USAR: Lakeland: Southern Division round one preview

Time to Roll 12th season kicks off with Sears Auto Center 200 Myrtle Beach, S.C.--After a long offseason, the Hooters Pro Cup Series will roll into USA Int'l Speedway in Lakeland, Fla., for the running of the Sears Auto Center 200 on Saturday,...

Time to Roll
12th season kicks off with Sears Auto Center 200

Myrtle Beach, S.C.--After a long offseason, the Hooters Pro Cup Series will roll into USA Int'l Speedway in Lakeland, Fla., for the running of the Sears Auto Center 200 on Saturday, March 15.

The race will kick off the 12th season of competition in the Hooters Pro Cup Series and mark the 40th race at USA Int'l Speedway. That is what's known about the event. Everything else is up in the air.

Who's the favorite? Who's the sleeper? Who's the best rookie?

The Sears Auto Center 200 won't answer all those questions, but it will shed some light on who made the most of the offseason.

"There are a lot of guys that are going to be good," said Mark McFarland. "I tested with Wade Day and Drew Herring, and both of them were fast. And you're always going to have to beat Bobby Gill."

Not too many people have beaten Gill over the years, especially at USA Int'l. In 31 starts at the .75-mile track, Gill has 13 wins and 24 top-five finishes. Gill and Trevor Bayne put on an epic battle in the last event at USA Int'l.

On the final restart in the Robert H. Brooks Memorial Aaron's 250 on Nov. 3, 2007, Gill pushed high and Bayne stuffed his No. 29s DEI Chevrolet under him for the lead. Bayne actually led Laps 247 and 248 while underneath Gill, but the veteran came back to nip Bayne at the line by .292 seconds for the win. With the win, Gill clinched his series-high fourth title.

Though winning the first race won't guarantee a successful season, it does increase driver's chance of taking the title. Forty percent of the drivers winning the opening event have gone on to win the overall title. Only one driver can win, so what do you do if you can't win?

"We have to eliminate DNFs," said McFarland, who started the 2007 with two DNFs. "We want to win, lead the most laps and sit on the pole. But if we can't win, we need to get out of there with a decent finish. Everybody is so close; we might have to start looking at points early in the year." So who's the favorite?

If Vegas had odds, Mark McFarland would likely be a favorite. His Pete Knight Racing team has it all. McFarland, a former Late Model national champion and Nationwide Series competitor, is paired with crew chief Wes Ward, a former Nationwide head wrench, for the upcoming season. Last season, without Ward, McFarland won two races, led a series-high 11 races and finished third in the overall standings. The only blemishes on McFarland's season were mechanical failures.

Bobby Gill, a four-time Hooters Pro Cup champion, may have something to say about that, however. When many people thought he was past his prime, Gill, 49, won last year's title. Gill hasn't announced his "Drive for Five" marketing campaign just yet, but nobody would be surprised if he added "One for the Thumb" at the end of the year.

What's fun about the Hooters Pro Cup Series is that there are plenty of wildcards that throw everyone for a loop. Matt Hawkins, James Buescher and Trevor Bayne have the talent and teams to shake things up at the front.

Hawkins won two races last season as a rookie. James Buescher caught fire late in the year and posted two top-three finishes in the final few races. If Bayne was running a full schedule, he would be considered a favorite. But his deal with Dale Earnhardt Inc. will only allow him time to compete in 10 events, meaning he won't win the Southern Division title and will be playing catch-up during the Championship Series. Michael Ritch, Travis Kittleson, Caleb Holman, Wade Day, Woody Howard, Frank Deiny and Dusty Williams are other names you may want to keep on your mind as well.

In the rookie race, Hunter Robbins, Drew Herring, Scott Crockett, Michael Phelps and Trevor Farbo are all expected to make runs at the Miller Lite Rookie of the Year title in the Greased Lightning Southern Division.

But, again, this is all speculation and plenty of unmentioned drivers will likely throw their names in the hat during the season. If you don't think so, just look at last year. If you took a preseason poll, I doubt Michael Ritch, the Southern Division champion, Gary St. Amant, the Northern Division champion, and Bobby Gill, the overall champion, would have been ranked at the top going into the season.

The Sears Auto Center 200 is slated for a green flag at 7:30 p.m. start on Saturday, March 15. USA Int'l Speedway will open the front gates for fans at 10:30 a.m. for Hooters Pro Cup Series practice. Awesome Awnings Pole Qualifying will start 4:30 p.m. and be followed by the Wraps I NK on-track autograph session at 6:15 p.m. After the conclusion of the Sears Auto Center 200, fans will be treated to the USA Truck Championship 50-lap feature. For ticket information, visit www.usaspeedway.com or call (800) 984-7223.

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2008 USAR HOOTERS PRO CUP SERIES QUICK FACTS FOR THE GREASED LIGHTNING SOUTHERN DIVISION

WHAT: Sears Auto Center 200

WHERE:          USA International Speedway, Lakeland, FL

.75-mile, semi-banked asphalt oval

WHEN: Saturday, March 15

DISTANCE: 200 Laps/ 150 Miles

POSTED AWARDS: $127,136

TELEVISION: Versus Network Monday, March 31 at 4 PM

WEEKEND SCHEDULE:

Friday, March 14:
5:30-7:00 p.m. Pro Cup Practice

Saturday, March 15:
10:30 am Front Gates Open
10:30 a.m. USAR HPCS Practice Begin
12:30 p.m. USAR HPCS Practice Ends
1:00 p.m. USAR HPCS Drivers Meeting (Engines Off)
1:30 p.m. Chapel Service (Engines Off)
4:15 p.m. Pro Cup Scuff Session
4:30 p.m. Awesome Awnings Pole Qualifying for the USAR HPCS
6:15 pm Wraps Ink on track Autograph Session for the USAR HPCS
7:00 p.m. Pre-Race Ceremonies for the Sears Auto Center 200
7:30 p.m. Sears Auto Center 200

-credit: usar

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About this article
Series Stock car
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Trevor Bayne , Caleb Holman , Mark McFarland , Travis Kittleson , James Buescher , Michael Phelps , Drew Herring
Teams Williams