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FORT WORTH, Texas - A shaky run at Darlington Raceway two weekends ago might suggest that Shawna Robinson had been taken to school during the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

But Robinson and crew chief Teddy Brown gleaned valuable information from that 51-lap performance on St. Patrick's Day. They learned that the driver was right and the car was wrong, and the 4-month-old BAM Racing team left NASCAR's South Carolina campus a rung higher on the Winston Cup learning curve.

And with a season to grow, that knowledge must be applied to make the team competitive, the driver more confident, and the year-end goal a reality. Robinson continues that process this week at Texas Motor Speedway in preparation for the Samsung/RadioShack 500 on Sunday.

"I want to have a sponsor and know that I'm racing full time in 2003," said Robinson, who in 2001 became the first woman to finish a Winston Cup race since Janet Guthrie in 1980. "To do that, I just have to maintain what I'm doing now and get better and better. As long as we can leave each track better than when we got there, it's a good place to be."

The driver of the No. 49 Dodge, Robinson has made the field in the four races the team has entered. Though the final results have been disappointing, she said the team has shown its potential despite having only 21 days to prepare for the season.

"We had plenty of people come tell us, 'There's no way this race team is going to be ready to go to Daytona,' " said Robinson, who made one of her three NASCAR Busch Grand National starts last year at TMS. "It was, and we made that race on time. We finished, and I think we proved a lot. And we have definitely proved a lot by qualifying for Las Vegas and Atlanta and showing that we can make races.

"Where I'm disappointed is I want to run better, I want to learn more. I'm a very impatient person. I want things to happen. I don't want to be practicing and look at the board and see me on the right side at the very bottom. I hate that. It's a process where you just have to maintain your focus on what you need to be doing, how can you be better."

Brown, in his rookie season as a Winston Cup crew chief, can testify to the team's progress.

"We started off crawling, and now we're at a fast walk," he said. "We're getting better every week. … It's the jelling of a team that takes so long."

The Darlington experience is part of the process. Though the car was to blame for the 42nd-place finish, Robinson said her confidence was rattled after Darlington.

"My crew was like, 'Absolutely it was not you,' " said Robinson, 37. "But you still feel like, 'Why the heck am I not running better?' You have to leave that there and go on and know that you have every reason in the world to be here, you have every talent in the world to be here."

Her talent isn't lost on other NASCAR drivers. Veteran Ron Hornaday Jr. has worked with Robinson this season, and has been impressed.

"Everything she has said in the last couple of races has been right on," Hornaday said. "She knows what she's feeling, and that's what it takes."

It also takes a sound foundation, which Robinson said is in place. Ernie Elliott builds the team's engines, and owner Beth Ann Morgenthau is committed to financing 25 of 36 races. A full-time sponsor - a deal Brown said is "close" - could send the team to all of the remaining races.

"A sponsor would help," said Robinson, who finished sixth in points on the ARCA circuit in 2000. "We can't seem to lock one down and get a deal to where it applies wind-tunnel time and more people. … The fact that the BAM Motorsports people are allowing us to continue, we're going to keep learning and keep going. …

"Toward the end of the year, I figure I can qualify top-10 at some race. I think I'm capable of it. I'm a very good qualifier, but I want to be able to race and not get out of the way all day."

Copyright © 2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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