Canadian driver to make Nationwide debut

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

Every once in a while in professional sports a chance comes along for an athlete to jump from relative obscurity to international fame in one bound.

This week Canadian stock car racer Steve Arpin gets that chance.

It will be the opportunity of a lifetime for Arpin who will pilot the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday.

Or as team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it so succinctly: "Probably a baptism of fire."

The 26-year-old native of Fort Frances, Ont. -- a tiny community 250 miles south of Winnipeg, nestled across the Rainy River from International Falls, Minn. -- will have the stock car racing world's spotlight shining directly on him as he takes control of the car that vaulted Danica Patrick to superstardom at Daytona in February.

Arpin's dream start in the NASCAR Nationwide Aaron's 312 at the legendary 2.66-mile Alabama super speedway and at the next race at Richmond International Raceway comes as a direct result of consecutive wins in the ARCA series driving the No. 55 Venturini Racing Chevrolet at Salem (Ind.) Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

And it just so happened that Earnhardt was watching at Texas when Arpin won the Rattlesnake 150 last Friday.

"We had actually talked about a deal the week before after we won at Salem," Arpin said Tuesday from Charlotte, N.C., where he was getting fitted for a seat at JRM's race shop.

"This is such an incredible opportunity for me," he said. "I started to talk to Dale and Kelley (Earnhardt) last September about forming a relationship with their team."

Arpin was in line to drive the No. 88 JRM Nationwide Chevrolet, but ultimately the team chose Kelly Bires.

But after four races, Earnhardt fired Bires and began looking for a replacement.

Earnhardt has high praise for Arpin, who could move to full time status with JRM if his two-race audition delivers the kinds of results he has been getting in the ARCA series.

"We're looking for the next Brad (Keselowski), the next Jeff Gordon, whoever you want to compare him to, we're looking for that next guy. And you've got to get him in the race car," Earnhardt said upon signing Arpin to the team. "Steve Arpin, I think, might be an opportunity waiting to happen for anybody."

The JRM team has openings in both of its Nationwide Series cars -- the No. 7 and the No. 88 -- for most of the races left on the 2010 season calendar.

The team previously announced that Sprint Cup regular Jamie McMurray will run several races in the wake of Bires being let go a week ago. But Earnhardt said has big plans for that car and Arpin could well fit into those plans.

To show the kind of faith Earnhardt has in the young Canadian, the JRM car will race without sponsorship -- meaning Earnhardt is funding the deal out of his own pocket.

And Arpin is appreciative.

"We have been working closely with JRM on sponsorship and hopefully it will come together soon," he said.

Arpin signed a two-race sponsorship prior to the race in Texas with Mike's Hard Lemonade that will carry over to Talladega with his Venturini team.

One thing working in Arpin's favour is that he will race that No. 55 Chevrolet on Friday in the ARCA 250 at Talladega.

"Anytime you get a chance at more seat time, you take it," Arpin said. "It certainly will be a big plus for us when we move over to the Nationwide side on Saturday."

Arpin plans to keep on racing this season in the ARCA series where he is currently leading the championship but 10 points over Justin Marks.

Arpin is also the leading Aaron's Lap Leader in ARCA in 2010 with 158 laps-led in three races.

Finish lines

NASCAR boss Brian France told Time magazine this week that the Sprint Cup series may change its points system next season to give more weight to winning races. According to France, it would give drivers more incentive to take the checkered flag and "more bumping and grinding" on the track. "If we think we can make winning more important and the racing more exciting, that's what we'll do," France said.

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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