NASCAR AUTOZONE ELITE DIVISION, SOUTHEAST SERIES DRIVERS EYEING CHAMPIONSHIP TITLE AND TRIP TO NASCAR TOYOTA ALL-STAR SHOWDOWN DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 7, 2005) -- It's still early in the 2005 racing season in two different senses for the ...
NASCAR AUTOZONE ELITE DIVISION, SOUTHEAST SERIES DRIVERS EYEING CHAMPIONSHIP TITLE AND TRIP TO NASCAR TOYOTA ALL-STAR SHOWDOWN
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 7, 2005) -- It's still early in the 2005 racing season in two different senses for the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southeast Series drivers and teams. After five races that make up this year's 13-race schedule, there are more than a few competitors looking to win this season's Southeast Series championship. Those same teams and drivers are also looking to earn a coveted invitation to the third annual NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown for the top 10 drivers from each of the four series in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division.
This year's NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown is an invitation only event that will take place Nov. 10-12 at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway. It's actually an all-star race for two of NASCAR's touring divisions with the cars and stars from the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division as well as the NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series and West Series. The three-day show has posted awards at nearly $500,000 and will once again be televised live on SPEED Channel.
The event's format remains the same as its first two editions. The top 10 drivers from each of the four series that comprise the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division -- which includes the Midwest Series, Northwest Series, Southeast Series and Southwest Series -- are invited to compete in a 125-lap event.
"Getting the chance to go to Irwindale is pretty much a race in itself because it's a lot of fun and it's a very big deal for everybody involved," says Wilmington, N.C. native Kevin Prince. "It's on live national television which is great for all the sponsors because they get to be recognized for all they do for all the teams and drivers. Racing at Irwindale is a very big deal."
For now, the focus of all the drivers is trying to chase down current Southeast Series championship leader Dusty Williams who holds the top spot by a mere seven points ahead of two-time series champion Jeff Fultz. The next stop on the Southeast Series tour is next Friday night, July 15, at the famed Music City Motorplex in Nashville, Tenn. where Zachary Niessner is the defending winner of the Music City 150.
In fact, four drivers -- Fultz, Williams, Cecil Chunn and Allen Karnes -- spent last Saturday testing at the legendary .625-mile oval located at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. The track has hosted the Southeast Series since 1991 and was also home to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and NASCAR Busch Series in its earlier years.
"Our test went pretty well," says Fultz, the all-time Southeast Series win leader (24) who has yet to win at the Nashville short track. "I don't want to say it's one of the tracks where we're bad at, but it's not one of our stronger places and we haven't had a victory there yet. We felt like we needed to put a little extra emphasis on next weekend's race. The car was pretty good and we learned a lot. We will go back with a good idea of what to expect. We know J.R. Norris is good at Nashville as well as Jason Hogan. I want to beat those guys and hopefully the test will help step our program up."
Norris has shaken off a rough start to the season with a win at Nashville Superspeedway and backed that up with a runner-up finish at Kentucky Speedway. Those last two races have allowed Norris to move up to third in the championship race while Hogan sits fourth and Justin Wakefield fifth.
"I'm sitting in a better position than I was last year because it seemed like all I was trying to do last season was play catch-up," says Norris, a native of Mulga, Ala. "It's nice knowing I don't have to go into these next few races worrying so much and race too hard. I can use my head and put myself in a position at the end of these races to be able to win. I'm really looking forward to getting back to Nashville because we ran very well there last year in both races.
"Plus, we're taking a car that has just gone through a total rebuild from when we wrecked it at Houston (Tex) earlier this year. I'm just hoping the car runs as well if not better than it did at Nashville last year."
Without question, the Cinderella story of the first five races has been that of Williams' turnaround season from a year ago. He scored the first victory of his career in May at South Boston (Va.) Speedway and has led the point standings ever since.
Fultz admits that while he always wants to beat Williams, it's been nice seeing the No. 40 Pennzoil Chevrolet make such an abrupt turnaround for the family-owned team.
"Dusty has been very good and consistent at every track he's been to all year so far," Fultz says. "Dusty and that team have been around the Southeast Series long enough to know what they're doing and they're a great group of people. We'll just have to see how he handles the last part of the season. It's nice to be able to race against him every week like we've done so far this year. If something happens and we can't win the championship, it wouldn't be all that bad to lose to a great group of people like Dusty and that team.
Both Fultz and Williams point towards Norris as the one driver who can't be counted out of the championship picture.
"That's a little bit of extra pressure, but then again it's pretty flattering that those guys consider me as somebody they're going to have to race for the championship," Norris says when told of the comments of Fultz and Williams. "Jeff Fultz is always going to be one of the guys to beat and Dusty Williams is running a lot better this year than he has in the past. Those guys are definitely going to be hard to beat.
"I'm glad they think I'm one of the guys that they're going to have to beat, but there are a lot of other good drivers as well. It looks like it's going to come down to a three-way battle again, but it's still too early so any of the other guys in fourth, fifth and sixth can still get back in contention for the championship. You just never know what's going to happen."
The remainder of the top 10 drivers who hope to gain ground and possibly get in the championship mix are Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year leader Gary Helton who heads into next Friday night's race at Nashville sitting sixth in the standings and only four markers behind Wakefield in fifth. Rounding out the current top 10 are, in their respective order, Karnes, Greg Pope, Prince and former Southeast Series champion Charlie Bradberry.
Another Southeast Series competitor who was looking for big things in 2005 was Texas native Robert Richardson, who finished seventh in last year's standings and is ranked 11th heading into Music City Motorplex.
"This year really hasn't gone the way we've wanted it to go so far," Richardson said. "The first few races were pretty good for us, but then we had a couple of rough races on the superspeedway races at Kentucky and Nashville. We thought we were going to be pretty good on the superspeedways but they ended up kind of biting us a little bit.
"I'm really excited about going back to the Fairgrounds at Nashville, and I'm still confident that we'll make the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown once again. I'm not worried about getting back to Irwindale again, but I am concerned about where we're at in the points because we need to get back and finishing in the top-five like we're used to running.
"My goal is to win a couple races and at least finish in the top-five in the points so I can get invited back to Irwindale. I think those are goals I'm confident I can reach."