By its very nature, fortunes can change quickly in auto racing. A blown tire, a brush with the wall — or perhaps a gap opening just wide enough to make a late-race pass.
Gus Dean has grown accustomed to that kind of swirl while practically growing up on the racetrack. But even he has to marvel at the whirlwind that took place to put him at Daytona International Speedway this weekend.
One day, the 21-year-old Bluffton native is spending his Christmas holiday making plans for a season on one of racing's many developmental circuits. Then the phone rings.
One of the top teams in ARCA racing — about three levels below NASCAR's Sprint Cup — has an extra car they want to run at Daytona. His name came up. To land the ride, though, he has to secure a sponsor for the car.
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Less than a month later, Dean found himself on the Daytona infield waiting to take his first test laps.
"Normally Daytona rides are planned a year in advance or more," he said.
"Knowing you're going to be one of those gladiators — that's an incredible feeling. There's such a history that surrounds that track. Everybody that's ever made a name for themselves in racing has gone around that track."
And that was merely test laps. Starting Thursday, he'll drive the No.98 Chevrolet, sponsored by Carrier Home Comfort Systems, in preparation for the ARCA opener that serves as the first race of Daytona Speedweeks.
Qualifying for the Lucas Oil 200 is Friday, with the race set for 4 p.m. Saturday.
"That's just going to take the dream and make it that much better," Dean said before heading south from his current base in Mooresville, N.C. "Just being on the track was enough. But being on the track with thousands of screaming fans — that'll be even better."
Nor should Dean be considered a Daytona longshot. In that first January test session, he led all drivers with an average speed of 189.76 mph around the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway. Combined with a second session, he ranked No.2 overall behind only his team owner, Mason Mitchell.
"He's been waiting for the right opportunity to make his ARCA debut," said Mitchell, himself the 2014 ARCA champion. "We think despite his inexperience in an ARCA car, he'll surprise some people and be a contender when it counts."
ARCA, short for the Automobile Racing Club of America, has a long history as a feeder series into NASCAR's upper circuits. With the Sprint Cup at the top of the food chain, ARCA would rank something akin to racing's Double-A minors.
"It's a big deal, it really is," said Dean's father, Charlie. "Gus has been chasing this deal since he was 6. He's just got a talent — it's hard to develop, you've just got to kind of have it. He obviously has, with all that he's accomplished over the years."
Dean indeed began racing go-karts at age 6 and was a national champion at 13, putting him on a fast track to race actual cars before he was old enough to get behind the wheel on U.S. 278. He's since moved his way through the Allison Legacy series, X-1R Pro Cup series and Super Late Model series.
Before getting the call from Mason Mitchell Motorsports, the 2016 plan was to split time between Super Late Models and NASCAR's K&N regional series.
"I've raced all over the East Coast from the time we started," Dean said, noting that there really isn't a Lowcountry track he could call home. Much of his racing came on small Georgia tracks, venturing north into the Carolinas and as far south as New Smyrna Beach in Florida.
It was on those tracks that Dean began to catch Mitchell's eye.
"I didn't know him personally, but I've raced against him many times," Mitchell said. "He's always been pretty successful in what he's done."
Nor did it hurt that two members of Mitchell's team also have Lowcountry ties — mechanic John Brown and part-time truck driver Jason Padgett.
Still, there was the matter of securing sponsorship. With Dean's family in the heating and air conditioning business for more than four decades, it perhaps only natural that their search lead to Carrier.
"It wasn't really a direct thing," Dean said. "There was a lot of back-and-forth — call this guy, see if he knows this guy..."
Dean's car is Carrier's first foray into motorsports. The deal runs only through Daytona, though a good performance might encourage Carrier to extend into a full season.
"We hope they see the value of it," Charlie Dean said. "There's not a bigger brand-loyal customer than the NASCAR fan. What they see on the track on Saturday, they're going to buy the product on Monday. That's been proven over and over again."
Cab Installers, an Okatie firm that has backed Dean's cars for several years, signed on as an associate sponsor for Daytona.
Asked if he felt any pressure, Dean replied: "There's always that certain amount. But when you climb inside your race car, you have one goal in mind — take the checkered flag. Take care of your car and let the chips fall where they may."
Among the dozens of family and friends making the trip to Daytona will be 74-year-old Charles Dean Sr., Gus's grandfather and patriarch of the family racing passion.
"My granddad has been going down to Daytona since they had wooden bleachers," Gus Dean said. "He's always loved racing. He implanted that in my dad at a young age, as my dad did me at a young age."
Support also has been pouring in from the Lowcountry, where the Deans have heard of friends planning parties around Saturday's race and Gus's cellphone has been filling up with good-luck texts.
"I have to put it on silent or not get any sleep — which is absolutely OK with me," the driver said. "That sense of pride I get from my hometown makes me proud to be from Bluffton. I want to go to Daytona and make them proud."
ARCA Lucas Oil 200
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Daytona International Speedway
TV: Fox Sports 1