The win would have been the biggest in the youngster's career to that point. It was, in all senses of the word, a near reawakening of years past when the best drivers in the country would show up and race in the All American 400, held at one of the most historic race tracks in all the country, the Nashville Fairgrounds.
On the bright side of things, Norris showed up and showed everyone that he was a contender. He was one to watch for.
So Norris showed up to the same track nearly a year later when the NASCAR Southeast Series rolled into town for their season finale. This, again, could have been the night of Norris' biggest career win. Not only because it would have wrapped up his SES rookie year in style, but the win, coupled with a bad night for points leader Jeff Fultz, might have given Norris a shot at the title.
One year ago, JR Norris nearly left Nashville's Music City Motorplex (then called the Fairgrounds Speedway at Nashville) in tears. After having the dominating car in the 2003 Patriot 200, an open Super Late Model event co-sanctioned by the Sunoco Super Series and Southern All Star Series, Norris fell out of the event with mechanical problems.
In the end, yet again, Nashville was bittersweet for Norris.
The 24-year-old dominated most of the race, but another mechanical problem, this time his engine losing a cylinder, led to an eventual second-place finish. Even more of a kick in the pants was that Fultz did just what Norris need, and that was to have a bad night. However, Fultz was able to pull out a 13th-place finish that, despite any thing Norris could have done, would have still given him the title.
So while Norris was again disappointed at just missing out on a win, he had something else to raise his spirits this time... his NASCAR Southeast Series Rookie of the Year title.
“I'll admit that it was a great season, but I'm the type of person that would have rather gotten beat by 80 points than to come up that short,” said Norris following the race on Saturday night. “While I'm really disappointed, I'd say the season was a success. But I don’t like barely losing. We got beat by the best though. What else can you say. It's racing. It's my rookie season. We'll just get everything together and come back next year and win that championship.”
Norris was one of three drivers that had a mathematical shot to win the championship heading into the AutoZone 150 at the old Nashville Fairgrounds racetrack. Coming into the night, Norris was second in the standings, 67 points back of Fultz. In the end, he lost the title by just 21 points.
Norris grabbed the Bud Pole for the final race and it looked like his championship hopes were still alive. It was his third pole award of the season and second at Nashville, adding to already remarkable stats for the rookie.
But, it just wasn't meant to be, for the championship that is. But that takes nothing away from the rest of Norris' impressive season.
With the start at Nashville, he locked up the Rookie of the Year title over very tough competition, mainly coming from a pair of Texas drivers, Chris Davidson and Robert Richardson, both of whom also finished in the top-10 in the point standings.
Norris started and finished out his rookie season at Nashville's Music City Motorplex.
“Chris and Robert are great racers,” said Norris. “I just think I've probably got a little more experience on some of the tracks that we run in this series than them and that helps. But they are tough and there were plenty of times they were just as good as us.”
Norris turned heads all year long, right from the start, when he announced his partnership with Richie Wauters, who has fielded some of the best NASCAR Southeast and Midwest cars and Super Late Models over the past several seasons.
From there, Norris went on to lead presason testing at
Norris was impressive on the speedways this year, with one win, a second and a third.
Hickory Motor Speedway and came out of the box hot, earning Bud Poles in the first two races of the year. However, Norris showed some “rookie impatience” in those races and a couple of others that likely cost him even better finishes.
He called some of those first races “learning experiences.”
“I'll tell you what, I learned a lot this year,” added Norris. “I learned how to pace myself and run hard all at the same time. I learned how to deal with different people’s driving styles and sometimes use that to my advantage. I learned how to better deal with lapped cans and even use them to my advantage.
“I got to meet a lot of people and really enjoyed the traveling. So despite everything, I guess it was a pretty good year. We just weren't able to get the big prize there at the end.
“We had great cars all year long. I have to thank my entire crew and my car owner Richie Wauters. Without all of them, none of this would be possible. It is easy to look that good when you got a lot of good equipment behind you. It was a tough year. I guess all that means is we've got more to shoot for next year.”
Norris captured his first career win at Nashville Superspeedway near the mid-point of the season. And at one point, in that same stretch, rallied off six-straight top-four finishes. A mechanical problem and 20th place finish at Greenville (SC) with just a couple of races to go put the team behind, but not out.
Then, at Nashville, Norris did everything he could; another pole and another podium finish. But it just wasn't enough.
So he had to take the rookie stripes off of the back of his orange #5 knowing that overall, he was just second best.
Or is he really? Before his rookie stripes come completely off, Norris will have one more shot, one that might even be bigger than at Nashville on Saturday night, when he heads to California to represent the Southeast Series in the second NASCAR Toyota All Star Showdown. With the way Norris ran at the end of the year, he is likely to be one of the favorites.
“Now we just have to go out to California and get them out there. That would be huge!”
He hopes to leave California in tears... tears of joy that is!
Norris' season was not without its problems, which was part of his learning experience as a rookie. (High Sierra Photo)