Two Classic Underdogs Battling for a Spot on the Winston Cup Tour
4 March 1998MOORESVILLE, NC --No one ever told L J Racing Team driver Kevin Lepage or owner Joe Falk that Winston Cup racing would be easy. If it were easy, they probably wouldn't be able to feel the joy in their accomplishments so far this racing season. Falk and Lepage can be classified as the classic underdogs of the 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup racing season.
Lepage, a Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate, is just that, a rookie in the most competitive of all forms of motorsports, Winston Cup. Racing every week against drivers like, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace can be real tough, especially without the multi-million dollar sponsor providing support. Prior to the 1998 season, Lepage had made 3 career Winston Cup starts, all with L J Racing last season.
Falk, of Chesapeake, Virginia, and a former late model stock car driver, was entering his second year as a Winston Cup owner. To make his task even harder, he is still without a major sponsor for the 1998-racing season. Last year, his sponsor changed marketing strategies midway through the year and walked away from the sport.
When one sits down with Joe Falk and Kevin Lepage it doesn't take long to see they both have a "never say die" attitude.
After making a commitment to one another during the offseason, Lepage and Falk headed south to Daytona Beach for the "Great American Race," the Daytona 500. Both men and their team knew the challenge they faced, no sponsor and 55 other cars entered in the race. Almost all of these teams were backed by multi- million dollar sponsors and race teams that doubled and tripled the size of the L J Racing Team. They knew the fight would be an uphill battle.
Lepage and the team stood up to the challenge, driving his car to a 9th place finish in the 2nd 125-mile qualifying race and a 20th place starting spot in the Daytona 500. Lepage and Falk were ecstatic about their accomplishment. The racing community began to stand up and take notice of the developing underdog story of L J Racing. Despite a motor failure in the Daytona 500, the team held their heads high as they left Daytona Beach and headed for Rockingham, North Carolina, site of the next race.
A new NASCAR rule that eliminated two starting spots based on qualifying speeds for each race and awarded two additional starting spots based on provisionals, came to haunt the team in Rockingham. Lepage was the 37th fastest qualifier for the event, good enough to make the race in 1997, but 1 spot away from making the race in 1998. Lepage missed the field by .011 seconds.
The team regrouped and headed to Las Vegas, a place where even a little guy can be a winner. Lepage qualified for the Las Vegas 400 while many other well-financed teams headed back east without making the race. Lepage went on to earn the Raybestos Rookie of the Race award and moved into 3rd place in the overall rookie standings, only one point away from second. Lepage was also the only rookie candidate to qualify for the race based on time, Kenny Irwin received a provisional spot based on his owner's points from last year and the two other candidates failed to qualify.
Lepage also fits the role of underdog in the Rookie of the Year battle. His other 3 competitors all race for well financed teams and well known racing personalities. Irwin drives for the powerful Robert Yates team. Steve Park drives for 7-time Winston Cup Champion, Dale Earnhardt and Jerry Nadeau drives for Bill Elliott. Lepage is determined to keep up the fight against the other drivers as he tries to create his own Winston Cup reputation.
"We knew going into the Rookie of the Year race that no one would really give us a chance, but we took that as a challenge," Lepage said. "Wouldn't it make for a heck of a story if Joe Falk and Kevin Lepage could beat the other 3 guys and win the Rookie of the Year award? As far as experience, I feel I probably have more experience than my competitors and I believe I can put that experience to use and produce results."
Falk very much wants to keep Lepage in the Rookie of the Year race, but he is in need of one more ingredient, a major sponsor. Falk has the race cars, there are 11 cars sitting in his one-year-old, 12,500 square foot shop. Falk also has a talented crew chief in Doug Richert. Richert already has led one driver to a rookie title, Dale Earnhardt, in 1979. Richert has the ability and years of experience to lead Lepage to the title as well.
The L J Racing Team has a lot to offer a potential sponsor. Falk continues his search of potential companies and Lepage continues to open eyes on the Winston Cup circuit. Hopefully a sponsor will recognize the potential and come forward soon, enabling Lepage and Falk to go full speed ahead for the season.
"We can win this award, all we need is a sponsor that believes in the underdog," Lepage said. "We still believe a sponsor is right around the corner and we are going to continue to work hard to add more value to our race team."
Keep your eyes on the #91 Chevrolet Monte Carlo in the weeks to come. Behind the wheel will be one of the most determined drivers in NASCAR and right behind him will be a very determined owner. Hopefully soon there will be a sponsor on the side of the car that will give Falk and Lepage the opportunity to run the full season.