Chase Austin can't drive the rental car his parents are using to shuttle him around the Charlotte area this weekend. The 15-year-old high school freshman from Eudora, Kan., has a farm permit that allows him to run errands and drive to and from school, but joy rides are off-limits.

Fortunately, Austin -- who last week became the youngest driver to sign a developmental contract with NASCAR heavyweight Hendrick Motorsports -- won't need to worry about permits next spring when he begins running full time in the ASA's Late Model Series.

"I'm kind of stunned about it," Austin said yesterday in a phone interview from North Carolina, where he'll attend tonight's Nextel Cup race. "It's kind of hard to believe that a 15-year-old could sign with a NASCAR team this early. . . . When I'm off the track watching those guys racing it's kind of amazing, like, 'I'm doing that?' [But] we're all the same size once we're in the car."

Austin, who signed a long-term deal with Hendrick, likely will move up to the ASA's National Tour within a year or two, according to Jeff Turner, vice president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports.

In the meantime, Austin will continue doing schoolwork during road trips, riding his skateboard, playing racing video games and watching his favorite TV station, the Speed Channel.

Father Steve Austin has acted as his son's crew chief while driving and maintaining his racing rig. Mother Marianne Austin said her son "is just a good-old down-to-earth kid." And older sisters Cara and Jessica?

"They keep me grounded so I don't keep too big of a head when I'm around them," Chase Austin said. "They act like they don't care [about racing] and beat me up like they usually do."

-- Dan Steinberg

AUSTIN