NASCAR brings together its top development series drivers, spread out in seven regional series across the United States, Mexico and Canada, in the Toyota All-Star Showdown in Irwindale, Calif., on Jan. 28-29. Here are two to watch in the race and in the future: Darrell Wallace Jr. and Paulie Harraka.
Wallace had a history-making victory in his first start in the K & N Pro East last March 27. At 16 years, five months and 19 days, he was the youngest and first African-American race winner in the series. Wallace added a second victory at Lee Speedway in New Hampshire, had seven top-10s and finished third in the 10-race series. He also was Rookie of the Year.
"I believe it went extremely well," Wallace said. "It blew all of our minds with the first win. We expected a top-5 or top-10 finish, but definitely not the win. Being able to pick up the second win at Lee was pretty awesome. We came up short in the championship run, but I was able to hang on for the Rookie of Year title, so that was pretty cool."
Wallace is entering his third season as a Joe Gibbs Racing development driver. He's also part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, which operates Revolution Racing in the East series.
"Coach Gibbs is an awesome boss to have," Wallace said. "Gibbs Racing is one of the best teams. I'm glad to be a part of it, like a dream come true."
Wallace has a guaranteed starting spot in the 225-lap all-star race on the half-mile oval. NASCAR seeded the champions from the seven series and race winners from the K & N Pro Series East and West into the race.
"I always want to go to race to win," Wallace said. "My teammate Sergio [Pena] set the bar pretty high last year [finishing second to Joey Logano] and I need to go out and win to beat that. It's a challenge and excitement at the same time. I think it's going to be awesome to showcase my talent and show what I have."
It would be a graduation present to himself. Wallace, 17, will graduate from Northwest Cabarrus High School in Concord, N.C., next week.
"I'm graduating early," he said. "The next day after I get out, I fly to California for the all-star race."
Wallace will return to the East series this year. He won't be 18 and eligible for NASCAR's national series until Oct. 8. Wallace has his sights set on breaking into the Nationwide Series in 2011.
"We definitely talk about it and, hopefully, I'll be running Nationwide by the end of this year," Wallace said. "There's nothing set in stone and if it doesn't happen, I'll understand."
Gibbs moved Logano, who had been the East champion the previous year, into Nationwide as soon as he turned 18. It seems likely Gibbs is charting the same course for Wallace, who will be a top contender for the East title this year.
"Now that I have the track time, I think I'll be twice as good when we go back to the tracks we raced on [in 2010]," Wallace said.
Wallace would like to become the first African-American to race full time in Sprint Cup since Wendell Scott in the early 1970s.
"That's my goal for the upcoming years," he said.
Harraka, a Duke University junior who has commuted to drive for California owner Bill McAnally since 2007, also has a seeded spot in the all-star race. He had one victory, at Roseville, Calif., seven top-5s and finished third in the 12-race West series in 2010. Harraka had two wins and seven top-5s in the 13-race West in 2009. In 2008, he was the Whelen All-American Series Late Model champion at Roseville.
Harraka, 21, expects to move up into the Camping World Truck Series this season. He's driving for McAnally in the all-star race and may do some West series races, too, in 2011.
"Right now, I'm focusing on Camping World Trucks and will probably run selected K & N races," Harraka said.
Harraka finished ninth in the all-star race last year.
"We dropped a cylinder 20 laps into the race and never got it back," he said. "We ran pretty much the whole thing on seven [cylinders]. We had a great car.
"I'm definitely excited about racing in it again. I think it's a race everybody looks forward to -- you're racing against champions and guys you're not normally racing against. The more competition there is, the better it is.
"I like Toyota Speedway [Irwindale] and finished third in 2009 in a West race. It's a nice feather in your cap to win it, a race the whole team can brag about."
The all-star race is a different format and having no points at stake adds a whole new dimension to "have at it, boys."
"We get 100 laps and take a break, then another 100 laps and take a break," Harraka said. "Then we run the final 25 laps. There are no points and a lot of different drivers. There's a bit less give and take than normal. Unfortunately, a lot of guys take that too far at the end of the race."
Wallace and Harraka have established themselves as two of NASCAR's up-and-coming drivers in the East and West series. But there are always mountains to climb for drivers in their position and the all-star race is next.