Originally created 08/07/03

Wells no longer stranger to NASCAR



A lot of people who didn't even know Cal Wells III disliked him when he came to NASCAR as a team owner in 2000.

The quiet Californian, moving to stock cars from the CART Champ Car series, Toyota-Atlantic and off-road racing, was a stranger to the Southern crowd and, worse, had somehow wound up with Tide and McDonald's as the sponsors of his new two-car PPI Motorsports team.

They had been the primary sponsors for Ricky Rudd and Bill Elliott, respectively, and Wells was considered an unscrupulous carpetbagger and interloper for allegedly snatching those companies from two of NASCAR's most popular drivers - both also struggling team owners at the time.

His reception in the Winston Cup garage area was cool, but Wells has insisted from the beginning that he did nothing unethical or underhanded in signing sponsors who were looking to make a change.

"There may have been some skepticism or disbelief that somebody could come in and capture that type of attention, two very premier sponsors," said Ricky Craven, who moved into the No. 32 Tide Ford at the start of the 2001 season and has given Wells his only two Cup victories.

"The first year was tough on Cal. In hindsight, I believe he's benefited from it. I believe he is as tough as anybody I've ever met, mentally. I believe there are people who wouldn't have survived that first year."

For his part, Wells said, "I've been able to develop a couple of friendships in the garage area that I really enjoy. But there's still some bitterness from a few folks."

Things have not gone smoothly for Wells since then, either.

McDonald's dropped its primary sponsorship late in the 2001 season and economics forced Wells to drop his second Cup entry in 2002.

"He just refocused, reevaluated and became more efficient," Craven said of his boss. "We've had steady progress in 2 1/2 years, and a lot of it is because of him."

Wells acknowledges losing the second car was tough to take at the time, but said it has turned out to be a plus.

"I think it was the best thing that could have happened to the company. Trying to run two cars, I just wasn't capable of doing.

"My gosh, we went from 70 people to 250 between Cup, Busch, CART, Atlantic and desert. It was too much. Being bicoastal was too much. I wasn't enjoying it. I was scrambling all the time. There was a lot of money in and out of it, but all I was doing was screwing it up."

The 47-year-old Wells, who lives full time in Hickory, N.C., said he knew making the transition from open-wheel and desert racing to stock cars would be hard, but not this hard.

"But I love steep competition. If you win here, you've really done something. My disappointment right now is we're just not doing it enough. We have speed about half the time - good speed, really good speed, great winning speed. And about half the time, we don't. I have to fix that other half."

Going into Sunday's road race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., Craven has had a mostly mediocre season, including just five top-10 finishes in the first 21 races. But one of those was a win in Darlington.

Wells said he considered Craven's first PPI win, in Martinsville in fall 2001, a happy surprise, but his Darlington victory was a sign of the team's growth.

"I do believe the rest of the season, we're going to be stronger," he said. "We ought to be able to win another race and we ought to be able to finish in the top 10."