Zeros by Thomas Martins

There are seven columns next to driver names on the NASCAR point standings page. 

The first is points. I have 171, only good enough for 22nd position. The next is starts. I have 18, with my only two skips being at Martinsville (crashed in qualifying) and Eldora (JR Heffner ran with us). The next four are poles, wins, top-5’s, & top-10’s. For me, those columns are zeroed out. The last column is DNF’s (Did Not Finish). I have six, more than any other driver.

Racing is a selfish sport. Even though preparing and racing a truck every week takes a team effort, there's only one name listed on that results page. The responsibility for success and failure in stock car racing ultimately falls on the driver. So far this year, I haven't had much.

I’ve tried to have a different outlook on things during the final stretch of our season. I know how lucky I am to get to live my dream to be a NASCAR driver. It’s been a tumultuous season to say the least, but it’ll be something I look back on with pride and fond memories.

At the same time, when I look at those empty columns I’m frustrated by missed opportunities. I see a cut tire at Daytona. I see a brake failure at Martinsville. I see a bad restart at Michigan. I see a motor issue at Kansas. I see a wreck at Chicagoland. After these last two races at Talladega and Martinsville, it’s hard not to be disappointed again. I knew they would be my best remaining chances at getting something I’ve been chasing for a very long time now – a NASCAR top-10 finish.

Our Talladega truck had a brand new body, brakes, and a brand new RO7 motor. We had a new sponsor,, on the hood and quarter panels. Our truck looked great. I was excited. 

Then we got to the track.

We had trouble getting through templates. We missed the first practice. When we got out on track in second practice, we didn’t have the single car speed that we wanted. We knew that with the field size we’d probably need to qualify in the top-27 on speed to make it into the race, and at the end of second practice it was too close for comfort.

Kevin tried to max out everything he could on the truck to find some more straight-line speed – so much so we got a 15-minute practice penalty at Martinsville for failing qualifying tech three times. Because of our struggles in practice, we were the second truck to qualify.

As soon as I took the green flag, I knew we would be in trouble. We were only pulling 7400 RPM at the start/finish line – 400 RPM less than we had in our practice runs. And sure enough, our time slowed down by half a second. It wouldn’t be good enough for the top-27. We had to make the race on points.

We stood on pit road with Randy Little, the owner of, & David Hall, the owner of Diamond Gusset Jeans, and tried to explain to them exactly how we needed the cards to fall for us to make the race. Believe me, that’s a really crappy feeling. Randy had paid for commercials to pair with his advertising on our truck, and we were breaking the news that he might not even make the race.

Only a few trucks really mattered to the outcome: the go-or-go-home trucks lower in the owner’s point standings. The two main concerns were Parker Kligerman in the #75 and the #10 of Clay Greenfield. We beat Clay by six thousandths of a second. Parker had a brake issue that slowed down his run. That was the difference. If either of them had qualified in the top-27, we would’ve gone home.

Of course, once the race started, qualifying speed got thrown out the window. Talladega was my first real restrictor plate race in a truck (Daytona got cut short because of a blown right front tire). I was really surprised at just how much you had to be out of the throttle. In the bottom lane, I was basically 75% throttle down the backstretch in order to stay off the truck in front of me. 

We moved up quickly from our starting position into the top-20, and for the most part, we stayed around the top-15 all day. There were a couple of bad wrecks right on front of us that we had to weave through. I got into Rico Abreu a couple times while trying to weave through them. In one incident through the tri-oval, I was certain I wrecked him. After watching the replay of the angle he was aimed towards the wall, I still have no idea how he saved it. The second time, we went door to door as I sliced my way through the big one in turn 1. That was a bad wreck that took out a lot of trucks. It’s the most safety vehicles I have ever seen on a track in my life. Just glad everyone was okay. 

The race played out in our favor. We made it through the wrecks. We got ourselves in a good position for a top-10 finish. We were 12th & 10th during the final few restarts. 

Down the backstretch on the white flag lap, Matt Tift gave a bump to William Byron right in front of me in the top lane. I don’t think he centered him up because William got a little crossed up and got into Rico in the bottom lane. I had to make a really quick decision to either check-up and stay behind William as he gathered it up, or go behind Matt as he made it three wide on the high side. 

I went with Matt. 

It wasn’t the right call. But on the last lap down the backstretch at Talladega, I was NOT going to lift. As we got into turn 3, I couldn’t clear William and get back down to the second lane. It was so close. I’ve watched the replay several times. If I was clear, it was by an eyelash. When I hesitated, he got a good pull and we got hung up on the outside three-wide. When I came off turn four, I was in 10th. By the time I got to the line, I got shuffled back to 16th.

It was really, really disheartening. That one decision defined our whole day. But, our sponsors had a great time & we made it through Talladega with minimal damage to our race truck. Those are very positive things. We also got some solid television coverage for the right reasons. I have to give a big thanks to Michael Waltrip & Phil Parsons for their encouragement throughout our season.

Our hopes were high heading into Martinsville. In the spring race, we were 8th fastest in the first round of qualifying before our brakes failed. Now, we didn’t get to bring the same truck (it was still at the body shop because of our crash at Chicagoland) but Kevin put the exact same setup on it that we had in the spring.

Unfortunately, it didn’t have the same speed.

Martinsville was a good example of just how important tires are. Goodyear allows you to bring a practice set of tires to the racetrack. So, we brought a set of warehouse tires for practice. They’re available for most races, and cost around $600 - $1,600 less than a new set. The problem is that they aren’t EXACTLY the same tire you’re running on that weekend (they were manufactured at a different time, and have been sitting in a warehouse aging for a lot longer than a new tire), and they can give you bad feedback on how your truck is handling. 

That happened to us this past weekend.

Our truck was extremely tight in first practice, so we loosened it up quite a bit. Then it was far too loose. Our tires weren’t wearing consistently during practice. I hated how the truck was handling, but we couldn’t be sure if it was setup or just a tire issue. When we left the track, we weren’t totally sure of exactly what we had. And, just like at Dega, we knew qualifying would mean everything when it came to getting into the race.

It’s hard to describe the mindset of a driver going into a qualifying session when you know that it’s a go or go home situation. You’re the guy an entire team is relying on to provide their paycheck for the week. No matter how bad the truck is driving, and regardless what anyone says before or afterwards, all the pressure/blame is squarely on your shoulders.

I’ve missed races in my career. I should’ve missed a few more this year. At Bristol I totally overdrove the truck in qualifying and we only got in because the #63 truck got bumped by less than one hundredth of a second. I was determined not to make the same mistake at Martinsville.

My dad told me afterwards that he nearly gave up after our first lap. It was only a 21.20 – more than a second off the pace we needed to make the race. Our second lap was a 20.40. And as I came across the line for our third lap, we hit the rev limiter – a sign that we were really getting a good run off the corner. We lit up a 20.11 on the stopwatch, good enough for 13th at the time, and our spotter Toby Whealdon called me off down the backstretch. I felt like our best lap was going to be the fourth lap, but at the time, it was 100% the correct call. All we had to do to make the second round of qualifying was be 24th.

Of course, we dropped to 25th. 

I went back out right before the end of the first round to see if we could bump our way into the second round, but we just missed. When I pulled out for my second run, I accidentally got out in front of the #62 truck, who was still trying hard to make the race. It was my fault. They were mad afterwards, and had good reason to be. Now, they were still over a second off the time they needed to make the show, but it still wasn’t a courteous thing to do to another small team.

When the race started, our truck felt okay. We picked up a few spots and fell in line on the bottom with a big pack of trucks. But about 15 laps into the run, our truck got very loose. There was no rear grip in the center of the corner, and no forward bite off the corner at all. We fell a lap down, and made a big track bar change on the first pit stop.

It didn’t help. By the end of the day, we had dropped the bar 12 rounds, and our left rear tire pressure was down to seven pounds. We were still loose. To make things worse, I had no brakes. Tire rubber blocked off our brake ducts, and our brakes had no way of cooling down. By lap 75, the pedal was basically to the floorboard.

I spun out by myself one time trying simply because I couldn’t get the thing to slow down. It was a frustrating race. I played defense all day. Matt Crafton knocked me out of the way one time because I got hung up passing a lapped truck. Much like Talladega, the best thing that happened at Martinsville was leaving with a truck in one piece.

Even through all our struggles the last few weeks, there have been positives. Bootdaddy got a great response from their sponsorship at Talladega, and decided to come on board with us again as a hood sponsor at Texas this weekend. Diamond Gusset extended their sponsorship with me into the 2017 season. I can’t say enough about David Hall, his company, and their belief in me as a driver and an ambassador for their brand. While their sponsorship isn’t a big money deal in the NASCAR world, it’s a big deal to us, and we’re extremely thankful.

The last time we ran our Texas truck with an R07 motor in it, we ran in the top-15 before a crash at Chicagoland. I’m hoping we can have the same type of speed this weekend, and gain some positive momentum heading into the last few weeks of the year. Our guys & our sponsors deserve a great finish.

Oh, and I’d like one, too.

Emotions by Thomas Martins

Shame is a terrible emotion to write about. 

It’s why I never wrote a blog about our race at Mosport. That’s the most embarrassed I’ve ever been in my racing career. We aimed for that race. We got a new (old KHI) truck prepared specifically for that race. We ran our good motor. We leased a transmission.

We were awful.

We missed first practice because we couldn’t get the truck fired up. Then it wouldn’t hold water pressure. It vibrated so hard it rattled the gauges out of the dashboard. It picked the front tires off the ground during cornering. We blew a rear end line and oiled down the track. I stunk. I felt like I never got a handle on hard braking or running a consistent line around the place. We qualified 28th. I pulled it off track after two laps because it felt like it was about to come apart. The pit crew we had lined up wasn’t allowed to participate. On top of all that, I got us torn up. I put us into side-by-side situations that we didn’t have to be in and made a crappy day a whole lot worse.

It was a disaster.

Mosport was the third race in a row where we left the track with damage. Chicagoland was the fourth. New Hampshire made five. We own four trucks, and all of them are wrecked. Two of them require complete body replacements. For a small team, that’s worst-case scenario. It’s hard for our guys to keep our trucks properly serviced and prepared when they’re off at the body shop. You can’t work on something that’s not there.

We weren’t great during practice or qualifying at Chicago. Our first lap on track was the fastest lap of both practice sessions – and it was an ugly lap. We bottomed out so hard that it sheared the truck arm mount 1/8th of an inch. Our truck struggled to get through the bumps on both ends of the racetrack. Our qualifying lap was two-tenths slower than our practice lap. It didn’t make any sense. 

My dad was upset. He had a good right to be. We were running our ECR Engine, yet we got out-qualified by a few old-style SB2 motors. It was frustrating. We’ve done things to try to improve our performance on track in the hopes of attracting some new sponsors to our race team, and it seems like we don’t have anything to show for it.

When the race started, we were tight. In the middle of the race, we were even tighter. But, we managed to stay on the lead lap. We kept working on it. Kevin never got upset when I kept telling him how awful it was, he just put his head down and came up with ways to fix it. We dodged a big wreck late in the race, and the race got red flagged. We wanted to pit, but we were out of tires. Almost as if they were sent from heaven above, one of the crashed trucks offered us a set of 3 lap scuffed tires for a good price, and we jumped all over it. Good thing we did. After we made our stop, we discovered an inch-long gash in a tire from running through the debris of the accident.

We were in a good spot - inside the top 20, on the lead lap, with fresh tires and less than 30 laps to go. Our truck was GREAT on the short run. We took off on restarts as well as any truck in the field. I was able to weave my way up inside the top 15 before we got another caution with around 20 to go. I was excited.

On that restart, we took off again. As everyone began to spread out, I found myself in a battle with the #71 Josh Berry & the #51 Daniel Suarez. We were racing hard. As hard as I’ve raced all year. I could tell Daniel was getting a little frustrated with us, but I didn’t care. I felt like we were faster. We had fresher tires. We were running faster times than 2 of the trucks in front of us. I wanted more. I wanted to clear him and get to work on chasing them down.

Daniel got a run on us down the front stretch. I was about one groove down from the wall, and as I checked my mirror, I could see he was gaining on us. I moved up the track to arc my way into turn 1, and Daniel kept his foot in it and hit us. I got pretty sideways. We were already going into the corner faster than we had all day. As I tried to gather it up, I think Daniel got loose underneath us and hit us again. I shot up the track and into the outside wall.

I immediately regretted what I had done. I said over the radio that I should’ve known better than to race him hard. I know Daniel Suarez doesn’t give a crap about truck races. He thought I was holding him up. He thought I cut him off. So he hit us. He hit us bad enough that another driver messaged me after the race to ask if Daniel had apologized for it. He hasn’t. I don't expect him to.

My spotter, Toby, went looking for Daniel’s spotter. When he asked him what happened, Daniel’s guy said, “That’s what he gets for being a lap down and holding us up.” Obviously, we were on the lead lap battling for position. I guess the big teams just assume we’re bad and race us like they’re mad we’re putting up a fight.

He wrecked us on purpose. No doubt about it.

I’ve had a hard time carrying the emotional weight of this season. I’m tired. Earlier this year I was angry. Bitter at how bad our luck was and how we could never catch a break. Now I’m exhausted. Depressed. After the wreck, I sat by the truck in the garage for a while. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Several people came up to me and asked if I was alright. I wasn’t alright. A week and a half later I’m still not alright.

Why do we continually get punished for doing something I love?

The thing that gives me more joy than anything in the world has been a burden on us for nearly eight years now – both emotionally & financially. I can’t remember the last time I left a racetrack feeling happy. I can’t begin to tell you how many emails we’ve sent to sponsors only to hear nothing back. Or how many people have told us they were interested only to go cold and never return a phone call. How many people we’ve hired to find sponsors who have only taken our money and given us nothing in return. How many times we’ve been told how much better things will be when we make a change, or buy a motor, or hire a new person, only to show up to the racetrack and have things go the same way.

I long for the day that justifies it all. That one moment where we finish in the top 10, or the top 5, or in victory lane and we can finally have some relief. A moment where someone comes up and talks to me about what a great job I’ve done on track instead of about something I’ve written in this blog. Talladega in 2014 was the last time we had a moment like that. All we did was finish 14th. No one cared except us, and that was okay.

I’m not angry at Daniel Suarez for wrecking us. I’m jealous of him. He gets to do something I’ve never been able to do in my whole life. He’s allowed to race with absolutely no consequences. If he tore up a racecar every single week, it wouldn’t matter. He thought I was holding him up, so he moved me out of the way. Simple. I’ve never been able to do that. My whole life has been race as hard as you can -- but please don’t tear anything up. I’ve failed miserably lately, and our team is suffering because of it.

He gets to race for wins. I race for top 20’s. He gets interviewed every time he walks down pit road. We haven’t been interviewed on television all season (big shout to Clair B. Lang for having me on her show a few times and talking to me at the racetrack; it means a lot). Every time Daniel shows up at a NASCAR race he thinks he’s got a shot to win the race. I haven’t been able to say that outside of Daytona & Talladega since my ASA days in 2009. At times, I’ve wondered if I even know how to win a race. If I ever had the opportunity, would I be able to capitalize on it? When you struggle seemingly every single time you show up to a racetrack for eight long years, you start to question your abilities.

Daniel Suarez gets to be a racecar driver.

A racecar driver doesn’t concede a position inside the top-15 with less than 20 laps to go in a race. I can guarantee Daniel Suarez has never been told to allow someone to pass him because they’re racing him hard at the end of a race. But that’s what my spotter, owner, and crew chief all thought I should’ve done. Moved over. Let him go. 

Screw that. 

That’s revisionist history, and I’m not going to listen to it. Of course it would’ve been better not to tear our truck up. That’s easy to say after it happens. The only time I get any relief is when I’m in that truck. That’s the only time I truly get to be stress-free. I don’t have to worry about tires or damage or expenses. All I have to do is drive as fast as I possibly can. It’s the only release I have. 

So I’m not going to apologize for doing the one damn thing I’ve been trying to do all year: be competitive. We’ve struggled and scratched and clawed to get to the point where we can run in the top 20 and top 15 on a regular basis, and now that we’re here I’m just supposed to move over and let people pass me at the end of a race so we don’t risk tearing anything up?

If we want to take that approach, then we’re doing it wrong. We need to sell our good motor and only run SB2’s. Who cares where you qualify? We can just ride around and never race anyone and see where we wind up at the end of the race. We don’t ever need to hire a fast pit crew. Who cares if you pick up any spots on pit road? We don't ever need to buy good tires. Lap times don’t matter when you’re planning on running around in the back anyway.

The polite way of putting all that is “managing the race.” Norm Benning made it famous in the truck series. Norm wasn’t there to race anyone. Norm was there to get paid. The only way to make money in our series is to drastically limit expenses & exposure to accidents. Norm made a living doing it -- until this year. The competition level in the truck series is as high as it’s ever been. So, we’ve had to step our program up much more than we originally planned just to give ourselves an opportunity for top-20 finishes. Of course, when you race, you make yourself vulnerable.

We tried to manage our race at New Hampshire, but we got some right front damage by colliding with Ryan Truex when Cole Custer spun up in front of us. Everything got bottled up, and we had nowhere to go. I tried my best to stay off of him, but I don't think there was much I could’ve done. It wasn’t serious, but it still cost around a thousand bucks to fix. It’s the exact reason we considered starting and parking the race. But when it came down to it, we couldn't. 

That’s not why we’re out here. We’re out here to race. 

My dad and I had a long talk in New Hampshire about how much we’ve spent this year and how much more we think it’s going to cost to make it through the end of the season. We’re over budget. When you tear this much stuff up in a year, there’s no way to avoid that. But he spent most of his time telling me how proud he was of me for the job I’ve done this year, and that no matter what happens, Martins Motorsports is going to make it through this season.

I didn’t show it at the time, but that had a profound emotional impact on me.

My family has overextended themselves to finance my career. The son in me feels a tremendous amount of guilt for that. But the racecar driver in me can’t worry about crashing when I show up to a racetrack. I’ve allowed my shame & guilt to seep into other parts of my life as well, and I’m tired of feeling so beleaguered while getting to live out a lifelong dream. My family is tired, too.

We all have to make peace with the fact that this season, and my whole racing career, might never get that shining, justifying moment.

Even if it doesn't, it won’t be in vain. Yes, racing has been incredibly stressful, but it’s also a blessing to have something this big that we can share together. My dad doesn’t love racing. He loves me. And because of that, he’s tried to do everything he can do to give me an opportunity to do something that I love to do. It gives me tremendous joy to go out and compete at a high level against some of the best drivers in the world, and my mother and father take joy in being able to see me do it.

That’s enough for me now.

I’ve finally realized why I write this blog. It’s not for media coverage. It’s not for fans. It’s not to complain about NASCAR, or another driver, or a lack of funding. It’s the only way I know to tell our story: the story of my family, my team, and I going through this amazing journey, together. If I didn’t tell it, no one would. And if this is all I ever get to do in this sport, then I don’t want to forget a single thing. Not one result, good or bad. Not one emotion, painful or positive.

It’s our story. And it’s not over just yet

Expectations by Thomas Martins

We made a big move before Michigan: we bought a motor. Because of that, our goals have shifted as a race team.

Now, we shouldn’t have bought it. It was expensive. It’s only good for four races. But we wanted to know. We HAD to know. We’ve been down on power all year with our SB2 engine program. We’ve been told it's as much as 25 to 40 horsepower on the top end. More on the low end of the RPM band. Even more on the torque scale.

So, how good could we be with a solid engine under the hood? At Michigan, we found out.

I was nervous before the weekend. It was a huge commitment by my father to get this motor for us. I wanted it to be worth it. If we had gone out in practice and wound up 24th again, I don’t know what I would’ve done. Luckily, we weren’t. We were 17th. The first thing Eagle and my dad asked me was, “Can you tell a difference?” The answer was yes. Oh my goodness yes. It was night and day.

We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Now, we weren’t unrealistic with our expectations. We didn’t think simply dropping a better motor in our truck would immediately put us to the front of the truck series field. There are a lot of top tier teams that we’re not going to be able to compete with from a resource standpoint. Our goal was to put ourselves solidly in that second tier of teams alongside Hattori Racing, Young Motorsports, Bolen Motorsports, NEMCO, AWS Racing, and Ricky Benton Racing. We think we did that.

That’s what’s been so frustrating about our year. I’ve spoken time and time again about what I think the potential of myself and our team is. But I’ve been unrealistic with what I thought we could achieve with our SB2 program. We were a third tier team while running SB2’s. We SHOULD'VE been competing with Premium Motorsports, MAKE Motorsports, Mittler Bros. Racing, Contreras Motorsports, and Bobby Dotter every week. With this new engine, the door is open for us to legitimately compete for top-10’s and top-15’s consistently. We think we’re a lot closer to a top-15 team than what we’ve been able to show so far this year. We proved that at Michigan.

Of course, we had some struggles, too.

We had a tire rub in practice that nearly ended our weekend before it got started. We cut a left rear tire down going into turn 3 at nearly 180 mph, but luckily I was able to gather it up and get it down to pit road without any damage. We dodged a bullet. We didn’t have a backup truck. A wreck would’ve sent us home.

We never got a chance to do a lot of drafting in practice because of the rub. When we did get around a few other trucks, we were competitive. We made some passes, and the truck handled okay in a pack. A little tight, but overall pretty good. I told Kevin I thought it was our best handling intermediate truck since Kansas earlier this year. 

I was optimistic for qualifying. I thought we’d be a top-15 truck on speed. That was ambitious. We wound up 20th. That bummed me out. We were essentially the on the tail end of the “fast” trucks. There’s usually a gap on the speed charts between the tiers of teams in our series, and we found ourselves right in the middle of that second tier. I wanted us to be a little closer towards the front of it. Maybe that’s too much to ask for the first race we ever ran with that motor. I just thought we’d pick up more than we did in qualifying trim. 

It wasn’t even our best 1.5 mile qualifying effort of the year. We were 19th at Kansas. Only 20th at Michigan. Yeah, we were a lot faster speed wise, but it didn't translate to much improvement on the charts. For us to not even post our best positional qualifying effort was pretty disheartening.

The race played out about as we expected. There were some really hard crashes and we managed to get around them cleanly. We ran inside the top-20 all day. But, I had a brake issue late in the race. I got on the brakes really hard to get around Spencer Gallagher's crash and was worried I might have warped a rotor. I could feel a hard vibration anytime I was on the brakes under caution.


It was decision time. We were running in the top-15, and pitting to check it out would cost us all of our track position. If it was something more serious though, it could wreck us and really put us in a horrible spot. Kevin and my dad deferred to me to make the decision. There was no chance I was coming down pit road.

I knew this was our chance at a top-10 finish; something neither myself nor my team have ever been able to have.

We were in a great position going into the final restart. I was sitting 12th, in the preferred outside lane. I felt good about our restarts all race. Our motor was getting up through the gears as well as any truck in the field. I focused in during the final caution. I was ready. I knew how critical getting a good jump was going to be for our chances to crack the top-10. As we came to the green, someone in my lane missed a shift. It might’ve been the #51 truck but I’m not totally sure. We were the first ones to get bottled up. Ben Kennedy had nowhere to go and smashed into the back of us, bending our bumper up under our fuel cell and damaging our right rear quarter panel. I got shuffled back and wound up only managing to finish 15th.

I was extremely disappointed. Who knows how many chances we’ll get at a finish like that. And for our truck to get damaged on the very last restart of the race…it just sucked.

I commiserated with Austin Wayne Self after the race, who also had some horrible luck during that last restart and fell from 8th back to mid-pack. We’re snakebit. I ran as good a race as I’ve ever run in my NASCAR career and we still didn’t get anything to show for it. Jordan Anderson finished right in front of us with an SB2. Travis Kvapil finished only three spots behind us. Tyler Young finished 10th. The same guys we compete with every week wound up around us in the final results, even when we were faster than them all weekend. I was disheartened. I mean why even buy that motor if we’re just going to finish roughly in the same place as usual and still get wrecked. What’s the point?

My dad had to calm me down. Finally, after some counseling, I was able to see the big picture. Yeah, we caught another tough break at the end of the race, but look at where we were. We were 12th with 8 to go and had a real shot to get a top-10. That’s something we’ve never had before. It might not have wound up the way we wanted, but we gave ourselves a chance. If we keep improving, that’s going to be a normal situation instead of an extraordinary one. 

I had my career best finish & tied the best ever for our organization. I shouldn’t be upset after something like that. But, I know we’re running out of chances to do something great this year. I just felt like I let a chance slip through my fingers. And by comparing us to some other teams, it made me feel even worse. I shouldn’t do that. I should worry about us. Martins Motorsports had a very solid day.

But, our expectations are even higher going into our race this weekend at Canada.

Some of you might not know, but I'm a driving instructor at Ron Fellows Performance Driving School at Spring Mountain right outside Las Vegas, NV. Most of the time, I’m working there between races. It’s the official driving school of Corvette Racing. It’s an awesome job. I work with some extremely talented racers. They’ve made me a much better driver during my two years out there, and I can’t thank all of them enough for how encouraging they’ve been through all of our struggles this season.

When the NASCAR guys want road course training, Spring Mountain is one of the places they go. The guys I work with every day have coached guys like Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Daniel Hemric, Ross Chastain, and several others. As far as I’m concerned, I’m representing all of us this weekend. I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself in that regard. I spent time this week studying the previous races. I spent hours on iRacing at another instructor’s house trying to learn as much as I possibly could about the track.

I’m expecting a lot out of myself.

So is our team. We knew we’d have a chance to get a solid finish at a road course with me behind the wheel, so we prepared a truck specifically for this weekend. Road course spindles, brakes, a new rear end, lease transmission – you name it, we’ve gotten our truck as prepared as we possibly could for Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. It's not the best truck in the field, we know that. All the top organizations build trucks from the ground up every year specifically for this race. We couldn't do that. But we did as much as we could.

We’re not up here to get a top-15. We’re up here to win the race.

It’s the first time I’ve ever shown up to a racetrack in NASCAR and thought I had a chance to win a race outside of Daytona or Talladega. Anything less than a great finish will be a disappointment.

Frustration by Thomas Martins

I was apprehensive at Bristol. If you read my last blog, you know why. 

We didn’t have great speed in practice – or so we thought. Our fastest time in second practice was a 15.60, only good enough for 30th place & nearly eight tenths of a second off the top of the leaderboard. But, when we looked at the best 10-lap average speeds (a better judge of race speed), we were 7th out of the 21 trucks that ran 10 consecutive laps. We never changed tires during practice. Our fastest laps came on 50-60 lap old tires. I allowed myself to be optimistic about qualifying.

We knew we’d have to run a great time in qualifying to make the race. The top-27 qualifying times in a NASCAR Truck Race are guaranteed into the field. The next 5 positions are given to the trucks with the most Owners Points that aren’t already in the field on time. If you’re in the top-27, you’ve got nothing to worry about. We weren’t in practice. We were worried. 

If it came down to points, our struggles this year haven’t given us many to fall back on. There are teams in front of us in points that we’re routinely faster than, but because of their cushion in points they’ve been able to cruise by, never worry about qualifying in on time, and take a provisional on most weeks. Or they’ve been able to rent out their guaranteed number to faster, better-funded teams to help pad their lead. Daytona crushed us. We finished dead last. Those guys had top-10 runs. It immediately put us 20-30 points down to our direct competition. They’ve taken advantage of that.

Whenever there’s a competitive field like there was at Bristol, those teams bring their worst truck, knowing they can take a provisional and force us to qualify in on speed or go home. During the race they’ll cruise around, disregard overall speed, and move up when other teams have problems. So, even when we finish ahead of them, it’s usually only by a few points. When we have an issue, even if they’ve pulled off track as a start & park, they’ll come out of the garage and do enough laps to pass us. I’m not mad at the guys on those teams for what they’re doing. They’re still working extremely hard to get their trucks ready every week. The owners are just playing the game.

It leaves us no margin for error. I made several errors in qualifying.

When I first headed out on track, there was a caution on my come out lap. That threw my timing off & heated up the truck. When I went back out, I completely overdrove it. Rather than just letting the tires & qualifying trim add speed, I tried to force it. I drove into the corners harder. I moved the wheel around a lot more. I pushed and pushed and when I didn’t hear the team call out a time on the radio after the 5th lap, I knew it had to be slow. On the cool down lap they told me we only ran 15.50, still 2 tenths off of the top-27. 

I tried to calm myself down in the truck. Just try to focus on the next run & getting a good, clean lap in. Kevin asked me what we needed to make the truck a little faster. I thought it was a little tight at the end of our first run. We raised the track bar and loosened it up. That was the wrong call. I got a better lap in, 15.43, but then the truck got way too lose. I was sideways on both ends. With the clock winding down, we were still out of the race & helpless to go any faster. The #63 team of MB Motorsports was in our same situation. They had run a 15.36 but someone nipped them by .03 seconds and pushed them back to 28th place. They ran as many laps as they could, but wound up 1 spot short. 

Mike Mittler, the #63 owner, and my father have become close over the course of this year. MB Motorsports is only 1 spot behind us in Owners Points. My heart broke for them. We’ve been on their side of things several times. Even though they out-qualified us, they went home and we got to race. I didn’t feel like we deserved it. I let the team down. It was my job to put our truck in the top-27 and I didn’t get it done. We should’ve been on the trailer and it was my fault. We only made the race by dumb luck.

The race started late, and we were very loose in the early laps. I fell a lap down. We got a caution because of rain and I came down pit road so we could tighten it up. On the restart, I knew I was battling with four other trucks for the lucky dog spot. I got a great jump. I was able to clear a few of them, and get up to the back bumper of the #16 truck of Stewart Friesen before the caution came back out on lap 40. The next restart was the same thing: a dogfight. I ran side by side on the outside with Austin Wayne Self battling for the lucky dog spot for about 6 or 7 laps. I was finally able to clear him, and the caution came out a few laps later. I was pumped. Our truck was starting to show the long run speed we had in practice. It was time to start moving forward.

We got another good restart, and tucked in behind the #92 of Parker Kligerman. Friesen ran wide and Parker got under him in Turn 3. When I tried to follow, Stewart chopped down on me in Turn 1, and we made some slight contact. My spotter Toby Whealdon said his spotter apologized. It was an accident. Stewart didn’t mean to come down on me. I told Toby to tell him it was no big deal. 

Stewart ran really wide into Turn 1 a few laps later. I gave him a chance to gather it up, and got a run on the inside on the way out of Turn 2. I had my nose to the inside of his rear quarter panel down the backstretch. As we entered Turn 3, he chopped down again, this time making much harder contact. I tried to stay off of him, and dropped down onto the apron to avoid more contact. When it started to slide, I hammered the throttle and did what amounted to a 360 with a ton of tire smoke, but was able to keep the truck off the wall & rolling in 2nd gear.

I was furious. I wouldn’t have been as mad if he hadn’t gotten on the radio and told me sorry for doing the same thing a few laps earlier. When we headed down pit road, our truck was smoking. It was hard to turn. I figured it was from RF damage during the accident, but it turned out to be coming from under the hood. Our power steering pump had a leak. The fluid was getting onto the headers, causing more and more smoke. NASCAR told us to send it to the garage, effectively taking us out of the race.

We went back on track with no power steering, but I’ll admit I couldn’t drive it. If I had the whole racetrack to work with, then maybe I could. But with the traffic at a track like Bristol, there was no chance. I could barely turn the wheel. I had both arms up on the right side of the wheel trying to crank on it as much as I could, but we kept coming dangerously close to swerving in front of lead lap cars. Plus, we were under minimum speed. We pulled off and finished 31st.

For the 6th time this year in 12 races, Tommy Joe Martins scored a DNF. I’ve only finished on the lead lap twice (Pocono & Gateway). We’ve got the stats of a start & park team, but we’re trying as hard as we possibly can. I’m doing everything I can do inside the truck. But through all of that effort, we still don’t have much to show for it.

I’ve had plenty of people on twitter and other forms of social media tell me how bad a racecar driver I am. Maybe they've got a point. I’m known more from this blog than I am from my results on the racetrack. That bothers me. I’ve complained too much this year. I don’t want to come across as a guy that rants and raves every week. Believe me, I’d love to be able to write about how great our year has been. But it hasn’t been great. It’s been really damn bad. But still, rather than focusing on the circumstances I’ve found myself in, I should start focusing on what I could’ve done to change them.

It would be very easy to say that we’ve had some bad luck this season. We absolutely have. Running over debris in Kentucky was bad luck. But I’m tired of blaming every bit of adversity we’ve had this year on bad luck. Luck plays a part in everything. All you can do if you want to get better is worry about the things you can control. I haven’t controlled my part of the job very well this year. And as a team we’ve made mistakes in preparation & maintenance that have resulted in parts failures and bad finishes. 

We all have to do a better job, and it starts with the decision making of the guy driving the thing.

The middle of the pack is a bad place to be in a NASCAR truck race. Generally, the guys up front are good drivers in good trucks. The back is made up of people in poor equipment, whether they’re talented or not. But, the middle has a weird, wild dynamic. You have good drivers in good cars that are struggling, and mad they’re having a mediocre day. You have average drivers in great equipment.  You have great drivers in average equipment that are forced to overdrive to keep up. You have inexperienced drivers on one race, give it everything you’ve got, try to make a name for yourself type of deals. 

It’s a dangerous mix. 

Unfortunately we’re stuck in the middle every single week. So, I need to do a better job of recognizing trouble & not put our truck in dangerous situations. Racing is racing, sure. Stuff happens. But I shouldn't have tried to pass Stewart when I did. That was a bad decision. Yeah, he pinched me, but I didn’t have to go for that spot. It was still early. I could’ve waited. 

When I got dumped at Iowa, that was my fault for not getting past a couple of trucks that held us up and allowed the #02 truck to get to our bumper. At Atlanta I felt a vibration but didn’t immediately bring it down pit road. Eventually we corded a right front tire. I’ve made several mistakes with adjustments this year that got our setup going in the wrong direction.

Like I said earlier, as a small team with no points cushion we don't have ANY margin for error. I’ve made my fair share of errors this year, and it’s cost us. I’m sure I’ll make more. But I’m going to try to limit them as much as I can. I want to be able to climb out of that truck every week knowing I did the best job I could possibly have done for us. Right now, I don’t feel like I have. 

I can do better. That’s what upsets me the most. I’m frustrated with myself.

We’ve made a big change for Michigan. It wasn’t a smart financial decision for our race team, but we’re hoping it gives us a better chance to compete for solid finishes. We hope it allows us to showcase our team to potential sponsors and the rest of the garage. I hope it gives me a better chance to show what kind of racecar driver I can be.

I just hope I'm a good one.