Who's counting?

Morris News Service
James Hylton, 72, prepares to put on his helmet before entering his car during a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series preseason thunder testing session at Daytona International Speedway. Hylton is attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - James Hylton doesn't have any grand illusions about this year's Daytona 500. Just making the race will require an inordinate amount of luck and skill.


His best days as a driver came a couple generations ago. Now at 72, he's looking for one last fling.

His first NASCAR race came seven months after President Kennedy was assassinated. He wants to be remembered as the oldest driver in the sport's history. He could have broken the record six years ago - the current standard is 65, set by Hershel McGriff and Jim Fitzgerald - but it's taken him 14 years since his last Nextel Cup Series race to put together a deal that will allow him to race as many as 19 times this year.

It's not a big-dollar operation. The 1966 NASCAR Rookie of the Year also drives the team's transporter. But with the help of an old friend, J.C. Weaver of Mountain Rock Music, Hylton has enough money to make selected appearances this year. He also has a car and engine from Richard Childress and the experience of 601 career starts, including two wins.

"And I passed the physical," he said. "I've got a NASCAR license."

Actually, it's more of a learner's permit. NASCAR put a restriction on Hylton's license, according to series director of cost research, Brett Bodine. He will be observed by NASCAR officials throughout the practice and qualifying process at Daytona International Speedway. If Hylton isn't quick to come up to speed, NASCAR has the option to demand a driver change before the race.

"That's all right," Hylton said. "NASCAR's been watching me for 40 years."

But a lot has to happen before NASCAR makes a final decision for the Daytona 500. There will be at least 55 teams attempting to make the season-opener and only 43 starting spots. The top 35 teams from last year are guaranteed a starting spot, so Hylton will be fighting for one of seven remaining slots.

He either will have to post one of the three fastest qualifying speeds among the teams not in the top 35 or be one of the top-two finishers not in the top 35 in one of the 150-mile qualifying races.

"We'll go as fast as we can," Hylton said. "If we need to go faster, we'll try something else. I know it's hard to beat youth.

"In order for this to happen here, it's got to be halfway a miracle - maybe all the way a miracle. We know what we're up against. The car's capable, the people working on it are more than capable. If I can find that good spot on this racetrack, if I can remember how it used to be, I'll be all right."

Hylton said he gets calls, cards and e-mails every day from people, most of them elderly, who have rekindled some of their own youthful enthusiasm. For that, Hylton has dedicated his Nextel Cup comeback to anyone who's qualified for a senior-citizens discount.

"I am doing this for seniors to show that at 70 years old, you don't have to go hunting for an old-folks home," Hylton said. "You can go race for a little bit. A lot of the old drivers want to come out here and hang out in the pits and see if I can do it.

"I'm dedicating this race to every senior in America. I'm getting e-mails from Hong Kong, China, Russia, Germany, all over the world. Don't go hunting that nursing home. Get out and do what you love to do."

Most of the current NASCAR drivers weren't born when Hylton started racing. While many support his decision to continue racing, they also have quiet reservations.

"The racing part, I'm fine with it," said Jamie McMurray. "My biggest concern is a crash. What happens to a 72-year-old body in a big crash? It's hard enough on a younger body. Can it survive a 40-G impact? I'd think there'd be a big concern about that."

Ned Jarrett, 74, used to race against Hylton. He smiled and rolled his eyes when he was asked whether he could get back in a race car.

"I don't know about this," he said. "Man, that's way out there."

Others are eager to see if it works.

"More power to him," David Stremme said. "I think he should give it a shot."

Hylton raced full time in the ARCA Series last year, finishing 18th in the point standings.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.



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