SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- Jon Denning was 11 years old the first time he found himself upside down in a race car.
But a lap hadn't been completed in the go-cart race three years ago in upstate New York, so he was allowed to restart. Surely, this boy who now bills himself as "The World's Fastest 8th Grader" won't ever forget his first pivotal moment on the track.
"No, I won't," he said with a smile. "I won the race."
Later, he discovered he'd broken a shoulder in the accident. But, like his NASCAR heroes, he pressed on.
"I just blocked out the pain," he said.
That will be necessary if Denning is to reach the next of his career goals -- a ride in 2003 in the Busch Series, just a level beneath Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and the rest of the Winston Cup greats.
Is this too much, too soon?
Not to his father, Brad, a former drag racer who thinks Jon will benefit from having started at age 9.
"Look at Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon," he said. "You have to do that to have much of a chance."
Jon, an honors student who knows that financial backing from his father's auto body repair shop will be pulled should his grades plunge, already is a high-profile racer. Now driving a winged sprint car, he had 10 career wins on the way up, but gets considerable mileage from his off-track activities.
He has been honored by the state of New Jersey and others for his academics and work with the Racing Against Drugs program, has his own Web site and a sponsorship deal with Sherwin Williams paints.
Denning has colorful hats and T-shirts, aesthetically a match for any in racing, and he took the white "00" bearing the familiar logo of red paint dripping from a globe around on a parade lap this year at the Daytona 500.
Parade laps are nice, but the solo post-race cruise of a winner holds much greater interest for a kid who also finds time to build models and play computer games, golf and the saxophone while maintaining a 3.8 grade point average. He wants to take a victory lap after the Indianapolis 500.
"I'm going to win," he said, without a hint of boastfulness.
Reminded that NASCAR doesn't race in the Indy 500, he is undeterred.
"I know," he said, reaching for a cookie on the table in his comfortable home in this suburb about 20 miles from New York City. "I'm going to do it anyway."
Enthusiasm for Jon's career is not limited to his family.
Mike Cash, a Sherwin Williams vice president, calls the kid a sponsor's dream.
"He represents our brand well with an honesty, decency and sincerity that shows a level of maturity beyond his years," Cash said. "I look at that as much if not more than his performance on the race track."
Cash's company sponsors a handful of youthful racers, and has a spot on the NHRA car of Dean Skuza. Sherwin Williams intends to continue its backing of Denning as he works he way toward NASCAR, although the company has not committed to the top level of the sport.
"We're comfortable with what we have," Cash said. "But who knows? Four or five years down the road, this might be the right opportunity."
The opportunity to watch Jon race is something his mother, Rochelle, sometimes passes on, admitting she's a little apprehensive about her son turning laps as fast as 100 mph.
Perhaps with good reason. Jon recalls a time when she was videotaping one of his races.
"I lost my steering and brakes, and shot across the track," he said. "Mom handled it well. When I went into the wall, she dropped the video camera."
The only thing Jon seems to be dropping is the hammer each time he turns a wheel on the dusty surfaces over which he's cutting his teeth as a racer.
"There is nothing like the feeling of fresh dirt under your car," he said.
But not under his nails. His father kids him about being a golden boy, but says there's room for one more in a sport where Gordon started racing at 6 and became NASCAR's biggest star at 24.
With such things in mind, Jon listens to audio tapes to make himself more articulate.
"He knows how to do everything," Jon said, alluding to Gordon spinning the Pepsi bottle so a national TV audience can see the label before he takes a drink in the winner's circle.
For that, Jon will need an another sponsor, however. You can't drink paint.
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