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Ryan Gifford holds a full-time job helping to keep Austin and Ty Dillon's dirt-track race shop running. But it's the moonlighting -- behind the wheel of a race car -- that provides his escape.
Gifford, a member of the NASCAR Next class for the second straight year, will get another opportunity to carry his passion up the NASCAR ladder in the coming months with Thursday's announcement of a two-race deal in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. The 25-year-old Tennessee native will drive the No. 98 Biagi-DenBeste Racing entry in events scheduled May 18 at Iowa Speedway and June 27 at Kentucky Speedway.
The first of the two races will provide Gifford a chance to better his solid ninth-place showing at Iowa last August in his Nationwide debut. The .875-mile track in the Hawkeye State also bears some similarity to Richmond International Raceway, where Gifford notched his only victory in his full-time series, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
"Really ready to get to Iowa," Gifford said. "I feel like I have a good feel for the place now in the Nationwide cars, and I know what to get out of the car to make it go fast, so I'm super happy to get to go back."
While Gifford has remained close to his love of motorsports with his choice of employment, he's been just as eager to pursue driving opportunities. Between the work, the travel and racing in K&N and dirt-track cars, there hasn't been much in the way of spare time.
Gifford expects even less air in his schedule in the coming weeks as he becomes more acquainted with his Fred Biagi-owned team, but it's preparation he believes will pay dividends.
"The next few weeks are going to be pretty busy," Gifford said. "I'm going to try to spend a lot of time with them before this race coming up and get to know the guys really well. I think that's as big as anything, when you can communicate and know what they want to hear. That's kind of the trick to going fast."
Gifford learned plenty in his first Nationwide race last August, rallying from a 23rd-place starting spot to post a top-10 finish in his first start in the No. 33 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. It also helped prepare him for the longer distances and the stiffer competition found in a NASCAR national series event.
"I kind of learned how the race goes," Gifford said. "I learned a lot about how those guys race. It's a little bit different. You've really got to race hard on restarts because the tires don't really fall off as much as our cars do. I've enjoyed that learning experience and how quickly having a good car there sped my learning curve up. I'm super excited to go back now and have a shot at it."
While he's yet to compete at a track as large as Kentucky, Gifford said he's made laps around a pair of 1.5-mile tracks (Charlotte, Las Vegas) in two-seater cars. He expects to gain insights by following and watching drivers in practice once he gets there, plus lean on the Dillons -- both Kentucky winners -- for support.
It's all part of the growth process, but Gifford is well aware of how NASCAR's youngest stars are growing up all around. According to Gifford, following the footsteps of several prominent NASCAR Next alums -- Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott among them -- is a palpable, reachable goal.
"I think that the (team) owners are starting to realize that a lot of the kids coming out of the East series are ready to make the next step," he said. I feel like I'm definitely ready. I really want the opportunity to do it full time and really to be able to work week to week on myself. Just looking forward to that opportunity and looking forward to the opportunity with the NASCAR Next group.
"You see all the younger new drivers in it, and you look at them and they're kind of green and kind of shy, you think, 'Hey, that was me last year.' So I learned a lot last year and am excited to get to know everybody and to get to go again for a second year."