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Rodman: Whitt set for Red Bull Cup debut, ready to impress

November 10, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Earnhardt is a fan of Kahne and Stewart, but is France just as giddy with Smoke?

Red Bull Racing is on the verge of its biggest change in NASCAR in the five years since its Cup Series program debuted, and with Cole Whitt -- who's been supported by the Austrian energy drink manufacturer since his karting days -- set to attempt his Cup Series debut this weekend, its future in the sport is back on center stage.

There's a precedent for this being more than a footnote. Whitt, 20, who's smack in the middle of a three-man Camping World Truck Series Rookie of the Year race, made his Nationwide Series debut at Phoenix a year ago.

Whitt's whirlwind arrival in stock cars after he had a winning impact in USAC short-track open-wheel competition includes fourth in the 2010 K&N Pro Series East championship, where he drove a Toyota owned by Red Bull principal Dietrich Mateschitz to six top-five finishes -- including three second-place runs -- in 10 starts. If he makes the Phoenix Cup race it'll mark at least one start in each of NASCAR's four leading stock car divisions, where he totals 38 starts in the three divisions he's raced so far.

"I've been racing year-to-year, and always have. Red Bull sees it as an opportunity for me to impress some people, like with the Nationwide deal last year."

--COLE WHITT

"The [Sprint Cup] car doesn't have [owners'] points so we're gonna have to qualify it in [to the race]," Whitt said. "But we have a good team putting the car together. It's a lot of the same guys who worked on my K&N deal, and they were the ones who put together the Nationwide car, last year as well.

"They own this team and they have the equipment -- it was kind of a no-brainer for us to go and race."

That includes crew chief Randy Cox, who headed the Nationwide Series effort last season with which Whitt made his debut in that series by qualifying 23rd and finishing 15th. A week later Whitt, who won the fall 2009 USAC Silver Crown Series event at Phoenix, qualified 10th at the Ford 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Whitt said there's a chance Red Bull, which has backed his racing since he was a youth in karting, might enter him in the Homestead Ford 400 as well.

"What a lot of people don't understand is, they look at Red Bull and Red Bull Racing -- particularly the Formula One team -- and they think there's endless money there, and there's not," Whitt said. "They get affected by the economy just like we all do. And NASCAR does things a lot different than the way that they're used to doing things.

"But at the same time, they're getting close to the end of their [Sprint Cup] deal with NASCAR, they have the team and I have a really good relationship with them from my past years -- and honestly, I would not be this far in my career without [Red Bull]. We just couldn't have done it, between me and my family."

Whitt started the 2011 season with half a season's worth of funding from Red Bull, he said, "and then Fuel Doctor came on board to enable us to do the full schedule. It's been a great learning experience but that's what we went into this year as -- to get some experience and to get your name out there for some other teams."

Whitt is faced with the same scenario he's dealt with for years, he said.

"It's never been a secret that my future was sewn-up anyways," Whitt said. "I've been racing year-to-year, and always have. Red Bull sees it as an opportunity for me to impress some people, like with the Nationwide deal last year.

"They've given me a great opportunity just to showcase what I can do -- to impress some people and that's what it's all about, trying to turn heads. It's so tough right now, with the economy the way it is, it's really hard to impress somebody because they just don't want to spend the money."

But, Whitt said, Red Bull has already committed to him a similar program as he had in 2011, for next season. But he says he has yet to re-sign with Stacy Compton's Turn One Racing.

"I think a lot of people have noticed what we've been able to do," Whitt said. "We're a small group of guys, and we put in countless hours and work hard. We don't have amazing resources and I came into this [NASCAR] garage as a no-name.

"But I think if you walk through the garage now, they'll know who I am, at least; and a lot of that's been done on hard racing. I don't think anyone can say I lucked-into anything, and that's what I want to be remembered as, because it's a tough sport and next year, I might not be here or I might be running Cup -- I don't know."

Efforts like last weekend at Texas, where Whitt ran in the top-five most of the night before he ran out of fuel in the closing laps and fell from third to 17th.

"As bad as that felt, I had so much fun racing out there," Whitt said. "I just love the sport and I love to do it -- to race hard. I feel like a lot of people know that I race hard, every time I'm on the race track."

Dale Jr. a Francis, Kahne fan

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a big fan of his incoming Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kasey Kahne.

"I'm looking forward to Kasey becoming a driver over at Hendrick Motorsports," Earnhardt said this week. "He's been a pretty good friend of mine for a long time. I think he's a good talent [and] Kasey is going to be a lot of fun to hang out with."

But Junior, who probably doesn't get the credit he deserves for his technical proficiency, has a more far-reaching reason for looking forward to Kahne's arrival for the 2012 season.

"Even more importantly than that, I'm excited about Kenny Francis coming as his crew chief," Earnhardt said of the engineer that's a former Late Model short-track driver of some reputation. "Any time you can sort of infuse new ideas of thinking, new ways of putting cars together -- bring those ideas in, let them sort of play themselves out -- that's a lot of fun for a driver.

"So looking forward to seeing what Kenny can bring into the fold."

The intriguing thing is, just last weekend, at Texas Motor Speedway, Kahne said he wasn't sure how he and Francis' mode of operating, which they've honed since 2006, would work at HMS.

"Well, I think what Kenny Francis does, kind of the way we do things might be a little bit different than Hendrick," Kahne said. "The way they do things is really positive, too. It will be fun to put it all together. There's tracks where they beat [Red Bull] bad and there's tracks where we run pretty well. Hopefully we can all put it together and make some gains, make Hendrick Motorsports a little bit stronger than it already is."

Dragging the line ...

Ever since Phoenix International Raceway was repaved and reconfigured earlier this year, speculation has run rampant on what competitors in two of NASCAR's three national series could expect this weekend. Wednesday, PIR president Bryan Sperber offered some insight into steps the track's taken to make it more raceable.

"Since the last NASCAR test at PIR on Oct. 4-5, our team has implemented several exercises designed to help develop an upper groove," Sperber Said. "[An] advanced tire-dragging machine focusing on enhancing the upper groove applied rubber into the surface; the machine went through more than 80 tires over 12 days for around 90 hours of actual dragging."

For two days this week, an all-star driver lineup piloted six 850 HP Richard Petty Driving Experience cars Tuesday and Wednesday including former two-time Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie, ARCA champion Frank Kimmel, Tim Fedewa, former Busch Series champ Steve Grissom, Brad Noffsinger and Andy Thurman.

"They were focusing on widening the upper groove," Sperber said. "The cars collectively ran more than 3,000 miles on a soft Goodyear tire compound. We appreciate the time and efforts of the Richard Petty Driving Experience and the drivers who assisted us in preparing the track for our three NASCAR events this weekend here in Phoenix."

"Whoever wins this race is going to have to work hard and will have a lot of fun," LaJoie said. "This track has a lot of grip."

TrackSmack: Can 'new' Phoenix track ley anyone back into contention?

Keselowski laying low on Truck Series

Last week, Sprint Cup championship contender announced his Camping World Truck Series had a full sponsorship package to run a second consecutive full season for Connecticut youngster Parker Kligerman. Keselowski said he had no plans to take advantage of the funding to do any Truck races --- short -term.

"I started the Truck team because of the love I have for the Truck Series and certainly feel like I have some unfinished business there," Keselowski said. "As a driver, I've been close to winning races and something has always happened. I would like to finish that off, for sure, but that's not my primary goal.

"The primary goal of being involved in the Truck Series is to give opportunities to guys like Parker Kligerman. And I'm sure the day will come where I need to run a few races to keep the funding going for guys like Parker and more than just Parker -- crewmembers on the team and so forth.

"And so, when those days come, I certainly will run some races. But as of now that day hasn't come and I don't have a clear answer on what races I'll run -- but I'm sure that day will come."

Stewart taken at face value

Earnhardt Jr. says without hesitation that Tony Stewart, despite his sometimes prickly demeanor with the media, is an overall plus for the sport of NASCAR racing.

"Well, I think Tony has a lot of ingredients that makes up the talent he is," Earnhardt said. "Just trying to pull something up, he has his background, his experience, where he raced, where he learned to race, how much he raced when he was younger I think molded him to the type of driver he is today.

"He's very hot-tempered at times. That, I think, adds to his personality -- adds to what his fans appreciate about him, make him the driver and the talent that he is."

Earnhardt couldn't put his finger on what particular characteristic Stewart boasts that he'd like to assimilate. But he said he can certainly appreciate what Stewart brings to the table.

" Everybody's personality is different," Earnhardt said. "I can appreciate Tony for who he is, how he is. He's been a pretty good friend to me.

"He's been great for the sport. I like the fact he loses his cool every once in a while and puts his foot down. You like to hear honesty from people. You always know where you stand with him. I think that's a great attribute of his, is he's very forward and up front. That's how you want people to be."

... makes Brian France happy?

After he won his fourth race in eight 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup starts, Stewart opined that with him being just three points behind Chase leader Carl Edwards, NASCAR chairman Brian France should be enthused.

"It shows what [the last two races in the] Chase is going to be about, it's a good battle right now," Stewart said. "I don't know -- if you're Brian France right now, I would say he's giddy. If not, he should be, because this is the perfect scenario.

"It's the perfect storm, so to speak, going into these last two weeks. That's what you want. This is about as exciting as it gets, to have two guys that are down to three points with two weeks ago."

Watch all of Stewart's Chase highlights:

Stenhouse zeroes in on Nationwide title

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is comfortable having a 17-point lead on Elliott Sadler in the Nationwide Series championship, with two races remaining. The pair raced around each other all day at Texas until Stenhouse pulled ahead at the finish.

"It definitely feels a little bit better," Stenhouse said. "We had three races left and a 15-point lead, so when you knock a race out and add two points it definitely makes it better -- but we're not racing anybody else. Obviously, we're only racing [Sadler], but we're still gonna go out and try to win as much as we can because if we win, then it takes the rest of it away.

"But it's definitely more comforting knowing that wherever [Sadler] is, that's the only car we're racing these next two weeks. If we can keep them in sight, then this championship can be ours for sure."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.