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Austin, 19, gets Truck ride with Trail

CONCORD, N.C. -- African-American racing prodigy Chase Austin has agreed in principle to drive a full NASCAR Truck Series season this year for a newly formed minority-owned team just purchased by wealthy Chicago businessman Art Shelton.

Austin, 19, hasn't finalized his contract with the team, known as Trail Motorsport, an outgrowth of the previously existing Fitz Motorsports team that Shelton purchased. But Austin expressed confidence the details will be worked out.

The announcement came at a Wednesday morning news conference during NASCAR's annual preseason media tour.

With 18-year-old Marc Davis planning to run at least six Nationwide races and a few Sprint Cup races this year with his family-owned team, NASCAR's major series stand to go from no black drivers to two this year -- a major step at high levels toward the diversity NASCAR has long sought.

NASCAR officials were not immediately available for comment.

Sponsorships for Trail Motorsport were not announced, but both Shelton and former owner Armando Fitz, who will remain as a consultant, promised that major sponsorships will be announced at Daytona during Speedweeks next month.

"We have verbal [commitments] and we have assurances," said Shelton, who made his wealth in the commercial loan industry. "We've just got to dot the i's and cross the t's. "

Joining Austin as a teammate will be Jarit Johnson, younger brother of three-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who will drive for Trail in NASCAR's East developmental series. Austin will get the team's full focus in the Camping World Truck series, and another driver, to be named later, will run a full schedule in the Nationwide Series.

Austin at age 14 became the youngest driver ever to sign a NASCAR development contract, with Hendrick Motorsports. But the 2004 Hendrick team plane crash, which killed all 10 people aboard, devastated the team enough that it had to drop its development program.

Since then, Austin has struggled, appearing briefly with Rusty Wallace's developmental team until Wallace lost his sponsorship with a home building company because of the housing market crash.

"There were times when I thought the worst," said Austin, a Eudora, Kans., native who now lives in Mooresville, N.C. "But we've had great people like Art come along and give me hope again."

Austin's mother and business manager, Marianne Austin, said that the agreement in principle would take him into Trucks, then into the Nationwide Series and eventually to Cup.

"What we're carving out with them would be full-time for 2009 and beyond," she said.

Though he was offered the option of going immediately to the Nationwide level this year, "We were thinking more long-term when we made the decision [to start in Trucks]," he said. "Trucks are -- I don't want to say easier, but financially easier to get into. I felt it would be the best spot for me."

Through his years of difficulty, "with my optimism, I knew something was going to come along," he said. "This deal in particular sort of came out of the blue.

"You get a lot of phone calls in this industry," he added. "Sometimes you get a phone call that happens to be the right phone call."

Shelton said he has a five-year commitment of his own finances, and a five-year plan for the team. He will return to his Chicago businesses, while Trail will be run day-to-day by his son, Patrick Shelton, who has extensive experience in motorsports marketing and business.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.