SWS: 2004 schedule announced

Winter heat kicks off 14-race NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series schedule Southwest Series Opens 19th Season January 25 at Phoenix. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (January 9, 2004) -- When the newly re-named NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division,...

Winter heat kicks off 14-race NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series schedule
Southwest Series Opens 19th Season January 25 at Phoenix.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (January 9, 2004) -- When the newly re-named NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series takes the green flag for its traditional "Winter Heat" season opener at Phoenix (Ariz.) International Raceway on January 25, the start of the 100-lap event signals not only the beginning of a new racing season, but the dawn of a new era for NASCAR's regional touring divisions as well. It is the first event under the division's all-new title sponsorship from AutoZone, the nation's leading auto parts retailer.

"We are excited about our new partnership with NASCAR and the beginning of the 2004 racing season," said Lisa Kranc, senior vice president of marketing for AutoZone. "We welcome the opportunity to work with NASCAR to grow the AutoZone Elite Division -- where the NASCAR stars of tomorrow get their start."

After Phoenix, the series shifts to short tracks, with events at Madera (Calif.) Speedway (March 13), Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif. (March 28), Cajon Speedway in El Cajon, Calif. (April 3), Stockton 99 Speedway in Stockton, Calif. (May 8) and Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway May 29.

On June 26, the Southwest Series participates in one of its higher profile events, at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. The annual road course race will be held in conjunction with the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, which tackles the 2.52-mile course June 27.

Following Infineon, the Southwest Series resumes its 2004 campaign at Madera (Calif.) Speedway July 17. The second half of the Southwest Series schedule includes a return to Stockton July 31 and two more events at Phoenix.

"Every year, the Southwest Series provides some of our best racing, and with this challenging schedule, we're sure the 2004 season will be no exception," said Chris Boals, NASCAR's director of regional touring. "The addition of AutoZone makes the start of the 2004 season even more special and we're ready for another terrific year for the Southwest Series."

The Southwest Series -- one of four series which comprise the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division -- enters its 19th season in 2004. Since 1986, the Southwest Series has been a prime training ground for some of NASCAR's biggest stars. Matt Crafton, Kurt Busch, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Kevin Harvick all competed in the series before moving up to NASCAR's three national series.

"The Southwest Series is probably one of the best series from an educational standpoint," said Busch. "You have such diverse tracks, from 0x00bc-mile, to road courses up to the mile oval at Phoenix where we race -- there's just such a multitude of tracks that it makes it a great training ground for young drivers."

Today, a new generation is seeking to follow the same path to racing success. Lead by defending series champion Auggie Vidovich Jr., of Lakeside, Calif., the cast of 2004 contenders also includes, among others, 2002 champion Eddy McKean, 2001 champion Craig Raudman, Dan Holtz, Eric Holmes and David Gilliland.

In addition to competing for the series championship, Southwest Series drivers are also racing for an invitation to the prestigious NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown. The top 10 drivers in the final 2004 point standings will get a chance to race in this special All-Star event.

"Our series has really good competition," said Vidovich. "All the tracks we go to, everyone has been to before, so everyone has good setups and the racing is really close."

Top newcomers to the series include two graduates of the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series. Rip Michels, of Mission Hills, Calif. and Todd Burns, of Riverside, Calif., have both announced plans to compete for the Southwest Series rookie of the year title in 2004. Michels, a two-time Super Late Model track champion at Irwindale, was the 2003 NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series Sunbelt Region champion and Burns, a multi-time Irwindale Late Model champion, was the 2003 NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series ShorTrack Division national champion. With these impressive championship credentials, both drivers are strong favorites to win this year's Southwest Series rookie award.

-nascar-

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Series NASCAR
Drivers Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Matt Crafton , Eric Holmes , David Gilliland , Dan Holtz , Craig Raudman , Auggie Vidovich , Rip Michels