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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: Ken Schrader

Ken Schrader Age: 51
0 wins, 0 top 5's, 2 top 10's, 8 top 15's
Avg Start 25.6 Avg finish 26.2 8 DNF's
Pts Rank: 31st, Driver Rating: 57.2
#21 Little Debbie Ford
Crew Chief: Michael "Fatback" McSwain

Ken Schrader simply loves to drive cars. As if 704 Cup starts wasn't enough, Schrader also races in Busch, Truck and several dirt series. Not all the results shone in 2006, but a move to Wood Brothers produced several good runs. After moving from underfunded BAM racing to one of NASCAR's landmark teams, Schrader scored 2 top tens and 8 top fifteens.

Moving from Dodge to Ford, Schrader enjoyed Yates/Roush engines, one of the strongest in the sport. He took immediate advantage and finished ninth at the season opening Daytona 500. It was the 22nd top ten at Daytona in Schrader's career. Aside from two early mechanical failures, Schrader did what he does best: complete laps and stay out of trouble. He finished 16th at Texas, Phoenix and Talladega. Add a 15th at Richmond and his late spring was very successful. Sandwiched in the middle of his run was an unavoidable crash at Talladega. While the crash was out of his hands, it was still his third DNF in the first nine races. He ended up with 8 total DNF's on the year.

As successful as his spring was, June ushered in 7 finishes of 26th or worse out of eight races. This included two more crashes at Michigan and Sonoma. The summer swoon led to a key move by Wood Brothers. Crew Chief David Hyder was replaced by Fatback McSwain to prepare for 2007. He took over as crew chief in July and made an instant impact. Hyder had been Schrader's crew chief at both BAM and Wood Brothers. But McSwain is a proven difference maker and it was the right move. In the first two races, Schrader finished 15th at Pocono, and 14th at Indianapolis.

Solid runs continued up to his best race of the season. He scored a 7th at Richmond, running in the top ten all night (94.5 driver rating). Three more crashes during the Chase ended the year on a sour note. Still Schrader did have several good runs, especially after McSwain took over. This gives promise for next year.

Schrader's best two tracks, as shown in 2006, are Daytona and Richmond. Like most veterans he is strongest on tracks that require patience. Places like Martinsville, Darlington, and Bristol all give Schrader a chance at a top ten. Factor in McSwain's knowledge and it's realistic to think Schrader can improve on 2006. The biggest key is avoiding the eight DNF's. As long as Schrader is on track, he is capable of finishing in the top 25 regardless of the track or quality of car. Given a good car and Schrader can land a top fifteen finish. A weakness of Schrader is the newer intermediate tracks. At Kansas, Texas, Chicago, Fontana, Las Vegas and Homestead he has a single top ten. McSwain will try to find a good setup for this type of track.

A large unknown for all of NASCAR is the pending Car of Tomorrow. This should be less of a worry for the Wood Brothers. Ford is reportedly undertaking the research and design for the team's CofT. As a one car team, this greatly levels the playing field for the Woods. Given Schrader's experience in numerous racing series, including the similar Truck series, the new car won't pose a large problem. The races will also be at Schrader's stronger tracks like Richmond, Bristol and Martinsville. Certainly no panic from Wood Brothers and Schrader.

Despite staying with the Wood Brothers, 2007 will be a transition year. Schrader will split time with rookie Jon Wood. Schrader has driven a full schedule every year since his rookie year in 1984. It is not known how long Schrader will drive in Cup. He will turn 52 in May. Wood Brothers is intent on expanding to two Cup cars, however that might not include Schrader. With Wood already set to drive in 2007 and Marcos Ambrose working through the ranks, Schrader might be the odd man out.

In the age of young guns, it is more difficult than ever for a veteran like Schrader to stay in the sport. Schrader, who also owns a dirt track in Missouri, will no doubt drive as long as someone is willing. He is popular with sponsors, can drive any type of car and just loves to race. 2007 might indicate how long Schrader will or can continue.

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