DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 18, 2004) -- Making the move from weekly dirt track racing into a highly-competitive NASCAR regional touring series -- on asphalt -- is no small task. To achieve a successful transition between these two racing styles, a...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 18, 2004) -- Making the move from weekly dirt track racing into a highly-competitive NASCAR regional touring series -- on asphalt -- is no small task. To achieve a successful transition between these two racing styles, a driver needs an experienced team and crew chief on their side.
For 22-year-old Justin Wakefield, who made such a move last year with his debut in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southeast Series, that experience came in the form of three-time Southeast Series champion Jody Ridley. Wakefield, who had raced on dirt tracks across the Atlanta, Ga. area since 1993, couldn't have asked for a better mentor.
Ridley, who owns 12 Southeast Series victories and three consecutive championships from 1991-93, served as Wakefield's crew chief and guided the young driver to four top-10 finishes and an eighth-place finish in the 2003 point standings. Wakefield also received an invitation to compete in the inaugural NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown in Irwindale, Calif., where he finished 25th among a field of NASCAR's top touring series drivers.
The Woodstock, Ga., native is ready for a strong return to Southeast Series competition and it's clear that Ridley's lessons have been taken to heart.
"We're much quicker with Jody helping us, that's for sure. He's helped us out a lot," Wakefield said. "Just getting some more seat time is what we need right now. Every time I get in the car, it makes a little bit of a difference."
Wakefield knows he'll need to be consistent on the track to improve his team's performance. His Jake Carswell-owned team returns with the same No. 98 Ford Taurus that they raced in 2003, with associate sponsorship from Exide Batteries.
"Finishing every race, that's the first goal," said Wakefield. "We'll try to get a couple more top fives and try to keep the car in one piece."
Wakefield's NASCAR career began, like so many others, with a dream of reaching one of NASCAR's three national series -- the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, NASCAR Busch Series or NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. When NASCAR re-structured its regional divisions in 2003, to provide a clear sequence of competition "stepping stones" towards its premier national series, the Southeast Series (formerly the All Pro Series) became part of the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, which is designed to be a weekly competitors' first step into touring series competition. The Southeast Series -- which helped launch the careers of Rick Crawford, Tina Gordon, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Jason Keller, Matt Kenseth, David Reutimann and Scott Riggs -- became an opportunity for Wakefield to reach his goal.
"I knew I wanted to get in to NASCAR somehow," Wakefield said. "Jake Carswell, our car owner, didn't want to run in any other series and when we hooked up with Jody, everything just fell into place. "
The experience of racing in the Southeast Series has already given Wakefield a boost of confidence and a taste of life on the road -- something he'll need to get used to as his career advances.
"I like traveling to all kinds of different places," said Wakefield. "I love going to all of these new tracks I've never been to and seeing different parts of the country. I enjoy racing with the same guys every week; it helps because you learn their driving styles and how you can race against them. I just want to keep moving up the ladder and maybe one day, I can make a living doing something I love."
Wakefield's 2004 Southeast Series schedule will have him competing in events in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Kentucky and Georgia, on a variety of tracks ranging in size from 3/8-mile to 1.5 miles. The action gets underway April 17 at Music City Motorplex in Nashville.