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Riggs aiming for faster starts

First the bad news on Scott Riggs:

  • Knocked out of two of the season's first 12 races by crashes, at Daytona and Bristol.

  • Knocked out of a third race (Richmond) by engine failure.

  • Has finished higher than 25th just once, a 15th-place showing at Texas.

  • Has been stuck in the standings between a high of 32nd and a low of 35th (he's currently 34th heading into this Sunday's MBNA 400 "A Salute to Heroes" in Dover, Del.).

    Lest you think the news has been all bad, there have been a couple of bright spots, namely qualifying fifth at Talladega and fifth at California.

    Still, there's no question that his rookie season in Nextel Cup competition has been rough thus far on Riggs, driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet. Not only has he had to battle the lingering fallout from replacing the popular Johnny Benson on the MBV Motorsports team, Riggs' performance has not been the marked improvement hoped for from Benson's departure.

    Even though he wasn't the most successful driver week to week on the Cup circuit, Benson had a lot of fans who were quite unhappy when MBV released him at the end of last season, a legacy that has followed Riggs around somewhat in his first full Nextel Cup campaign.

    Even though he turned 33 on New Year's Day, which is somewhat old for a rookie in Cup racing, Riggs is no neophyte. He's been racing since he was a kid, first on motorcycles and then graduating to four wheels. After bouncing around the sportsman ranks for several years, the Bahama, N.C., resident began his progression into the NASCAR professional ranks as a part-time driver in the Craftsman Truck Series in 1999 and 2000.

    The 2001 season was without question Riggs' breakout year, winning five races and having nine other top-five finishes in 24 starts en route to a fifth-place overall finish in the CTS. He was elevated to the Busch Series the following season, finishing 10th in 2002 and then led the circuit several times last season before finishing sixth. He also won a pair of races in each of his two Busch seasons.

    This season has admittedly been a struggle for both Riggs and the MBV operation. Not only is the organization still coping with the near-fatal crash and ongoing recovery/rehabilitation of Jerry Nadeau in the No. 1 Chevy, Riggs has wallowed in the standings, while teammate Joe Nemechek, who is Nadeau's indefinite replacement, after Charlotte moved up two spots to 23rd position heading into Dover.

    "We know we're better than 23rd," Nemechek said earlier this week after finishing a respectable 14th in Sunday's grueling Coca-Cola 600. "It's time we start getting the finishes that this team is capable of producing."

    Riggs, meanwhile, finished 34th at Charlotte, having fought an ill-handling car for the majority of the race until it finally was back to being competitive late in the race.

    "The car was really free at the beginning of the race and we lost a lot of track position, and eventually a lot of laps," said Riggs, who qualified 28th. "We kept working to tighten the car and eventually got it to where we wanted it. But it was too little too late … We were already three or four laps down. It was just too late to do anything and I hate that for this team. We have to figure out how to be that fast at the beginning of the race so we can bring home the results we deserve."

    Indeed, Nemechek's thoughts about producing stronger finishes echo Riggs' status. He and the team both know they're also capable of better finishes -- and hopefully can finally demonstrate that on Dover's Monster Mile, which has been pretty good to Riggs in the past.

    "I've had some good finishes at Dover," Riggs said. "I won there in a truck (from the pole in 2001) and I had good finishes the last two years in the Busch Series races (finished second and third, respectively). I think I have a pretty good handle on the track, but as I've seen this year, these Cup cars are a lot different from the Busch ones. Plus, with the new tires, I'm taking the (No. 10) into this race with a lot of unanswered questions."

    They key to success at Dover, Riggs feels, is being able to handle the track's high-banked walls. If you can get a good line through the corners and exit quickly, you have the potential to pass and get around competitors all that much easier.

    "Dover is like a big Bristol," he said. "It's really fast. It has a lot of grip which makes the speeds so fast that it's easy to slip the tires because you're going so much faster than usual. It's a place that you have to be careful and take care of your stuff and try to be there at the end.

    "You need to be able to carry a lot of speed into the corners, but you have to be careful not to overshoot them at the same time. If your car is a little bit off, you can't hustle it around there and go fast. You have to have the car handling pretty well. It's hard to make up for anything it doesn't have.

    "It's also hard to pass at Dover. You come off the corners and the walls come up really quick. Your car has to be a lot better than the one in front of you in order to pull your car lower and make a run."

    The combination of his struggles to date, coupled with his success in recent years at Dover make Riggs a dark horse to pull off a big surprise there this Sunday.

    Now, it's just a matter of doing it, he says.

    "The team hasn't had the finishes I had hoped for, but that's part of being a new operation," he said. "We're still working to overcome our learning curve. I think we've made progress, but still have things to learn.

    "By the end of every race the No. 10 Chevy is running great lap times and passing cars. The problem is that we always seem to figure out the set-up for the car, or the right line around the track, too late in the race. If we can be as fast when the green flag drops as we are at the end of the event, we could have solid finishes every week."

    Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.