But Jefferson managed to squeeze by Warn's racecar and steadily fight his way toward the front.

Warn wasn't nearly as lucky. He was spun a second time and ended up with the rear end crushed against the wall. NASCAR asked the team to call him back into the pits to saw off dangling body parts, but agreed to wait until a caution-or until it became a safety issue-to require the repair.

The damage kinked the fuel filler line and eventually Warn ran out of gas about 20 laps from the end. The team got him refueled, but he dropped so many laps that he ended up back in 31st spot.

Meanwhile, Jefferson fought an ill-handling car that refused to turn. He managed to get it up into the Top 5 briefly, but fell back to 22nd as he passed under the white flag. Then on the final lap, the right-front tire gave out, putting him into the wall in sight of the checker flag. He was credited with 24th, his lowest finish to date.

"This had to be our worst day racing ever," Carruthers said as the cars went into the trailer. "What we lack is about two-tenths of a second. That's the difference between us and the guys running well. It makes the difference between being able to pass a car or getting stuck side by side and not being able to get out of trouble.

"I don't know where it is, but we have to find it."

Soldiering On
Three weeks later, as the team unloaded at Colorado National Speedway just outside Denver, Carruthers figured he might have solved the problem.

MJ2 took cars to Colorado for a test session after the Iowa disappointment and tried a different approach to front springs, opting to let the car coil-bind the left front before transferring the weight to the right.

"It's a different approach," said the crew chief. "It isn't anything radical, it's just an optional way of doing things.

"In my mind, it shouldn't work," he said. "But when we tested, the change got us 0.27 of a second, and for the first time, when we put on fresh tires, it made the car go faster.

"Testing is one thing," he cautioned, "we'll see how it races."

Back at Colorado for the race, Warn circled the oval fifth fastest during a 90-minute practice session. Jefferson was about 10 spots back and visibly upset over the poor showing.

Then things got worse.

Two of the team members - Warn's spotter and tire chief - had to be rushed to Seattle where their son had been airlifted after a life-threatening motorcycle crash. The mood in the racing pits turned somber.

Jefferson was the first of the two cars to qualify, and his time was disappointing. He kept sliding down the standings as more cars took their two laps.

Then it was Warn's turn. The team pushed the car to the end of the pit road and waited for the engine to fire. And waited. And waited.

Nothing.

Even a push wouldn't get the engine to come to life.

NASCAR agreed to let the team troubleshoot the problem, but only if an inspector was on-site to watch everything. Assuming they could get the engine to run, Warn would begin dead last. So much for a fifth-place run in practice.

The team crawled all over and inside the car, eventually tracing the problem to a broken wire coming from the kill switch on the steering wheel.

The car was recently purchased from Harvick's shop to fill in for the one heavily damaged at Phoenix. It was a late arrival and rushed into service, so the team never got the chance to go over it from one end to the other.

As the cars lined up for the 150-lap race, former series champion Jim Inglebright said, "I've never seen Chuck struggle so much. It is just not like him to have these types of problems."

Inglebright won championships with Carruthers as his crew chief and raced against Jefferson, who won three consecutive Northwest Tour titles.

"It is hard to see a driver as good as Jeff do so poorly," Inglebright said.