POMONA, Calif. (Feb. 2) -- It's a foregone conclusion that Valspar Refinish driver Richie "The Kid" Stevens enters this weekend's season-opening 40th annual AutoZone Winternationals as a favorite to challenge for the 2000 Winston Pro Stock ...
POMONA, Calif. (Feb. 2) -- It's a foregone conclusion that Valspar Refinish driver Richie "The Kid" Stevens enters this weekend's season-opening 40th annual AutoZone Winternationals as a favorite to challenge for the 2000 Winston Pro Stock championship. After all, the 21-year-old from New Orleans has posted back-to-back top 10 finishes in his first two years on the 23-event tour, improving from ninth place in 1998 to fifth in '99.
But what really lends credence to Stevens' championship aspirations this season is the fact that he is now powered by the best motors in the business. Stevens signed an unprecedented agreement with five-time Winston champ Warren Johnson in the off-season to run W.J. powerplants in 2000, a perk no other driver aside from Johnson's son Kurt enjoys.
"I finally got to feel the power yesterday," an excited Stevens said after completing his final test session in Tucson, Ariz. "I could actually feel and hear a big difference in this motor. I've never felt acceleration like this, even in the IHRA when I was running (800-plus cubic inch) mountain motors. The motor was pulling so strong all the way through the finish line. It's unbelievable."
After running several laps with his own Jon Kaase-built test motor to work out the chassis and suspension set-up for his sleek Pontiac Firebird, Stevens crew chief Tommy Utt inserted the Johnson-built race motor Tuesday afternoon. The car improved immediately and in just two laps had posted the best lap of the off-season at Southwestern International Raceway, 7.032 seconds at 193.89 mph. (SIR is just over 3,000 feet in elevation.)
"I ran a 7.08 the first time before we even had the clutch set and I was already thinking 'Wow, this is fast'," said Stevens. "I came back to the pit with a big ol' smile on my face and (Johnson's son) Kurt came over and said, 'What are you smiling at?' He knew why. He knew I had finally felt the power of these motors. What's even better is that after the 7.03 lap Warren looked at the computer graphs and said it could have been much quicker. I had pulled a couple of gears early.
"These things are scary quick. I have never been so excited about getting to a race. It scrambles my mind to think about the possibilities we have in front of us. This is going to be an incredible year for us and I can't wait to deliver some more trophies to my team and the folks at Valspar. I'm going to make them proud of me this year."
All race action can be seen on ESPN2 with same-day coverage of the elimination rounds. Qualifying highlights will be broadcast from 9:30-11:30 p.m. (EST) Saturday, Feb. 5. Final eliminations will air from 10:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. (EST) Sunday, Feb. 6.