- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Brad Coleman loved driving for Joe Gibbs Racing last season. It was the weeks when he wasn't driving that were painful.
Coleman drove 17 races for JGR, posting three top-5 and five top-10 finishes. That's not bad for a driver who won't turn 20 until Feb. 26. And while the 18 races he wasn't in the car were a learning experience, he knows the best way to learn is being behind the wheel.
So when the opportunity to return to Brewco Motorsports presented itself last year, Coleman jumped at the opportunity. The team is now Baker Curb Racing after Gary Baker bought the operation from Clarence Brewer and then added Mike Curb as a partner, but there's one vital piece of the puzzle intact from when Coleman ran with the team in 2006.
The team is now based in Nashville, Tenn., instead of Central City, Ky., but crew chief Shawn Parker made the move. In nine ARCA starts in '06, Coleman won at Kentucky Speedway, posted eight top-5s and won the pole on three occasions. He also ran two races in what was then the Busch Series for the team.
Now, though, Coleman hopes to take the Nationwide Series by storm in the team's Fords.
"It's going to be a great year we're going to win a championship," Coleman said, fully realizing he'll have to surpass the likes of full-time Sprint Cup drivers Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and David Reutimann for that to become a reality.
If youthful enthusiasm could equate to points, Coleman would really be ahead of the game. Asked how this year will compare to last year, Coleman gets right to the point.
"I get to go to the racetrack every weekend and I don't have to watch my car go around the track [with another driver] like last year. Now it's my car and I get to drive it every weekend. [Last year] just wasn't fun. I had to sit on the pit box.
"I learned a lot of stuff when Tony Stewart was in it and all those guys, but I'd much rather be driving it."
Coleman learned from listening to how the likes of Stewart and the others who shared the No. 18 Chevrolet communicated with the crew during an event. Still, he'd rather have learned via trial and error on a weekly basis.
A native of Houston, Coleman said he'll win several races this year and if he can't win the championship, he wants to finish in the top five in points.
This despite the fact the team has undergone a massive transformation since the end of last season.
"We have the people to pull it through and to win that championship," Coleman said. "[But] it's going to be very tough. Some of these guys were on my ARCA team when I was doing that, so it's not like I've moved to a new team."
Coleman has a deal to test a Sprint Cup car for Hall of Fame Racing this season and could run a handful of Sprint Cup races later this season with the goal of moving to Cup with Hall of Fame depending on how he develops and if sponsorship is secured.
For now, though, the focus is on the Nationwide Series and Parker thinks his driver is up for the challenge.
"In the past two years, I've seen Brad really mature as a driver," Parker said. "The 17 races he ran last year really helped him out, especially with seat time. That's our goal this year, get as much time on the racetrack as we can, do as much testing as we possibly can and just come out of the day with the best finish that we can. The ultimate goal is to win the championship, but as a team at Baker Curb Racing, we need to get back to being consistent week in and week out and being a contender. That's our first goal right now."
And Parker said Coleman's youth is a big advantage from his perspective.
"Brad has an open mind and will try anything. Some veteran drivers are kind of stubborn on how the car feels. Their window of handling may be a lot smaller versus a driver who doesn't have a lot of experience," Parker said. "It's a whole lot easier to be more aggressive with things because he's not looking for a particular feel. Brad just goes out there and it feels comfortable to him."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
1dLaurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders