Rising In The East
NASCAR's loaded with developmental series that all work to set the stage for its premier Sprint Cup Series.
If you look at current Cup standouts Kurt Busch or Greg Biffle -- to cite just two -- NASCAR's national series such as Camping World Truck or Nationwide were their respective penultimate steps.
But you have to take a step back to get to the national series, and that's where NASCAR's perfect development platform sits, namely the K&N Pro Series.
It might be coincidental to the fact that the epicenter of the sport is the immediate area surrounding Charlotte, N.C., but the K&N Pro Series East seems to rule over its partner West Series when it comes to potential development.
All you have to do is look at the entry list for this weekend's Saturday night opener at Greenville Pickens Speedway in South Carolina, the Kevin Whitaker Chevrolet 150, to figure out what a developmental hotbed the K&N East is.
It has everything from the president of Martinsville Speedway, the site of this weekend's national series doubleheader, to the sons of famous racing fathers -- and even one famous racing mother.
The unfortunate thing for Martinsville's Clay Campbell is, however, that because the Greenville race was rained out last weekend Campbell, an ardent racer who was scheduled to make his series debut in this event, will have to postpone it because in this case, duty trumps affairs of the heart.
"Don't think I didn't give [making the race] a thought," Campbell said earlier this week, smiling right through the phone. "Don't think I didn't try to figure out how to make it happen, but I just can't do it."
His debut, which was scheduled in a No. 08 Chevrolet fielded by veteran owner/driver Jeff Spraker, had to be postponed becaus -- even though Campbell is a seasoned Late Model Stock Car racer and a former track champion at Caraway Speedway, who actually commuted from Martinsville on a race weekend to race at the North Carolina short track -- his lack of experience in a heavier, more powerful East car nixed the plan.
"If it would have been something that I had run in before I would have attempted it," Campbell said. "But I can't go down there without any practice."
Especially not with the crowd he'll be racing with.
Series has tough company
It includes Michael Waltrip Racing's two-time defending championship team, which has a new driver in its No. 00 Toyota, series veteran Brett Moffitt, but the same champion crew chief, Mike Greci.
Chase Elliott might only be 15, but he already has late-model championships on his resume as he looks to make his series debut. He'll have the proverbial tough row to hoe at Greenville in his No. 9 Chevrolet as the original 33-car entry is dominated by drivers in a variety of development programs and, along with Elliott himself, a good handful of drivers with serious bloodlines in the sport.
Elliott, the son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, earlier this year was signed to a driver development agreement with Hendrick Motorsports, after NASCAR lowered the eligibility requirement for the K&N Series to 15.
The No. 9, of course, was the Elliott family's signature in the Cup Series as Bill joined with brothers Ernie and Dan on a team originally owned by their father, George. That won 32 Cup races in the 1980s.
Among the other sons of famous racing fathers who are entered is former two-time Nationwide champion Randy LaJoie's son Corey, Nationwide and Cup series veteran Robert Pressley's son Coleman, former Busch North champion Dale Shaw's son D.J., open-wheel standout Billy Boat's son Chad and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Larry McReynolds' son Brandon.
Brandon McReynolds is running a full-season program for Spraker that will make him Campbell's teammate when the grandson of Martinsville founder H. Clay Earles races.
Other racers with "oily" family bloodlines include Max Gresham, whose family owns Gresham Motorsports Park in North Georgia; Ben Kennedy, whose mother is International Speedway Corp. president Lesa France Kennedy; and Zach Germain, whose family owns the multi-team organization that two-time Truck Series champion Todd Bodine and others drive for.
There's also a great mix of diversity drivers. Darrell Wallace Jr. became the first black driver to win a K&N East race when he won the 2010 Greenville opener; he's one of at least eight black, Hispanic or female drivers on the list.
"The talent in this series is encouraging in terms of what it means for the future of our sport," Campbell said. "A lot of the drivers are really young, but they've got good backgrounds -- these youngsters are really talented.
"Years ago, you couldn't get started that young [age 15], so I think it's good that NASCAR has realized, 'we've got some good, young kids out there that we're letting get away from us, so let's give them an opportunity to start with us.' I applaud NASCAR for [lowering the eligible age limit to 15]. I think it's a good place to start because it gives you the experience you need, now with cars that have right-much power to them -- the same as the old Nationwide cars, or whatever -- so I think it's all good."
The K&N crew chief roster is also liberally sprinkled with mechanics who've had an impact across all levels of NASCAR -- both turning wrenches and steering wheels. In addition to Greci, whose legacy includes terms with all three racing members of the Truex family -- father Martin, Cup driver Martin Jr. and two-time K&N champ Ryan -- they include Lonnie Rush, Dave McCarty, Fred Wanke, Bryant Frazier, Spraker, Todd Lohse and Bill Wilburn.
The crowd he'll be racing was also a tipping point for Campbell, who'll be able to mix business and pleasure every weekend he races.
The K&N Series East director, Kip Childress, was familiar to Campbell because Childress' father, Lance Childress, was a NASCAR official for several decades and worked with Campbell and his family on numerous events at Martinsville.
"It's really neat," Campbell said of the series. "Once I realized I was going to do this and we got the thing put together to where it was gonna happen, I was more excited about this than anything I've done in a long time. For a lot of reasons that relate to all these people I've been around, working in the business, for a long time.
"I know so many of the people that are running in it -- the Elliotts and Brandon and Larry [McReynolds] and my gosh, the list goes on and on, with the LaJoies. It'll be great to see that Elliott name back on a Cup car as we move into the future.
"And there are a lot of up-and-coming guys and it's pretty neat to be around young guys that are focusing on making this a career, [making a step] into a major-type series. I think the [K&N] Series is really good and it accomplishes a lot. I was looking forward to participating. I'm going to, but it'll be a few weeks later, I guess."
If he skips the series' second race, on April 16 at South Boston (Va.) Speedway, Campbell's debut may come in a unique April 28 doubleheader. The Denny Hamlin Foundation is staging a charity Late Model Stock Car race at Richmond International Raceway featuring as many as 20 invited NASCAR national series drivers in conjunction with the East Series' third race.
Campbell's experience marks just how important a niche the K&N Series can be. Campbell, who got started racing karts against Truck Series winner and current owner/driver Stacy Compton, eventually moved up to LMSC, where he's been successful.
But even at his age, and with the responsibility of running a premier race track, he wanted to take the next step.
"I'd been looking to do something a little different than just the late model that I had been doing for however-many years," Campbell said. "That was the logical step up. It's a great series for guys that maybe have limited experience at something like that. It's a great developmental series, and that's the purpose of it.
"It's totally opposite for me versus all the kids that are in it, now. They're looking for a career in racing and I'm not. I've got one and this was just the next logical thing for me to do because it was the closest thing to a [national] touring series, which I can't do on a regular basis, but it was close enough for me.
"It was a move up from late models to something with more horsepower and more weight and more laps in the races, so it was the logical thing to do. I just hate that I can't get started with it as early as I wanted to, but I'm gonna run some."
It would have been interesting to see how Campbell could have stacked up in the East Series championship against a bunch of the proverbial "young lions" of the sport.
Their experience runs the gamut from karts to Bandoleros and Legends; through Late Model Stock Cars to the Hooters Pro Cup and ARCA Racing Series.
And Campbell proved he has a little ways to go before he possibly gets to their level. Rather then use a racing simulator to prepare for his planned -- and now rained-out -- debut, he resorted to a more old-school tactic.
"I got to see just how talented Darrell Wallace was, because I spent a lot of time watching the last two year's Greenville [K&N] races on YouTube," Campbell said. "I wanted to figure out how they get around that place, because I'd never raced there before -- kinda like football players watching game film, to get an idea.
"But watching those guys race was pretty impressive."
And while a K&N race held last year at Martinsville in conjunction with its annual Whelen Modified Series event was not a financial success, it did give Campbell an idea of what the series was about, and planted a seed that's about to bloom.
"Jeff and I are talking now about the scheduled we want to run," Campbell said. "The short time I've dealt with Jeff Spraker, he's a class guy. I really want to make the thing work, for both me and him [because] he's excited about it and I am and he's done a whale of a job getting things turned around, because it was all done on short notice."
The Richmond double is a definite, though, for Campbell the hard-core racer; who flew home on Saturday morning after the original Greenville postponement, and immediately went to his late=model shop in Christiansburg, Va., to get fitted for his 2011 seat.