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Gifford's Nationwide debut a sign of progress

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NEWTON, Iowa -- And to think, he's just happy to be here.

What NASCAR Drive for Diversity member Ryan Gifford completely downplayed during his media availability before the first NASCAR Nationwide Series practice at Iowa Speedway is the fact that he might actually have a chance to win this thing.

With his history at the track combined with the success of a No. 33 Chevrolet that stands 13th in owner points, it wouldn't be an earth-shattering outcome if Gifford finds Victory Lane in his Nationwide debut.

He scored a sixth-place finish in K&N Pro Series West action in 2009 and a fourth-place finish in a K&N Pro Series East race in 2011. In his first two Nationwide practices Friday, Gifford placed 22nd with a time of 24.253 seconds in the opener, but improved to 14th place with a time of 23.567 seconds in the day's second session.

The No. 33 Richard Childress Racing car didn't fare so well at Iowa in June, as Max Papis wrecked 155 laps into the 250-lap event and finished 31st after qualifying 25th. It is, however, coming off Paul Menard's sixth-place finish at the Brickyard in last week's Indiana 250.

"I'm really excited to be in the 33 Rheem Menard's Chevrolet and here in the Nationwide Series," Gifford said. "It's a great opportunity for me to go out there and show my skills and hopefully we can put it up front and have a good run, so I'm really excited."

Modest and humble, sure. But considering Gifford has six total races at Iowa under his belt between the two K&N Pro Series, and that there have been seven total Nationwide events here since Brad Keselowski's victory in the venue's inaugural series event, Gifford's experience level at the 0.875-mile oval ranks higher than most in Saturday's U.S. Cellular 250 presented by Enlist Weed Control System (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2). So there are plenty of factors trending in his direction.

Perhaps the biggest asset in Gifford's corner this weekend? Austin Dillon.

"I'm really happy to have Ryan making his debut here ... we have a close relationship and hopefully we can work together and get him rolling this weekend," said Dillon, who affectionately calls Gifford "RG 33," a play on Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III's nickname. "I feel like I can help him as much as anywhere as at this place, so I think RCR has got some strong cars this weekend and hopefully we can put one of them in Victory Lane."

Dillon, himself no stranger to Iowa Speedway with 10 races between the Nationwide Series, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and K&N Pro Series East, has been handing down lessons to Gifford for what he deems a "rough track."

"The biggest thing is to do his own thing at the beginning, just go out there and do his own thing," said Dillon, who currently leads the series in points. "He wasn't able to test the Nationwide car, so he needs to go out there and make a few laps with these radial tires. I don't think it will be anything too big for him. He's done a great job in the East series. I've raced with him my entire career from dirt to now and we still hang out every weekend. He lives about five minutes from my house."

Gifford, along with Kyle Larson (Nationwide) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (Camping World Truck Series), will make history as NASCAR celebrates the first ever weekend in which three Drive for Diversity participants race in a national series event. Gifford knows how instrumental this and the NASCAR Next program have been to his career, and where it'll take him in the future.

"It's great to be a part of the NASCAR Next program. They've done a great job promoting all of us young drivers that are part of it," Gifford said. "All the media that I've gotten and things like that have been real exciting for me and it's been really good practice. In the development series, you don't get as much practice with that as you would in a national series, so it's been really good for me. Hopefully I can continue to do things like that and only get better and help out my career."

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