There's no doubt that Canadian racer J.R. Fitzpatrick's first NASCAR Nationwide race of the year didn't go according to plan.
He squeaked into the field after qualifying 40th for the mid-February season opening DRIVE4COPD 300 and then left the Daytona International Speedway completely frustrated after his car broke down 10 laps into the race. He ended the day classified second-last in 42nd spot.
Not exactly the opening salvo he wanted in his part-time bid to convince NASCAR teams that he's got the right stuff to get a regular gig in the top tier Sprint Cup.
But that's all a distant memory after Toronto businessman Steve Meehan bought the assets of Fitzpatrick's Baker Curb Racing Nationwide team in a deal that closed following the Mar. 19 race in Bristol, Tenn. Now the Cambridge, Ont., racer is a key element in a planned all-Canadian NASCAR outfit that promises to take him to the Sprint Cup.
Certainly Fitzpatrick still needs to perform, but the team's new ownership has got him pumped.
"I think it's fantastic. Steve is a really good guy, he's Canadian and he really wants to see Canadian corporate sponsorship and Canadian drivers, so I mean it's really cool," Fitzpatrick said.
"He really believes in me and that's what I really like. Given that I do need the experience and the time at the tracks and, even if it can't be a full year, he is definitely going to push my career along and I am glad to be a part of it."
With NASCAR's exposure and huge popularity, the team should be attractive to Canadian companies who want to use the series to promote themselves in this country and in the U.S., as well as companies from south of the border looking to get their names known in Canada.
But with the ink still fresh, Meehan will back the effort mostly with his "love for racing" until the business development part of the plan gets going and the team starts attracting sponsorship.
Although plans haven't been completely finalized, the short-term goal is to run a limited schedule in 2011 with a long-term objective of getting into the top tier Cup Series by 2013.
"We will run primarily in Nationwide and likely a few Cup races in 2011 - I think J.R. is comfortable running the road courses in Cup and with a little bit more experience and practice I think he could run an oval or two in Cup," said Meehan, 46, founder of the Investment Planning Counsel, which was acquired by IGM Financial in 2004 for $95 million in a cash and stock deal.
"Our focus is to quickly evolve to a full-time Cup team and I think J.R. is sufficiently talented to get there with the right people behind him."
The 23-year-old racer has shown great potential in his stock car career after becoming the youngest CASCAR champion (now the NASCAR Canadian Tires Series) at 18 in 2006. He was runner up in the Canadian Tire series last year.
Fitzpatrick has raced nine times in Nationwide since 2007, with seven of those starts coming on road courses. He also has 13 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts under his belt.
Making the jump from Canada's stock car series to Nationwide isn't easy, especially since the cars, engines, tires and tracks are all completely different. The biggest adjustment is the speed in Nationwide, which at the larger NASCAR ovals can be as much as 160 kilometres per hour quicker than Canadian Tire tracks.
On the other hand, he gets to race Ford's Mustang Nationwide car introduced last season, something that's just plain cool, he insisted.
"The Mustangs and the [Dodge]Challengers look awesome. The Chevy looks good too," he said. "I really like the fact that NASCAR brought these cars in because I can actually sit in them - I'm six-four, so it's really hard for me to get in the old-style car - and they just look wicked, a lot of people like them and I just love them."
He's also getting the hang of driving them, too.
Although things didn't go well in Daytona, Fitzpatrick's second Nationwide race of 2011 was a bit more satisfying. He qualified 25th for last weekend's race at California's Auto Club Speedway and then drove to a 20th-place in Saturday's Royal Purple 300.
"We went there with a set-up that really didn't suit my style and I was happy to come out of there with a top-20 with the way the car was handling. I'm a very competitive person, Steve is too and so is the whole team, so we were happy but we're not happy if you know what I mean," Fitzpatrick said.
"I wanted a top-15 finish and that would have been like a win to me but I didn't quite get my goal."
Originally, he was slated to race April 8 in Texas, but the change in ownership has the team regrouping and instead planning to hit the stop three weeks away in Nashville.
While Fitzpatrick continues to champ at the bit for his next race, Meehan hopes Nashville is just the start of something bigger.
"We have an opportunity to represent a country as opposed to just being a team and I'm excited by the prospect of doing that," Meehan said.
"It's a feel good story and it's my job to capture it and sell it to corporate Canada."
Correction: Baker Curb Racing will continue to operate as an entity separate from Steve Meehan's operation. An earlier online version of this story contained incorrect information.