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Friend's help keeps him on track

Joe Nemechek is just waiting.

He's still in the Busch Grand National series; today's Goody's 300 at Daytona International Speedway marks the start of his third season. But any Joe who knows a tie rod would look silly wrapped around your neck knows this Lakeland driver doesn't figure to be there long.

He is, in so many ways, NASCAR's golden boy, a fast-rising young hotshot who has everything on his side except White House backing. He has Dale Earnhardt almost as his personal driving coach, a major sponsor for the first time in his career and the pre-season vote of nearly everyone for the 1992 series championship.

Heck, he's already got one of his race cars sitting in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame Museum at Talladega, Ala.

Imagine, all of this for a guy who hasn't won a race in two years.

"There's a lot of things happening in our favor lately," Nemechek said Friday as he and his crew tuned up their No.

87 Chevy for today's season-opening race. "We're getting more organized and just getting everything put together. I'd say we're headed in the right direction."

That direction is the Winston Cup series, where he might make his debut this year at age 28. He has been pointed that way ever since he started tearing up Central Florida short tracks such as Auburndale Speedway and Orlando Speed World in the mid 1980s. And he has been labeled a Winston Cup sure bet ever since he caught Earnhardt's eye during a test session.

Earnhardt didn't have to know that Nemechek won the 1988 United Stock Car Alliance series' championship and rookie of the year award or that he did the same thing the following year on a national level in the All-Pro Late Model class _ a first in modern American professional motorsports touring series history. That's what put his car in the Hall of Fame museum.

Earnhardt liked what he saw and ever since has been somewhat of a mentor for Nemechek, who consults with the five-time Winston Cup champion frequently on everything from driving to preparing his car. "I don't know how I could ever repay him for the things he's done for me," Nemechek said.

So impressed is Earnhardt that last season when Nemechek was without a sponsor, Earnhardt backed him for a race (at Charlotte) _ and even put his name in huge letters across the side of Nemechek's car.

"I think he's going to be a good driver," Earnhardt said. "He's determined, and he's coming up the right way, working his way up."

Is Nemechek being groomed to be the next "Intimidator?" Nemechek, who drives a Chevy Lumina like Earnhardt's, doesn't embrace the nickname, but he doesn't deflect it, either.

For now, Nemechek's reputation is tied more to consistency than intimidation. He finished sixth last season in the Busch series points race (despite not winning a race) because he rarely finished out of the top 10, was runner-up twice at Watkins Glen and South Boston, and completed 91.8 percent of a possible 6,826 laps.

"I worked with a lot of smart drivers in my life, but Joe is really, really up there," said Nemechek's crew chief, Vic Kangas. "Nobody could do everything that Joe can. I mean, Joe could build this race car himself if he had to, and that just makes our job so much easier."

Nemechek's steady 1991 season earned him a career-high $124,255 and lured the sponsorship dollars of Texas Pete sauces for this season. With the bucks to buy better equipment and a veteran crew chief like Kangas, Nemechek and those around him are licking their chops over this season's prospects.

He is starting off right, at least, going from the front row of today's Goody's 300. Winston Cup driver Michael Waltrip beat him for the pole.

"I'd say (Nemechek's) the one to beat," said Busch Grand National driver Todd Bodine.

Before this season is over, Nemechek may race against another Bodine: Geoff or Brett, both Winston Cup veterans. Without giving many details, Nemechek said he is trying to work a deal to drive in as many as four Winston Cup races this season. He would join Bartow's Rick Wilson as the only Florida drivers on the circuit.

"I just need to keep getting more experience," said Nemechek, who won the 1990 Busch series rookie of the year award without winning a race.

It doesn't matter whether it happens this year or next. The Winston Cup circuit isn't going anywhere and Nemechek is just waiting.