drive in place of Hamilton, Jr. in the No. 4 Kodak Chevy.
   Most interesting of all was Petty in the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet, who was filling in for Kenny Wallace, who has been filling in himself for the injured Steve Park. Petty after failing to qualify for the race in his own No. 45 Sprint Dodge was tapped for the No. 1 ride through an association with the Park as part of the Coca-Cola sponsored racing family.
   Rookie driver Jason Leffler, who only two weeks ago captured his first career Winston Cup pole position at Kansas, is rumored to be out of a ride next year with car owner Chip Ganassi and replaced by veteran Jimmy Spencer unless additional sponsorship can be secured for the team.
   "I don't really know my plans for 2002," the driver of ther No. 01 Dodge admitted. "I have two years left on my contract with Ganassi Racing. It's up to Chip. He's still looking for a sponsor.
   "It was great that we won a pole. We ran really good in the race before we had some problems at the end of the race, blowing a tire. On a given day, I feel I can run with these guys. I'm confident I can win a race."
   Leffler has been taking notes from teammate Sterling Marlin, the only Dodge driver to win on the NASCAR circuit this season. "We share cars, information, everything with him," said the aspiring driver. "It's no question that equipment-wise, we have great cars.
   "Sterling has been helpful. Everytime, I have questions for him, he answers them. He has 20 years of experience and I only have one year of experience. But, a lot of places I can't drive his set-ups. I like the race car a lot free-er than he does. We have different driver feels."
   A former open-wheel ace, Leffler was asked whether stock cars is the only option available. "I don't know right now," Leffler responded. "I would like to do the Indy 500 and do some open wheel racing. I guess I will find out soon.
   "I would love to go back and race some dirt, but my contract doesn't allow it. Tony (Stewart) has a dream deal, but when you're successful like him, you can do whatever you want. I'd love to have the chance to win the Indy 500 and do some Silver Crown races."
   Virginia Senator John Warner, famous for his marriage to ex-wife actress Elizabeth Taylor, was in attendance Sunday at the Winston Cup event and answered questions about the war effort against terrorism in Afghanistan.
   "The young men and women fighting the war against terrorism is as good as any in the history of this country," said Warner, senate Republican on the Armed Services Committee. "I served as a sailor at the end of World War II and I was in Korea with the Marines. I've been with men and women of the armed forces all my life and this is a first-rate group."
   For those who doubt this younger generation is up to the challenge, Warner says those fears are unfounded. "They're answering the call," remarked the veteran senator. "And they know that the folks back home are behind them. It gets kind of lonely out there.
   "Also, we've trained them so well. From boot camp on up, they are taught to do their jobs like top class specialists."