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The start of the Napa 200 Nationwide Series NASCAR race in Montreal. (OLIVIER JEAN/REUTERS)
The start of the Napa 200 Nationwide Series NASCAR race in Montreal. (OLIVIER JEAN/REUTERS)

Motorsports

Up-and-comer Cole Whitt on breaking into NASCAR Add to ...

Coming into his rookie season of NASCAR Nationwide competition, Cole Whitt bristled with confidence, convinced that he could handle anything the series threw at him.

Reality turned out to be a bit different. The cocky young driver’s head quickly shrank back to normal size when the gap between himself and the top Nationwide talent became painfully obvious after a few laps at the season opening weekend in Daytona.

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“I think what I didn’t realise was how inexperienced I really was,” said Whitt, whose closely cut red hair and

sprinkling of whiskers on his chin, which he rubs unconsciously as he answers, make him look much younger than his 21 years.

“Being the young kid – the up-and-comer – you have all the confidence in the world and you feel like you can do things with cars that others can’t. You feel like Superman and then you come here and these guys are already doing that, and beyond what you can even imagine.”

The JR Motorsports rookie has risen to the challenge, sitting seventh in the points standings after a disappointing 33rd-place finish in the Napa 200 at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Saturday after his car blew a cylinder with 19 laps left in the race.

Turner Motorsport’s driver Justin Allgaier won the race, followed by the Penske pairing of Sam Hornish Jr. and hometown driver Jacques Villeneuve. The Nationwide points leader is Eliot Sadler, who was fourth in Montreal.

Whitt graduated into Nationwide this season after one year in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series, where he finished the 25-race calendar ninth overall in points with one pole and 11 top 10s. Before the Truck Series, he raced in the K&N Series, where he took seven top 10s and two poles in 10 starts.

The Alpine, Calif. native’s years in the lower series were backed by Red Bull, which identified Whitt as a development driver in 2009. When the energy drink maker pulled out of NASCAR after the 2011 season, it also yanked the ladder out from under Whitt.

“When it happened, I definitely didn’t see myself driving for JR Motorsports but it just all worked out,” said the No. 88 Taxslayer Chevrolet driver.

“I never take this racing deal for granted, and Red Bull got me to where I was. I was lucky for them to carry me for as long as they did and support my racing, and you probably wouldn’t know who I was without it. I look at how far it’s taken me and I am not bitter about it at all.”

Although he may have found Nationwide humbling at first, Whitt started well in 2012, taking two top-10 finishes in his first five starts. But he feels things really gelled in the No. 88 garage after the team brought in crew chief Bruce Cook to replace Tony Eury Sr. after the first five races.

“It helped me for sure; at the beginning of the season we had a hard time running in the top 15,” he said. “As soon as we made the crew chief swap, I felt like my confidence came up and I was able to work with Bruce a lot more and just kind of be able to stay on the same page as far as he just knew what I was talking about. The improvement came right away.”

His Montreal teammate, Canadian Ron Fellows, sees huge potential in the young Californian, who he coached on road course racing earlier this year during a test at the Road Atlanta track.

“He’s very, very young and hopefully they will have patience with him. It’s a tough nut to crack that whole NASCAR deal,” Fellows said.

“Hopefully, in three years he will become a dominant driver in the Nationwide Series and be able to slot into an opportunity within the Chevrolet ranks [in the top-tier Sprint Cup] somewhere.”

So far, it looks like Whitt has earned a spot in Nationwide, but his one-year deal at JR Motorsport means that he will be looking for a contract to race in 2013.

His head-to-head numbers versus JR Motorsports' other driver, Danica Patrick, show that Whitt stacks up well against his teammate.

In the first two thirds of 2012, Whitt has outpaced his more famous teammate in just about every category.

Unfortunately, having the driver who has quickly become “the face of NASCAR” as a teammate also comes with its downsides: Whitt got his biggest publicity hit this year when he spun Patrick at the season opener in Daytona.

“It definitely didn’t help, and it wasn’t the way I wanted to start off our relationship, but it’s part of the learning experience – which sucks, but everybody has to go through it I guess,” he said, laughing.

“But it also helps a little – the whole team has a lot of followers and a lot of people and it’s made my publicity triple by now.”

While Whitt downplayed the significance of having a star for a teammate, Fellows feels that pairing with the popular Patrick might be a good thing for the the youngster, who gets to work in the shadows while she attracts the spotlight.

“He’s a really quiet kid and I think it fits him perfectly,” Fellows said.

“Danica has a tremendous following in terms of both media and race fans, and that’s a lot of pressure for her to deal with, but she does extremely well. Cole is a young kid with a great opportunity to be part of Junior’s team and the Hendrick organization as a development driver.”

Right now, Whitt continues to focus on improving in every race as he tries to put in a performance that will get him an offer to race in Nationwide in 2013.

As for the future, he just wants to be out there competing.

“I don’t know what is going to happen next year, but hopefully things will work out for the best,” he said.

“This could be my final year, or it could not be, and I could end up running [NASCAR’s top tier] Sprint Cup for the rest of my life. At the end of the day, all you can do is try your hardest and either it’s enough or it isn’t.”

Spengler dominant at Nürburgring

Canadian Bruno Spengler put on a driving clinic on the weekend, starting from pole in Sunday’s DTM race at the German Nürburgring Circuit and never being challenged in a decisive win.

The victory moved the Saint-Hippolyte, Que. native into second overall in points, 20 behind championship leader Gary Paffett of Mercedes. Drivers get 25 points for a win, and with four races left in the 2012 season, the championship in within Spengler’s reach.

Beating Mercedes to the title would be a pleasing feat for Spengler, who left the manufacturer at the end of 2011 to join the new BMW squad. He has quickly become BMW’s No. 1 driver, taking two wins for the new team in six starts this year.

The second Canadian in the field, Mercedes driver Robert Wickens, put in his best performance this season on the weekend, starting ninth and finishing seventh. The 23-year-old Guelph, Ont. driver moved to sixth at the start and stayed with the leading group for the entire race. A slow first pitstop dropped him to seventh behind Mercedes’ No. 1 driver Paffett, where he remained for the rest of the race.

After finishing the first four races without a point, Wickens has finished in the top 10 in his last two starts.

The next DTM race takes place Sunday at the Zandvoort Circuit in Holland, which gives Spengler a perfect opportunity to celebrate his 29th birthday, albeit belatedly. He turns 29 on Thursday.

Fellows part of win in Montreal

When then NASCAR Nationwide rookie Justin Allgaier lost control and creamed Ron Fellows’ car on Lap 26 of the 2009 Napa 200 in Montreal, the veteran Canadian road racer used the accident as a “teaching opportunity.”

A few days after the heavy crash, Fellows got a call from a remorseful Allgaier, who apologised for ruining the Mississauga, Ont.’s home race. Nice guy Fellows gave Allgaier a few road racing tips over the phone and then extended an offer to do some formal training in Corvettes at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School at the Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch near Las Vegas.

Allgaier, 26, agreed and finished ninth a year later at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. He improved one spot in 2011, before taking the win on Saturday.

“You could say that my first race here was catastrophic,” Allgaier said.

“Ron was a big help to me then and he is a great competitor and fun to race with. Definitely the skills have come over time and just being up here and racing for the past three or four years now in a row has helped.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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