From small screen to the big time for McCumbee

Chad McCumbee portrayed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a made-for-TV movie in 2004. This weekend, he'll make his Nextel Cup Series debut driving for Kyle Petty in the Pocono 500.

Updated: June 8, 2007, 4:10 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

A few years ago, young Chad McCumbee portrayed the son of a NASCAR legend on the small screen. This weekend he'll replace the son of a NASCAR legend in the cockpit, for real, smack in the middle of the big time.

McCumbee, now 21, was an aspiring late-model stock racer at Myrtle Beach Speedway in the summer of 2004 when ESPN approached with the offer to characterize Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the filming of the made-for-TV movie "3: The Dale Earnhardt Story."

Chad McCumbee
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireChad McCumbee on his acting debut: "It was a major accomplishment for me."

He wrestled with the decision, pondered whether it would help or hurt his racing aspirations. If he played Dale Jr. in a movie, would anyone ever take him seriously in the competitive arena?

"When you sit back and think about it, that [opportunity] was amazing. When that movie deal came about -- and sometimes I forget it even happened, to be honest -- I was actually pretty stressed out whether or not to do that," a groggy McCumbee said early Monday morning.

"Point blank, I was a late-model racer at Myrtle Beach Speedway without a lot of marketability, and fate would have it that something like that would drop in my lap. They just wanted me to play myself, with the Southern accent and racing background. I guess it fit just perfect for them."

Ultimately, it was pretty simple: Even the slightest name-to-face recognition is helpful in the ascension to the big leagues.

"We tossed it around for quite a while, but when else are you going to get an opportunity like that?" McCumbee said. "There's hundreds of people that would jump at an opportunity like that. I was fortunate enough to get a side job and be an actor for a couple weeks out of my life.

"It's definitely not something I want to pursue as a career but I'm definitely glad I did it. It was a major accomplishment for me. If nothing else, maybe one day when I'm retired and kicked back on the porch that'll be one of the coolest things I've done, for sure."

By all means Sunday should rank right up there, too.

McCumbee will make his Nextel Cup Series debut in the Pocono 500, substituting for Kyle Petty in the No. 45 Dodge. Easing into the next phase of his career, the son of Richard Petty will trade his driving suit for the business variety, joining TNT's network broadcast for the next six weeks.

Quite frankly, McCumbee was a surprising replacement choice. He has 32 Craftsman Truck Series starts. Total. He's never started a NASCAR Busch Series race. He did win an ARCA event earlier this season at Nashville Speedway. So why Chad McCumbee?

"I'm not sure," he laughed. "They told me they thought I'd fit their program well. Coming up, everybody told me don't change anything I did and it'd get me where I wanted to go.

"I'm very happy to be associated with the Pettys. The morale over there is a lot like something I want to be around. They've got the right attitudes and it's a place I see fitting me really well."

Despite its infamously tricky Tunnel Turn, McCumbee likes Pocono. He has a pair of top-three finishes at the 2.5-mile triangular track in ARCA, and said in his estimation there's no better place to make his Cup Series debut.

He said he doesn't feel much pressure. He knows he's replacing a Petty, but he's been assured by Petty Enterprises competition director Robbie Loomis and crew chief Bill Wilburn that they'll take a patient approach. Take your time. Learn. Bring it home.

"It's been a real blessing -- everybody at Petty's been great," McCumbee said. "Robbie [Loomis] contacted me and I went and sat down and met with them, and they told me what they were looking for -- it really seemed like, once I got up there and saw what Petty Enterprises is all about, that it fit me pretty well. Hopefully I got a bright future with them."

McCumbee said he's uncertain whether this opportunity will develop into a long-term relationship with Petty Enterprises. He said they haven't discussed the distant future much.

Kyle Petty
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesChad McCumbee will drive the No. 45 Dodge for Kyle Petty in Sunday's Cup race at Pocono.

"I feel like it would maybe be more a two or three years down the road deal, hopefully," he said. "We're on a development deal, here, so we'll take our time doing that. We're going to try to pursue some opportunities to do some stuff and see what falls in our lap. Everything depends on sponsorship."

For now he's focused on the Pocono 500. McCumbee said he plans to run the ARCA race on Saturday with Wilburn atop the pit box, a trial run to practice driver/crew chief communication before the big day Sunday.

"For me, personally, I just want to go out there and run the race as if I was going to run all 36 races, just give a solid performance and keep them up in a good points standing and give a respectable show," McCumbee said. "I want to run all day. I've got a lot to learn.

"They're looking toward the future and building Petty Enterprises, and on the upward swing, no doubt. We're not in a superbig hurry or anything. We're just taking it one step at a time. I didn't really even expect this, to start with, so it's just been a real blessing.

"It's very exciting for me. I know everybody back home has been superexcited for me. It seems like it's been a tough road, but it's really not been that long. I've really only been doing this for a couple years at a more professional level. I've been real fortunate just to get to this point."

You never know what could happen. Petty Enterprises has been running much better of late.

Maybe McCumbee could star in his own Hollywood ending.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.