- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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SPARTA, Ky. -- Can a driver emerge from the shadows this weekend and make his mark on the Busch Series the way David Gilliland did a year ago? It's a tall order, but as Gilliland proved, anything's possible.
Driving for an under-funded team without any ties to a Nextel Cup Series organization, Gilliland shocked the world of NASCAR with his victory in Kentucky last June. By August, he was driving Robert Yates Racing's No. 38 Cup car, a meteoric rise if there ever was one.
A similar situation might not unfold this time at Kentucky Speedway, but that doesn't mean there won't be a few drivers looking to make their mark just the same.
Last year [Gilliland] had one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history there. He showed up with a team on a limited budget and limited experience and won the race. Hopefully [our team] can shock the world this year.
Whether it's Richard Johns, a Team Rensi engineer who gets to drive the car normally occupied by Gilliand (he'll be reaching his Cup car at Michigan on Sunday instead) or any of the others getting a chance this weekend, the dream lives on.
That's also the case for the likes of Brad Coleman, who has the advantage of driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, a team with plenty of resources. Coleman won an ARCA race at Kentucky last year and dreams of a repeat performance.
"Tracks like Kentucky create great races because of the wide surface and side-by-side passing we are able to do," Coleman said. "You can race multiple grooves on this track and the combination of speed and smoothness really pays off here."
The team is unveiling a new chassis here this weekend, but that fact doesn't worry Coleman.
"I am not concerned one bit about taking a brand-new car to Kentucky," he said. "Throughout my career I have cross-trained and raced in multiple series at the same time -- stock cars, open-wheel and sports cars -- and am used to jumping into a new car and peeling off hot laps. I appreciate the confidence the team has placed in me by bringing a brand-new race car that the guys worked so hard to build and putting a rookie in to go try and win the race."
The reality is that someone like runaway points leader Carl Edwards likely will wind up in Victory Lane yet again. Of the Cup regulars, his biggest challenger may well be Greg Biffle in a Brewco Motorsports entry.
But the dream lives for the younger Busch drivers such as Steve Wallace, who won the pole a week ago at Nashville. Wallace has also had success at Kentucky, winning an ARCA race there. He hopes to take the things a step further this weekend.
It's a goal shared by many, including Johns. Most of the time, he's working on the car and helping drivers Gilliland and Bobby Hamilton Jr. go fast. So when he gets to drive himself, it's the opportunity of a lifetime.
"This will by my first time at Kentucky in a Busch car, but I've competed there in the ARCA Series," Johns said. "The cars are completely different, but the seat time I have has helped prepare me for what's to come. I know where the bumps on the track are and what the best line to take around the track is, so hopefully that will speed up my learning curve. I'll be able to focus on making the car faster and not learning the track.
"My team has shown that we have good people and good equipment -- we just need to put all the pieces together. I believe we can qualify and finish in the top-20 this weekend, but crazy things have been known to happen at Kentucky. Last year [Gilliland] had one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history there. He showed up with a team on a limited budget and limited experience and won the race. Hopefully [our team] can shock the world this year."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.