Ron Breese Jr. (left) and Austin Cameron share Victory Lane as winners of the 2003 Toyota
There's been a lot of attention directed to the NASCAR Nextel Cup "Chase to the Championship." This is the scenario wherein a driver had to be in the Top 10 (or within 400 points of the leader, but that was a moot point) in order to win the championship. For racers in NASCAR's four Elite divisions, the idea of being in the Top 10 to be rewarded actually occurred last year. For these drivers, the chase to the Top 10 is old news.
For drivers in the AutoZone Midwest, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest Divisions, the honor of being in the Top 10 carries a special privilege. Only these drivers can represent their divisions in the second running of the Toyota All-Star Showdown.
The chase is a little different for racers in the Busch North and West Series, the two Grand National groups within NASCAR. They need to get into the Top 15 in their respective divisions to earn a similar invitation.
The idea behind the race is to bring the drivers from throughout the country to a head-to-head finale. The Elite Division cars use the same rules, so these 40 are tossed together in one race. The same holds true for the 30 cars that come together from the Busch North and West Series point standings.
California's Irwindale Speedway will host the 2004 Toyota All-Star Showdown. The big half-
The '04 event will once again be held at Irwindale Speedway near Los Angeles. This year's race will be held November 11-13. The feature races will be telecast live on SPEED Channel.
What to Expect Like many high-profile races, making the event is a challenge equal to winning the race. Those who qualify for the race can expect to have a day of practice, a day of preliminary events, and the final day devoted to the longer- distance features. Since California is 3,000 miles away from Cherryfield, Maine (the home of Busch North contender Andy Santerre), many of the teams will be on the road days before the race. For those with a West Coast address, the travel is lessened, but significant for some Northwest racers, as well.
For the '03 event, practice day gave the drivers a good look at the track that was unfamiliar to most. Irwindale Speedway is a half-mile track that is part of the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series and hosts events for the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division Southwest Series and the NASCAR Grand National Division West Series. The track offers progressive banking and a wide racing surface. In addition to its NASCAR events, Irwindale hosts open-wheel racing and drifting competition and serves as a model for speedway promotions.
Midwest Series competitors Jeremy Lepak (67), Eddie Hoffman (8), and Brian Hoppe (51) help
The qualifying events will once again be held on Friday. The 40 racers in the Elite Division are lined up based on alternating points positions with the highest cars in the point standings starting in the rear. Each qualifying race features 20 cars and is run over a 50-lap distance. The Grand National Divisions use two 50-lap qualifying races with 15 cars in each event. The winners of each of the qualifying races will earn a front-row starting spot for the finale. The Grand National cars will contest 125 laps while the main event for the Elite racers will be 100 laps.
There is a unique twist to the feature event. The race will be stopped 25 laps short of the total distance for a 10-minute break. After the break, the field will be inverted for the restart. Also, there is a team competition during the first portion of the race. Drivers are representing their series, and the team scoring the lowest number of points, based on the running order at the break, will be declared the winner of the team competition. Purse and prize money for the '04 event will exceed $500,000.
Who Will Return? Making the field for the first event does not guarantee participation in any subsequent events. Everyone started the '04 season at the same spot. You have to earn your way in.
For 2004, there will be one champion returning while the other will be out of the picture. Austin Cameron, winner of the Grand National finale, is continuing a strong run in the West Series in 2004. Ironically, Cameron was not expected to be a part of the show in 2003.
Elite Division racers John Bender (18), Ryan Hanson (60), and Burney Lamar (98) give a goo
Cameron's '03 racing was interrupted for cancer treatments, which thwarted a bid for the series championship. He managed to make the Showdown field as the last driver in, but his race day performance was far from back-of-the-pack. Cameron has continued his winning ways into the '04 season, including a series victory at Irwindale.
Elite Division winner Ron Breese Jr. will not be part of the action in 2004.
Victory at Irwindale In addition to Breese and Cameron, three other drivers won races, all in Friday night qualifiers. One of those drivers tasting victory was Randolph, New Jersey, racer Joey McCarthy, a competitor in the Busch North ranks. Since his win and subsequent pole position start, there has been plenty happening for McCarthy, who is putting together solid runs in 2004.
Just a few weeks before the start of the '04 season, McCarthy found out that his team was not going to race. It's no way to start a racing season.
The cars of Jeff Fultz and Steve Carlson sit side-by-side on the frontstretch during the a
Fortunately, there was a racing team two hours south of Randolph that raced the series on a part-time basis. McCarthy reached agreement with this team. He brought along a car he had purchased from the former team, giving them the same equipment as last year to tackle the schedule.
"We're taking this one race at a time," McCarthy says of the '04 season. "We're right there for these races. If we were in a little better position, we'd see some better finishes. We have some Top 5s and Top 10s to show for our effort. We don't have any major sponsorship help. We've got some great product sponsors that we appreciate, but without a big sponsor, this is tough."
From a geographic standpoint, the team is located no moe than 8 hours from their racing venues. However, New Jersey is a long way from California, and it takes money to travel across the country. If McCarthy is able to qualify, the team is going to have to stretch resources to get to Irwindale.
McCarthy looks at last year's Toyota All-Star Showdown as a positive experience for his racing career. "I was very impressed," he says of the track. "It was beautiful, the type of track you like to run." He also felt that the competitors had a mutual respect for each other, even though half the field may have never raced against the other half. "The guys I raced with from the West Series, guys like Austin [Cameron] and Mark Reed, were great. We ran side by side in the qualifier, and everybody respected each other."
During the '03 autograph session, Joey McCarthy was somewhat unknown to the fans. By the e
It was McCarthy's responsibility to bring the field to the green in front of the TV cameras. On his outside was a familiar face-Busch North Champion Andy Santerre. McCarthy led the early stages of the race and was solidly in the running at the break after 100 laps. The break wasn't what the team needed.
"The inversion really hurt us," McCarthy recalls. "The first seven cars were so close on new tires. When you only have 25 laps, you don't have a lot of time to get back to the front. We kept getting cautions, and that doesn't help either. We needed a longer run. It was tough to get from Sixth up front. It made it a chess match. I had a good car, but a spin of the wheel set me back. They were doing it for a show, and it was a good show."
Since the track was unlike anything on the Busch North schedule, McCarthy and his series mates had to find the fast way around. After dominating the qualifying races over the "hometown" West Series racers, it was apparent that the learning came quickly. "We had to run it like Darlington, up high," McCarthy says. "It took awhile in practice, but we figured it out."
McCarthy's racing took him from the go-kart ranks. His father was a dirt Modified racer, but Joey went to the pavement, racing against tough competition at places such as nearby Flemington (NJ) Speedway. His aspiration is to take the step to move south and tackle the Busch Series. A repeat performance in the Toyota All-Star Showdown will certainly make the talent scouts take another look.
Joey McCarthy is racing a new number with a new team in 2004. Now behind the wheel of the
Among the Elite Davenport, Iowa's Justin Diercks might not want to talk about the Toyota All-Star Showdown. In the middle of August, his thoughts were nowhere near the November race. Fresh from his sixth win in the first 10 races of the AutoZone Elite Midwest Series schedule, Diercks was keen on winning the championship, and his pursuers were not rolling over. At that point, he was leading veteran Steve Carlson, but not by much.
"We have to take it one race at a time," says Diercks. "We worry about points at the end of the year. We're out to win races, and so far we've been pretty successful."
Diercks may have been lost in the shuffle in the 2003 Showdown crowd. The only publicity he got was negative. From the time the team headed to California, nothing seemed to go right. "We got wrecked in practice," he recalls. "On our way out there, the hauler broke down. When we got there, the lift broke and we couldn't get the car out. We were happy to finish and be a part of the team championship."
They didn't just finish . . . they finished Seventh as the Midwest Series put five drivers in the Top 10. That's not going to make it easy for the series drivers who return in 2004.
With six wins in 10 races, Iowa's Justin Diercks will lead a strong Midwest contingent. Ju
"The Midwest has bragging rights," Diercks says. "We won last year, so the guys we're taking this year have to step it up. Everybody else is going to be stepping it up to try to beat us. We've all got to have our program dialed in."
Like most competitors, Justin didn't really know what to expect last year. He'd never been to California, so it was a "working vacation" of sorts. "I was excited to be there," he says of the first Showdown. "It was interesting. The NASCAR officials from all the series were working together. Everyone was treated fairly."
It also gave him a chance to go wheel-to-wheel with drivers like Jeff Fultz, David Gilliland, and Jim Pettit. "I've read about them, but it was great to race them," he adds.
The trip in 2004 will again force Justin to dig into that vacation time. He works in the construction industry and has a weekly job that requires quite a bit of his attention. His car is owned by his parents, Steve and Lisa Diercks, and his father serves as his spotter. Mom and brother Spencer provided needed support. The crewchief is Nick Carlson, and Tim Carlson is the car chief. The car is a Lefthander chassis with Tesar Power. Sponsors include Iowa Illinois Taylor Insulation, Adrian Carriers, Shabbona Creek RV, TC Fab, Roemer Machine, and Precision Embroidery.
New Faces While the true lineup won't be set until the series finales, expect to see a number of new names on the race roster in November. Garrett Evans, who ran a part-time schedule in 2003, is expected to be a strong representative of the Northwest Series. J.T. Norris and Erik Darnell of the Southeast Series will likely represent their series well. Rip Michels, a Dodge Weekly Series regional champion in 2003, may find himself in the field from the tough Southwest Series.
On the Grand National side, David Gilliland, a representative of the Southwest Series last year, made the move to the Grand National side in the West Series and will be there. Stockton winner Mike David will likely join the West squad in 2004. From the Busch North team, expect second-generation racer Bobby Dragon and legendary Dave Dion to join up with the squad of top North racers.
A footnote on the roster: A driver can turn down an invitation. That invitation is then extended to the next position in the standings until a roster is filled from each series.
Showtime for the Showdown Once again, Toyota has stepped up and joined forces to set the stage for the excitement at hand. The anticipation is building as this unique short-track racing event heads to its sophomore season. Given last year's results, it's a tough act to follow, but it doesn't shrink from the challenge. It will be a true showdown.