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Kaulig Racing tabs Dirt Late Model’s ‘Superman’ for Bristol race

Kim Coon, Nate Ryan and Kyle Petty preview the final stop on NASCAR's West Coast Tour at Phoenix Raceway, including which drivers are facing pressure to perform following two poor starts to the season.

Dirt Late Model driver Jonathan Davenport, coming off a historic season, will make his Cup debut at the Bristol Dirt Race next month with Kaulig Racing, the team announced Thursday.

“It’s pretty hard to put into words,” Davenport told NBC Sports about his Cup opportunity. “It’s something that I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid and kind of lost hope on it. I figured where I’m at is where I was going to be.

“I never thought I would get this opportunity now that I’m older. I thought my window had went by the wayside. It’s just awesome and pretty unbelievable that I’m even going to get a chance to race (in Cup).”

Nutrien Ag Solutions, a sponsor at Kaulig Racing and on Davenport’s dirt late model, will sponsor Davenport’s No. 13 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 at Bristol. He will be a teammate to Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley and AJ Allmendinger.

The 39-year-old Davenport, nicknamed Superman and a three-time Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series champion, won more than $2 million last year. Among his 24 victories last year was the Eldora Million.

Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, told NBC Sports that what Davenport did last year “you cannot put it into words. And I want to say it with ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. You can’t put it into words. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Davenport, who won the XR Super Series title last year, continues a string of drivers from other series competing in NASCAR this season.

IndyCar driver Conor Daly and motorsports superstar Travis Pastrana both raced in the Daytona 500. Pastrana finished 11th in that race. Former Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen will return to Cup to run the March 26 race at Circuit of the Americas for Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car. That race also will have Jordan Taylor, a former IMSA prototype champion, driving in place of the injured Chase Elliott. Also, Jenson Button, the 2009 F1 champ, will make the first of three Cup starts this season at COTA in a collaboration between Rick Ware Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing.

Davenport admits he’s “nervously excited” about running with the Cup Series.

“I’ve still got a lot of questions to ask about how the whole weekend is going to go,” Davenport said, noting that he typically only gets about three laps of practice before a dirt late model event compared to the 75 minutes of practice for Cup at Bristol. “I like to be prepared in everything I do.”

Davenport, a five-time World 100 champion at Eldora Speedway, won nine races last year that paid at least $50,000, including the Knoxville Late Model Nationals and the World 100.

He said he hopes he can show that dirt late model racers are deserving of a chance in NASCAR’s top ranks.

Jonathan Davenport

Jonathan Davenport. (Photo: Kaulig Racing)

“I could hopefully open the doors for somebody else one day,” Davenport said. “I could look at it that way and I kind of do, but I try not to put all the pressure on myself. I put enough pressure on myself just to perform for me and my family and my sponsors and car owners. I could put the weight of the world on me. Hopefully I make everybody proud and do all that I can.”

For now, the focus is on prepping for the April 9 race at Bristol.

Davenport has been to the shop to be fitted for a seat and learn about the cars.

“We’re trying to do everything we can that when he gets in the simulator that it is real life,” Rice said. “We looked at going to do some testing and different things like that, and I decided that I felt the simulator, for us, has been a better fit and we’ve done better with those than going to test.”

Even with Haley an accomplished dirt racer, Rice looks for the team to gain from Davenport’s dirt knowledge.

“That’s what this is about, trying to make our program better, trying to make our drivers better,” Rice said.

Davenport says he’s looking forward to racing NASCAR’s best. He’s raced against Kyle Larson in dirt late models and against Kyle Busch in Legends cars in Las Vegas years ago.

“I’ve raced against them before, some of them,” Davenport said. “It was mainly in my environment, and some come down to the Late Model world and race there. I’m now going to their world and racing with them. I’m definitely going to be a student of the sport.”