- K&N PRO
- WHELEN MODIFIED
- WHELEN ALL-AMERICAN
- YOUR HOME TRACK
In the fall of 1997, Dale Earnhardt and I had a closed-door conversation with an executive of our NASCAR Busch Series team's primary sponsor. We were informing this distinguished gentleman that we planned to move Steve Park to the Cup Series the following year and were replacing him with an unproven driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Out of character, this executive lost his mind while expressing his displeasure. After all, Park had won three times in his only full season with DEI and finished third in points.
"As soon as we find someone we like, you guys move him up to Cup and we're stuck paying for you to help your son," the sponsor boldly said. This executive seemed to forget that the Busch Series was a true developmental series then, and much like university alumni have learned through the years, it's hard to get attached to the best players because they are only visiting en route to the pros.
Dale got his way -- imagine that -- and Junior took over the No. 3 ride in 1998. He won back-to-back Busch Series titles, outpointing a kid from Wisconsin named Matt Kenseth. The highest full-time Cup driver in the final season rankings was 25th in points. Our primary sponsor paid only $1.4 million per year for all 34 events, and had 13 victories and two titles to show for it. It was affordable, well-represented and rewarding to teams and sponsors.
Today, the Nationwide Series stakes are much higher, demanding as much as $6 million for a first-rate championship-contending team. At that support level, most sponsors ask for a more recognized and established driver. Translation: Cup driver. Therein lies the conundrum of the Nationwide Series. How do I get track time and experience for young talent that needs seasoning?
This is where NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East division has filled the void. In 2010, the K&N Series will boast the greatest collection of owners and young talent it has seen in a long time. When the series debuts this weekend at historic Greenville Pickens Speedway in Greenville, S.C., familiar team owners will be entering teenagers:
• Michael Waltrip Racing will field defending series champion Ryan Truex, the brother of Martin Truex Jr. who turned 18 last week.
• Joe Gibbs Racing will enter two cars for youngsters Max Gresham, 16, and Brett Moffitt, 18.
• Red Bull Racing has entered their newest athlete, Cole Whitt, an 18-year-old Californian.
• Richard Childress Racing is entering a team driven by 18-year-old Ty Dillon, Chidress's grandson and son of RCR general manager Mike Dillon.
Additionally, Revolution Racing, NASCAR's diversity team run by longtime East participant Andy Santarre, will field four drivers, two of who already are under developmental contracts with Cup teams: Ryan Gifford, 18, with RCR and Darrell Wallace, 16, with JGR. Another stud in that camp is Sergio Pena, who turned 17 last month. Pena, a Columbian -- South America Columbian, not South Carolina Columbian -- burst onto the scene in January winning the pole at the Toyota All-Star Showdown in Irwindale, Calif., and raced like a veteran fender to fender with eventual winner Joey Logano.
Others to watch are 18-year-old Corey Lajoie, the son of two-time Nationwide Series champion Randy Lajoie, and Eddie MacDonald, last year's points runner-up.
These guys will race against series veterans like former champion Matt Kobyluck and Park, the latter of who has won in every NASCAR division in which he's competed -- Modifieds, Busch North, Trucks, Nationwide and Cup series.
Why is this field so rich with talent? Simple. The series is "relatively" affordable, costing in the range of $500,000 to $600,000 for the entire season. The K&N Pro Series East runs 105-inch wheel-based cars, same as the Nationwide division, and with the new Nationwide car on the horizon, there will be no shortage of quality cars.
The combination of spec engines, crew limits and unique pit-road procedures gives this series a throwback feel with the presence of the future. It's back to affordable racing with quality teams and drivers, developing the young men and women who will guide our sport into the future.
If you can't make it to Greenville this Saturday night or South Boston, Va., next week, you can get a glimpse into the future on SPEED, which will be airing the races on the Thursday night after the weekend's race. The Greenville Pickens season opener will air at 6 p.m. ET on April 1.
Ty Norris is vice president and general manager of Michael Waltrip Racing. He has worked within the NASCAR industry with MWR, Speedway Motorsports Inc., Dale Earnhardt Inc. and RJ Reynolds since 1990. He will share his opinions each Thursday on NASCAR.COM.