HE CAME, HE DROVE, HE ALMOST WON

 
CHARLOTTE _ The six NASCAR touring season champions met with members of the media for lunch and a race at the 2nd Annual NASCAR Toyota Champions/Media Karting Showdown at Victory Lane Karting on Tuesday. Ryan Truex represented the NASCAR Camping World Series East, Jason Bowles the NASCAR Camping World West, Andrew Ranger the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series, Phillip Morris the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, Donny Lia the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and George Brunnhoelzl III the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour.
 
Did I mention that I work at Victory Lane Karting? Did I also mention that I am a member of the media? Can you see where this is going?

 
Following a Q-and-A session, the champions suited up and hit the track. The other reporters and I donned Victory Lane Karting fire suits and watched the pros before taking to the track ourselves. It was apparent that Truex, Bowles and Ranger were going to be the ones to beat. That’s right. I scouted them out.

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Victory Lane Karting is my home track. One night a week there I officiate some of the best indoor kart racers in the country. What the six champs whom I competed against didn’t know was that, although I am too busy to race much these days, I recently bribed a coworker with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to let me on the track for a few laps before Tuesday’s event. The practice paid off. Despite not racing for over a year, I found myself atop the leader board in each heat, turning heads among reporters and drivers alike.

Some of the champions came to me for advice on the best way around the tricky indoor course. Of course I obliged, even though I was accused by certain members of the press for being on the wrong side of the fence. Feeling confident, I looked to show up the pros at their own game.

After a short drivers’ meeting we were set for 10 minutes of hard racing, a yellow flag that would bunch the field up for a single-file restart and then a final five-lap segment. The inverted field was lined up for a staggered start with the champions in the back.

Starting eighth, just ahead of the champions and with slower karts ahead of me, I knew the first few laps would be tricky. The field bunched up on the initial start and those in the front of the pack slowed and bumped. I was able to emerge from the mess running third. Looking behind me, it appeared the champions had not fared as well through the traffic as I had and I set my sights on the leader.

Once I made my way into second I was focused on the white helmet of Motor Racing Network’s Alex Hayden. I gave him a few taps, just to let him know I was there of course, before making the move for the lead.

I took the checkered flag after the first session and slowed the field for the green flag restart. Truex lined up behind me in a slightly faster kart as we restarted the race. The Michael Waltrip Racing development driver followed me around the course for two laps. With only three laps to go, I bobbled going into a left-hand hairpin turn and he was able to get a nose under me as we went into a long right-hand turn. The rear of his kart clipped the nose of mine, slowing my momentum. At the white flag I was able to close to his rear bumper, but was unable to retake the spot.

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The Camping World East Series champion celebrated with the checkered flag and trophy while I sat in the kart thinking about what could have been. Bowles came in third. Ranger was fourth and Brunnhoelzl rounded out the top five. Hayden held onto sixth spot as the second-highest media member.
 
I stood on the podium trying to tell myself that at least I finished ahead of five of the six champion drivers. Upset that I gave the race away with two laps to go, I eventually realized how special it was to get the chance to race these up-and-coming drivers. One day when they’re battling in the big leagues of NASCAR, I can remind them all those years ago that I beat up on them at Victory Lane Karting back in Charlotte.
 

That’s Jay on the left. Unlike certain drivers – ahem, Kyle Busch – he actually stuck around after the race.

As a development driver for Michael Waltrip Racing, the 17-year-old Truex is on the right track to make the big leagues. In his rookie season on the tour, Truex earned three wins and his first NASCAR title in the Camping World East Series. Now with his brother Martin Truex Jr. joining MWR for 2010, the younger Truex is looking forward to what the future holds.
 
“It’s going to be cool to have him over there,” Truex said. “I think we’re going to run some Nationwide races together next year, so that will be pretty cool. Just an exciting deal. I’m just really fortunate to be where I’m at. I’ve been given a lot of great opportunities and I’m just trying to make the best of them.”
 
Entering the day, I figured my biggest competition would be Bowles. The Camping World West champion was a former state and regional karting champion. His success in karts also followed him to the West Series. In his first three years Bowles finished third, second and first in the season-ending standings. The 26-year-old from California was excited about celebrating his first NASCAR championship in the home of NASCAR.
 
“It’s a great deal for (NASCAR) to bring us to Charlotte like this and give us this opportunity to meet with the media and gave us all these – as I see it – prizes for winning the championship,” Bowles said. “It’s really nice of NASCAR to do this and it shows how much they appreciate us, our series and what we’re doing for the sport. To be a champion is a great thing and it’s what I’ve been working for last three years in this series and will hopefully be able to use it to propel myself to the next level."
 
Bowles will get his shot at the next level this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway where he will attempt to make his first career Nationwide Series start. Bowles will climb behind the wheel of the Specialty Racing No. 61 Ford owned by Doug Taylor. If all goes well, the pair might team up once again in Homestead, but that is still being worked out.
 
For me, it’s back to writing about racing and wishing I had the time and money to race on a consistent basis. I enjoy the times I get to go karting, but would love to climb behind the wheel of a late model and test my skills on the oval. Maybe the highest-finishing media member in the Champions/Media Karting Showdown should get a chance to race the champs out at Irwindale Speedway. I think it’s a good idea. But I could be a biased.