Following a couple of tough years when circumstances conspired to throw wrenches in his racing plans, J.R. Fitzpatrick finally has some certainty in his driving career.
The 23-year-old from Cambridge, Ont., announced a deal Wednesday that should see him compete in a full NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in Turn One Racing's No. 60 Chevy, ending four years of trying to find a home in U.S. stock car racing.
“It's going to be good. It's a good truck program, the guys are really good and they are pumped as well,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick.
“As of right now, we've agreed to do a full year together and we are excited to be working together. We'd love to get a top-10 overall in our first season.”
While the deal is in place for all 22 truck races, some sponsorship still needs to be put in place for the season that begins with the NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 24.
If all works out as expected, the deal will also see Mr. Fitzpatrick make his Sprint Cup debut on the road course at New York's Watkins Glen International on Aug. 12. In addition, he plans to run the NAPA Auto parts 200 Nationwide Series race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal a week later.
After becoming the youngest CASCAR (now NASCAR Canadian Tire Series) champion in the series' final season in 2006, Mr. Fitzpatrick began to dabble in stock car racing in the U.S. in the hope of landing a full-time ride. It hasn't been easy, with a lack of money and sponsorship holding back the talented Canadian.
In all, he started 14 races in each of the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series over the past four years. His fifth place in Montreal last August was his best result so far in Nationwide, where he has four top-10s. In trucks, his best result was a fourth in the 2009 season opener at Daytona.
But despite some positive results and huge potential, Mr. Fitzpatrick spent most of the past four years pushing hard in NASCAR but not finding a place to call home.
“I don't think anyone in Canada realizes how difficult it is – it's way more difficult than hockey or football because there are hundreds of football and hockey players and there are only 43 spots in the each of the top two series (Sprint Cup and Nationwide) and then 36 in the bottom (Camping World Trucks), so it's tough to be there every week,” he said.
“The results I have been getting have been positive, but sponsorship is really important, as is being in the right place at the right time.”
While the announcement of a full-year deal was kept under wraps until Wednesday, it wasn't something that came out of the blue for Mr. Fitzpatrick.
“It seems all of a sudden, but we have been talking to [team owner]Stacy [Compton]and his bunch for a little over a year now,” he said.
“We really enjoy watching his team work. Obviously [Turn One's 2011 driver] Cole Whitt did very well with them and when we found out that he was moving on, it was a great in for us.”
Last year, Mr. Fitzpatrick thought he had finally gotten the break he needed to get his career going in the U.S. when he signed on to race in the Nationwide Series with Go Canada Racing, a deal that was supposed to lead to a seat in the top-tier Sprint Cup.
Instead, Mr. Fitzpatrick left the team after five starts when it became apparent that things were not heading in the direction he expected.
“We just didn't have the equipment to move forward, so leaving that team was probably one of the smartest things I have done, and here I am hooked up with Turn One with good equipment,” he said.
“Everything happens for a reason and you just have to keep digging.”
Moving into the No. 60 truck should help Mr. Fitzpatrick as the team looks to build on the success it had last season, with rising star Cole Whitt at the wheel. The young Californian took two top-5s, 11 top-10s and one pole on his way to a ninth overall finish as a rookie.
“They have a lot of good trucks and they ended the year strong with Cole,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
“It's basically my first full year because I have only done a few tracks. I hope that the momentum they built is really going to help me get through the learning curve a little bit quicker. I am really looking forward to it.”
Canadian fans needn’t be worried that they'll be left out: Mr. Fitzpatrick has already committed to run a full Canadian Tire Series season in the No. 84 Chevy and will be back to battle his nemesis, two-time champion Andrew Ranger, who returns for another year after a year away.
The pair have battled on and off for the past few years, with some serious metal crumpling results. Then there's No. 2 Ford driver Kerry Micks, who also has history with both Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Ranger.
And what can fans expect as the surly threesome get to work at the 12-race season opener at the newly renamed Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (formerly Mosport International Raceway) on May 20?
“It's going to be awesome,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
“You are throwing me, Ranger, and Micks together and we all have a problem with each other.”
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