Originally created 05/30/99

Wood brothers on rebound



CONCORD, N.C. -- Len Wood stood in the busy garage area Saturday afternoon and watched a crewman put a final coat of wax on the race car. While others were busy making major adjustments in preparation for tonight's Coca-Cola 600 (6:05 p.m., TBS) at the Lowe's Motor Speedway at Charlotte, the second generation leader of one of the most famous families in racing seemed almost relaxed.

There is no panic in the Wood Brothers Racing stables. Victory, once so simple, hasn't been part of the routine for more than six years. Once one of the major players on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, the Wood Brothers, despite all their great intentions, have been relegated to nothing more than back markers and sentimental favorites.

Until now.

The race team with one of the best records in the 600-mile race has its best starting position in six years. A routine that had been stagnant suddenly is full of life. The team has a new driver, a new crew chief and a brand new car for stock car racing's marathon, and suddenly, there is a spark.

"Times have changed," Wood said before the final practice session on the 1.5-mile raceway. "The competition level doesn't get better every year, it seems to get better every week. That's why we changed things around the way we have.

"We all might give out, but this race team will never give up."

The Wood Brothers helped David Pearson win two 600-milers at Charlotte in the 1970s. Neil Bonnett (1982) and Kyle Petty (1987) also have taken the popular family from Stuart, Va., to Victory Lane.

Now it's Elliott Sadler's turn to revive the fortunes of one of the sport's leading families. The rookie with only one top-20 finish this year qualified fourth at 184.761 mph and he was quickest in Thursday night's practice session and fourth-quickest in Saturday's final hour shakedown before tonight's main event.

"I'm pretty happy," Sadler said. "The car's real stable right now. It drives like a dream. I think once the nighttime comes, we'll be there."

The race starts under the late afternoon sun at 6:05 p.m and finishes well into the night about four hours later. The driving characteristics of a stock car change dramatically between night and day and Sadler's Citgo Ford Taurus has shown the best balance of all 43 cars for both conditions.

"We want to run all 600 miles," Sadler said. "That's our first goal. Six hundred miles is longer than I've ever run before. Right now, the car's better than the driver."

The race team, Wood figures, should offset his lack of experience.

"We think we've given him a comfortable car," Wood said. "That's the key to running 600 miles here. We want him to stay out of troulbe early and kee all the fenders on the car. Stay on the lead lap, then with 100-to-150 miles to go, then it's time to put yourself in position to win."

Glen Wood started the race team in 1950. He joined with his brother, Leonard Wood, in creating an organization that spawned the stock car hall of fame careers of drivers like Pearson, Bonnett, Cale Yarborough and A.J. Foyt.

Glen and Leonard Wood have since turn the operation over to Glen's sons, Len and Eddie, but the family ties remain the team's trademark.

But unlike the past 49 years, someone other than a Wood will be calling the shots along pit road for today's race. Mike Beam, who for years worked with Bill Elliott, now serves as the crew chief as two racing generations take a step back to find a new perspective.

"We're in our second year of getting all of our engines from Roush Racing and we get the (car) bodies done in Statesville, N.C.," Len Wood said. "In the past, we've always gone with a veteran driver, but this time, we decided to get a young driver from the Busch Series and develop with him. We knew it was going to be frustrating at first. We knew it was going to take us a year to get things worked out. But we feel like that's our future. That's what's best for this race team."

The front of the Coca-Cola 600 field is full of young drivers with little experience in running up front in Winston Cup.

Bobby Labonte (185.230 mph) is on the pole, while Jeff Burton (184.868) is second. Those two have combined to win 14 races in their careers, including a win by Labonte in the 600 in 1995.

The next three starting positions are filled with drivers who've never won a race, while the sixth spot features a driver who hasn't won since 1991.

Kenny Wallace is third at 184.799 mph, while Sadler is fourth at 184.761, Steve Park is fifth at 184.634 and Ken Schrader is sixth at 184.483.

The rest of the top 10 include: Mark Martin in seventh, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in eighth, Jeremy Mayfield in ninth and Jeff Gordon in 10th.

In 39 previous 600-mile races at Charlotte, every winner has started 20th or better. In fact, 28 winners have started inside the top 10.

Some of the noteable drivers starting tonight's race outside the top 20 include: Michael Waltrip in 26th, Tony Stewart in 27th, Dale Jarrett in 28th, Bill Elliott in 29th, Petty in 34th and Terry Labonte in 37th.

Stewart will drive at the Indianapolis 500 at noon today, then fly directly to the speedway in North Carolina for the Coca-Cola 600. While his qualifying time wasn't that good, he had the fastest car in the final practice session Saturday night.

Sadler, on the other hand, has been consistently quick.

"We should be good when the race starts," Sadler said. "We've got it set up to make a couple little changes during the race so we can be even better at night. This has been a great week for me and this race team. I'm trying to keep everything under control."

Deep down, despite their relaxed appearance, so are the Wood Brothers.



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