#90 Hills Brothers Chevrolet

Nick Woodward

Steve James Racing

Nick Woodward’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo may look like the anti-thesis of a “Dream Machine,” but any racer at heart can see the true beauty in this car. Its ’99-style body may look slightly worn, and its nose is wrinkled, but the car also made it successfully through a grueling race season dependably without major mechanical failure and only suffered minor crash damage. Woodward races in NASCAR’s Late Model division, a series where the racing is fierce, the competition tight, and the purses never enough to pay for a totaled car.

It’s a tough environ-ment, but one in which car owner Steve James of Virginia thrives. James has been racing Late Models for more than a decade and has learned the hard lessons of fielding a fast car on a limited budget. The team raced Chevrolet’s ’99 body because James felt body manufacturers hadn’t yet worked out all the kinks for the 2000 Monte Carlo skin for Late Models, and competition always gets the nod over looks.

Woodward, who is in his first year racing for James and fourth overall in Late Models, quickly learned to appreciate the car owner’s expertise. “The team has won big races before in Late Model Stock and championships,” says the 20-year-old driver. “They had the chemistry and knew how to win. I’d won races, but I’d never won championships. These guys know how to communicate and put a car on the track the whole race. We won the first race we ran together because I knew I could be patient. I knew the car was going to be there on Lap 120 when I needed it.”

From that first win, Woodward and James practically bludgeoned the competition, visiting victory lane 22 times. The team raced in just 46 events, giving it an amazing win/race ratio of almost 48 percent! Those fantastic results helped Woodward, who also is a full-time college student, claim track titles at Southampton Speedway and South Boston Speedway (both in Virginia), win the NASCAR Atlantic Seaboard regional title, and finish second nationally in NASCAR’s Weekly Racing Series.

Both Woodward and James insist there is no magic component or secret weapon under the hood of the car that gives them an advantage—it’s just a well-built, well-prepared machine. Woodward prefers a loose car, and once the team matched the car with the feel he preferred, little was changed on the setup throughout the year. Basically, the only changes, Woodward says, were to compensate for weather or varying race lengths.

Next season Woodward will be back in the car, and except for a new skin the team expects few changes. Beyond that, though, is anybody’s guess. Woodward expects to have his bachelor’s degree in business administration before the end of the season and has his sights firmly set on a career racing in NASCAR’s upper echelons. If he continues his torrid pace in Late Model racing, you can expect to see him get a tryout in the Busch Series before too long.

So is there anything to keep this team from repeating in 2001? A weak link in the team’s armor? James won’t say for sure, but he can’t help but take the opportunity to poke some fun at his driver. “We call this car ‘Three-Lap,’” he says with a wink, “because it seems like it always takes three laps for it to get going. It hurts us sometimes in qualifying. I don’t know if it’s the car or Nick; you’ll have to ask him.”—Jeff Huneycutt

#18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac

Bobby Labonte

Joe Gibbs Racing

It doesn’t look much different than any other car in the garage area, Bobby Labonte’s. Well, except for the loud green paint scheme that makes the #18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac easily identifiable at all times.

But there must be something different, right? The NASCAR Winston Cup champion’s got to have an edge somewhere. Is he that much better a driver than anyone else? That’s open to debate. Is he luckier than the rest? Only if you can make the case that a title, 12 race wins—including the Brickyard 400—and four consecutive years of improvement in the point standings is nothing more than the dice rolling in his favor. Is Jimmy Makar the best crew chief in the business or Mark Cronquist the number-one engine builder? Oh, that definitely could be so. Or maybe Joe Gibbs just prays harder than any other team owner.

It could be all those things, tossed into a mixing bowl, blended and poured into an officially licensed NASCAR mold. Actually, one ingredient is missing … yes, here it is: car preparation.

Heading into 2001, Labonte’s car has been running at the finish of 45 consecutive races. And in his 2000 championship season, he had only two finishes that weren’t top 20s. There were 24 top 10s and 19 top fives. He had top fives on both road courses, and he conquered high-banked ovals (Rockingham, Darlington, and Charlotte) and a flat superspeedway (Indianapolis).

That’s proof he had a good car every week. Attention to detail in car prep was a major factor in Labonte’s seizing the points lead in early May—a lead he never relinquished.

“Our cars undergo a complete analysis every time they’ve been raced,” Makar says. “And when I say complete, I do mean complete—from bumper to bumper, from under-carriage to innards.”

He’s not joking, not in the least.

After a race, every nut and bolt on the car is checked because a weakened, damaged 10-cent piece could cost the team millions of dollars. And that’s just the beginning.

The oiling system is flushed and inspected. Suspension parts are Magnafluxed to expose cracks invisible to the naked eye. The body and chassis get a thorough exam. Shock absorbers are torn down and rebuilt to like-new condition.

Brake rotors have a life of anywhere from 250 from 1,500 miles, depending on how much they were used at a given track. Transmission and rearend gears get a thorough checkup to make sure there aren’t any chips or cracks that could send Labonte limping to the garage.

A qualifying engine might be employed two or three times before a rebuild is in order. An engine used in a race is another story. Race motors get a complete refreshening after each outing. Some parts are reconditioned, but others, such as pistons and rod bearings, are junked after only one go-round. Sound extreme? Maybe it is.

But because Bobby Labonte’s crew goes the extra mile to ensure that his cars are bulletproof, he was able to lay claim to a $3.3-million championship check in New York in December—proof that complete attention to every detail is worth the effort. —Thomas Pope

#11 Quaker State Sprint Car

Steve Kinser

Steve Kinser Racing

Steve Kinser is the King of Sprint Car racing, exhibiting driving prowess that has led him to an unprecedented 16 Pennzoil World of Outlaws titles. But the bright-green Quaker State #11 wheeled by Kinser has also earned a reputation for durability, displayed prominently throughout the 2000 season.

It has been said that Sprint Cars are auto racing’s version of extreme sports. Extremely powerful, extremely light, and extremely fast, they race on dirt tracks that sometimes become rutted, rough nightmares, literally breaking pieces off the cars as they bounce across the dark, treacherous surface.

Yet, Kinser’s car this past season was remarkable because it didn’t break. In 61 A-feature outings, Kinser posted 51 top-10 finishes (with 41 in the top five), and just a handful of DNFs. Kinser won 10 events en route to the WoO championship.

“We had a couple of guys (Jason Voelkel and Mike Long) working with us this year who did a good job watching over the car and paying attention to the little things,” says Kinser Crew Chief Scott Gerkin. “That’s really important here; you have to look at your car all the time for pieces that might be weakening.”

While nearly all the World of Outlaws teams rely on well-known engine builders for horsepower, Gerkin and the team choose to build their own.

“We’ve always worked with Sam and Jeff Jones (Jones Engineering), and do our dyno work at Foxco Engineering, and we like to think we can make more horsepower,” says Gerkin. “It saves us a little bit of money, too.”

There is no weight rule in the series, and teams have managed to drop the rolling weight of the cars from 1,300 pounds just a few years ago to right around 1,100 today. When you consider the engines are pumping 800-plus horsepower and the rough tracks, well … it isn’t hard to imagine the stress a car’s components must deal with.

“A lot of the (light) stuff we’ve figured out what we can and can’t do in certain areas,” says Gerkin. “You still try different things to see how they work, because you don’t know how something will work until you run it. But we’re going back and doing away with some of the light stuff we’ve been using, going back to steel on some small pieces, because the titanium doesn’t hold up as well in certain applications.

“Right now, everybody is making a lot of horsepower and the tires are good, so it’s finding things in the driveline to break. It’s not the manufacturers’ fault, because the pieces are good, but they sometimes can’t handle the combination of horsepower and traction we have today.”

Kinser is 45, yet he is respected as a tireless man who simply never falls out of the seat. For Scott Gerkin and his two-man crew, they continue to make sure that as long as the ageless Kinser can hold up, the bright-green car will, too. —Dave Argabright

#7 Wynn’s Chevrolet

Gary St. Amant

Automotive Promotions

Through the years, many have wondered why Gary St. Amant didn’t think about moving up from the American Speed Association and giving NASCAR a shot. After his title-winning 2000 ASA season, St. Amant’s fans are probably wondering about it even more. But this Columbus, Ohio, driver is quite happy right where he is, thank you

.

“Guess you could say that I did it my way, staying with ASA all these years,” St. Amant says. “I always watched Bob Senneker and Mike Eddy when I was young, and I liked the way they did their thing here, even though they could have moved up. I like to be known as a competent short-track driver, and this is probably how I will end my career.”

This is certainly not good news for his ASA competiton. For proof, just check out Gary’s statistics for this past season in the ASA ranks. First, you have to be around at the end to accomplish a high finish. St. Amant usually was, running all but six of the total 5,400 laps last season. That’s an unbelievable 99.89 finishing percentage! ASA’s Mike Miller reports that it is the best-ever in the ASA’s 33 years of existence. And then there were the three wins to go along with the fantastic consistency St. Amant exhibited. In 20 races, there were 16 top fives and 18 top 10s in his Wynn’s-sponsered Chevy Monte Carlo.

The secret to St. Amant’s amazing consistency and ensuing champion-ship? The Chevy driver says it was his ability to adapt to two significant changes in the series last season, which allowed him to get an early edge. First, there was the new fuel-injected Vortec V-8 powerplant that was sealed from the factory and mandatory in every car. Second, every car was required to run BFGoodrich radial tires.

The changes helped level the playing field, but it also meant the first to get a handle on the new equipment would have a huge advantage.

“We had been using V-6 engines, and this new V-8 is entirely different,” St. Amant says. “Even though the Vortec engine has less horsepower, it has a much wider powerband and a lot of torque. The new tires are a lot grippier than the former bias-ply tires, and they put a lot more rubber on the track surface.”

The always-upbeat driver also gives a lot of credit to the competence and motivation of his crew, led by Crew Chief Bill McGowan. “There was always a totally prepared car waiting for me at every track,” St. Amant says. Ready for a repeat in 2001? St. Amant is ready. —Bill Holder