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Living a dream

Driving down West International Speedway Blvd., 10-year-old Chris Cockrum stared out the window of his father's car gawking at the huge structure rising from the inland flats of Daytona Beach.

The Daytona International Speedway was a dream and a monument to the young budding racer, where the best of the best came to go three-wide on the corners and speed down the straight-aways.

"Around Christmas time we always drive past the speedway, and I would always tell my dad, ‘I'm going to race there one day you watch,'" Cockrum said.

When the young Conyers resident first made that declaration to his father, he was keeping busy and remaining happy driving go-karts in races across Georgia and Florida. Fast forward to 2012 and Cockrum not only, once again, drove past the Daytona International Speedway but also passed by its 168,000-seat grandstand 109 times in a matter of hours from inside the gates.

Two days before the 2012 Daytona 500 was scheduled to run, Cockrum drove in his first NASCAR race as a participant in the NextEra Energy Resources 250.

Cockrum drove the No. 93 Advanced Communications Group/Accu-Tech Chevrolet and finished 16th, topping such experienced drivers as Brad Keselowski and Jason Leffler.

"I started 35th and just ran a smart race," Cockrum said. "I got caught up in a few incidents that were out of my control, and all-in-all at the end of the day I wound up 16th and the truck was still rolling. Everybody was happy with it."

After the first race of the season, Cockrum is No. 15 in points on the Camping World Truck Series, and looking forward to lining up sponsors for his next race, the Kroger 250 at Martinsville Speedway on March 31.

Daytona and Martinsville are far different from the go-kart tracks Cockrum ran when he first got into the sport at the age of eight.

The former Victory Christian School student helped his father build race cars when he was 8 years old and then ran go-karts. From there family friends, including Ron Young, got Cockrum into street stock cars, and he started racing at places like Peachstate Speedway and Lanier Speedway when he was 16. He picked up two wins and finished second in points, leading him to move on to higher competition.

At 17 years old, Cockrum moved on to the Hooters Pro Tour, running two races. That led to his first traveling stock car circuit in the ARCA Tour when he was 18.

"We went to the Nashville Super Speedway and there were over 70 cars there, and we ran the 15th fastest," Cockrum said. "That was the first time I ever stepped in a real race car."

He raced with several future professionals along the way, including Steven Wallace (NASCAR legend Rusty Wallace's son) on the Hooters Pro Cup and Joey Lagano in the ARCA Series.

However, the ARCA Series wasn't enough as he moved on to racing with not just the top drivers of the future, but the top drivers of the present.

The ARCA Series started dropping some races in the South and Cockrum and his team looked onto the Camping World Truck Series. So far Cockrum has run two races in the series, the first coming at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He has taken well to the transition from cars to trucks, proving it on the track. The only difference is the drag produced by the bigger vehicles.

"That's what I was telling my Dad, that I was coming down the backstretch and one of the trucks got beside me," Cockrum said. "The hole he punched in the air was so big, the air goes under the truck and it lifted it up and moved it an entire lane over while I was holding the wheel straight."

He did, though, use the draft to his advantage, teaming up with a driver who would get a lot of notoriety three days later when he posted to Twitter during the Daytona 500 - Kesolowski.

"We were in a 10-car draft, and I was bump drafting with him a lot during the race," Cockrum said. "But he got caught up in one of the big wrecks so I lost my drafting partner there."

Cockrum was able to stay out of the wrecks and master the physicality of truck racing.

"As they say in ‘Days of Thunder,' ‘rubbin' is racin','" Cockrum said. "It's basically grass-roots racing again."

To Cockrum, though, it felt like anything but grass-roots racing the first time he started a NASCAR race.

It was in Atlanta on Labor Day weekend, 2011 and he was introduced to the crowd for the first time, at the race way he's been to almost two dozen times, just a short drive from his house.

"During my driver introduction there, they introduced me and the whole crowd roared," Cockrum said. "I told my dad, ‘Man, my legs got weak. I thought I was going to fall down the stairs.'"

Cockrum got that feeling again last weekend before his appearance at Daytona.

"It's pretty amazing, the coolest thing about the whole truck-race deal was before the race they put you in the trucks and drive you up and down the front stretch," Cockrum said. "You're in front of 80,000 people, and they're sitting there saying good luck and giving you thumbs up and everything.

"That was the coolest part of the whole weekend, doing that considering 80,000-plus people in the stands are sitting there watching you race."

It's an experience that he has wanted since that first time his dad drove him by America's most famous racetrack, and one that is now one of his fondest memories.

"I was always telling (my dad) I am going to be racing there one day, you watch," Cockrum said. "Knock on wood, I've run races there and just ran my first NASCAR race this past weekend.

"Hopefully I'll run more in the future."