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Drivers Hope To Meet Opportunity In St. Louis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 18 2009
Stephen Leicht owns only one third of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Nationwide car. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Stephen Leicht owns only one third of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Nationwide car. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jeff Hood | Senior Correspondent

Madison, Ill. – Saturday evening’s Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 at Gateway International Raceway isn’t considered one of the marquee stops on the 35-race Nationwide Series schedule.

But for several drivers, this weekend’s stand-alone NASCAR event might just be the most important evening of their racing career.

Despite recording a victory at Kentucky Speedway and finishing in the top 10 in points two years ago, 22-year-old Stephen Leicht has been relegated to sharing the No. 29 Chevrolet from the Richard Childress Racing stable with Sprint Cup drivers Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton this season.

Leicht, who hopes a full-time Nationwide Series ride will surface in 2010, will make just his fifth start of the season Saturday.

“I think it’s worse now than ever, especially in the Nationwide Series,” said Leicht, when asked about sponsorship prospects. “Personally, as a Nationwide-only driver and not being a Cup driver yet, these sponsors that do get with these Nationwide teams, especially the big ones, they want a Cup driver driving their car.

“They don’t want a Nationwide-only driver. They don’t want someone that’s part-time or was full-time, like myself even though I did well in 2007 when I did everything that I pretty much should have done to prove myself.

“Now, these sponsors have so much say in the way they spend the dollars and who gets in that race car. Most of them want a Cup driver in there for at least part of the races.”

Leicht plans to make the most of the next three weeks. In addition to Saturday’s race near St. Louis, he’ll pilot RCR’s No. 29 Chevrolet at O’Reilly Raceway Park next weekend and at Iowa Speedway on Aug. 1.

“It’s hard enough alone having two teammates like Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton to be compared to,” said Leicht, who is also scheduled to run the road course race in Montreal next month. “But knowing the way sponsorship is so tight now, I know I’m pretty much driving for a job.”

Eighteen-year-old Trevor Bayne has created a lot of buzz over the past month in a limited role driving Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 99 Toyota. He’s notched four straight top 10 starts and posted three consecutive finishes of 12th.

But Bayne, who gained notoriety in the Hooters Pro Cup Series, believes the best is yet to come in his abbreviated Nationwide Series career.

“I’d like to see some better runs start to come out of this,” said Bayne, who has five career starts in NASCAR’s junior circuit. “When you see Scott Speed and those guys in this 99 car, they really excel.

“I’ve got a team behind me and I know we can break into the top 10 here soon. We’re looking forward to that opportunity.”

Talented, young drivers such as Bayne, Leicht, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Erik Darnell, Brad Coleman and Kelly Bires each face the same dilemma: make a quick impression to attract sponsorship during a time when marketing dollars are scarce.

“We’re like a bunch of lions fighting for the same piece of meat all of the time,” Bayne said. “There’s a ton of drivers that are all looking for an opportunity.

“So when you’re able to come across that one sponsor, it’s really good when you can take care of them.”

Leicht said he’s hoping his network of friends and associates will help him secure the funding needed to extend his racing career.

“You do everything you can,” Leicht said. “Sponsorship is so hard to come by right now. My dad, my agent, the guy that helps me on my money, everybody that I know is trying to find sponsorship.

“Our friends are out ‘hey, I know this guy that owns this company. We’re talking to him to see if he’s interested.’ Anything that you can possibly do right now to bring any kind of sponsorship, whether it’s a one-race deal, a 10-race deal or a full-time deal, you’ve got to have sponsorship.

“You cannot do this without money, unfortunately.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 18 2009
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