IRWINDALE, California-- Mike Johnson and Justin Diercks turned in the fastest speeds on Thursday as the top NASCAR Touring drivers from across the country prepared for the third annual NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway.
Drivers representing 25 states and three countries converged on the state-of-the-art Southern California track for the invitational post-season event, which awards nearly $500,000 to competitors and is televised live on SPEED Channel.
Johnson's lap of 97.093 mph topped the practice charts among 31 NASCAR Grand National Division competitors taking part in the event. Johnson, who won last year's Grand National Division portion of the All-Star race, was content after turning his fast lap in the first of two practice sessions for the division on Thursday.
"We went for a long run on used tires to see what it would do in a race," Johnson said of his second round of practice. "That's what we were focusing on in the second run. Once we found a good setup in the first session, we just started going back to it."
The Salisbury, Mass., driver said there has been little change to the Irwindale track since his win last year. "I think the weather is pretty consistent out here," said Johnson, who finished 10th in the championship standings in the Busch North Series this year. "The track doesn't really change too much, nothing like New England."
Diercks, meanwhile, was fastest among the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division drivers preparing for the event. After turning a lap of 98.549 mph in the first round of practice, he returned later in the second session with a lap of 99.789 mph.
"I was actually pretty surprised," Diercks said of the first round of practice. "The first session the car wasn't that good. The second session the car was a lot better. We're still adjusting on it, though. We've still got a lot of stuff to do to it to make it even better. I think we're close, but we're not where we need to be yet."
Four 50-lap qualifying races on Friday will determine the lineup for the main events on Saturday night. The NASCAR Grand National Division, comprised of the Busch North Series and the West Series, will race for 150 laps on Saturday. The NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division - which includes the Midwest Series, Northwest Series, Southeast Series and Southwest Series - will compete in a 125-lap event.
As in previous years, the Toyota All-Star Showdown will also include a "team" competition that pits series vs. series in a battle for bragging rights and extra prize money. During the feature events on Saturday, each series will be scored together, to determine which series is performing the best overall during the race. The series with the highest combined score wins the "team" competition and shares additional prize money from NASCAR and Toyota.
Other top speeds of the NASCAR Grand National Division were Joey McCarthy at 96.592 mph, Mike Stefanik at 96.567, Ryan Moore at 96.535 and David Gilliland at 96.530.
Second through fifth quickest in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division were Jeff Jefferson at 99.574 mph, Steve Carlson at 99.415, Eddie Hoffman at 99.272 and Nick Joanides at 99.168.
NEWS AND NOTES
The Toyota All-Star Showdown third annual King Taco Pit Stop Challenge was held on Wednesday, Nov. 9. The winning team pulled off a lightning-fast 13.925-second stop for Matt Kobyluck's #40 Mohegan Sun Chevrolet. The crew chief for the winning pit crew was Perry Waite who helped guide the team to the $3,000 bonus.
The pit stop competition called for the teams to make a two-tire stop with simulated fuel being added. Teams were allowed to make three pit stops, with the best two averages making up their final time.
Finishing second in the King Taco Pit Stop Challenge was Steve Portenga and his #16 NAPA Chevrolet with a time of 15.085 seconds under the direction of crew chief Dusty O'Connell. Ending up third was Andy Santerre with a time of 15.665 seconds led by crew chief Roger Tryon on the No. 44 Castle Packs Power Chevrolet.
FAMILIAR FACES: The NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series lineup for the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown includes four drivers representing the series for the third time in the prestigious post-season event. They are two-time series champion Mike Duncan (No. 9 Lucas Oil/Ron's Rear Ends Chevrolet), Brett Thompson (No. 81 Thompson Motorsports Chevrolet), long-time series veteran Scott Gaylord (No. 00 Oliver Gravity Separators/Denver Seminary Chevrolet) and Jack Sellers (No. 15 Aramark Pontiac). It will also mark the third consecutive All-Star appearance for David Gilliland (No. 88 RaceCarCeilingFans.com Chevrolet). His entry into the inaugural event, however, was as a competitor in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series.
WILLIAMS IN FOR HELTON: NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southeast Series driver Greg Pope is filling in for an injured Gary Helton this weekend in the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown. Helton, the 2005 Southeast Series Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year with three wins under his belt and a third place finish in the final standings, broke his right collarbone last Sunday afternoon after an incident on a four-wheeler while deer hunting.
Helton's No. 86 Volunteer Racing Chevrolet team still made the trip to help serve as the pit crew for team owner Randy Wilson's No. 87 Land O'Frost/Uncle Yammys Chevrolet. Helton, meanwhile, stayed back at his home in Tennessee and plans to watch the NASCAR Toyota All-Showdown while nursing his injuries.
Williams will be competing in the No. 40 Pennzoil Chevrolet out of the Dixie Motorsports stables.
DOUBLE DUTY: In addition to competing in the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale Speedway this week, David Gilliland is entered in the NASCAR Busch Series event at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday. Gilliland - a second-generation competitor in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series who won the rookie title in 2004 - will race the Showdown in the familiar No. 88 RaceCarCeilingFan.com Chevrolet owned by Mark Golembeski. At Phoenix, meanwhile, he will drive Clay Andrew's entry with sponsorship from Hype Manufacturing and Rich's Motorsports. After practicing at Irwindale on Thursday, Gilliland is slated to fly in a private plane to Phoenix for practice and qualifying on Friday. He will return to Irwindale on Friday evening to compete in his qualifying race. After the NASCAR Busch Series race in Phoenix on Saturday, he is to fly back to Irwindale in time for the start of the Toyota All-Star event.
YOUNGEST SHOWDOWN ENTRY: Andrew Lewis (No. 23 NASCAR Select by NAPA Filters/Rich's Motorsports Pontiac) is the youngest driver to compete in the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown. Lewis - who turned 18 on Jan. 19, just 11 days prior to the season opener - went on to become the youngest driver to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series. Lewis is not the only 18-year-old racing in the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown this year. Competing in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division portion of the event is Midwest Series driver Dexter Bean, who is 14 days older than Lewis.
BMR DOMINANCE AT IRWINDALE: Bill McAnally Racing has dominated NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series competition at Irwindale Speedway - winning seven of the past eight series events at the half-mile Southern California facility. Steve Portenga (No. 16 NAPA Auto Parts/NAPA Belts & Hose Chevrolet) visited victory lane in the only visit by the series to Irwindale this year. Austin Cameron piloted the BMR entry to victory lane in 2002 and in two races in 2004. Brendan Gaughan swept three series races for BMR at Irwindale in 2001 en route to winning his second consecutive series championship. In addition, Cameron captured the win in the inaugural NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown in 2003.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Several NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series drivers gained experience early in their careers competing in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series at Irwindale Speedway. Those who were regulars at the state-of-the-art-facility include Tim Woods III (No. 54 Chino Hills Ford Ford), who has raced in the Super Late Model class since the track opened in 1999; David Gilliland, who competed in the Super Late Model class in 2000 and 2001; Andrew Myers (No. 44 Toyota of Escondido Chevrolet), who raced in the Late Model class in 2003 and 2004; and Andrew Lewis, who also ran in the Late Model class in 2004.
BRINGING THE NORTH INTO THE WEST: When Andrew Myers joined the ranks of the West Series this year, he brought in experience and knowledge from the Busch North Series and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Myers bought a car from four-time Busch North Series champion Andy Santerre and brought in three-time Busch North Series champion Jamie Aube as the car chief on his team. In addition, he hired former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Phil Bonifield to serve as his crew chief.
GOING OFF ROAD: While some drivers are looking forward to a little vacation from racing after this week's NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown, Andrew Myers is just shifting gears a bit. Myers, who competed in an open-wheel class of off-road racing before joining the NASCAR ranks, will be heading off to compete in the Baja 1000 next week.
I'M BACK: NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southeast Series competitor Kevin Prince is back with his crew chief this week after missing the season-finale race while his wife, Natasha, gave birth on Oct. 27 to the couple's first child, daughter Madison Rae.
READY TO REST: Southeast Series competitor Robert Richardson not only made his way into the Toyota All-Star Showdown thanks to his efforts throughout the 2005 season, he's also made several starts in ARCA competition at tracks like Daytona and Talladega. Richardson, the driver of the No. 3 Benchmark Mortgage/ North Texas Pipe Chevrolet has also made several starts in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
"It's been a while since I've had a break and I'm ready to get a little rest," said Richardson, a native of McKinney, Tex. "I'm supposed to race the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Homestead next weekend. Then for the rest of the winter, I'm just going to spend some time with my family and friends. I'm going to do some hunting and fishing just to get away from everything and relax. I've raced in about five different divisions this year so hopefully I've gained a lot of experience that's going to help me on down the road in my career."
RIDE-SHARING: Sharing the cross-country ride has become the trend with the Busch North Series teams. Four rigs brought eight cars- more than half the series' field for the Grand National Division Showdown. The two Grizco Racing entries - champion Andy Santerre and runner-up Mike Stefanik- traveled together as you would expect. Ad hoc combinations for the weekend are Kip Stockwell with Dale Shaw in the Willoughby Motorsports rig, Sean Caisse with Eddie MacDonald in the Triple Crown Motorsports hauler, and John Salemi with Jeff Anton in the latter's rig.
Most of the drivers, crew, and families flew from New England to California, but Kip Stockwell and his dad (also car owner and crew chief) Lennie drove across the country in a tool- and parts-loaded pickup truck, stopping at the Grand Canyon among other places.
THE TIN INDIAN LIVES: There are four Pontiacs in the Grand National Division field. John Salemi raced his all year in the Busch North Series, while Kip Stockwell brought his out of retirement for at least the third time following crash damage to his primary Monte Carlo in the Busch North finale at Thompson, Conn., two weeks ago. Jack Sellers and Andrew Lewis fly the Wide Track flag among the West Series entries.
NUMBER CHANGES: The following Busch North Series teams have changed their numbers for the Showdown- Dale Shaw #17 (instead of 15); Kip Stockwell #6 (instead of 16); Joe Masessa #0 (instead of 09)
The change to #17 is significant for the Waste Management-sponsored Willoughby Motorsports entry since Matt Kenseth runs the same number in Waste Management colors on the NASCAR Busch Series.
JOHNSON LEADS FIRST GRAND NATIONAL PRACTICE: Defending Toyota All-Star Showdown Grand National Division winner Mike Johnson in the Johnson Lumber Ford paced the field in the first practice at 18.539 seconds, 97.093 mph. Fellow Busch North Series drivers Joey McCarthy, Mike Stefanik, and Ryan Moore followed, with David Gilliland fifth fastest and best of the West Series entries.
"We must have got the setup right, since we're at the top of the chart," said Johnson after the session, noting "It was best first time out when the track was green. When the rubber started to get laid down it was a little slippery." He added that the track would change further after the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division practiced, laying down another type of rubber. The Grand National Division runs Goodyear tires, while the AutoZone Elite Division uses Hoosiers.
MOORE HAS PRACTICE TROUBLE: Ryan Moore backed his primary car into the wall late in the session, doing substantial left rear corner damage. The Moore Racing team immediately unloaded the identical-appearing R.C. Moore Transportation/Bill Dodge Auto Group Chevrolet back-up car and began preparing for the second practice session.
THE MORE THE BETTER: Seven of the 10 NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series teams have previously competed in a NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown. Three-time series champion Jeff Jefferson is making his third appearance along with Gary Lewis and John Bender. Drivers making their second NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown appearance are Jeff Bailey, Garrett Evans, Pete Harding and Brandon Riehl.
INTERNATIONAL FLAVOR: The only driver among the 40 NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division teams not from the United States is the Northwest Series' Pete Harding, who hails from Surrey, British Columbia Canada. Along with four-time NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series champion Roy Smith, Harding, who won the Northwest Series championship in 1999, is one of two Canadian drivers to win a NASCAR title.
CONSULATION FEE: Joining Harding's team this weekend is Pete's son, Shane. The younger Harding won the Late Model track championship at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. this season. Pete just completed his 19th season in the Northwest Series and Shane is waiting for his chance to step into his father's ride. "I'm getting a little impatient, but there is no need since he is never going to retire," quipped Shane.
SCOUTING TRIPS: Gary Lewis has had the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown on his mind since the season began. He and his team made the haul from Bothell, Wash., north of Seattle, south to Irwindale Speedway for both of the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series races this season. "I'm not real sure how much good it is going to do us since this track is different every time you're on it," says the 2000 Northwest Series champion. "I still think the experience will help us out in the long run, though."
CHAMP FAIRING WELL: Current and three-time Northwest Series champion Jeff Jefferson and his No. 42 LeMay Museum/Morgan Transport Chevrolet came out of the box fast. He posted the second-fastest time in Thursday's first practice session and was very pleased with the results. "The car was turning great," said Jefferson. "I don't get caught up in the times too much, but if the car is turning good, then it will be at the top of the charts." The second practice session produced the same results as the first with Jefferson as second-fastest. "I can't win this thing in practice. It has to translate over to the racing Friday and Saturday nights."
ONE YEAR HIATUS: The Northwest Series' Jeff Bailey participated in the first NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown in 2003, but missed last year's edition. Bailey felt that the experience gained two seasons ago is still very useful even though his equipment is different. Bailey maintains that the most difficult thing about driving Irwindale Speedway is running at the top and overcoming his urge to dive to the bottom of the track coming out of the turns.
YELLOW STRIPE REPORT: Jeff Barkshire, the Northwest Series' Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year, obviously is making his first NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown appearance, but lack of track knowledge is not a factor. He has spoken to several of the series competitors who have been in this event previously. "They've been very helpful and full of useful information," says Barkshire. As for Irwindale Speedway, he says, "It's the most fun track I've ever driven." Initially, getting the car to turn was a problem, but after some adjustments the car cornered to his satisfaction.