Kulwicki tracks down his due First since Petty in 1979 to own, drive Winston champ


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Alan Kulwicki hasn't had time to spend even $5,000 of the $2,322,561 he won last season as the Winston Cup champion. But the fact that he is the reigning champion and about to begin defending his title this Sunday has seeped in.

"I was in Detroit for a meeting at Ford, and Mario Andretti, the driver who has been named driver of the quarter century, came up to me and said, 'Congratulations,' " said Kulwicki, his eyes bright. "Not once, but two or three times he commented on it. When someone like that says something like that, it means so much more than money."

Kulwicki is a native of Greenfield, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, and he is not a typical good-old boy.

For one thing, he has an engineering degree.

But the main thing about the 38-year-old Kulwicki is that he has earned everything he has on his own. He turned down the best rides on the circuit, offers from Junior Johnson and Rick Hendrick, to continue to operate his own team.

He is his own car owner. His own driver. He watches his pennies and has become the first driver/car owner to win the title since Richard Petty last won the championship in 1979.

"There has been a lot of satisfaction from doing it on my own," Kulwicki said. "I think it's the ultimate satisfaction."

Few others have come close in the driver/owner role. Bill Elliott tried with his family team, but didn't win the title until 1988, after Harry Melling bought it. Darrell Waltrip is trying to pull off the feat. He finished ninth last season.

Waltrip looks at Kulwicki and sees inspiration.

"Now, I know it can be done," said Waltrip, a former three-time champion while driving for Johnson.

jTC Elliott looks at Kulwicki and wonders what he's really made of.

"The first thing Bill said after I won the title was, 'OK, let's see how he does now,' " recalled Kulwicki.

In the eyes of many, it was every bit a miracle. And now he is going out to prove miracles can happen twice.

But if he wins it again, it won't be a miracle in Kulwicki's eyes. Instead, it will have come from single-minded determination.

"We've worked Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day and every Saturday since we won this championship," Kulwicki said. "I've worked harder, put in more time than I have before because if we come up short I don't want to look back and wish I had done more.

"The hardest part of defending is time management," he said. "I realize the value of dealing with the media and the sponsors. I wouldn't be here without either one. But I have to make sure I spend the time I need to spend with the race car."

Even with the time spent, the week has not gone quite the way he had intended. During qualifying Saturday, he was only 27th fastest at 187.445 mph in his Hooter's Ford Thunderbird. Last Sunday, in the Busch Clash, he managed only a sixth-place finish, collecting $6,000.

Now he is trying to regroup and produce a strong run in tomorrow's 125-mile qualifying races. The 125s are important because starting positions in Sunday's Daytona 500 are determined by the way drivers finish in those races. And it is important to start and finish well at Daytona.

"If you get off on the wrong foot, it can take a long time to turn that around," Kulwicki said, recalling how Elliott started second here last season, got caught up in a crash and finished 27th. Despite four straight victories after Daytona, Elliott still was not able to lead the points and wound up losing the title by 10 points to Kulwicki.

This week at Daytona has been different from the others Kulwicki has spent here. Before, he was just one of the crowd. Dale Earnhardt, Elliott, Davey Allison and others shared the limelight. Kulwicki was, as he frankly admits, an afterthought.

But when he walks through the garage now, people greet him. When he walks out of the garage to his car at the end of the day's work, fans clamor for his autograph.

"They look up to me," he said. "It's like they put you on a different level than they're on and I don't go around trying to put myself on a different level like that. It takes some getting used to."

He's not exactly sure how he feels about this all-star, celebrity treatment. But he is sure how he feels about this season.

"I know already that defending this title will be harder than winning it and that there is a lot more tension. But I know I can do it.

"Right now, defending this title is a new challenge and I seem to thrive on challenges. Everyone said I was crazy or stupid to turn down the rides that were offered to me. Then they said I'd never make it on my own. Then, last September, everyone said I was too far behind in the points race to catch up. And now they're saying the new pressures -- the additional fan, media and sponsorship demands -- will get the best of me.

"We'll see. I'm trying to defy those odds and I'm very motivated to do it."

Daytona 500

Where: Daytona International Speedway

When: Sunday, noon

Pole sitter: Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix, 189.426 mph

Outside front row: Dale Jarrett, Chevrolet Lumina, 189.274 mph

1992 winner: Davey Allison

TV: Channels 11, 9

Radio: WXCY (103.7 FM)

Preliminaries: Tomorrow, NASCAR Winston Cup Twin 125-mile Qualifiers; Friday: Dodge International Race of Champions (IROC); Saturday, NASCAR Busch Series, Goody's 300

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