2004 99 Schedule
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (February 11, 2004) – NASCAR fans in the Pacific Northwest have reason to be proud. During the off-season, regional favorite Kasey Kahne, of Enumclaw, Wash., was announced as the driver of Ray Evernham’s No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, replacing the legendary Bill Elliott. And, earlier this week, Vancouver, Wash. native and former NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series driver Greg Biffle won the Bud Pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
While these and other drivers make national headlines, many of the area’s top racers are gearing up for the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series season, which begins March 27 at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. The 2004 season marks the 20th year for this popular Late Model touring series, which began in 1985 as the NASCAR Winston Northwest Tour.
2003 Northwest Series champion Jeff Jefferson, whose off-season began with a trip to New York City along with all of the other NASCAR champions in December, enjoyed a vacation cruise with his wife, Dion, before getting down to racing once again. In January, Jefferson was back on track at the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series “Winter Heat 100” at Phoenix International Raceway, where he finished fourth.
Jefferson will return to defend his championship – which netted the Naches, Wash. driver over $90,000 in prize money and point fund awards – with the same team, car and crew chief from 2003.
“Everything’s the same – you can’t change a good thing,” Jefferson said. “We’d like to go to Phoenix again at the end of the year, but we’re concentrating on the Northwest Series right now.”
In addition to defending his title, Jefferson will be competing for an invitation to the second annual NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown, which features the top 10 drivers from each of the four series which comprise the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division (includes the Northwest Series, Southwest Series, Midwest Series and Southeast Series). In order to receive an invitation to the prestigious event, drivers must finish in the top 10 of their respective series point standings.
“All the drivers that were in the top 10 last year, they can win on any given night and you can’t let your guard down against any of them,” Jefferson said.
When Jefferson was asked who the toughest competition on the series will be, the 32-year-old driver responded without hesitation: “Jason Jefferson.” The champion’s younger brother nearly won the 2003 title for himself, but settled for a second-place finish in the standings, along with 10 top-five finishes and the 2003 rookie of the year award. While Jason has yet to announce his 2004 plans, he is expected to be an immediate championship favorite should he return to the Northwest Series on a full-time basis.
Along with the Jefferson brothers, other contenders for the Northwest Series championship and the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown include 1998 title-winner Gary Lewis, of Bothell, Wash. Lewis returns with the same team that helped him record two wins and two Bud Pole awards in 2003. Adding to his team’s formidable championship arsenal, Lewis added Hooters Restaurants as a sponsor of his No. 73 team.
John Bender, of Snohomish, Wash., took the Northwest Series by storm during the first half of the 2003 season. In the first five events of 2003, Bender recorded two wins and led the point standings for the first time in his career. Bender, the 2001 Northwest Series rookie of the year, has had a very productive off-season in preparation for a championship run in 2004. Bender signed a multi-year agreement with Oso Lumber and Hardware, of Arlington, Wash., to be the new primary sponsor of his No. 18 team.
With the sponsorship in place and his team intact, Bender is optimistic about the upcoming year.
“I feel this is probably the best schedule I’ve seen for the Northwest Series,” Bender said. “Six of the races are at my strongest race tracks, where I had my wins last season. Our team has basically the same program as we had last year – I just hope we can get some more wins.”
In January, two-time series champion Kevin Hamlin, also of Snohomish, shook up the championship picture by announcing that he would relinquish driving duties of the No. 33 Chevrolet, owned by Don Scriver, which he had driven since 1999. Hamlin, who recorded nine wins during his championship seasons in 2001-02, failed to reach the winner’s circle last season but continued to gain the respect of his peers – Hamlin was voted as the series’ Most Popular Driver for 2003. Replacing Hamlin in the No. 33 Chevrolet will be Travis Bennett, of Ellensburg, Wash. Hamlin, who will remain with the team as a consultant and spotter, plans to pursue other racing opportunities.
From Biffle to Bender, the Northwest Series has proven year after year to be the region’s top racing attraction. Since the 2003 Northwest Series schedule concluded five months ago, teams and fans have been anxiously awaiting the start of the new season. With a strong roster of returning teams, a challenging 12-race calendar and a few new twists – it looks like they won’t be disappointed.