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.
Following the race last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, rookie Parker Kligerman, driver of the No. 30 Swan Racing Toyota Camry sits down with David for an extended interview. What follows is an edited transcript their chat.
You’re a rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. I'm sure because of this your wallet is becoming a little fatter. Have there been any celebratory purchases thus far?
I’ve always been someone who has been really modest. I’ve been fortunate enough to be paid to drive race cars since I was 18. I’ve always been on one-year (contracts), so it’s one of those things that could always be gone tomorrow. Therefore, I’ve never really bought anything, outside of a car. I’ve thought about some things I might look into, but I don’t think the rookie season is the right time. The offseason after the rookie season might be the right time.
Then what’s the ideal purchase? Something like the obligatory McMansion on Lake Norman? A sick sports car? A cryogenic therapy chamber?
(Laughs) You know, a house isn’t something I’d purchase. I’m 23 and single and I’ve thought, “What’s the point of doing that?” The purchase would be a sports car. I’m huge into cars. I write for Jalopnik, which is one of the most-viewed car web sites in the world right now. I’m just a big time car guy, so collecting sports cars, especially classic sports cars, would be my hobby. Not expensive ones, but I love old Porsches, old British sports cars. I’d love to find an old Toyota GT. There’s a couple that aren’t really expensive, but after a while they’d add up. That’d be my hobby, but it’s something that would need to wait for at least a year.
You mentioned being a contributing writer for Jalopnik. You do those pieces yourself?
Yes. I write them all myself. They get checked for grammatical errors and such. They have a great group over there and they help me look smarter than I actually am. The hardest part is coming up with new ideas every two weeks or so. With how hectic our schedule can be, it kind of comes last in order of importance, because it is a side thing. But I do enjoy it.
You know – worst-case scenario – when you run out of ideas, you could just always do a Q&A.
You mean like this one?
Might be a good idea.
Let’s talk racing: It seems as if, in your climb to the Cup Series, your equipment became, let’s say “less desirable,” the higher you climbed. You had championship-worthy stuff in ARCA, good, but not necessarily great equipment in Trucks, had a brand name team (Kyle Busch Motorsports) that seemed to have a lot of struggles in Nationwide, and now you're with Swan Racing, which is a relatively new team to the sport, still finding its footing. Have you made the climb even more daunting than it should be on purpose?
I would not have done this on purpose (laughs). Back when I was at Penske, I only got a few opportunities to actually drive for Penske. My first race out (a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Kansas Speedway in 2009), I got a pole. It was another two years until I got in Penske stuff again. So it was sporadic. Those are the only races I think there are things I could have done better, that could have forwarded my career in another way. Everything else I’ve been in I felt I extracted the most from that equipment and when I left the team, it was in a better position (than when I arrived). I took opportunities along the way to move up the ranks in situations that were less than desirable because it was an opportunity to move up and eventually help get you to the Sprint Cup level.
Following the Budweiser Duel races in Daytona, you cited some caution trends in the post-race press conference and mentioned that you knew statisticians would say you were wrong. This isn't a question. I just want this on the record that I was sitting in the press box at the time and acted completely civil. Didn’t flip any tables or anything.
(Laughs) Who was I talking about?
Oh, I don't know. Could have been anybody. Do you believe in “caution trends?” As in “a caution always comes out on lap 100” kind of thing?
I don’t. What I do see is that a race is like a classroom in a school. Every classroom has a personality, right? In some, all the kids in the first few days decide they’re going to work really hard, they like the teacher and they work really well together. Then there’s classrooms where it’s just crazy and they don't like the teacher and there’s a bunch of clowns in the classroom and before you know it, it’s a comedy show. Races are like that. You can tell within the first 50 laps whether a race is going to be crazy or calm and single-file. If you see a lot of crazy moves and guys pushing the issue right off the bat, you think you're in for a race that’s going to have a lot of cautions. I know it’s not statistical, but I see that. Do I think there’s going to be a caution on lap 101 every time? No. You’ve proven that with numbers, but I do apply what personality I see early on from a race into how I attack that race.
When you were in the Truck Series, you put a tremendous emphasis on average finish, which you felt unlocked a path to title contention. What about this year in Cup with this Chase format? Is there any number or metric to which you'll be paying close attention?
For sure. For Swan Racing, we have to base ourselves off the old points system. Are we saying we need to go into this season and a win a race? No. It would be a large achievement to do that. We have a points position that serves as a big jump for our organization and its partners and puts us in a higher echelon of teams, somewhere around 16th- to 25th-place, somewhere I feel is one of the tightest spots in the Sprint Cup Series. All those teams are similarly funded and have the same number of employees. Some might get help from bigger teams. Our team finished 33rd in owner points last year. Our goal is to be in the top 25 (in 2014). So we look at the average finish that got teams into the top 25 in points last year and weigh the fact that this year we’ll see the same 40 teams run each race and figure that a 23rd-place average would put us somewhere between 22nd and 24th in points. We aim to be in the top 25. We know the goals and what it takes to get those goals and that’s what we stick to.
Do you feel that you’re the most underrated rookie in this year's crop?
I thought last year I had the best debut. A lot of (the drivers in this year’s crop) made their Cup debut last year. I think some noticed that — those educated about our industry noticed that. I hope most people can understand that I haven’t always been in the best situations and still been able to get really good results out of them. To say “underrated” … no. I think a lot of people just make their own assumptions and might not really know what to think. That’s a long answer. Is that all right?
I’d say that’s a reasonable answer.
Photos by Swan Racing