?If you were going to create the ideal NASCAR driver, how would you begin? How old would they be? How tall? What color would you make their eyes, their hair??
You might recognize that as the beginning of a commercial about the Drive to Diversity program, but my answers to those questions would be ?19 years old?, ?short?, ?brown? and ?red?. Now I know at first glance you might think I?m stepping back 8 years and referring to Brian Vickers. But the term short doesn?t refer very well to his height. Instead I mean a different Red Bull Racing driver that just might be the next big star to hit NASCAR. His name? Cole Whitt.
The first time I heard about Cole was on the TV show "3 Wide Life"; the first time I saw him race was at The Springfield Mile in Illinois in only his third USAC Silver Crown race. To say he blew the field away was an understatement. Not only did he start on the pole (thanks to the six-position invert), but he led every lap en route to his first win, and even his closest competitor couldn?t catch him after the final restart. Two races later he picked up his second win and first on pavement in dominating fashion at the Phoenix Int?l Raceway. Then last January he locked himself into the Chili Bowl A-main early in the week and raced up to second, falling just short of Kevin Swindell in the biggest USAC race of the year.
Kevin and Cole both moved up to the NASCAR K&N Pro East series, but it was Cole that excelled in the stock cars and longer races. Top 3 finishes in the first two races of the year landed him in the number 1 spot in the standings by 25 points. However a couple mechanical problems and rain shortening a dramatic run back to the front after getting spun out dropped him back to 8th in points, 151 markers behind leader Ryan Truex halfway through the season. Two fifth place finishes (one of which he earned while not being able to see over the bent up hood of his car) and a pair of second places--including his first time on a road course--pushed him back up to fourth in the standings heading into the final race at Dover. Everything seemed to be aligning and, to me, there were a lot of comparisons to the day he won in Springfield: the first time he had raced on the 1 mile track, setting up to lead every lap, and never having won a race in the series. With a chance at the championship now gone, the only thing left to accomplish from the preseason expectations was to get that first win. Setting quick time in practice, grabbing 2nd in final practice and taking the outside starting spot in qualifying, it looked like the first win was in his grasp. Twenty-five laps into the race it ended with a bang as the tire went down, sending Red Bull?s phenomenon hard into the outside wall and to the garage. He wound up fourth in points, 242 behind Ryan Truex in his first experience with stock cars.
Despite the disappointing finish it is still clear this kid has bigger things ahead of him. When he drove into Phoenix, everyone?s attention was turned towards the Cup series where the unthinkable had finally happened with Jimmie Johnson losing the points lead following the craziest Texas race ever. But when the kid from Alpine, CA, wound up seventh in first practice and landed on top during final practice the attention took a big swing his way. Even though Hermie Sadler turned down a chance to talk to him, his first qualifying session in the ?big three? series was much anticipated. Laying down a decent first lap to lock himself into the race, he went for it on the second lap only to overshoot the corner. Disappointed with himself he still started from the twenty-third spot, kept his car clean all day and raced himself up to 11th early in the race. He came out of the race having accomplished his goal of a top fifteen finish by securing that position.
During Friday night?s Camping World Truck race, the Speed announcers mentioned that he would be driving the #60 Truck in his first ever start. But after his impressive first Nationwide race Red Bull announced on Wednesday that he was also being entered in the Homestead race with the #84. Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick aren?t the only people to watch this weekend. For the first time in his very short NASCAR career, Cole will be running both races that will certainly be ?not to miss? despite the championships already being locked up. Cole Whitt has a long future ahead of him in this sport and will be NASCAR?s next superstar!
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