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The spirit of Alan Kulwicki lives on this season, reborn on the NASCAR trail

   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   You like feel-good stories?
   Well, this season has a couple of good ones to watch:
   Jeremy Mayfield, who is determined to be this year's version of Alan Kulwicki, doing the mostest with the leastest.
   And Scott Riggs and rookie owner Tommy Baldwin, who may give Mayfield a run for the money for that honor.
   And Elliott Sadler and AJ Allmendinger, teammates now at the old Gillett-Evernham operation, now apparently being run, in part, by Richard Petty, as Richard Petty Motorsports. Old School battling the New School this season.
   Talk about the School of Hard Knocks, these guys all have graduated magna cum laude.
   But can they all make a go of it this year?
   They managed to get through SpeedWeeks at Daytona.
   But now, well, it's going to start getting really expensive really fast, criss-crossing the country.
   It's going to take a good budget to make it from here to November.
   "You quickly learn in this sport that it doesn't owe you anything," Allmendinger says. "You've got to earn everything you get. 
   "You can sit back and feel bad about yourself, or whine.
    "But there are a lot of people in this world a lot less fortunate than I am right now.
    "For me it ultimately comes down to either you can quit or work harder and make something happen.
   "I'm going to keep working harder. That's my attitude.
   "It was a tough off season for everybody…it was a long off season. There's a lot of stuff that went on throughout the team with the merger (Petty Enterprises and Gillett-Evernham).
   "But you can see the excitement when you go to the shop, and at the racetrack just everybody's attitude, everybody's pumped up and excited. The King (Petty) is walking around saying 'Hi' to everybody, making sure everybody's good." 
    So what might have happened at the end at Daytona if the race had been restarted, with Matt Kenseth leading Kevin Harvick, and Sadler and Allmendinger lurking?
   "I've been asked a lot this week whether I wanted the race to re¬start," Allmendinger said. "For the fans' sake I wish it could have restarted. I wish we could have given them 500 miles…and I think everyone knows it would have been a pretty wild ending.
   "For our team's sake, we would have loved to have had a chance to win the Daytona 500.
   "But leaving there with a third-place finish isn't all that bad. I'm not going to complain."
    Certainly not Sadler either, though he may be second-guessing that last lap for the rest of his life.      
  Sadler had a rough off-season, waking up one morning last month to hear that his car owner was putting Allmendinger in the car.
  When the dust settled, Sadler had his old ride again, and some new-found fire.
  "I needed this after the off season that I've had," Sadler says of his Daytona run -- in the final miles, before the rain ended it all, Sadler found himself in the lead.
    "I put my heart and soul into Daytona, to compete at the top of my game, because I knew I had a lot of eyes on me to run good," Sadler says. 
    "It was cool running up front. It was great having Reed (Sorenson) and AJ behind me pushing. It would have been cool to finish like that.
   "But just wasn't meant to be.
    "Daytona was a tough one to swallow. But I can honestly say now it's time to focus on the positive -- I had a top-five finish, led more laps in one race than I did in all of 2008…and I'm in a great position to start the season.
   "We were in position to win the race.
   "If I would have made a better and smarter move,
   "Don’t get me wrong, I know it's a long season, and it's not going to get any easier.
    But this season I am out to prove I'm a damn good race car driver who can compete with the best of them.
   "If you'd told me at the beginning of the day would I would take a fifth place finish and lead some laps, I probably would have taken it.
   "It's a great way to get a good start to the season…but to be a half-a-lap short from winning the Daytona 500 is very emotional to me. 
    "I had a chance to win it.  Just made one mistake off turn four. I didn't drag the brake enough."
   Sadler was leading Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth at the climax, but they had a good run on him.
   "I thought if I blocked to the outside, somebody might come with me," Sadler said. "But they had such a good head of steam…
    "I had to make a choice -- let him go to the outside of me or under me.
   "I decided to let him go under me, and hopefully side-draft him a bit."
   But it might have been the rain….
   "My crew chief told me for the last 45 minutes of the race that 'It's raining on the radar,'" Sadler said.
   "I said 'Welcome to Elliott Sadler's world: It's probably raining all around the racetrack…but when I need it, in the lap where I get passed, it starts raining in turn three.
     "I thought it was going to be called a little bit earlier than it was.  I was getting emotional in the car thinking 'Wouldn't this be the coolest story?'
   "I came down as fan the first time in 1979…and now to have a chance to win the race.
     "I can play that pass back in my head a million times, but it's not going to change the outcome. 
    "I needed to do a better job leading the race, and put my car in a position to make it wider for them to pass.
   "It's hard to swallow. 
   "I'm proud of my guys: They all worked out great.
   "But to look in their faces when the rain was coming down when I got out of the car, man, that was hard…because I felt like I let them down."


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