Phoenix: New car key to Stevens' success

PHOENIX (Feb. 12) -- For the first time in his three-year career, Valspar Refinish Pro Stock driver Richie "The Kid" Stevens arrives at this weekend's Checker-Schuck's-Kragen Nationals among the frontrunners in his class. A fast start at the ...

PHOENIX (Feb. 12) -- For the first time in his three-year career, Valspar Refinish Pro Stock driver Richie "The Kid" Stevens arrives at this weekend's Checker-Schuck's-Kragen Nationals among the frontrunners in his class. A fast start at the season-opener in Pomona, Calif., lifted the 22-year-old from New Orleans to the No. 6 spot in the Winston points standings. Now Stevens finds himself contemplating an early season stroll down Victory Lane, a trip he's taken three times, though never at Firebird International Raceway.

Stevens' enthusiasm and confidence about carding his first national event win of the year is a direct result of the performance of his new 2001 Pontiac Grand Am. Only nine drivers competed in new cars at Pomona, eight of them in Grand Ams. All but one, George Marnell, successfully qualified for the elimination rounds, and five drivers, including Stevens, started race day in the top half of the field.

"These cars were a big question mark before Pomona," Stevens said. "You go and test and throw up a bunch of good numbers but until you race at a national event when everyone else is there you just never know what's going to happen. With the old cars we had three years worth of data to help us tune the car. With the new cars, it's kind of like starting over from scratch. Fortunately, our Valspar Grand Am has responded well so far.

"This weekend will be another big test because this will be the first time down one of the trickiest racetracks we compete on. Firebird hasn't been very good for us in the past. I hope the new car will break that jinx. It's just a tough track to navigate. The good news is that everyone has to run down the same strip so we're all starting from the same point."

Despite the fact that he has only qualified once at Firebird International Raceway and has yet to record an elimination-round win in the desert, the track holds a special place in Stevens' heart. It was there in 1999 that he and his father, Richie Stevens Sr., bought their operation outright from former team owner Shawn Collins, making "The Kid" the youngest person in the NHRA to have a 50-percent ownership interest in a professional team.

"It was a big day for me personally when we took over the team," Stevens said. "Now I want to turn all of our attention to the track so that we can change our attitude about this place as far as racing goes. I know for a fact that if we're standing in the Winner's Circle Sunday evening, Firebird will move way up my list. We should be competitive. We're off to a strong start and the car is getting better every lap. The pieces are definitely in place."

Several hours of the 17th annual Checker-Schuck's-Kragen Nationals will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2. Qualifying highlights will be shown from 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. (ET), Saturday, on ESPN2. The elimination rounds will be broadcast from 2-3 p.m. (ET), Sunday, on ESPN, with additional coverage airing from 6-8 p.m. (ET), Sunday, on ESPN2

-Robert Geiger

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Series NHRA
Drivers George Marnell