BUSCH: Junior Johnson Returns to Racing

HAMPTONVILLE - Legendary NASCAR driver/owner Junior Johnson made a return to the sport today, announcing he is serving as a "consultant" to a new Busch Grand National team which will make its debut in the Easter Saturday race at...

HAMPTONVILLE - Legendary NASCAR driver/owner Junior Johnson made a return to the sport today, announcing he is serving as a "consultant" to a new Busch Grand National team which will make its debut in the Easter Saturday race at Nashville, TN. The No. 65 Chevrolet Monte Carlo will run under the Sasser Motorsports banner, sponsored by Overton's, Inc., a Greenville, NC, company that has become the world's largest watersports dealer. The driver will be Chris Cook, a 32-year-old instructor at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix. Cook, a 32-year-old whose driving experiences include the Alaskan Grand Prix (three consecutive championships), go-kart racing, top-level road racing, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix, feels he is ready to tackle NASCAR. In Bondurant's advanced course, Cook takes students through 1-3 days of training on a variety of race courses before the "graduation exam." "We let them out on the course, then we grab our own Cobra and go racing to see how they handle the pressure," Cook says. "It's a true race situation. We're running nose-to-tail, door-to-door around the track working with many great drivers." Cook feels that experience - plus the luxury of the four courses he drives on every week, from a quarter-mile "warm-up" track to the big 2.3-miler - will help make it an easier transition to Busch racing. "Anytime you're behind the wheel on the race track at speed, it helps you physically and mentally," Cook says. "In my course, I start out with a fresh set of tires and learn to adapt to the changing chassis, the changing tires, the changing conditions of a track. And because Phoenix is so hot, you learn a lot about car conservation; the car going from feeling strong to feeling very, very loose." Each track at Bondurant, Cook says, has a different personality, "similar to those in NASCAR." The team's first outing will be at Nashville on Easter Saturday. "Nashville is a tough, demanding race track, and we have a lot of respect for it," Cook says. But he points out that for him, it's like "a homecoming." Cook was the Rookie of the Year, set the unofficial track record, won two pole positions, and notched multiple top-five finishes in the Late Model division at Nashville in 1992. "Coming back to circle track racing is like a Godsend," Cook says. "We built up quite a following in Nashville, and I think they still remember me there." The Sasser Motorsports team has a five-race schedule tentatively mapped out in this, its first season on the circuit. Crew chief for the Nashville race is Jimmie Wilson, a well-respected name in NASCAR who most recently served as a high-level consultant to various Winston Cup teams. The team is based out of Johnson's former "Smokin Joe" NASCAR Winston Cup shops in Hamptonville. The 68-year-old is not the crew chief or the team owner, and has no financial interest in the team. But his relationship with the team goes deeper than being a landlord. Team members have been known to spend long weekends in the Johnson guest house and the nearby "Glen Oaks" farm owned by Johnson. Johnson can be seen frequently huddling with team owners Kevin Sasser and his father Jimmy, and the younger Sasser and family are heading on a Disney World trip with Johnson and his family. The Sasser involvement is about as deeply as he wants to get committed to racing, he says. "It's a very big hassle running a race team," says Johnson. He should know. As a driver, he won 50 of the sport's premiere events. Then, as an owner, he still ranks fifth on NASCAR's list of all-time winning owners, earning more than $22 million dollars. In 1995, Johnson walked away from the sport with a year remaining on a major contract with building materials retailer Lowe's Companies of North Wilkesboro. He sold the entire operation to Brett Bodine, left the key in the door, and never looked back . . . until now. Johnson admits that "I've had some great offers to get back into racing. Just six months ago, I had an offer to come back and head up a big-time, competitive Winston Cup team. I just thanked them for remembering me, and said 'no, thanks.'" Johnson said that he developed a friendship with Kevin Sasser over the years, as they both indulged in a common diversion: Coon hunting. Although Sasser Motorsports and Overton's have committed to a five-race schedule for 1999, they team is aggressively looking to compete in additional events during 1999. And next year, Kevin Sasser's plans to "have a little fun" get ratcheted up a notch when the team hopes to go to a two-car effort --- with Kevin Sasser as driver for one car.

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Drivers Brett Bodine , Bob Bondurant , Junior Johnson , Chris Cook