WS: 2006 Rookie of the Year preview

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Fifteen drivers, representing one of the largest rookie fields in recent years, have registered to compete for this year's Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in the NASCAR Grand National Division, AutoZone West...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Fifteen drivers, representing one of the largest rookie fields in recent years, have registered to compete for this year's Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in the NASCAR Grand National Division, AutoZone West Series.

Members of the freshman class range in age from 19 to 57 and represent six states. They bring with them a range of experience and varied motor sports backgrounds.

Featured among this year's freshman class is the 2005 NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series National Champion Peyton Sellers of Danville, Va. The rookie list also includes Bruce Betts of Colorado Springs, Colo.; James Bruncati of Glendora, Calif.; Spencer Clark of Las Vegas; Daniel DiGiacomo of Dana Point, Calif.; Justin Fisher of Phoenix, Ariz.; Eric Hardin of Anaheim, Calif.; Eric Humphries of Chowchilla, Calif.; Brian Ickler of San Diego, Calif.; Justin Lofton of Westmorland, Calif.; Nick Lynch of Burley, Idaho; Brian Pannone of Riverside, Calif.; Travis Powell of Snohomish, Wash.; Chris Schmelzle of Victoria, British Columbia; and Ed Watson of Mt. Vernon, Wash.

The battle for the A large contingent of talented rookie drivers, representing four different countries, are taking aim this year at theCompetition Auto Meterfor the Raybestos Brakes Rookie -of -the -Year Award this year this year in the NASCAR Grand National Division, Winston West Series has attracted a large field of freshman competitors with varied backgrounds. could produce one of the closest battles in the history of the series.

Sellers signed a multi-year contract with Richard Childress Racing last fall and is driving in the AutoZone West Series this season as part of a driver development program between RCR and Bill McAnally Racing. Sellers, 22, has a racing career that includes go-karts, open-wheel mini sprints and stock cars. After winning a championship in a limited sportsman class at a North Carolina track in 2001, Sellers began racing a late model stock car with his brother, H.C. He went on to win the national title in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series last year, racing primarily at South Boston (Va.) Speedway. Sellers made his AutoZone West Series debut with a fifth-place finish in the season opener at Phoenix in January.

At 57 years of age, Betts has more than two decades of racing experience. He began competing in 1980 in a sportsman class at the Colorado Springs International Speedway, where he won a championship two years later. Betts raced in the Sports Car Club of America between 1985 to 1989, winning regional titles the final two seasons. He turned his attention to Colorado National Speedway, where he had success in several different divisions between 1990 and 2000.

Bruncati, 24, began his racing career in 1989 - competing in go- karts, winning two national championships and several state titles. Between 2000 and 2004 he raced in the super late model division at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway, where he won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2000, as well as in selected late model events at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif.

Clark made his mark in the AutoZone West Series last season at the age of 18 - scoring two top-five finishes in five starts. The Las Vegas driver has followed in the footsteps of his father, T.J. Clark - a veteran of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series who also competed in the AutoZone West Series. Spencer began racing in a motorcycle series for youngsters at the age of five. After progressing through go-karts and the Legend Car series, he tackled the super late model class at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he raced between 2003-2005.

DiGiacomo, 27, also got his start in racing with go-karts. His racing resume also includes Formula Ford, Formula 2000 and a regional truck series. DiGiacomo won rookie honors in the truck series in 2004, as well as capturing the rookie title in the late model division at Irwindale Speedway that season. In addition to racing on oval tracks, he has competed on several California road courses - such as Buttonwillow, Willow Springs and Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.

Although just 19 years of age, Fisher has more than a decade of racing experience that includes a variety of open-wheel classes. He began racing quarter-midgets at 7 years of age, winning three track titles. He raced modified midgets at the age of 14 and captured the Arizona Modified Midget Association championship in 2001. A year later Fisher was racing midgets at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix and in 2003 he was racing sprint cars there, becoming the youngest rookie to win a sprint car feature in the history of the speedway. He also has experience in a late model stock car.

Hardin's racing career began with off-road competition at the age of 16. He finished first in class in a 1999 event in Barstow, Calif., and placed first in class in the Baja 500 in 2000. Hardin eventually turned his attention to competing on paved ovals. He raced a truck series at Irwindale Spedway in 2004, winning the rookie title and finishing sixth in the final standings. Hardin, 23, made two starts in the AutoZone West Series in 2005, at Irwindale Speedway and Mesa Marin Raceway.

Humphries, 20, began racing at the age of 8 and won one national title and three regional titles while competing in various categories of karting, including shifter karts and modified midgets. He raced in a truck series at Irwindale Speedway in 2003. Humphries competed in a late model at Stockton (Calif.) 99 Speedway the past two seasons, winning the rookie title in 2004 and "most improved" honors in 2005. He made his debut in the AutoZone West Series last season, with a seventh-place finish at Stockton.

Ickler began his racing career in an off-road desert series in Southern California at the age of 14. He competed in his first Baja 1000 at 16 years of age, finishing fourth in class. Ickler moved up in class the following year and scored five wins and a second-place finish in a six-race season to win the rookie title. Class victories in off-road competition came in the Baja 1000, Baja 500 and San Felipe 250. He raced in an unlimited class in 2005 - while also shifting his focus to oval racing and winning a super late model event at Irwindale Speedway. Ickler, 20, made his debut in the AutoZone West Series with a sixth-place finish at Phoenix in January.

Lofton's racing resume includes a variety of motor sports experience - including hill-climb competition, off-road racing and stock cars. At the age of 17, he won the Rookie of the Year Award with the Colorado Hill Climb Association in 2003. The following season, he received rookie honors, as well as a class championship, in off-road competition. He raced late models in 2004 at Irwindale Speedway. The 20-year-old driver finished 16th in his AutoZone West Series debut last year and then charged from 34th on the grid to finish 12th in this year's series season opener.

Lynch, 23, graduated this season to the AutoZone West Series from the AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series. He began his racing career at Magic Valley Speedway in Twin Falls, Idaho. He won championships in a regional truck series in 1999 and 2000, before tackling the Southwest Series. His older brother, Scott, won the AutoZone West Series championship in his rookie year in 2003.

Pannone began racing in 1999, competing on the dirt oval at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway. He raced there through 2001. He began racing a truck series at Irwindale Speedway in 2003 and finished fifth in the final standings for that series the following year. The 33-year-old competitor raced various events in the super late model at Irwindale Speedway and the late models at Mesa Marin Raceway between 2002 and 2005.

For Powell, his effort marks a return to the AutoZone West Series. He actually made his series debut in 1999. Plans for a rookie campaign in 2000 were sidelined four races into the season, however. Powell, 41, initially began racing in a hobby class at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. - where he competed between 1987 and 1991. He raced in the Monroe's pro stock class from 1992 to 1999 and then tackled the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series from 1999 to 2003. Along the way, he also won a championship in 2002 in Monroe's late model program on Friday nights. In 2004, Powell raced a few ARCA and NASCAR Busch Series events.

Featured among the 10Nine drivers who have registered for this year's rookie program is IndyCar Series veteran Sarah Fisher of Indianapolis. , in which the top eligible rookie on the series will collect a $3,000 bonus along with a package of Auto Meter products (includes: 1-4494 Tachometer, 1-4461 electric full sweep fuel pressure gauge, 1-4453 electric full sweep oil pressure gauge, 1-4456 electric full sweep oil temperature gauge and an 1-4455 electric full sweep water temperature gauge) valued at more than $1,000.

The Auto Meter Rookie of the Year Award will be determined by a rookie competition point system. At each event, the highest-finishing eligible rookie receives 10 points, the second-highest rookie receives nine points, the third highest receives eight points, and so on. At the end of the season, the 11 best finishes for each eligible rookie will be used in determining the winner. Nine drivers, with racing backgrounds as varied as their hometowns, have registered for this year's rookie program. They will compete for an award at each event, as well as the prestigious year-end title.

This year's freshman class also represents four includes David Cardey of Riverside, Calif.; Spencer Clark of Las Vegas; Jason Jefferson of Naches, Wash.; Andrew Lewis of Corona, Calif.; Brandon Miller of Bakersfield, Calif.; Rick Ruzbarsky of Tracy, Calif.; Andrew Myers of Newport Beach, Calif.; Chris Schmelzle of Vancouver, British Columbia; and Tim Smith of Roseville, Calif.

Cardey began his racing career at 5 years of age. After initially competing on bicycles - he went on to race motorcycles, quads and go-karts. He has raced mini sprints since 2001, winning the 2003 championship in the California Lightning Sprints. The 29-year-old driver raced a sprint car in 2004, while also competing in four events in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series.

Clark is an 18-year-old second-generation competitor. His father, T.J. Clark, was a multi-time karting champion and was a regular in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. The younger Clark started racing at the age of 5, competing in the Mickey Thompson Pee Wee Motorcycle Series. He moved on to race go-karts for several years and then raced the Legends series, where he garnered several championships. He raced a regional truck series in 2003, while also racing and winning the rookie title in the NASCAR Super Late Model Division at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Fisher, who is making the transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars, is a three-time winner of the Indy Racing League's Most Popular Driver Award. In 2000, she became only the third woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. She finished second in an IndyCar Series event at Homestead Miami Speedway in 2001 and won a pole position a year later at Kentucky Speedway. Fisher, 24, grew up racing quarter-midgets, go-karts and eventually sprint cars. Her rookie campaign in the West Series this year is part of a driver development program between Bill McAnally Racing and Richard Childress Racing, in conjunction with the Drive for Diversity program endorsed by NASCAR.

Jefferson is the younger son of George Jefferson, a well-known car owner and crew chief in the Pacific Northwest. At 29 years old, the younger Jefferson has gathered five championships in the late model division at tracks in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series. In his rookie season in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series in 2003 - he finished second in the championship standings to his older brother Jeff. That season he also won the first race he entered in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series.

At 18 years of age, Lewis has a racing resume that includes competition in several divisions at numerous tracks in the Midwest and West Coast. After initially racing in go-karts - he went on to compete in the Bandolero series, where he won a rookie title in 1999. He also raced the Legends series, winning a national title in 2001. He spent the 2004 season challenging the competition in the NASCAR Late Model division at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway.

Miller brings with him an extensive racing background. The 23-year-old driver has competed in go-karts, garnering numerous championships; off-road vehicles; late model and super late model stock cars, winning the track championship in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1993; the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series; the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series; the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and the NASCAR Busch Series. In addition to his West Coast effort, Miller is competing in selected events for Richard Childress Racing in the NASCAR Busch Series this season.

Myers started his racing career on water - competing on a jet ski from 1993 to 1997. A year later he switched his focus to off-road competition, where he won titles in Baja and Nevada in 2000. He made the transition to stock cars in 2003, winning the rookie of the year award in the NASCAR Late Model division at Irwindale Speedway. The 25-year-old driver finished fourth overall in that division for 2004. He made his debut in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series this year at Phoenix.

Ruzbarsky has competed in a variety of vehicles since he began racing in 1997. His recent experience includes late model stock cars in a regional series in Northern California and selected events in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series. Ruzbarsky has competed at NASCAR tracks throughout California. The 39-year-old driver finished 12th last season in his first race in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series.

Since beginning his racing career in 1990 - Schmelzle has raced stock cars, modifieds, midgets and sprint cars. In addition to competing at his hometown track in Canada, his racing has taken him to Southern California, Arizona and Nevada. Schmelzle, 310, ran five races made his debut in the AutoZoneNASCAR Grand National Division, West Series in 2005 - gaining a top- 10 in his third start with an eighth-place finish at Monroe, Wash.with this year's season opener at Phoenix.

Watson also enters his rookie campaign with series experience. A regular in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series - Watson initially ventured into the AutoZone West Series in 1994. He competed in a total of 12 series events between 1994 and 2005, mostly at Northwest-area tracks. The 41-year-old driver's best series finish was a fourth-place finish at Evergreen Speedway in 2002.

Smith, who partners with Steve Schaefer as the S&S Motorsports team, has a varied racing background. He began competing on motorcycles while still in school. He raced a jet ski tour from 1985 to 1991. Smith raced dirt, sprint and enduro go-karts from 1991-1995. He focused his attention in recent years on racing modifieds and late models. Smith, 36, scored a third-place finish last season in one of just five events he raced in the West Series. states, as well as Canada and Japan. They include Nick DeFazio of Newport Beach, Calif.; David Gilliland of Riverside, Calif.; David Eshleman of Fontana, Calif.; CCarl Harr of Edmonton Alberta, Canada; his son, Daryl Harr of St Albert, Alberta, Canada; Tavo (C.T.) Hellmund of Mexico City, MexicoAustin, Texas; Takuma Koga of Nagoya, Japan; Jose Luis Ramirez of Mexico City, Mexico; Brian Richardson of Bakersfield, Calif.; and Alfredo Tame of Mexico City, Mexico.; Scott Lynch of Burley, Idaho; Scott Schmidt of Fort Lupton, Colo.; Clint Vahsholtz of Woodland Park, Colo.; and Gene Woods of Ontario, Calif.

DeFazio comes to the West Series with an extensive background racing go-karts. The 20-year-old driver's karting resume, which features three national championships, includes competition throughout the U.S. and overseas - racing in Belgium, Italy and England. DeFazio's experience in stock cars includes the Super Late Model division at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway. After racing two events in the West Series in 2003, he has had a successful start this season by scoring a top-10 finish in the second race of 2004.

Gilliland is no stranger to the West Series. He won the championship crew chief award when his father, Butch Gilliland, won the series championship in 1997. The younger Gilliland brings with him plenty of experience behind the wheel of a stock car - competing on the dirt oval at Perris (Calif.) Speedway, as well as Irwindale Speedway. The 28-year-old driver scored five wins last season in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series. He entered this year with 16 starts in the West Series between 1997 and 2002, including one top-five finish. Gilliland has already reached victory lane this year - winning the second race of the season.

After being involved as a car owner in the Winston West Series, Eshleman took the wheel this year as the driver of the Spirit of Fontana Chevrolet, with sponsorship from Cardenas Markets, Rush Truck Center, and Burrtec Waste Industries. The former mayor of Fontana, Calif., began racing in 1970 at Riverside International Raceway. In recent years the 56-year-old Eshleman competed in late model stock cars at local tracks in Southern California.

Although Carl Harr and his son, Daryl, race as a family-owned two-car team for WestWorld Motorsports. - they will be competing against each other this year for the rookie title. Both are champions in Canada's CASCAR Western Series, with 5049-year-old Carl taking the title in 2001 and 210- year-old Daryl winning it in 2002. In addition, Daryl won the rookie title in 1998 and was named Most Popular in 2000. Each of them competed in 12 West Series races prior to this seasonBoth drivers competed in one Winston West Series race in 2001 and five in 2002. Both drivers recently notched a career-best finish in the second race of 2004, with Daryl finishing 8th and Carl coming home 9th.

Hellmund holds the distinction of winning his debut race in the West Series, scoring a victory on the road course in Monterey, Calif., in 2001. is one of two members of the freshman class to already taste victory in the series. TIn fact, the 343-year-old driverTexan, was victorious in his Winston West Series debut - winning on the road course in Monterey, Calif., in 2001. Hellmund, who previously competed in various classes of racing in Texashis home state, also accumulated four top-five finishes in six West Series races prior to this season. followed that win up with a top-five finish last year in his only other start in the series up until this season. He drives the Suzuki Motorcycles and ATV-sponsored Pontiac.

Koga, who goes by the nickname of Tak, lives near Tokyo in the city of Nagoya. Like many other competitors, he, started his racing career in go- karts. His resume also includes action in Formula Toyota and Formula 3 cars. He made his NASCAR debutturned his focus to NASCAR competition in 2001, racing in five events that season in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series. The 27-year-old driver raced in six West Series events prior to this year and competing in two races in the Winston West Series in 2002, scoring a career-best 14th-place finish in Monroe, Wash.. The 26-year-old, who goes by the nickname of Tak, drives the Dick Midgley entry with sponsorship from "Count 15."

Ramirez has won two championships - competing in various divisions since he started racing in 1987. In addition to karting, he has raced Formula Reynard, Trans Am, a Ford Mustang series and a regional truck series in his native Mexico. The 24-year-old driver made his series debut in the season-opener at Phoenix in January.

Richardson cut his teeth in racing on the high-banks of Mesa Marin Raceway in his hometown. He began racing in 1997 in the street stock division and later graduated to late models. Richardson, 28, went on to capture the late model championship at the half-mile track last season, while also finishing second in the Sunbelt Region of the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series. He made his debut in the West Series at Mesa Marin Raceway in the season finale.

Tame has competed in various classes - including go-karts, F3000, touring cars and prototypes at tracks in Mexico, Europe, France and Germany. In addition, he has also raced in NASCAR's Southwest Series. The 30-year-old driver made his debut in the West Series at Phoenix last October.

Lynch is a 22-year-old college senior at the University of Utah. He started racing in 1996, competing as a teenager in the NASCAR-sanctioned modified division at Magic Valley Speedway in Twin Falls, Idaho. He tackled the NASCAR Elite Division, Featherlite Southwest Series in 1999, winning the rookie title. Running five races in the Winston West Series in 2002, Lynch notched his first major NASCAR win with a victory in the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Yerf-Dog/Mr.Gas Chevrolet owned by his father, Jim Lynch.

Schmidt, 36, began his racing career in 1995 with a three-year stint in go-karts. He went on to compete in super modifieds, before turning his attention to NASCAR. In 2002, Schmidt raced selected events in the Featherlite Southwest Series - while also competing in three events with the Winston West Series.

Vahsholtz brings with him one of the more unique racing backgrounds, having competed in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb for more than a decade. The 32-year-old driver started racing motorbikes at four years of age. From 1987 to 1995, he raced motorcycles on the AMA circle-track series. Vahsholtz and his father, Leonard are probably best known for their success at Pikes Peak, however. The younger Vahsholtz has 10 consecutive wins on the mountain, the longest string of championships in the history of the event. In addition, his resume includes three Colorado Hill Climb Association titles and wins in several major motorcycle races, including at Daytona.

Woods, 45, began racing at the age of nine. In a career that has spanned more than three decades he competed in various forms for motorsports - including mini-bikes, ATVs, motorcycles, snowmobiles and sprint cars. Woods won a variety of titles along the way, including three U.S. Open National championships racing speedway motorcycles. He competed in five events in the Winston West Series in 2002 in the Auto Trader Magazine/CNWB.com Dodge owned by David Dginguerian.

The Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award will be determined by a rookie competition point system. At each event, the highest-finishing eligible rookie receives 10 points, the second-highest rookie receives nine points, the third highest receives eight points, and so on. At the end of the season, the 10 best finishes for each eligible rookie in 75 percent of the events (nine finishes in a 12-race schedule) will be used in determining the winner.

The winner of this year's Sunoco Auto Meterrookie Rookie of the Year title in the AutoZone Winston WWest Series will join the ranks of drivers such assome esteemed company. Previous winners include Derrike Cope, Chad Little, Rick Carelli, Jim Bown and Bill Sedgwick. Second-generation competitor David Gilliland won the prestigious title in 2004lLast year, while finishing third in the overall championship standings Scott Lynch became just the second driver in the 50-year history of the series to win the overall championship in his rookie year. In winning last year's rookie title at 18 years of age, Andrew Lewis became the youngest driver to receive the award.

The next event on the NASCAR Grand National Division, AutoZone West Series schedule is the Casino ArizonaLucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International RacewayMesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif., on April 209. The event, which will be televised to a national audience live in high definition on HDNet, is part of a big night of racing on the high-banked half-mile track that will also feature the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series.

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Series NASCAR
Drivers Derrike Cope , Sarah Fisher , Chad Little , Rick Carelli , Andrew Lewis , Brandon Miller , Scott Lynch , Daryl Harr , Carl Harr , Gene Woods , David Eshleman , Clint Vahsholtz , David Gilliland , Rick Ruzbarsky , Jason Jefferson , Peyton Sellers , Jose Luis Ramirez , Andrew Myers , Justin Lofton
Teams Richard Childress Racing