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Published: Thursday, 6/12/2003

Reputation dogs Spencer

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
ASSOCIATED PRESS

BROOKLYN, Mich. - It is a pretty safe bet that if there is a fracas Sunday during the Sirius 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Jimmy Spencer will be in the midst of it. If the pot gets stirred, Spencer will have the ladle. It is just his nature.

The veteran stock car driver has a reputation for provocative and sometimes audacious conduct, on the track and off. He earned the nickname “Mr. Excitement” early in his career, and grabbed the attention of the Winston Cup circuit nine years ago by winning a July race at Daytona and at Talladega later in his rookie season. He has not won since, and that drought only fuels his cantankerous nature.

After a bump-and-run incident at Talladega a few years ago cost him what he felt was a certain victory, Spencer growled that he “never forgets,” and would settle the score somewhere down the line. That thinly shrouded, revenge-laced phrase has stuck with him, and Spencer has not backed off from it a bit.

Then there was the mysterious debris caper at MIS in 1998. Spencer was trailing eventual-winner Mark Martin late in the race, and needed a caution flag to have any hope of catching up. The accusation was that Spencer, desperate to bunch up things under the security of a caution, ripped some foam padding from the roll bar in his car and tossed it onto the track, then radioed to officials that there was debris on the pavement.

If true, the ploy did not work, and Spencer, who had started 30th, finished 11th. He feigned indignation at the suggestion he would stretch the rules to win a race.

“They accused me of throwing something out, and I didn't,” Spencer said. “I don't know who did. I was cleared of that.”

Spencer contends that he doesn't go looking for trouble, but it keeps finding him.

“I know that a lot of times you'll see the leader picking up a little bit on you each lap, and you want some help. A lot of times you'll say, I see debris or I see fluid on the track, just hoping they will throw a caution out. Like I said, I don't forget, but at the present time it is not coming to mind just who did throw something on the track that day.”

Spencer was dropped from the Target/Chip Ganassi team at the end of last year after a disappointing season in which he finished 27th in the Winston Cup standings and had just six top-10 finishes. He races this year in the Sirius car with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

“We've surprised a lot of people, even ourselves to a certain extent,” Spencer said of his new race team. “We ran really strong at Bristol, and I felt like we had a chance to win at more than a few places. All in all the team has really come along strong.

“We have not had a lot of [good] luck. We've made some bad luck for ourselves and we've had some unfortunate things happen. We're not where we want to be in the points, but we do have a couple of top 10s and we feel like we've been running in the top 13 or 14 cars, even with our problems. That is a good sign for this team.”

Spencer tested his car at MIS last week, and will spend time in the Dodge wind tunnel today. He said the team is coming together, and could be ready to crack the winner's circle this weekend.

“When you come back to MIS, you are looking to try and get that extra two or three-tenths out of the car any way you can. Today in this sport, the top 20 cars are so close and so competitive, and the pit crews are so competitive - you need the whole package to run good.

“We feel like we've made great progress. It took some time to get it all going. We had guys from this team who had been here a long time, and guys who came over from other teams. Now it is such a relaxed atmosphere, and I think it just helps the morale of the team.”

Spencer said the day of testing could give his team the tiny edge it needs to emerge from the field at MIS. He also acknowledged that the data gained from running the track on a cool, cloudy day could all go out the window if race day dawns hot and sunny.

“We've learned some things, but the weather was real cool, so the track was fast. We were running under the track record, but the track will be slower on race day. When you get an opportunity like this, you want to do a lot of things with the car and keep lots of data.

“The biggest thing you look for is balance; if your car is balanced on a cool day, it will be balanced in the heat. You test a lot of things, but basically you try and come up with solutions to make your car go faster.”

Spencer indicated that the Winston Cup teams have an extra incentive to do well at MIS, since the race takes place in the backyard of the automotive industry.

“Michigan is a neat track to come to because it's where all of the manufacturers are from. You build a lot of relationships with those people over the years. I think you want to do good here for that reason. We want to do good for Daimler-Chrysler - they've been very helpful to our program.

“You definitely want to do good in front of the guys and gals who are working hard at those plants every day. They are the ones who come out and make up this big crowd on Sundays.”

Spencer said he goes to the track with a mental index of who-has-done-what to him over the years, and that scores sometimes get settled well after the fact.

“I don't forget. When I first said I didn't forget, I was upset. I was promised at Talladega that a guy was going to stay with me and he would have finished second, and I would have won the race.

“Evidently he didn't want me to win the race, so he finished third or fourth,'' declining to name names. “That's irrelevant now. There's some friction, and I think it's something that makes our sport what it is. We're racing to win races.”

Spencer said he will take to the MIS track for tomorrow's qualifying and Sunday's race intent on running with the same verve and aggression that won him the Winston Modified Championship in 1986 and 1987.

“The `Mr. Excitement' name has been good for me, and the `I can't forget' has been good for me. It is something we can back up a bit too. It is not like somebody labels you and then you can't back it up.

“NASCAR allows a lot of pushing and shoving, but I think they know when you've gone too far. They let a lot of things happen. We can stay on the edge, but the minute we go over that edge, then NASCAR says, `Boys, we've got to slap your wrists and pull you back'.

“This is a great sport, and I would never pick on the sponsors, because they're not driving the cars. The drivers - now that's a different story.”

INDIANAPOLIS - Jeff Gordon's first spin in a Formula One car included an unexpected detour through the grass yesterday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The lawn-mowing had Gordon wishing for his regular NASCAR ride.

“I was like, 'Uh, oh.' This thing is much different than I thought,” he said.

Gordon quickly adjusted and completed five more laps with no further difficulty.

“This really fulfills so many fantasies and dreams for me to get behind the wheel of it [a Formula One car],” he said.

Gordon traded places with Juan Pablo Montoya, taking turns driving speed-demonstration laps around the 2.6-mile road course. Montoya drove Gordon's Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Gordon was in the Williams BMW of former CART champion Montoya.

It was the first time either drove a car from the other's series. VJ Block Fits: Block Depth: 7.48i Expansion .05i ###### Flowing Text Overset #######



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