NWS: Evergreen Speedway preview

Nascar Elite Division, Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series opens 19th season March 29 at Evergreen Speedway. Hamlin's second title defense, new Hoosier Tires will shape 2003 season. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 20, 2003) - NASCAR racing returns...

Nascar Elite Division, Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series opens 19th season March 29 at Evergreen Speedway.

Hamlin's second title defense, new Hoosier Tires will shape 2003 season.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 20, 2003) - NASCAR racing returns to the Pacific Northwest with the running of the Big O Tires 125, March 29 at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. Over $40,000 in posted awards await the competitors of the NASCAR Elite Division, Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series, who begin their pursuit of the series' 19th championship.

The Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series is led by two-time defending champion Kevin Hamlin, of Snohomish, Wash. Hamlin, 23, returns with the same American Dream Motorsports team that carried him to nine victories, more than $100,000 in winnings and consecutive championships in the last two seasons.

Beginning at Evergreen, one significant difference Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series teams will encounter is their 2003 tire supplier. The teams will race on Hoosier bias-ply tires, a change from the past two seasons in which the series ran Goodyear tires.

"We're going to the season opener like we normally do," Hamlin said. "We'll concentrate on that one race, concentrate on practicing well and getting good notes because of the new tires. It's like we're starting over [because of the tires], but I'm confident in my team. Hopefully that transition will be easy for us and we can get a good qualifying run in."

Hamlin led the final 16 laps of last year's Big O Tires 125 to open the 2002 season with a victory. Another win at his "home track" would suit this rising star just fine.

"Evergreen Speedway is where I started late model career," Hamlin said. "It's a stone's throw away from the race shop. I've always liked to run well there, a lot of family members show up and people from high school, so I always enjoy going back."

Two years ago, Hamlin became the youngest champion in Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series history by winning the title at the age of 21. Today, Hamlin looks forward to competing with the series veterans but puts the field on notice - he's not slowing down after two straight championships.

"I've looked up to all the guys who have been around the series for so long, that it's weird to think that I'm up in the same class as them," Hamlin said. "To be listed as a champion like Garrett Evans, Ron Eaton, Gary Lewis and all the others, I feel like I'm still getting used to that. I get to conduct the rookie meetings and sometimes I feel like, at my young age, I should be standing there listening to them, not giving them. But it's fun, and I do the best I can to represent the series as a champion. Ultimately, I guess I wouldn't want it any other way."

Hamlin will have plenty of challengers during his run for a third-consecutive title - a feat never accomplished in Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series history. Based on the top-five point standings from 2002, here's a closer look at some of Hamlin's challengers for the 2003 championship.

Gary Lewis, Bothell, Wash. -The 1998 series champion returns with his No. 73 team that produced three victories and a runner-up position in the 2002 standings. Lewis has finished second to Hamlin, his co-worker at Longacre Racing Products, for the last two seasons. Lewis reports no changes to his team, with the exception of a slight variation on his race car's popular teal and orange flame paint scheme. Lewis has added a touch of silver paint to the body.

Pete Harding, Surrey, B.C. - Harding followed Lewis in the record books as the 1999 Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series champion and seeks to regain his title-winning form in 2003. The 53-year old competitor enters his 17th year of Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series competition, continuing a brilliant career that has netted him 15 victories and more than $248,000 in career winnings.

Chris Hart, Yakima, Wash. - Coming off a fourth-place finish in the 2002 standings, Hart enters the Big O Tires 125 with momentum from a season-ending victory at Wenatchee (Wash.) Valley's Super Oval in Sept. 2002. Hart recorded top-five points finishes in four of the past five seasons and is expected to contend for his first championship.

Troy Conrad, Puyallup, Wash. - Conrad, a third-year driver, is hoping for a breakthrough season. Conrad won the 1999 track championship at Yakima (Wash.) Speedway before entering the Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series, where he improved from eight top-10 finishes in 2001, to 11 top-10 finishes and a career-best fourth-place finish at Yakima Speedway in 2002.

Along with these pre season favorites, other drivers to watch include Garrett Evans, a four-time champion looking to rebound from a sixth-place finish in 2003; sixth-year driver Shane Biles; 2002 Most Popular Driver Joe Benedetti; and brothers Jason and Jeff Jefferson, who combined for three wins in 2002.

Big O Tires 125 (Race 1 of 14 in the Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series).
Evergreen Speedway, Monroe, Wash.

Race: 8:30 p.m. (PT), Saturday, March 29

Pre-race schedule (all times local): Friday - Practice, 6-9:30 p.m. Saturday - Practice, 1-2 p.m. and 2:30-3 p.m., Qualifying 4:45 p.m.


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Drivers Jeff Jefferson , Kevin Hamlin , Gary Lewis