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AUTO RACING : Many Drivers Begin 1995 Ride Switching

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The 1994 Winston Cup championship remains up for grabs among at least three drivers--Dale Earhardt, Ernie Irvan and Rusty Wallace--and already part of the attention is turning to 1995.

Drivers looking for rides for next season include Brett Bodine, Wally Dallenbach Jr. and John Andretti.

Bodine, the only one of the three with a Winston Cup victory, will finish out the season with Kenny Bernstein’s Budweiser King team.

Dallenbach apparently drove his last race for Richard Petty Enterprises at Watkins Glen after a falling out with members of the team.

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Andretti found himself at large after car owner Billy Hagan suspended operations on his unsponsored team. The former Indy-car driver is getting a trial run in Petty’s Pontiac this weekend at Michigan, but Petty is expected to try several other drivers in the car before making a decision on a permanent replacement at the end of the year.

Phil Parsons and Bobby Hillin Jr., both without rides, also are considered possibilities for the Petty job.

Former Winston Cup champion Bill Elliott is in the final year of his contract with Junior Johnson & Associates and is expected to leave at the end of the season to rejoin brother Ernie on a team based in their hometown of Dawsonville, Ga.

There is speculation that Elliott will take one of Johnson’s current team sponsors, Budweiser or McDonald’s, with him. In any case, both are expected to look elsewhere in 1995, with Johnson taking on a new sponsor for holdover driver Jimmy Spencer.

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Lake Speed, who is 10th in the Winston Cup points, surprised a lot of people by announcing he would leave Bud Moore Engineering at the end of the season. Speed says he’ll probably go back to racing for his own team on a limited schedule, and that opens an inviting ride for some enterprising driver.

Most of the big name drivers appear certain to remain with their current teams through at least one more season.

SIGN HIM UP: One driver who will remain with the same team next season, and the owner hopes for many years to come, is Jeff Gordon.

Rick Hendrick, who also campaigns cars for veterans Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader, was delighted with Gordon even before the 23-year-old’s victories this season in the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400--two of the biggest races on the Winston Cup schedule.

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Hendrick loves telling the story about the moment he decided to hire the young stock car star.

“I was in Atlanta for a Winston Cup race, and they had a Busch (Grand National) race down there,” Hendrick said. “I was on my way to the suite and I saw Jeff go into turn three and four.

“He went in the corner and the car was loose. It was really hazing the rear tires. He was racing (Dale) Earnhardt and (Harry) Gant, and I think he was trying to get his lap back.

“I didn’t know who he was,” Hendrick said. “I told the people I was with to watch that car because I thought he was going to bust his butt any second. We stood there and he ran a couple more laps. He ran lap after lap after lap and someone told me it was Jeff Gordon.

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“It just so happened his roommate worked for us. I told (team manager) Jimmy Johnson it was a shame the kid had a contract because he had a lot of ability. I could see a lot of Tim Richmond style of hanging a car out and doing it lap after lap after lap. His roommate told us he didn’t have a contract. Two days later, he did. With us.”

FORD ROUT: Even with Jeff Gordon winning two weeks ago at Indianapolis in a Chevrolet, the NASCAR Manufacturers’ Championship is quickly turning into a Ford rout.

Thunderbirds have won 13 of the 20 races this season and own a 159-141 lead in the points going into Sunday’s race at Michigan.

ON A ROLL: Dale Earnhardt, who is just 27 points ahead of Ernie Irvan in his bid to join Richard Petty as the only seven-time Winston Cup champions, isn’t winning races, but he’s on a roll.

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Earnhardt, the defending series champion, hasn’t won since the beginning of May at Talladega--his third win of the season. But his third-place finish last Sunday at Watkins Glen was his seventh top-10 and sixth top-five in the past eight races.

The only stumble was an engine-related 34th-place finish last month at Talladega.


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