DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mike Skinner was walking toward the Winston Cup garage when a woman stopped him for an autograph.
"Excuse, me, Terry," she said. "Could you sign this?"
The smile lines around Mike Skinner's eyes creased, and a grin appeared beneath his Labonte-like mustache.
"I'm not Terry Labonte," he said. "I'm taller and not as rich, but I'll sign it for you."
And this was after Mike Skinner, the Winston Cup rookie driving for car owner Richard Childress, had won the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500 with a 189.813 mph run in his Chevrolet.
"I'm used to having to establish my own identity," said Skinner, 39, who will be leading the field to the starting line today in the first of the Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races.
This week, he has been mistaken for Labonte, the two-time Winston Cup champion, several times at Daytona International Speedway. The previous two years, driving Childress' No. 3 in NASCAR's SuperTruck series, he was mistaken for Earnhardt.
"I've dealt with the love-hate thing fans have with Dale," he says. "Now, I'm mistaken for Terry. I know establishing your own identity is the hardest thing. A person can't help the way they look, but I don't want to be like Dale or Terry. The only thing I want to do like they do is win."
He's a 5-foot-11, 200-pound California native who grew up in the shadows of the Sierra Nevadas in Susanville.
His mother, Susan, owned a small tavern, and, as a kid, he helped her clean it and stack boxes in the mornings. In the afternoons, he spent a lot of time at the pool table. "I thought I was going to be a professional pool player," he said. "My pool game got to be pretty good.
"But then I went racing, and racing did a little more for me. It was harder, more of a challenge."
How much more?
"Doc Blevins, my high school auto shop teacher, failed me," said Skinner, sheepishly, adding that Blevins and three friends helped him get started racing on the short tracks around Susanville. "Since they got me into racing, my pool game isn't so good anymore."
Conversely, his driving has improved considerably.
"He has a lot of talent," said Childress. "I watched him drive equipment that wasn't near as good as other people's in late-model and some Winston Cup races. I saw he could go out there and outrun a lot of other cars that were a lot better. And that's what I look for in a driver, what they can do with what they've got."
The first time Childress suggested Skinner come to work for him, Childress was looking for a driver for the then-new truck series.
Skinner said he thought Childress was kidding.
"I didn't even know what a super truck was," Skinner said. "I told him, 'If Earnhardt calls in sick, give me a ring.' I didn't care about driving a truck. But I thought about it, and driving anything for Richard Childress is too good a deal to turn down. If he asked me to drive a Yugo, I'd probably do it."
Skinner won the 1995 truck championship and won eight races in the series last season to finish third in points.
So when Childress decided to expand his Winston Cup operation this season, Skinner got the call. Suddenly, he is Earnhardt's teammate and driving for the most successful car owner in the country's most popular auto-racing series.
"You have feelings in your life that you'll always remember," Skinner said. "Getting this job to start with was an awfully big high. Having a wife and two sons who support me 100 percent is a real high. Beating Terry Labonte to the line to win the first truck race I ran was a great high. Winning the pole here is another, and, I believe, if I could win this race, it would top it."
That's not to say Skinner believes he is going to win Sunday.
"I've got an aggressive style," he said. "But I'm still in the refining mode, trying to get Winston Cup-wise. You have to have a little Tasmanian Devil in you, but you have to be in control, too. You don't come in here with people respecting you; you have to go out and earn it. You do that by outrunning them. You do that enough and they'll start to respect you."
Because he's a Winston Cup rookie, Skinner said his 20 years of racing experience in other series make little difference to other drivers here: "They'll treat me like I have a disease," when it comes to working together on the track.
When it is suggested Earnhardt, his teammate, would draft with him, Skinner's mustache twitched.
"No comment," he said.
Childress said he and Earnhardt have had a talk about this two-car deal. He said Earnhardt, who, like Skinner, is seeking his first Daytona 500 victory, understands that the two-car team is good for Richard Childress Racing and good for him.
Earnhardt, who also is seeking an eighth Winston Cup title, has not been heard to grumble about the deal.
And Skinner said that both he and Earnhardt want Childress Racing to be successful and that means if one of them can't win, each wants the other one to do so.
Still, Earnhardt isn't totally enamored of the concept.
"I don't really look at him as a teammate " Earnhardt said. "Richard owns two race teams and they're completely different. We share information back and forth. If it comes down to it and we can help each other in a race, as far as drafting goes, it'll be great to do.
"[But] if it comes down to winning, I'm probably going to bend the fenders on that 31 [Skinner's car], just like I would on any other car to get to the front."
Earnhardt has already bent a few of Skinner's fenders, so to speak.
"Whenever we go anywhere, he's so competitive, he has to be the first one in and the first one out," said Skinner, smiling an Earnhardt-like smile. "He's been known to run people over to be first. But I think some of that is going to change. I'm just planning my best attack. I like being first sometimes, too."
All of it brings a knowing look to Childress' face. He has an explosive mix.
"They're similar in nature," said Childress. "Both are very aggressive and determined to win. Right now, we've got a real good working relationship. We'll have to see how the season goes on. But that's my job, to make sure they keep it. They talk and discuss things. They don't go to dinner together, but I think each of these guys has respect for what the other can do."
Childress is the latest to join the multi-car trend. Fifteen cars, 29 percent of the entries, are part of multi-car teams in Sunday's lineup. Childress said the success of such owners as Rick Hendrick and Robert Yates encouraged him to add another car to his domain.
Hendrick drivers Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon won a total of 12 races last season and have back-to-back Winston Cup championships. And the Yates team of Dale Jarrett and Ernie Irvan won six races a year ago, including Jarrett's victory over Earnhardt in the Daytona 500.
"What it does is give you so many more resources," Childress said.
But with the pluses comes a minus: "Keeping everybody with a strong sense that it's a team effort."
Asked if team unity is a challenge, Childress looked toward the garages where his two teams were getting ready for practice and said: "A balancing act, I think, is what you can call it."
Event: Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races
Time: 12: 30 p.m.
TV: Channel 13, Saturday (tape), 2: 30 p.m.
Outlook: The races will determine positions 3 to 38 for Sunday's Daytona 500. Mike Skinner and Steve Grissom locked up the front-row spots with their first-day qualifying efforts.
Rest of the week
Tomorrow: Discount Auto Parts 200, Goody's Dash Series race, 11 a.m.; True Value Firebird International Race of Champions (IROC) XXI, 1: 30 p.m.
Saturday: Gargoyles 300, Busch Grand National race, noon.
Sunday: Daytona 500, Winston Cup series, 12: 15 p.m.
Pub Date: 2/13/97