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, Bootdaddy.com, 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 Bootdaddy.com, & 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.