DES MOINES, Iowa – Ryan Gifford has waited for a seat in a top-tier NASCAR race for what seems like forever.
Five seasons into his stock car career, Gifford will finally get his shot Saturday night at the Iowa Speedway.
Gifford, 24, will make his Nationwide series debut in the No. 33 car for Richard Childress Racing. Gifford, a Drive for Diversity member and the oldest driver in this year’s NASCAR Next program, will be the eighth different driver to run the No. 33 this season.
For now, the race is set to be a one-off deal for Gifford, a K&N Pro Series regular scheduled to run in that series Friday night in Iowa.
But Gifford is hopeful team owner Richard Childress will give him another shot later this season if he can prove he can handle a Nationwide car – and a strong run will get him noticed by other teams, as well.
“It kind of feels like your whole life you’re waiting to get an opportunity like this,” Gifford said. “I’m not leaving Iowa thinking that, ‘Man, I should have done this different or done that.’ I just want to run a smart race.”
After years of middling results, Gifford earned this weekend’s shot with an impressive start in 2013.
Gifford joined Rev Racing 3 years ago after an impressive debut, notching four top-10 finishes in five starts in 2009. He even won the pole at Martinsville four races into the 2010 season, and led much of the race before he blew a tire.
Gifford scored eight top-5s over the next three seasons in the K&N Pro Series East, but he never broke through with a victory. Gifford, who also has a day job for close friends Austin and Ty Dillon at Team Dillon, headed into this season wondering if his driving career had stalled.
“It just kind of got to the point where I felt like my career was not going anywhere,” Gifford said. “Starting this year, I just tried to go through it with a different mentality and not worry about all that stuff, and just race and enjoy it.”
A more relaxed approach has translated into much more success on the race track.
Gifford has already matched his career high with four top-5 finishes in just eight races, the highlight coming in April when he won at Richmond. Gifford credits his relationship with new crew chief, veteran Mark Green, and a healthier mindset. Gifford is currently fourth in the K&N Pro Series East standings.
“To me, it just feels like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders when I won that first race. I was like, ‘All right, I know I could do this. I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing,’” Gifford said. “Now, I just get out there and do my thing and not let anyone else sway my judgment or what I do.”
Gifford is the second promising young black driver to make his Nationwide debut at Iowa in as many years.
Darrell Wallace Jr. broke through in Iowa last spring and finished ninth in his first race. Wallace is running full-time in the Trucks series for Kyle Busch Motorsports, and is currently ranked ninth.
Gifford credits the Drive for Diversity program with helping keep his career afloat as he worked to put himself in position for a Nationwide shot – and he admits that it’s been tough to sleep this week.
Gifford is doing his best to manage expectations for the biggest race of his career so far.
“I’m trying to just be pretty mellow about it and not get too worked up. I’ve still got a 150-lap K&N lap race on Friday night, and that’s my biggest focus. I’m really trying to win a championship, and we’ve got a little ground to make up,” Gifford said. “I’ll get up Saturday morning ... and go try it there.
“You know, whatever comes of it is what it is. But I feel really good about the race. Hopefully, as long as I can keep my head on my shoulders, it should turn out pretty good.”
Born: March 10, 1989
Hometown: Winchester, Tenn.
K&N Pro Series stats: 1 win, 15 top 5s, 19 top 10s in 48 races over last 5 years
FYI: Will make his first Nationwide start Saturday at Iowa Speedway. … Part of Drive for Diversity, NASCAR’s program to attract minorities and women to the sport, since 2010. … Oldest driver in this year’s NASCAR Next program. … Named one of NASCAR drivers 25 and younger to watch in 2013 by FoxSports.com.