Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers, and more.
Prior to his 21st-place finish at Pocono Raceway, rookie Cole Whitt, driver of the No. 26 BK Racing Toyota Camry, sat down with David for an exclusive, extended interview. What follows is an edited transcript of their chat.
David Smith: You’re 20 or so races into your first full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. What one aspect of the sport do you feel you’ve improved upon from the opening race to now?
Cole Whitt: The biggest thing I’ve improved upon is just putting a race together. There were times at the beginning of the year where I had really good speed at certain tracks, but would make a mistake or end up crashing myself in times where I shouldn’t have. Now, further into the season, I’ve gotten better at putting a full race together, being smart when I need to and being aggressive when I need to and telling the difference between the two. I’m just doing what needs to be done to have a good day.
At what point did you identify the need to pick your battles?
Probably around the time of the Darlington race. There was a stretch of six or eight races where we probably crashed in half of them. After races, I’d start looking at the guy I was racing hard against and look at our position in the finishing order and realize if I had just let that one car go, I would’ve given up just one spot and finished 19th or 20th, which is really good for us, but instead I was trying to hold up that one car, and I’d end up crashing myself out of the race or finishing 38th or 40th. Seeing that every week made me realize that sometimes one spot isn't that big of a deal and it’s a spot that I could probably get back based on strategy.
The relationship between a driver and a crew chief is crucial to communication, which ultimately dictates success. You’re fortunate enough to go through your rookie season with Randy Cox, a guy who’s been in your corner since your time at Red Bull Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, as your crew chief. In your mind, what makes Randy a keeper?
The relationship goes beyond racing. We both respect each other and I know he’s going to give everything to make a car good. I think he believes, truthfully, that if he gives me as good of a car as everyone else has, I’ll out-drive them all. Having that confidence in each other is huge. We’re friends regardless of racing. I’m going racing with one of my buddies. It’s not a business to us. It’s a life style that takes us away from our families and having each other for aspects of our personal lives makes it easier.
Let’s talk a little bit about your development as a driver. You came up through the open-wheel ranks, first as a Kart racer, then in Sprint Cars and Midgets. You won the 2008 USAC National Midget championship driving for legendary USAC team owner Keith Kunz. You were good before you linked up with Keith, but it seems as if you grew as a driver while running for him. How much were you able to learn from him?
I learned a lot. He made it really easy on me for my USAC racing, to the point that I learned enough to branch off on my own and race locally (in Indiana). It allowed me to get a lot of seat time and try a lot of things we talked about. When someone tells you something and you’re able to put it to work that weekend and it proves successful, that builds a lot of trust in that person. I feel as if we made each other better – we won a lot of races the next year, too – which is kind of cool.
You’re not the only driver to race for Keith and emerge as a star. What is it about Keith or that team that makes everyone better? You talked about pushing one another to be better. Does he do that with other young drivers?
Yeah, I think Keith does that all the time. I know he’s winning a lot of races still and is helping progress drivers. There will be drivers coming out of his camp that might replace me one day or race against me. There’s never a shortage of talent coming up through the ranks, and Keith is one of those guys who never settles. His cars get better each year and he’s gotten hold of the right drivers. And he’s earned that by being one of the best guys around with all of his good relationships in USAC. Bryan Clauson came through, I came through and Darren Hagen came through. He had (Kyle) Larson and has Rico (Abreu) and (Christopher) Bell right now. He’s always had the right talent coming to him. There’s no reason it shouldn’t. He teaches everyone. He and Pete (Willoughby, the team’s co-owner) are good guys and they really coach up their drivers and prepare them well mentally instead of just giving them seat time.
You averaged a 14th-place finish for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2012. At the end of the season, you and the team parted ways. You landed at Mark Smith’s Tri-Star Motorsports shop in 2013 initially as a shop hand, correct?
Oh yeah (laughs).
You worked your way into 15 races with the Tri-Star team and, despite the vast resource discrepancy between JRM and Tri-Star, still managed to average a finish within two spots of what you earned in the prior season (14.0 to 15.7). Have you reflected on what you were able to do last year? It seems like some serious overachieving took place.
Yes. It definitely got me to where I am right now. I wouldn’t have a Cup ride without that season. If Mark hadn’t given me an opportunity to drive, my career probably would have ended right there because I certainly didn’t have anything. I went into that season looking for work and talked with him about driving for him, but at the time we didn’t know how that would happen. So I started working for him in the shop. I was there every day. Things progressed and one of their drivers wasn’t working out. Randy was over there with me and we were trying to make that program the best we could in case an opportunity for us came up. I will say Mark gave us a great opportunity that would be hard for him to repeat. He definitely stretched himself thinner than he needed to, going above and beyond to help us out. There were times we picked up a few small sponsorships to make sure we got our full allotment of tires. Running a limited schedule was actually kind of nice for us because we didn’t stretch ourselves thin. It provided an opportunity to set aside a car, or Randy and I would build one from the ground up and take our time putting the best car we possibly could on the racetrack. I think we had decent equipment, which helped take some people by surprise, but at the same time it was a lot of hard work.
Do you feel your time at Tri-Star prepared you for this season, first at Swan Racing and now at BK, driving for a team that, to put it politely, is still finding its competitive footing?
Absolutely. I learned at Tri-Star about putting a team together and getting a team to believe in itself. When a team sits where they are for so long, it’s easy to get stagnant. Showing them you can run well, when you have that opportunity, is a chance to see how they react and change. We did that a little bit at Tri-Star and are trying to do that at BK. Stacy Compton’s Truck team also prepared me for this situation. People forget about that – that was a big learning curve for me, being thrown into the Truck Series early in my career without having a whole lot of resources. There was a time where we led the standings and we were in the top 10 in points all year. That’s probably where this niche started. It means a lot to see a team grateful for overachieving in their equipment, doing something they didn’t think was possible.
So you would recommend that every young driver should link up with an underfunded team at some point?
I don’t know. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s career either, because it can be hard (laughs). I haven’t had the easiest route, but it’s made me who I am and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Last question for you: Barring a victory in the next five or six races, you’re going to miss out on the Chase. At that point, what becomes your goal for the final 10 races?
Nothing changes for us. We’re going to try to get every position possible and bring the best car to every race. It might sound like a simple answer, but I just want us to get everything we possibly can out of a weekend. For example, at Indy we expected to go there and be better than we were, but considering how off we were in practice and how close we got by the end of the weekend, it was a huge improvement. So trying to eliminate why we were so far off from the beginning is a goal. Running in the top 25 consistently is the next goal. We’re just trying to be a little bit better.
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Photo by Action Sports, Inc.