Success is situational in racing.
Ask Jordan Anderson how he felt about his 18th place finish at Dover this year after missing two races earlier in the season. Ask Matt DiBenedetto how he felt about his top-10 at Bristol with BK Racing when he wasn’t sure he’d even have a NASCAR ride coming into this year. Ask Travis Kvapil, a past NASCAR Truck Series Champion, how he felt about his 12th place run this past weekend at Gateway for MAKE Motorsports. All of those runs held significance not because of the finish, but because of all of the bad circumstances that led up to them.
We finished 18th at Gateway. Sometimes, an 18th place finish can hold deeper meaning.
When you race a car (or a truck) that is underfunded, success is often unrecognizable to people outside of the team. In 2014, we were fastest in final practice at Talladega in the Xfinity Series. We were in a draft with 4 or 5 other cars, and managed to get the fastest time by a couple hundredths or something. Complete luck. Only 20 or so cars went out in the session. Practice didn’t really matter at Talladega anyway.
It mattered to us.
People had to say my name. They had to talk about our team. The #76 car (bleh, I always hated that number) was on the top of the speed charts & everyone had to look at it. All of the hard work and suffering that we had put our guys through – the start and parking, the late nights, the cross country road trips in the cab of an 18-wheeler – all of it was worth it for a few hours that Friday afternoon. Sure, it had no significance to how the race would play out, but it meant the world to us.
Claire B. Lang read the results on NASCAR radio & it sounded more like a question than an announcement. NBC Sports wrote an article about it that said I’d, “have a story to tell my children someday.” Nobody knew who I was, but all of a sudden I was relevant. Even if it was just for one afternoon. We were relevant. And that’s all a small team can hope for.
When you sign up for this deal, to work or drive for an underfunded team, you know you’ll never win a race. Heck, top tens will probably be out of reach. But, you don't want to be irrelevant. You don’t want to have broadcasters mispronouncing your name because they don’t even know or care who you are. You don’t want people asking if you even deserve to be in NASCAR or questioning your credentials just because you drive for a team that's finishing in the back. If the team shuts down in the middle of the year, you want people to at least notice that you’re gone.
It’s pitiful how many people make it to the top levels of motorsports as a mechanic or driver and wind up leaving with the impression that nobody gave a shit. You shouldn't have to be remarkable to get respect. It's hard to be remarkable in racing without the equipment necessary to make it happen. Not everyone gets that chance. All anyone wants is to believe they're part of something important. That all their hard work meant something to someone.
When I ran my first race in 2014 in Phoenix, Allen Bestwick (one of my broadcasting idols) came over to our trailer in the garage to meet me.
A guy he had never heard of, driving a car that would go on to finish in the top-20 one time all year. He asked me where I was from, where the team was from, what I had raced before. He asked what our goals were as a team, how many guys we had working for us, whether we had any sponsors. We spoke for a minute about my journalism degree at Ole Miss. I told him I went to college to take his job. He laughed and rolled his eyes (justifiably).
Those few minutes didn’t mean anything to Allen Bestwick. He was just doing his job, checking in on a new driver in the series that he was paid to cover - due diligence. Later in the year, we got spotlighted during our race at Talladega. We had been running in the top ten for most of the event, and ESPN had a bumper cam staring back at our car. Allen Bestwick spoke about how much the run meant to our small team, based out of Tennessee, with a well spoken, Ole Miss journalism major for a driver.
Didn’t mean anything to him. Meant everything to me. Meant everything to all of my family & friends watching the race. Meant everything to the families and friends of the guys on my crew for that race. For a minute, on ESPN, in front of the whole racing world, we mattered.
To most of the people covering or watching the race at Gateway, a truck finishing in 18th place doesn’t hold a lot of significance. There were a lot of crashes. There was a [bad – but, entertaining] fight. A young, talented driver won his first race of the year, the third win in a row for a championship team. There were plenty of other things to talk about besides a small team finishing 18th. But, for us, 18th felt like a top-5. It felt like we had finally reached the top of a mountain that had been growing in height since our crash at Daytona the first week of the year. For a few minutes after our race, our guys finally got to breathe a sigh of relief.
Trust me, they needed a relief.
They had to spend an entire week trying to prepare a truck for a track it wasn’t designed to race at, in a shop 500 miles away from home, without half the things they needed to be able to set it up properly. To try to save money in travel costs, our guys spent the last couple weeks working out of a small tractor shop in Somerville, TN, just outside of Memphis. Our biggest supporters (practically team members themselves at this point), Rodney & Lynn Riessen, let the guys stay in their house.
Our short track truck was still wadded up from the Iowa crash. The team spent a couple days swapping parts over to our intermediate truck – brakes, suspension, whatever wasn’t damaged from the crash. They couldn’t get the front-end geometry exactly how they needed it for Gateway, but they did the best they could. We had to get valve springs overnighted from Charlotte because the motor we had in our intermediate truck wasn’t supposed to be run again until Kentucky. The impact at Iowa left our short track motor potentially damaged so we didn’t want to run it again until we could get it checked out. Kevin Eagle & the guys spent most of Thursday night changing the valve springs & checking out our intermediate motor, which at the time, had 900 miles of racing on it. They finished up at 2 am. They had to be at the track at Gateway at 10 am – 5 hours away.
It was scorching hot during tech day on Friday. They spent all afternoon finishing up the truck and pushing it through the tech line. They didn’t get back to their hotel until 9 pm. To make matters worse, they had even more responsibility than usual. Because our normal pit crew was in Sonoma, our guys had to suit up and go over the wall shorthanded. Our four-man crew had to make 8 separate pit stops for either tires or fuel – twice as many as normal because we could only do either tires or gas during one stop without going a lap down. They had to be back at the racetrack at 7 am. They wouldn’t leave the track Saturday until 11 pm.
I can’t express how proud I am to drive for a group of guys that can give that kind of effort. They’re unreal & I’m so blessed to have them.
As for the race day itself, it went as well as we could’ve possibly hoped. We finished first practice 27th fastest. I wasn’t too worried about it. The truck felt okay - a little tight, but okay. We wound up 25th in final practice. Still a little tight, but basically ran the same times as the practice before on older tires, so I thought we had made some decent gains.
Qualifying got rained out, which bummed me out a bit because I knew we were faster than a 27th place starting position and we wouldn’t get the chance to improve on it. Regardless, I was looking forward to the race.
We made a big decision as a team to actually run the race. As I mentioned in my last post, we had every reason possible to start and park our truck. It took a lot of guts & faith for my dad to make that decision, and he did. In fact, he didn't really waste a lot of time thinking about it. We went to Gateway to race, and that’s what we did.
My dad also spotted for me at Gateway. Toby Whealdon, our normal spotter, was out in Sonoma calling the race for David Regan. It was his second time my dad spotted for me this year – his previous race was at Texas. He hates it. He thinks he’s terrible at it. Sure, he’s missed a couple calls, but I think he stresses about it too much. He’s a good spotter. At Texas he battled radio problems the whole race; the thing kept cutting out for a few minutes at a time. One time, we nearly door slammed Daniel Hemric because of it. I think my dad is so worried about messing something up that at times he hesitates. I know he’s nervous every time he gets up in that spotters stand. He called a good race at Gateway, and I’m proud of him for it.
We never made an adjustment to our truck the entire night. That’s an amazing accomplishment given everything the guys had to go through to get the truck ready. It felt really solid all night long. We moved up around the top-20 early in the race, and for the first time all year, we stayed on the lead lap during two full caution clock runs. It’s hard to describe what a milestone that is for our team. And for it to happen this week, of all weeks, with these circumstances – wow. I mentioned it to the guys on the radio and Kevin got emotional about it. It was huge.
As for our finish – 18th – we deserved it. That’s all I can say. I know that a lot of trucks got torn up Saturday night. Several of the accidents happened right in front of us and we were able to navigate our way through them. All in all, we were able to keep ourselves on the lead lap, contending and passing trucks for the entire race.
When it came time for the final restart, I thought we could pass a few trucks and end up with a top fifteen. I made a move to get by the #00 of Cole Custer and he raced me pretty hard into turn three, I got a little loose and had to back out of it. Cole got by the #07 of Shane Lee going into turn one on the last lap, and I was able to get a run on him coming out of turn two. As we raced down the backstretch, I saw in my mirror that the #9 of William Byron got a big run on us. At the time, I thought he was a lap down because of an incident earlier in the race. He made a move to the inside, putting us three wide going into turn three. I was furious. I was also sideways as we went into the corner. All three of us were able to gather it up, and came across the line three wide. I dropped my window net and started waving at William down the backstretch on the cool down lap. As we got to pit road, someone told me on the radio he was a lead lap truck. I hopped out, and immediately went over to apologize. It was an aggressive move, but it was the last lap, and it was for position. It was a good pass from a good driver. I just wish I had thrown a block down the backstretch and we could’ve finished 16th.
18th place was my career best truck series finish. I don't like that. Sure, we just had a little success, but I want more. Our team isn’t satisfied with an 18th place finish. I'm not satisfied with an 18th place finish. Don’t get me wrong, we’re enjoying it. It’s the first taste of success we’ve been able to have all season. But, we’d like to get finishes like that every week. We think we’re capable of more. Staying on the lead lap during a caution clock run was a goal, and we got it. Getting a top twenty finish was a goal, and we got it – it took us a while, but we got it.
Now it’s time to set another.