This Nationwide series season has been an amazing one, but every week I have realized that one important piece was missing: Cole Whitt. Thanks to TriStar Motorsports and their #44 team, that changed this past weekend at Dover! Having Cole back in a car was wonderful and refreshing and on top of all that, he ran a great race. He stayed on the lead lap the entire race and moved up to take a 16th place finish!
It wasn't so very long ago that Cole was clearly one of NASCAR's rising superstars. But honestly, there's no reason why he shouldn't still be considered that. Sure, it's been a rough go for him this year, but that's just the landscape of the sport right now - lack of sponsorship generally equals no ride, talent and ability not considered. That is no reason to forget that Cole has the ability to still be a Cup series champion someday though!
Cole's star has shown brightly in every series he's moved up through. He won lots of races before he even got to USAC's Silver Crown series in 2009, where he was driving when I first heard about him. Since then he won his first Silver Crown race at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in dominating fashion (leading every lap) and followed it up with another dominant win a few months later at Phoenix.
When he moved up to NASCAR's K&N Pro East series in 2010, I knew he would be a contender for the championship and the first half of the season certainly backed that up. He won the pole in the first race and was the top East driver when the series met with the K&N West series in Iowa before a mechanical problem knocked him out of the race. He kicked off the second half by starting and finishing second at Lime Rock Park to only Andrew Ranger, a road course expert, and even held the lead late. He followed that finish up with two top fives and another second place finish and was set up to entirely dominate the season ending race at Dover before a cut tire ended his day on lap 25. He was a little out of reach of Ryan Truex's points lead, but a win at Dover would have almost certainly given him the Rookie Of The Year title over Darrell Wallace Jr.
As Cole stepped up into NASCAR's top 3 series via a Truck series ride with Stacy Compton's Turn One Racing team, he continued to showcase his talent by performing well at some of the most difficult tracks. He won the pole at Darlington and led 30 laps before a brake problem cost him track time - still, he rallied to an 8th place finish. He finished 2nd to Kyle Busch at Dover (a track he clearly has the hang of) and battled for the lead with Kyle and Kevin Harvick during some late race restarts. He took the points lead the next week in Charlotte as the Speed reporters sung his praises and stayed in the top 5 for most of the season, even as the team welcomed new sponsor Fuel Doctor onboard to supplement Red Bull's funding. The small, underfunded team's equipment seemed to be falling behind as the season drew to a close and good finishes became harder to find, but he still reeled off three top 10 finishes in the last eight races to finish 9th in points.
With Red Bull out of the sport and wondering what he was going to do for 2012, Cole got a call from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to run for his Nationwide team. That seemed to be his big break and they immediately finished 4th at Daytona. He finished 6th a couple of races later at Las Vegas and had a shot at the win late in Talladega with his tandem-drafting partner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. before winding up 4th. Overall, the team was struggling to keep up with the bigger organizations and that reflected in his finishes even though he consistently out-finished his teammate and took home six top tens out of the last eleven races, including a 6th at Dover in September. He finished a solid 7th in points and I was hoping for a return this year with the team. They never managed to secure sponsorship (it's pretty sad when even Dale Jr.'s name can't attract funding) and had already announced the hiring of Regan Smith for 2013, so Cole was left without a ride when Daytona started off the season.
I heard a few months ago that he was working in a shop and naturally assumed that JR Motorports was that team. So you can imagine my surprise when he turned up wearing TriStar logos in Richmond in a picture with one of my friends! When it was announced he would be running Dover, I could not have been more thrilled for him! It made sense that they would run him there first because of his on-track record. As details have continued to unfold, he is now going to be racing Iowa (with Chad Hackenbracht's being hired to drive Kyle Busch's truck in Texas) and on his website, five more races are listed, including Michigan this month!
Cole could really shine in top equipment, but he seems to be able to do more with less at the smaller teams, like Turn One (plus the Sieg team at Daytona's season opening race in 2011) and now with TriStar. Nothing against Hal Martin, because I'm sure he is a good driver, but it's been a struggle this year for Mark Smith's #44 team. Cole's 16th place was their first lead lap finish of the season and, as I said earlier, he was on the leader's lap for the whole race, even beating out teammate Mike Bliss by two positions. That has me really excited not only for Iowa and Michigan, but also every race he runs this year! The amount of depth he can bring to a team will help lift the whole organization to better results. He is a humble, well-spoken kid (he turns 22 later this month) that can really promote a sponsor well and he is really good with the fans. This kid has a very bright future ahead of him still!
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