News & Media

From the notebook: Leavine cites 'awesome' debut, despite result

April 14, 2011, Dave Rodman,

Former Roush crew chief Richert joinsTRG Motorsports to work with Lally

Making the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was akin to busting into the Daytona 500 for Leavine Fenton Racing -- which made a mark as a little team that could, and did -- by qualifying for its Sprint Cup debut.

"It is like our Daytona 500 because it's our debut, and [owners] Bob Leavine and Lance Fenton are from Texas, and I am, and we've got a lot of fans and friends and family here," Starr said Friday. "It's important to make our first show to kick off our new team, and my career as a Sprint Cup driver. It'll be cool and I'm excited."

Little more than a day later -- even though the owner and crew chief Wally Rogers stood beside a flat-sided No. 95 Ford after just 122 laps of 334 and a 38th-place finish -- it wasn't hard to coax a grin out of both of them.

The No. 95 team gathers around their Ford after qualifying at Texas.

"This is racing, it happens. He got loose and it went against the wall. Now we go back and fix it, head to the next one with experience and I wouldn't trade it for the world."


"I've been involved in starting Truck and Nationwide programs from scratch," Rogers said. "But this undertaking was enormous, because the competition level is that much higher. So you've got to bring your A-game every single day that you show up at the shop. And when we started, we had next to nothing -- just a toolbox -- and for the first month, I was there alone."

So it's no wonder the team principals were grinning. After opening practice as the slowest of the nine go-or-go-home cars, Starr beat three of them in Happy Hour. His coup de grace came after the car had an issue -- as several Fords did -- getting through pre-qualifying inspection; Starr gutted-up and ripped-off a lap good enough for 33rd starting position, faster than six cars he had to beat to get in.

You want a stark contrast? Travis Kvapil, who has 152 career Cup starts and was also driving a Ford with Roush Yates power, went home after failing to qualify. From P1 to qualifying, Starr improved by 1.3 seconds, more than any of the other must-qualifiers.

"This is so incredible -- it really is," Rogers said after qualifying. "There's been so much hard work and so many hours and so many expectations -- not that Bob or Lance [Fenton, co-owner] put on myself, but that I put on myself.

"To be able to come here, as limited as we are and to compete is -- it's almost like giving birth, like having kids -- and that's one of your kids, right there."

About 26 hours later, his experience was akin to being at the emergency room treating a child's broken leg. But to look at Leavine, who was upbeat and shaking a lot of hands after their night was done, it was pure bliss.

"Awesome -- a great experience," Leavine said as he stood beside what was once an immaculate, but now scruffy-looking Fusion, which had lost its battle with the TMS concrete. "Particularly our crew, who really proved themselves getting the car ready and getting it here, and getting it qualified in 33rd in just a little over a month.

"You just don't do that with a new car and new team that's never been run, and with a rookie driver to Sprint Cup -- because David's a mature driver. So we would have liked to have run some more laps, to get the crew more experience, the over-the-wall guys more experience and David more seat time.

"This is racing, it happens. He got loose and it went against the wall. Now we go back and fix it, head to the next one with experience and I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Leavine said the plan for his team's next event was still the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"We're supposed to be getting our third chassis, from Roush, so it will be a matter of 'do we fix this [crashed car] or go ahead and get our third chassis and give them a little time to fix this one?'" Leavine said. "We've got our back-up [car], but this one, we had run it, and we were really pleased with it; the adjustments we made and what they saw, we learned a lot there. Being that we don't have the simulators and a lot of that technology -- we have Wally setting it up, so we're pleased with that."

"I think everybody did a great job," Rogers said. "Our car was competitive. We could run good lap times -- we weren't a second, a second-and-a-half off [the leader's pace] all night. To be able to accomplish that and to come here and be only a couple of tenths [of a second] off, that's a pretty huge achievement for everybody.

"Looking at out lap times, on average, we were probably a 20th- or a 25th-place car. And that's pretty good, considering the competition here."

Leavine said there was very little bad that came out of the weekend -- and considering what he might be faced with, that's pretty good news.

"You go in the wall, and that's bad -- but that's also racing," Leavine said. "So I'm disappointed, obviously. We wanted to take the checkered flag. A couple months ago, I predicted if we could get 28th, that would be great. We were running 30th, and we could've got there [so] I'm happy."

Starr almost accomplished it, as he was scored in 29th at 120 laps -- after two pit stops and plenty of chances for a lot of people to screw up. It never happened, until the loose car twitched in the high line when another car passed under Starr. He caught the wall coming off the treacherous Turn 2, and that was all she wrote. But Leavine can't wait to write the next chapter.

"I learned how these guys put-out and performed -- they put in an extra amount from the time they got here," Leavine said. "So I think that's what we'll probably take away, one, we've got a good car and motor; two, we've got a good base crew; and three, we could run with some good cars."

Johnson's cell to debut

Actually, Robert Johnson will make his debut in a No. 11 Junior Johnson Racing Late Model car with sponsorship from a wireless carrier, Carolina West Wireless, when he begins his UARA schedule racing for his Hall of Fame father.

If he can achieve a portion of the success that Ryan Newman did with Alltel, or that Robby Gordon and Jeff Burton did with Cingular before both brands were run out of the sport, fans have something to look forward to.

Robert Johnson, who has said his education currently takes precedence over his racing career, also may try some K&N Pro Series East events this season, with an eye to eventually moving to the Nationwide Series.

Bowyer needs cooling

Clint Bowyer's miraculous save of his 45-degrees sideways car midway through the Samsung Mobile 500 when he got together with Brian Vickers did nothing in terms of raising Bowyer's temperature, but a lack of insulation in his No. 33 Chevrolet did the trick.

"That was one of the hottest times I've ever had in the car," Bowyer said. "It's early in the season, and those [crew] guys are a little reluctant to put all the fans in the car that Carl [Edwards] has in his -- and, you know, [that] makes him look like Superman all the time.

"More than anything, my feet were burning up. There is a lot of stuff they're doing for weight and everything else. It's early in the season, and they just figured they don't need to put [insulation] in until it gets hot in the summer. But I'd say my boys will be putting that stuff back in. I think Kevin [Harvick] was hot, too, so it's kind of a common thing with the RCR cars."

Busch looks to top Hamlin, again

Kyle Busch will attempt to beat his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate for the third time in four years in the fourth annual Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown, which will be held for the first time at Richmond International Raceway on April 28. Busch will race a Toyota Camry Late Model prepared by Frank Deiny Jr.'s FDJ Motorsports.

"Denny's Short Track Showdown is a really fun event and it's for a great cause," Busch said. "Any time you get the chance to compete against the guys you race with on Sunday in a different type of car it usually makes for a pretty exciting race. Throw in guys that drive this type of car every weekend, racing for a chance to say they beat some of the best drivers in NASCAR and the fans should be in for a real treat."

Hamlin's charity event, which benefits the Denny Hamlin Foundation, a 501 C (3) started to raise funds for individuals and families affected by cystic fibrosis, will also feature Cup drivers Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Michael Waltrip, Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Hermie Sadler and Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell, who is a regular Late Model Stock Car competitor.

TRG gets champion crew chief

Doug Richert, who won the 1980 Winston Cup championship as a 20-year-old crew chief for the late Dale Earnhardt, has jumped from Rick Ware Racing rookie Timmy Hill's team to work with Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year candidate Andy Lally at TRG Motorsports.

Richert more recently had success with Greg Biffle at Roush Racing, and TRG has just switched to running Roush Fenway Racing Fords. TRG car chief Paul Clapprood, who had stepped up as interim crew chief, has left the team for a Nationwide Series assignment, a TRG spokesman said.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.