Todd Bodine no longer fills the role of a young, up-and-coming driver.
The man Dale Earnhardt Jr. once referred to as a ''cue-ball-headed fool'' has bounced around NASCAR for 12 seasons. He's known the glamour of a high-profile ride in the Winston Cup Series, only to be bumped out of his seat by a more experienced driver.
Twice, Bodine has returned to the Busch Series, running competitively and biding his time until he got another shot on NASCAR's top circuit.
The latest chance for the 37-year-old racer came this year when car owner Travis Carter put Bodine in the seat occupied by Darrell Waltrip, who has retired to the broadcast booth. If early results are any indication, Bodine might be back in Winston Cup to stay.
Driving a car that struggled to make races and stay competitive for two seasons with Waltrip at the wheel, Bodine has the team qualifying near the front and making an impact on race day.
''There's a little renewed vigor in the team,'' said Carter, a partner with Carl Haas in the two-car operation that includes Jimmy Spencer. ''The team has built good race cars, and I think Todd has proven himself to be a capable driver.''
Bodine's fifth-place finish two weeks ago in Las Vegas is the team's best ever, and he nearly won the pole for last Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, qualifying third.
Unfortunately for Bodine, the youngest of three racing brothers from Chemung, N.Y., all his car owners haven't shared the opinion that he could do the job.
He joined the now-defunct Butch Mock team late in 1993, and drove through the 1995 season. The team had a third-place finish in 1994, but Mock replaced Bodine with Morgan Shepherd for 1996.
Then in 1998, Bodine returned to Winston Cup with a new team, armed with a multimillion-dollar sponsorship with Tabasco. Things started poorly when the team missed the first three races, and Bodine was soon fired.
''I knew that eventually I would get another shot, but I had to basically start over again,'' Bodine said. ''That whole situation, whether it be my fault or not, a lot of people look at the driver and make him the fall guy.
''I took a majority of the blame and had to rebuild the confidence or image of being able to drive these cars and be successful.''
Once again, he did that in the Busch Series. He rejoined Cicci-Welliver Racing, the team that gave him his first full-time NASCAR ride in 1991, and ran the full schedule in that division in 1999 and 2000 before joining Carter's team.
But Bodine still competes in the Busch Series, driving for sponsorless Buckshot Racing. And he's been impressive, even dominant with back-to-back victories in Rockingham, N.C., and Las Vegas, and is fifth in points after four races.
Originally, Bodine was going to run just 10 races. But the surprising start has car owner Billy Jones thinking of funding the team the entire season, with or without additional financial backing.
''Let me put it this way, if we keep winning and running up front, we'll keep racing,'' Jones said.
For now, the team plans to race through the Jani-King 300 on March 31 at Texas Motor Speedway, and plans to return April 21 in Talladega, Ala.
''I'm hoping to get a commitment out of Billy to run through the end of April, which would be the California race,'' said crew chief Gary Cogswell. ''I feel like as long as we're running good, we ought to run every race.''
Although the teams are separate, Bodine says racing in both series has been helpful.
''The new rule giving the Busch cars 100 extra horsepower has really made the difference in the two series a lot smaller,'' Bodine said. ''At Las Vegas, we tested the Cup car for two days, and then I tested the Busch car for the next two days. A lot of the same chassis stuff worked for both cars, and that helped us run well out there in both races that weekend.''
Of course, having a driver who has proven he can win races, no matter the division, can be a motivating factor for both teams.
''I've heard everybody say, 'Well, it sure ain't your driver's fault you're not running well,''' said Larry Carter, Bodine's Winston Cup crew chief and Travis Carter's nephew. ''We know that if we get the car right, we've got a driver who can go to the front.
''Now, it's just up to us to provide him with the car he needs.''
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End Adv for Thursday, March 15
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