Henderson hopes for Cup future

He may just be getting started on the road to Nextel Cup, but Joe Henderson III has already won one of the biggest races of his life.

The 19-year-old Franklin, Tenn., resident is the first minority driver to be placed out of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. Announced Friday morning at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Henderson will start off in the Dodge Weekly Series based at Music City Motorplex in Nashville, Tenn.

He will drive the No. 77 Dodge owned by veteran Trucks, Cup and Busch Series driver Bobby Hamilton and with sponsorship from Kodak.

"We're ecstatic to finally have something concrete," said Daryl Stewart, GM of the Radiate Group's Access Marketing and Communications, the chief organizer of Drive for Diversity. "We finally have people on the track, we have sponsors involved and this opens up that conduit so we can go out and have this type of activity and appeal to an audience that never had this opportunity available for them previously. It's like having your child take his first steps.

"Joe really wants to be the best. Hooking him up with Bobby Hamilton, and with Bobby having a previous relationship with Kodak, all the stars and planets were aligned. Now we have the opportunity to tell the rest of the world this great story and (see) his driving ability and acumen."

Added Hamilton, "This is a very exciting day for me and the team at Bobby Hamilton Racing. By partnering with Kodak, and to have a driver the caliber of Joe, we have great expectations for this program."

Since hosting its first combine at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway last October that drew several dozen minority aspirants for both driving and crew member roles, Drive for Diversity has been working toward placing its first "class," if you will, of five drivers and five crew members within NASCAR's ranks.

Henderson is the first pick overall, with announcements expected in the next few weeks of four other drivers who will get their start in some of NASCAR's lower rung racing series, as well as up to five crew members who will work for existing teams in the Craftsmen Truck Series.

"It's really a great opportunity to start my career off," said Henderson, who started racing go-karts at the age of seven. "I'm just going to take it step-by-step, learn Late Models and then hopefully start moving upward into either the Craftsman Truck Series or ASA (American Speed Association). I'm no stranger to the driver's seat, but it's going to take time to get more driving experience for me to be able to move up."

The Franklin High School senior has been impressive in a limited amount of previous racing experience, primarily in late models, Legends and mini-Cup cars. He's no stranger to Hamilton's shop, having competed in three races for the veteran driver during last season's Dodge Motorsports diversity racing program, winding up with two top-10 finishes.

Like many of his youthful racing peers, Henderson's goal is to work toward reaching Nextel Cup by the time he's 24 or 25. He says he'd like to pattern his career along the route that reigning Cup champ Matt Kenseth took, starting with small tracks and series and working his way up over time.

"Really, I want to go to Nextel Cup, but I know how tough it is to get up there, but I'm very fortunate to have Bobby coaching me," Henderson said. "Bobby is going to tell me if I'm ready or not ready. He's very good at mentoring and wants to take things step-by-step and day-by-day and have me gain as much driving experience as I can.

"By being part of Drive for Diversity, I think it's going to start my career real quickly. But it will also help to have Bobby there to show me experience and to show me the right and wrong things to do."

Henderson's family has racing ties. His father, Joe II, spent several seasons occasionally working for Wendell Scott, one of the first African-American drivers in NASCAR history, back in the late 1960s.

Plans for the second Drive for Diversity tryout are already being formed. It will likely again be held at Hickory Motor Speedway in October.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.