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Attending races at Daytona since birth, South Park driver has chance to run at famous track

| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Chris Bailey Jr.'s Daytona car
Submitted
Chris Bailey Jr.'s Daytona car
South Park racer Chris Bailey Jr.
Submitted
South Park racer Chris Bailey Jr.

The Daytona 500 is a mecca of sorts for Chris Bailey Jr.

In every February of his life except one, Bailey Jr. and a contingent of family members have made the trek to Florida's Daytona International Speedway for “The Great American Race,” which kicks off the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series each year.

“He was born in August and in the stands in February,” said his father, Chris Bailey Sr. “He grew up watching it and just loved it.”

It was in Daytona Beach where Bailey Jr. got his initial first-hand experience with racing. Zooming around a go-kart track at age 9, he impressed his grandfather, who figured little Chris ought to have a go-kart of his own. Not long after, he started entering — and winning — official races.

Now, after seeing so many events at Daytona as part of the crowd, Bailey is set to compete in one from the driver's seat. The 24-year-old from South Park, who has enjoyed success at just about every level of racing he has tried, will fulfill a lifelong dream Saturday when he starts in the ARCA Racing Series' Lucas Oil 200 at Daytona.

“It honestly is a dream come true,” said Bailey, who estimated that as many as 25 family members will go down to root for him. “I don't even care where I finish in the race. Just to be at that race and be a part of that race, it's going to be incredible.”

Bailey will have to qualify for one of the race's 40 slots. The 30 fastest drivers in qualifying runs make it, with the final 10 spots being provisionals based on owner's points from last year. Bailey, driving with Kimmel Racing, is ranked 20th in owner's points, and two of the drivers in front of him aren't eligible for provisionals because they didn't race enough in 2013.

At least eight of the 17 eligible drivers ahead of Bailey in owner's points need to qualify on speed for him to be entered, assuming he's not one of the 30th fastest drivers in qualifying.

Being one of those top 30 drivers in qualifying likely will be a tall order for Bailey Jr., who lacks the heavy financial backing — either from large sponsorships or family wealth — that is so common of those in serious racing.

“We're going in with the impression that, at Daytona, a lot can happen,” Bailey Sr. said. “We don't have a car with the horsepower capable of winning. But we have a car that should be competitive once it's out there with the group.”

In January, Bailey Jr. and his wife went door-to-door looking for donations to support his “Daytona Dream.”

“We don't have money,” he said. “We can't afford to move up on our own.”

Bailey, in his 16th year of racing, would not be driving at Daytona without Kimmel Racing. The two joined forces several years ago on the recommendation of ARCA president Ron Drager, who presented a national championship ring to Bailey in 2010 when he won the ARCA Truck Series as a rookie.

Drager looked up Bailey's stats — which include 112 wins and 19 championships — and figured this successful kid from a small family with limited means deserved the chance to move up from trucks to stock cars. Enter Kimmel Racing, which has been crucial to Bailey's recent racing career, adding him to the team and having him perform start-and-parks and such.

“They pretty much just took me under their wing,” Bailey said. “They're really, really helping us out and supporting us.”

The Baileys acquired their first racecar, a short-track model, from Bill Kimmel, but they didn't pay him in cash. Instead, they went out to his home in Indiana and installed an in-ground swimming pool, making use of the skills they utilize at C.A. Bailey Excavating, the father's business.

Besides Kimmel Racing and his family, Bailey also will be supported at Daytona by The Littlest Heroes, a nonprofit that exists to serve children with cancer and their families. The organization recently named Bailey a national ambassador and would like to have several board members present in Florida to see him race.

Bailey has overcome many challenges to reach Daytona, and that perseverance, combined with all the significance the track holds for him and his family, will make his participation in the Lucas Oil 200 the experience of a lifetime.

During the race, Bailey Sr. is expecting to see tears in the eyes of his son's grandfather, the same man who advocated for a go-kart long ago. Bailey Jr. thinks the weight of emotions will overcome everyone in his family as he accelerates around the track at Daytona.

“It's going to be huge,” Bailey said. “I keep telling everybody it's going to be the best vacation we've ever had.”

Mark Emery is a freelance writer.

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