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Caraviello: Coulter won't soon forget overlooked run at KS

June 08, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

After the best race of his young national-series career in NASCAR, Joey Coulter spoke to reporters in the Kansas Speedway media center and then headed back to his team's transporter with what he called a "goofy-looking smile" on his face. That was when he heard that his fifth-place run in the Camping World Truck Series event, and the bump he received from Kyle Busch afterward on the cool-down lap, had sparked a firestorm that included a physical confrontation between Busch and Coulter's truck owner, Richard Childress.

"I was so excited," Coulter said. "When I got back to the hauler and kind of heard about everything that happened, I was like -- wow. OK. I wasn't quite expecting that. But we had a great, strong weekend."

"I was extremely surprised. I looked in the mirror and saw him coming back up, and didn't think much about it. And when he got next to me, I was really, to be honest with you, kind of expecting a thumbs-up. "

--JOEY COULTER

The aftermath of that Kansas race, which on Tuesday resulted in Childress receiving a $150,000 fine from NASCAR and the team owner being placed on probation through the end of the year, has consumed the sport in the days since. The sensational nature of an altercation between the 65-year-old Childress and the 26-year-old Busch has proven irresistible, to the point where it even overshadowed race winners from the same weekend. Coulter's fifth-place finish this past Saturday has become something of a footnote as the flashpoint that set everything else in motion.

Which is unfortunate, given that it was also a breakthrough performance by a driver who comes from a part of the country not known for producing a wealth of stock-car talent, and someone who is pursuing a racing career and a college education at the same time. The South Florida native and Truck Series rookie passed Busch on the final lap at Kansas to record his first top-five finish, an accomplishment he'll hold dear regardless of all the shenanigans that surrounded it.

"A run like that, for me, I'm not going to forget it. I know exactly what happened," said Coulter, who turns 21 Wednesday. "I'm still on cloud nine, so to speak. So are my family and friends. I loved it. It was one of the best mile-and-a-half races that I've ever had. So it was great."

It wasn't entirely unexpected, given that Coulter had scored top-10 finishes in each of his two ARCA starts at Kansas, and had a wealth of experience to lean on in Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon, who had finished sixth in Kansas City the previous season and was the pole winner for last Saturday's event. Coulter went in with some confidence, which he needed in a protracted battle with Busch that went on for lap after lap toward the end of the race. It took Coulter that long to set up and eventually get past the Sprint Cup star, an accomplishment that for the young RCR driver was almost as important as the finish.

"I've always said, regardless of what people think of Kyle, he's one of the best drivers out there right now," Coulter said. "He gets in all different kinds of race cars every week and wins all the time. For me, personally, to be able to race him as hard as I did and to get around him, that was a high accomplishment in my book. To do it clean, I felt like it was a really clean pass. It was great. It was awesome. I learned so much behind him. If I had caught him with two laps to go, I wouldn't have been able to get around him. It took me all of those 10, 15 laps to put together a corner I needed to where I could get the pass done."

So when Busch pulled alongside the No. 22 truck on the cool-down lap, Coulter was hoping for some sign of congratulations. Instead a clearly agitated Busch banged into him door-to-door, sending Coulter swerving down onto the apron. Obviously, given what ensued later in the garage area, that action infuriated Childress. It left Coulter a little stunned.

"I was extremely surprised. I looked in the mirror and saw him coming back up, and didn't think much about it," he said. "And when he got next to me, I was really, to be honest with you, kind of expecting a thumbs-up. Because I felt like we both raced really good. I enjoyed it. I was thrilled to be able to race him like that. And then when he ran into me, I was like, OK, that's not what I was expecting. I'm not one that gets out and gets mad. I was like, OK, obviously he didn't like it. So maybe at Texas I'll go find him and say, OK man, what didn't you like? Let's talk about it a little bit and go from there."

Given that Brian Ickler is driving the No. 18 truck in Busch's stead this Friday at Texas -- Busch will be at Pocono with the Sprint Cup circuit -- any attempts at détente may have to wait until early July at Kentucky Speedway, where the Truck and Cup tours next intersect. Coulter heads to Fort Worth hoping to build on his Kansas performance, regardless of the larger issue that's overshadowed him. But then again, this is a driver who became somewhat used to being overlooked growing up outside Miami, a city that produced NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison but not much else in the way of elite stock-car drivers. And Allison only succeeded because he left the region for Alabama, where there were more tracks and better competition.

Ultimately, Coulter had to do the same thing. He grew up in Miami Lakes, a neighborhood where, if the wind was blowing in the right direction, you could hear the noise from the cars over at Hialeah Speedway, the track where Allison got his start at 17. Eventually the land around the speedway became too valuable, and in 2005 Hialeah was shut down and turned into a commercial development. For Coulter, the closest track was in Punta Gorda, Fla., a three-hour drive away. "That made it tough," he said. "You couldn't just pack up and go. You really had to plan out your season and plan out the traveling and everything."

Kansas

Results
1.Clint Bowyer Chevrolet
2.Johnny Sauter Chevrolet
3.Todd Bodine Toyota
4.James Buescher Chevrolet
5.Joey CoulterChevrolet

Finding races often meant long treks up into central Florida and places like New Smyrna Speedway -- which holds a big event that coincides with NASCAR Speedweeks, luring a lot of top drivers in town for the races at Daytona -- and USA International in Lakeland, the latter of which has since closed as well. "Places like that are where I would go to try show off a little bit and try to get my name out there some," Coulter said. "But really, it was tough. I got a lot of negative feedback from people down there, [saying] oh, you're never going to make it out of Florida. To make it happen, to get to Charlotte, and to put together what we've put together is really awesome."

Coulter finally moved to stock-car country when he was accepted to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he continues to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. His family found an available race shop and by the end of that year Coulter was competing on the ARCA tour in a car owned by his father, Joe. Coulter competed for two seasons in ARCA -- the same circuit in which Childress discovered Clint Bowyer, and where his grandson Ty Dillon now competes -- piling up 14 top-10 finishes, winning a race at Berlin Raceway in Michigan, and catching the eye of RCR management in the process. He was named driver of RCR's second Truck entry in November of last year.

It all led up to last Saturday at Kansas, and the biggest moment of a season that's also included top-10 finishes at Dover and Phoenix. Given what transpired immediately afterward in the garage area, Coulter's turn in the spotlight was brief. Within hours, his career-best run at the national level had been reduced to an afterthought. No matter -- he knows what that afternoon meant, and to him nothing else matters.

"It was big. I think it showed a lot of people, including guys on my team, that we could do it," Coulter said. "We are really in position to run up front now. I've learned a ton over the past few races. At the beginning of the year, there's some stuff I was missing. Experience, mostly. That's where my teammate [Dillon] and his crew chief really stepped up to the plate and helped me figure it out, and we were able to put it together at Kansas."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.