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Driven by Stricklin

Not only is the veteran behind the wheel of the No. 58 Ford Taurus, his enthusiasm has excited the Winston Cup team owned by Brooksville's Scott Barbour.

SBIII Motorsports, the NASCAR Winston Cup racing team owned by Brooksville's Scott Barbour, is on its third driver in as many months, but Hut Stricklin's enthusiasm for racing has the team optimistic about securing sponsors for the rest of the year.

"We wanted a guy who was hungry, and Hut is hungry," said Barbour, who owns Brooksville-based Turbine Solutions, which deals in reconditioned airline engine parts. "He has shown his abilities on the racetrack, and now I wish he had been with us since the beginning."

Barbour launched the team with Ricky Craven as driver of the No. 58 Ford Taurus, but Craven failed to finish higher than 19th in his first 12 races, and Barbour released him in June. The team brought in Loy Allen as driver for two races, but Allen finished 40th in both.

Stricklin has good connections with Barbour's team in that his father-in-law, Donny Allison, is a consultant to the team. Barbour signed him to drive for the team in July.

"He's done a remarkable job for us," said Barbour, who saw Stricklin finish 15th in the Pennsylvania 500 last month. "The synergy just wasn't there with (Craven), and we're really happy with the change."

Stricklin, 38, of Calera, Ala., also took 39th at the Jiffy Lube 300 and 33rd at the Brickyard 500, and crew chief Mike Hillman said having a new driver has sparked his crew in the last month.

"Everything has been going well since we brought Hut on board," Hillman said. "It's just a chemistry thing. He and I seem to communicate really well, and we're hoping we can end the season on a high note."

For the team to do that, however, it likely needs to secure a primary sponsor for the remaining 14 races on the Winston Cup circuit. Barbour had Hollywood Video as a sponsor for eight races, but has gone without one in the rest of the races. Barbour said Thursday that he could sign a deal for a primary sponsor for next season in the next few days, but he would like to find a short-term sponsor for the remaining races.

"Money is always an issue," Barbour said. "We're going to try to make it through the rest of the year. We really want to race the rest of the way, and having a sponsor would afford us a lot more in (research and development) and testing."

Stricklin's presence should help in that department _ while he's still searching for his first victory, he has earned more than $4-million in 11 years of Winston Cup racing. This is a chance for stability for a driver who ran 14 races with four different owners in 1998, finishing only six.

Craven, meanwhile, has signed on with Midwest Transit Racing, and he finished 13th at the Jiffy Lube 300 last month. Barbour wouldn't elaborate on his reasons behind parting with Craven, and Hillman only said that "that's the past, and we're looking to the future now."

That future likely stands with Stricklin, and while the team is excited about this week's race in Watkins Glen, N.Y., his best chance at victory in the remaining races looks to be on Sept. 5 at Darlington, S.C., where he has come closest to winning. Stricklin had a sizable lead late in the race there in 1996, only to be passed by Jeff Gordon with 16 laps to go.

"He's led a lot of laps there, and he's got a pretty good record on the track," Hillman said. "That's the best bet we're looking at right now."