Close / by Thomas Martins

We’re in a tough business.

I spoke with Buddy Sisco, the Crew Chief of the #2 truck for Brad Keselowski Racing this past weekend. I offered my sympathies for his team’s bad luck. It was the second week in a row they had been sent home with a DNQ [Did Not Qualify] because of a rainout - had qualifying taken place, they would’ve absolutely been fast enough to make the field in both races. He didn’t seem that upset. As the team loaded up the hauler behind him, he told my father and I, “We knew there was a chance. That’s the business we’re in. That’s big league stock car racing.”

The reality is the rainout helped our team tremendously. Because of our bad luck at Daytona & Kentucky, we were sitting in a very dangerous position in the point standings. With the 38-truck field at Charlotte, the best shot we had at making the race this weekend was to qualify in a guaranteed top-27 position. If we had to rely on points, it was gonna be iffy at best.

It rained off and on all day Thursday, but we managed to squeeze in one practice. We didn’t unload well. We dug the splitter into the track for the first 30 minutes of the session – the only session. We got to make a few runs at the end of the practice but we really didn’t get much time to IMPROVE the truck. The Diamond Gusset Chevy wasn’t fast, but our best lap came on 21 lap tires; we had no idea how good, or how far off, we actually were.

Then, it rained. We got to avoid the stress of qualifying & the potential disaster of missing a race. It saved a few others behind us in points, too. As my father and I breathed a sigh of relief, I realized just how close we were to not making a race. When we set our goals at the beginning of the year, the first one on the list was to qualify for all 23 races on the schedule because of the impact it would have on our team financially. As a small, independent team, we rely primarily on the prize money to fund our efforts each and every week. A missed race is a missed check. It’s a story we know all too well due to our lack of success in the Xfinity Series in 2014.

It kept raining all day Friday, and all Friday night. We wound up running our scheduled Friday night race in the middle of the day Saturday afternoon.

I thought we had a solid race. I’ve been very disappointed with myself at times this year. I think I did a crappy job at Atlanta. I think I sucked last week at Dover. This weekend I thought I did a pretty good job of running consistently throughout the course of the race. I felt as comfortable as I’ve ever felt in a NASCAR stock car, but we just weren’t fast enough to stay with some of the other lead lap cars.

Unlike at Dover where we were all over the place and I spent the majority of my time trying to keep the truck out of the wall and off everyone else, we got to race in Charlotte. Sure, we battled some handling problems, but we stayed on the lead lap for the majority of the race, and I loved being able to run side by side with some competitive teams and make some passes. We struggled the first few laps of a run to get going, but our truck would really come to us over the course of a long run. We were just giving up way too much track position fighting the truck the first twenty laps of a run.

It’s a great feeling to be deep in a race and running on the lead lap. Even when we did get lapped again late in the race I could see that we weren’t WAY off the pace of some of the top five cars on long runs- less than half a second for sure – which is encouraging. Besides obviously being down on horsepower, I think we’re also getting hurt on the aero side of things. Guys could drive into the corner so much more aggressively than I could & still hold their trucks on the bottom of the racetrack. I think that’s downforce related, but there could be several factors.

There were only three cautions during the race, which was surprisingly low. They helped us and hurt us. We pitted late during the first competition caution and got the chance to lead a lap and pick up an extra point, so that was pretty cool to be able to look up at the scoreboard and see a #44 on top of it. The one quickie caution that happened right in front of me (I’m glad I could get around the spinning Christopher Bell by diving down pit road) got us back on the lead lap as the lucky dog, which was also nice.

We needed another caution late in the race, but we made it to 20-to-go one minute before the caution clock was set to run out, so NASCAR turned it off. That cost us a chance at the wave around & to get back on the lead lap. Also, we thought about gambling on fuel strategy, but after Kevin ran the calculations it looked like we were gonna be about six laps short. The pit stop we made wound up costing us another lap, but lots of trucks were in and out of pit road the last ten laps. Team strategies were all over the place.

As we came to the checkered flag, I was in the middle of about a six truck group. I wasn’t racing any of them for position, so I sorta backed out and let them go at it. I figured it had to be for a top ten spot or something because they were really racing hard, bouncing off each other down the back stretch and through turns 3 & 4. A few of them wound up in the wall at the start finish line right in front of us and I had to dive low to get around it. Obviously I was surprised when I got out of the truck and looked up at the scoreboard to find out they were tearing each other up for 18th place.

Fans have got to love how intense the racing in this series is, but damn is it wild when you’re sitting in the driver’s seat! As crazy as things got around us, I’m glad we were able to bring the truck home in one piece and beat some of our direct competitors in the point standings. Overall, 25th place wasn’t a BAD finish for us.

I posted on instagram about how torn I was over our weekend. I don’t see it as a negative weekend at all! I can see how close our team is to being a competitive, top-20 NASCAR team, even in our infancy in the Camping World Truck Series. We’ve got great chemistry, solid trucks, tremendously loyal supporters like Rodney Riessen and wonderful marketing partners like Diamond Gusset Jeans - but, it’s not enough. As close as we are to success at this level, Charlotte also proved we’re equally as close to failure. CLOSE just doesn’t cut it at this level of motorsports.

I’ve got to be better. The team has to get better. Whatever it takes - financial support, a better engine program, aero & setup tweaks – we’ve gotta find a way to make it happen or we could be sitting on the other side of the fence when we get to Texas Motor Speedway.

That’s big league stock car racing.

I’m blessed to be a part of it, and I don't want to give it up any time soon. I’m looking forward to a few weeks off, and I know the guys are already hard at work on the prep for our next 3 week stretch of Texas, Iowa, & Gateway. We’ll be ready.