Kulwicki's points bid nothing to hoot about


LONG POND, Pa. -- Knock, knock. Who's there? Alan Kulwicki. Alan Kulwicki who? Alan Kulwicki, the man who blew the doors off the rest of the Champion Spark Plug 500 field yesterday and let just about everyone know he is ready to beat down the door for a little respect.

It isn't just that Kulwicki won this Winston Cup 500-miler at Pocono International Raceway at a record-setting 144.069 mph. It isn't simply that he beat Mark Martin to the finish line by 2.34 seconds. It is both of those and more.

Kulwicki is in the hunt for the Winston Cup championship. Before yesterday, who noticed? Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, those are the names everyone talks about, not the man sponsored by Hooters Restaurants. When people talk Kulwicki, it usually is to ask if he has any Hooters' girls with him.

But this win is the fifth of the Wisconsin native's career, and the $74,255 he collected puts him over $3 million in career earnings.

After yesterday's victory, Kulwicki is third in the points race, just 58 behind the front-running Allison and 37 behind Elliott.

"I know you don't get respect overnight," said Kulwicki, who is in his eighth Winston Cup season. "But it is beginning to happen. I'm not overconfident. I'm not cocky. But I think, at this point, we should be taken seriously."

His Ford has eight top-10 finishes in 12 races this season, including two victories and a near-miss in Richmond, Va., where Elliott beat him to the finish line by 18 inches.

But Kulwicki is still the underdog. He wears Mighty Mouse on his uniform. He does the improbable and the impossible. He turns down rides with car owners such as Junior Johnson for the opportunity to sweat over the ownership of his own team -- and then he goes out and wins.

He comes to post-race victory interviews carrying local newspaper clippings.

"I don't know what paper this is, but get a load of this," Kulwicki said, and then read, "The odds on Alan Kulwicki winning this race are 500-1. So let's get this straight, you can eliminate poor Alan Kulwicki right now. . . . "

Kulwicki looked up.

"Someone's going to have to do a rewrite," he said, smiling. "I know this was just in fun. . . . I know there are some doubters. But we're in the winner's circle. We're in the points race. We're doing it with our own team, and it feels awfully good."

Yesterday, neither man nor circumstance could stop Kulwicki, 27.

Allison tried. He charged from 18th to first, but when a jack broke on his final pit stop with 27 laps to go, he was taken out of contention and finished fifth.

Pole sitter Ken Schrader and Martin tried, but their cars fell away as the day wore on, and they wound up fourth and second, respectively.

"I think we had the best car all day," Kulwicki said. "Allison's car improved during the race to the point where it was equal to us. But our car, the longer the race went, retained its edge."

Finally, it was left to Elliott to try to do what no one else could -- take the lead from Kulwicki. In the pits, Elliott's crew chief, Tim Brewer, assessed the situation. Elliott had been running between fourth and sixth most of the day. Brewer figured if he changed just two tires instead of four on Elliott's final pit stop, he could save at least six seconds and get him back on the track ahead of Kulwicki and into the lead.

"We had no choice on that," said Elliott, who finished third. "In order to beat him we had to gamble. We decided to go for it. Shoot, we had a great day, and I'm tickled to death with it. I tried to keep Alan behind me, but he was just too strong."

The only thing that slowed Kulwicki all day was when, shortly after regaining the lead from Elliott, he ran up on the back bumper of a slower car with 14 laps to go. He had to back off drastically to avoid a wreck, allowing Elliott to retake the front spot briefly.

"When you come up on a slow car, you're going 40 to 50 miles an hour faster and you can misjudge things," Kulwicki said. "I gave myself a couple tense moments. . . . After that, I just tried to drive it smart and overtake Bill. I'm glad it worked out."

It worked so well, the next time someone talks about Alan Kulwicki, they might not even mention the Hooters' girls.

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