SWS: Drivers to start a new-look season

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (January 20, 2004) - A new era will begin at Phoenix International Raceway when the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series takes to the track for round one of the 14 race 2004 championship series with the first of...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (January 20, 2004) - A new era will begin at Phoenix International Raceway when the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series takes to the track for round one of the 14 race 2004 championship series with the first of three visits to the famed desert oval.

AutoZone, the nation's leading auto parts retailer with 3,200 outlets nationwide, has become the title sponsor of the NASCAR Elite Division that encompasses four Late Model touring series under one umbrella. The annual Winter Heat "100" will showcase drivers from each of the four series that make up the NASCAR's Elite Division.

More than 45 drivers from across the country who compete in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division will attempt to qualify for one of 42 starting positions in Sunday's 100-lap race and vie for their share of $112,770 in posted awards.

Defending 2003 Southwest Series champion Auggie Vidovich from Lakeside, Calif. looks to improve on his third place finish in last year's event. His finish at Phoenix may determine his racing schedule for 2004 as his plans have not been set.

"We'll take it race by race like we did last year," Vidovich said. "That strategy worked well last year. We have several things in the works and we'll see how they pan out during the break before the second race."

2002 series champion, Eddy McKean from Jerome, Idaho has the best average finish over the last three seasons at PIR. McKean won the 2003 series finale after tallying three runner-up finishes and five top ten performances since 2001.

"We have a great set up for Phoenix," McKean said. "I have a real good feel for that racetrack which gives us a lot of confidence. Phoenix is such an important track to the series and a track where we shine. We are looking to win Winter Heat and set ourselves up for a second championship."

While series veterans look to improve on past performances, series rookies hope just to make the show. A racetrack where qualifying means everything, rookies have to deal with new cars, new teams, and new tracks. Series newcomer Rip Michels from Mission Hills, Calif. likes the challenge.

"I'm very excited about the opportunity to race in this very competitive series," said Michels, who has won nineteen Super Late Model events at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway over the past two seasons. "When we get to Phoenix, it'll be like playing baseball at Dodger Stadium for the first time."

2004 will again see driver's focus on the NASCAR Top 10, as the top ten drivers in the final point standings in each of the four series that comprise the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division will receive an invitation to the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown. With winning on the minds of several drivers, a solid finish at PIR will go a long way in the 2004 championship and that coveted invitation.

The Winter Heat "100" promises to showcase some of NASCAR's brightest young talent and rising stars. Former Southwest Series champion and current NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series star Kurt Busch knows a little something about Phoenix and the Southwest Series. "The Southwest Series is probably one of the best series from an educational standpoint," said Busch. "You have such diverse tracks, from ¼-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."

The Winter Heat "100" is set to take the green flag at 12:00 noon PST Sunday, January 25.

THE INSIDE LINE * Three local Phoenix AutoZone locations will host Southwest Series drivers from 12-3 on Friday, January 23 in preparations for Sunday's race. Drivers will display their racecars and be on hand to sign autographs and meet fans. * The race within the race ... 2003 Irwindale Speedway champions Rip Michels and Todd Burns will both contest for the 2004 Rookie-of-the-Year crown. * How many cars? More than 45 cars have pre-entered the Winter Heat "100" representing 13 different states and Canada. * Dan Holtz holds the one-lap qualifying record at PIR with a quick lap of 27.091 seconds, 138.885 mph, February 2, 2002. * Eddy McKean has the best average finish at PIR in the last four years among all competitors with three runner-up and five top five finishes including a win in last year's series finale. * There have been 15 different winners in 28 previous Southwest Series races at PIR. * The NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division's four regional series are represented at PIR for the Winter Heat "100", including three 2003 champions. Southwest Series champion Auggie Vidovich, Midwest Series champion Steve Carlson, and Northwest Series champion Jeff Jefferson.

* The season ending NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown will again feature the top 10 drivers in each of the four series in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division. The Elite Division consists of the Southwest Series, Midwest Series, Southeast Series and Northwest Series.

MOVING UP * Danny Burson of Albuquerque, NM hopes to improve on his 12th place final point's finish in 2003. Burson has one top five finish at PIR in four career starts.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK * "Live to achieve, not to acquire." - the late Alan Kulwicki

PAGE FROM THE PAST Bryan Germone, the 1997 Southwest Series champion, made a triumphant return to the series January 2, 2003 after a four year hiatus. Germone, driving the Wine.Com Chevrolet for owner Michael Sebastiani, led the final 20 laps after Ken Schrader started on the pole and led the first 79 circuits. Eddy McKean finished second, with Auggie Vidovich, Ed Hoffman, and Frank Deiny Jr. rounding out the top five finishers. There were seven cautions for 32 laps and lead change between two drivers. Frank Deiny Jr. was the top finishing Rookie in fifth place with Jason Jefferson debuting the first Dodge Intrepid in NASCAR Elite Division competition with a 19th place effort.

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Series NASCAR
Drivers Ken Schrader , Kurt Busch , Jeff Jefferson , Danny Burson , Bryan Germone , Dan Holtz , Auggie Vidovich , Jason Jefferson , Rip Michels , Steve Carlson