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Winless skid clouds future for Skinner

Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2001

LONG POND, Pa. -- As soon as his driving duties were finished and Happy Hour was done, Mike Skinner was free to spend last Saturday afternoon as he wished.

The greatest lull in a racing weekend is the time between the final practice session and the beginning of the main event on Sunday. Last week at the Michigan International Speedway, that was a difference of nearly 25 hours.

For most, it's a time to relax. Early dinner, playtime with the children, a little television, a good night's sleep.

Skinner, however, bounced around the garage area like a night watchman suffering from a rush of caffeine. He studied his race car, talked strategy with his crew, then he seemingly disappeared with a sense of urgency.

''This is not a good time,'' said Skinner's public relations spokesman. ''He's got a lot on his mind.''

It hasn't been a good time for Mike Skinner in a long while. In fact, it hasn't been good for the past 158 races. That's how long Skinner has been a driver on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, which coincides with how long Skinner has been without a victory.

The first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion hasn't been able to transform that success to the stock car series. He works for one of the best racing teams in the business Richard Childress Racing and that team, so far, has been patient during the learning process.

Patience, however, is wearing thin.

''We're uncertain about our future,'' Skinner said. ''I'm not uncertain, because I know I'm a good race car driver, and I know in the event we don't get things worked out here, we'll find a place for us.

''But I want this to be my future.''

Childress has spent the past five months getting over the professional and personal shock of losing Dale Earnhardt. Childress and Earnhardt won six NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships together, and as long as they were at the pinnacle of the sport, it deflected a lot of attention away from Skinner and his lack of progress. Everything has changed.

Lowe's has hinted it might look for another team to sponsor next year. Childress already has Kevin Harvick in Earnhardt's car that team won in its third race and there are plans to put Jeff Green in a third car sponsored by America Online in 2002.

Skinner and Childress will talk about the future of the team later this month. Right now, Skinner seems prepared for the worst. He is 24th in the point standings. He's got one top-10 finish in 14 races.

Rumors are thick in the garage area that Childress is looking for a new driver. Kurt Busch, Jeff Green and truck racer Scott Riggs are being mentioned the most.

''Our goal is to stay right where we're at, at Richard Childress Racing, and with this race team,'' Skinner said. ''That's why we're working so hard to turn this corner and get this car to where it's competitive again. We need to try to get us back in the top 15 in points. That wouldn't be an embarrassment.''

Until then, Mike Skinner can't relax.

REACH Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com.



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