Mike Skinner, closing in on Winston Cup rookie of the year honors, readily admits his first season in NASCAR’s top stock car series has been a learning experience.
“I didn’t feel like a rookie coming into this thing, but Winston Cup will humble you a lot,” said Skinner, 40, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion in 1995.
Skinner, teammate to seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt with Richard Childress Racing, is 30th in the driver standings. He has two poles but only three top-10 finishes in 29 starts, with no top-fives.
Still, he holds a big lead in the rookie standings over runner-up David Green, a former Busch Series champion who has had an even tougher season.
“It’s not only a rookie driver,” Skinner said. “Most everybody on the team is experienced and very talented, but we’re a rookie team with a rookie driver.
“But we’ve made some real progress. We’ve got some guys now who can get over that well and get the job done. That’s a great feeling.
“It’s good to build that little bit of momentum with part of the team,” he added. “Any kind of momentum we can build now before we start at zero next season at Daytona is good. We don’t want to be 30th in the points next year at this time in the season.”
Bobby Hamilton’s victory last Sunday at Rockingham meant more to the Tennessee driver than just his second career win.
Hamilton is finishing his third and final season driving for Richard Petty’s Petty Enterprises team.
“It was real important for me to win a race this year, not only for Richard, but mainly for the people that work on the cars. You have to know these people to know what I’m talking about. They never give up.
“They have beautiful race cars. There’s nobody that has any better looking equipment than they do. They’re really proud of the stuff they do.
“Everybody in the garage area is underpaid except maybe a couple of crew chiefs and drivers,” he added. “The only bonus they get out of racing is to see the car run up front and win races.”
The battle for the final spot in the top 10 of the driver standings has gotten tighter with two races remaining.
Last week, prior to the race at Rockingham, 152 points separated ninth-place Ted Musgrave from 15thplace Ricky Rudd. Heading into today’s Dura-Lube 500 at Phoenix, it has stretched out to 166 points between ninth and 15th, but only 128 between Rudd and 10th-place Rusty Wallace.
Between Wallace and Rudd are Jeremy Mayfield, Ken Schrader, Ernie Irvan and Johnny Benson Jr.
Most fans focus on Earnhardt’s 56-race losing string. The Intimidator would rather focus on his team’s streak of 43 consecutive races running at the finish and the fact that he has five top-10 finishes in his last six starts.
“We know we can win,” said Earnhardt, who finished eighth at Rockingham. “We’ve finished second four times this year, and now it’s just a matter of time.”
Earnhardt won the Phoenix race in 1990.
Todd Bodine will say a fond farewell to the Busch Series this weekend in the Jiffy Lube Miami 300. Bodine needs a strong finish to remain second to repeat champion Randy LaJoie, ahead of precocious rookie Steve Park.
Bodine is already looking ahead to moving up next season to Winston Cup.
“The Busch Series has basically been my career and has gotten me to the point where I am right now,” said the youngest of the three racing Bodine brothers. “It got me to Winston Cup in three years and I learned a lot. Then I came back to the Busch series and learned some more.”
Bodine, who had eight top-10 finishes in two full Winston Cup seasons (1994 and 1995), said, “My main goal next year is to consistently run well and finish races.
“We don’t have to win every race, but I want to win at least one and finish in the top 15 in driver points.”
Stat of the week
If Jeff Gordon can gain 26 points on Mark Martin and head to the season finale with a lead of at least 151 points, all he would have to do to clinch his second Winston Cup title is finish last at Atlanta.