Categories
Editorial

Almirola Dons New Fire Suit and Earns His Wings

@Aric_Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Smithfield Foods Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, had the experience of a lifetime, donning the jump suit worn by the elite Thunderbirds and going up for the ride of his life in an F-16 fighter jet.

“I’ve been begging to do this for the last four years,” Almirola said. “And it finally worked out that they were in the same place that I was. Scheduling all worked out and I was finally able to get that ride here at Daytona.”

“It’s something that is an opportunity of a lifetime. From the very beginning of being at Richard Petty Motorsports and having involvement with the US Air Force, I’ve wanted to fly with the Thunderbirds. It was really special to get this opportunity.”

Almirola was also thrilled to don his new US Air Force Thunderbird uniform, particularly as he has such close ties to the military through his family as well.

“Obviously, the US Air Force is the best Air Force in the world,” Almirola said. “To be able to fly in an F-16 fighter jet and do all the maneuvers that we did today was spectacular. The pilot Scott took me to the limit and showed me everything these planes are capable of. We did all kinds of aerobatics and what not. It was amazing and makes me appreciate the fact that there are men and women like this up in the air fighting for our freedom.”

In order to take the flight, Almirola had to rise and shine early, as well as go through multiple briefings before even hopping aboard the two-man aircraft.

“I was up at 6:30 am and here at the airport at 7:00 am,” Almirola said. “There was a technical briefing on the airplane, a medical briefing and evaluation, and then a briefing on an emergency evacuation just in case situation. They taught me how to fly a parachute this morning and how to pull the eject button and all the things I needed to be prepared for just in case.”

“That’s the one thing that I’ve learned being a part of the US Air Force over the last four years is their attention to detail. It is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. They check everything off twice and really are prepared for any situation, good or bad.”

Just as he usually describes a good race run, Almirola relished in sharing the details of his adventure with the Air Force flying elite.

“First of all, we took off at a rapid climb,” Almirola said. “We went from just barely hovering off the runway a hundred feet off the ground up to 12,000 feet in about two seconds. So, to watch the world get that small that fast was pretty amazing. Then, we flew over some restricted air space over Cape Canaveral and we were flying right over the shuttle launch pad which was pretty spectacular. We were doing all kinds of maneuvers, barrel rolls, and loops, flying upside down, and knife edging through the clouds.”

“You name it and we did it. It was a lot of fun.”

“One of the tricks that my pilot did, we were flying at 4,000 feet in the air and we flew right over the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA and right as we approached the building, he turned the plane and we went straight up in the air to about 15,000 feet. Then he started spinning the airplane in a circle while we were still going straight up, all the way until about 18,000 feet. That was unbelievable.”

“I was glad that he showed me that trick. He said that a lot of people don’t get to experience that but because I hadn’t thrown up or passed out yet, he was willing to show me.”

Almirola noted that the Air Force was indeed prepared in the event that his stomach got the best of him.

“They had two puke bags at my legs just in case I did get sick,” Almirola said. “But fortunately, I didn’t need them. I didn’t have a big breakfast and my pilot Scott was a hell of a pilot and was so smooth that I didn’t get sick.”

While Almirola loves his No. 43 race car, he had difficulty relating any similarities between his car and the F-16 fighter jet.

“There really was nothing similar at all between the race car and the plane,” Almirola said. “The plane is so much more maneuverable and so much more of an amazing piece of machinery. The race cars are amazing too but for our cars most of the technology at the core is from the 1960’s. These planes are just amazing and the things that they can do in the air is unbelievable.”

“I’m probably a little jaded about how special our cars are because I get to experience them day in and day out. But this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to fly in this F-16.”

So, what will Almirola think when he sees the Thunderbirds flyover during pre-race festivities prior to one of NASCAR’S biggest races, the Daytona 500?

“That is something I was actually thinking about as we were coming in to land,” Almirola said. “It will be really special on Sunday for the Daytona 500 to watch the Thunderbird fly over. And to know that just a few days ago I was sitting in the back seat of one of those, I’ll feel like I have a little bit more of a connection than the other 100,000 people at the race track getting ready to watch the Daytona 500.”

“I’ll definitely feel a little more connected for sure.”

“And even more important, it certainly is an honor to represent the US Air Force and I have that much more of an appreciation for them now than I ever did.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
Trucks

Matt Tifft Is Bringing His Shark Tank Mentality to NASCAR

While @Matt_Tifft is getting an opportunity to join Kyle Busch Motorsports for six Truck Series races this year, sharing the No. 51 ride with @dnlsuarez and @KyleBusch, the eighteen year old ‘Shark Tank’ fan is also bringing his own unique business sense to the NASCAR dance.

“We really don’t have a racing family, we have more of a business family,” Tifft said. “My mom went to the Peace Corps in Africa when she was in her early twenties and she only made it nine months because she got malaria three times. She came back and then she wanted to help find a cure. So, she formed her own company and now they do clinical research for the Ebola outbreak. They do a lot of work to find medical vaccines.”

“What is unique is that my parents started their business in what became my bedroom in the house,” Tifft continued. “I watched them grow their business from those two to having government contracts to look for the Ebola vaccine.”

“I’ve seen from Shark Tank people that didn’t take a salary for three or four years just trying to make it starting their own company. I’ve always had that business sense, which is unusual because most of the drivers have an engineering background like Ryan Newman.”

“I like that business stuff and I think I got that business mind from my mom,” Tifft said. “I find different brands and businesses interesting. I’m really into sponsorship negotiations and talks and the business aspect of the sport.”

“There are so many different business models and different departments. Racing is anything from automotive parts to fast food to Game Stop or whatever. So, there are all these different platforms and business strategies that want to be in NASCAR. That’s kind of cool for somebody like me because I understand what their business wants to do. And then when you find that one guy in the company that wants to go racing, that is really cool to connect with them.”

While Tifft is readying to take care of business behind the wheel of the KBM No. 51 Toyota truck, with his first race at Gateway, he is also trying to take care of business including potential sponsorship for his six race run.

“We talked a little bit to a few teams last year,” Tifft said. “We wanted to do a part-time Truck schedule and were trying to find what made sense. I got in contact with KBM and we met and went to the race shop. I made my first Truck start in Martinsville and I finished top-ten. So, we got the green light to go ahead and negotiate for the 2015 season.”

“We’re working on sponsorship right now. Federated Auto Parts has been supportive last year so we are trying to work some stuff out with them. Sponsorship is what we are always trying to do and hopefully, with the name of Kyle Busch Motorsports, we can attract some more interest and funding.”

“The outlook for this year is to do six to eight Truck races. We’re in negotiations right now to do about eight ARCA races, nothing certain yet, but we are hoping to do that with Ken Schrader racing again. I’ll be doing some Modified and asphalt super late models too.”

While Tifft is busy with racing, he is also honing his Shark Tank-like business acumen in school.

“I’m going to UNC Charlotte full-time too in their business school. It’s interesting because I’m a full-time student but I only go to class Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. That way I have Thursday through Sunday for racing purposes.”

“Honestly I’ve been used to it since seventh grade. I went to public school so I’ve been racing and going to school. I think in high school, I missed 150 days over the course of four years. My school was really helpful in dealing with that and I still got really good grades.”

“For me, I’m more focused when I have school and racing going on at the same time because I know I have to get it done. On the plane rides back from the race track, I know that I have to get my homework done.”

While Tifft is bringing his Shark Tank mentality to the track, he is also bringing his passion for the sport along with him as well. And he is learning at the feet of some of the best, including his racing idol @JeffGordonWeb and his racing mentor @KenSchrader.

“Schrader’s been really helpful. He helped with the connections and getting the negotiations started with KBM. He has been a huge part of that. There are so many people that have helped me along the way and the cool thing is that I still have relationships with all those people.”

“There are three people that got me into racing, my dad, Jeff Gordon and the guy my dad raced for. Growing up, every Sunday I would be sitting on the couch watching Jeff Gordon try to win.”

“So, to see him leave the sport after this season is definitely strange. But at the same time, it’s probably good for young drivers like me because there is that changing of the guard.”

With the confidence of youth that even Shark Tank’s ‘Mr. Wonderful’ would applaud, Tifft cannot wait to get into the seat, buckle up and go racing.

“The biggest thing that I have going is obviously being with the most dominant team in the Truck Series. They proved that last year with all their wins. So, just to be a part of that team and trying to prove myself in the Trucks Series with top-notch equipment will be exciting.”

“I can definitely see myself succeeding and it’s the best feeling in the world.”

“My outlook for the season is really optimistic and I’m absolutely confident that this part-time schedule will allow me to showcase my abilities as I work towards securing a full-time opportunity in 2016.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
Editorial

Wood Brothers May Be Next Big YouTube Sensation

While Wood Brothers Racing has quite the history in NASCAR, in fact celebrating their 65th anniversary in the sport, their race team and sponsors Motorcraft/QuickLane may just be the newest YouTube sensation.

Their first installment, entitled ‘Crew Chief Corner’ has just been released on YouTube. There have been other YouTube segments as well, including one showing the Wood Brothers’ new driver @Blaney visiting the team’s museum and the ‘Motorcraft Minute,’ a monthly video which features discussions about Motorcraft parts and how they relate to the race car.

The initial ‘Crew Chief Corner’ video featured the Wood Brothers Racing’s first crew chief, Hall of Famer Leonard Wood, and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion’s current crew chief Jeremy Bullins. In the video, Wood and Bullins talked about various racing issues and compared what it was like in the early days of the sport and what it’s like today.

“One of the things that really intrigued us most was that Leonard Wood and Jeremy Bullins are both car guys,” Travis Hunt, manager Motorsports Marketing, Ford Customer Service Division, said. “At Motorcraft and Quick Lane, we are certainly car people as well. So, what we do in the office is sit around and talk about how to make cars better.”

“It’s certainly no stretch to have one former and one current crew chief sitting around talking about cars,” Hunt continued. “Leonard Wood is known for his ingenuity and is a Hall of Famer. His nickname in the racing world was ‘Tinkerer’. That’s what car people do. We like to tell that story and associate it with our brands.”

“One of the cool things is that we are talking about one of the first crew chiefs for the Wood Brothers when they started 65 seasons ago this year and now the current one,” Kevin Kennedy, executive vice president, Campbell Marketing & Communications, said. “You’re talking about two generations of how that role has changed over the years. It’s a cool perspective.”

“Leonard is around the shop a lot still and he is a guy who can give you a great historical perspective. But he can really share how that role has changed, especially for Jeremy Bullins, who is the latest guy in that role.”

While race team owners and crew chiefs are naturals around the cars and at the track, they usually are not quite as comfortable behind the lens of a video camera. But after the initial nervousness has subsided in this case, some amazing moments unfolded in the process.

“In the video of Ryan Blaney going to Stuart, VA to understand the history and where he fits in this legendary line up of drivers, it was planned in advance and we had a strategy going in,” Tim Keenan, senior account executive, Campbell Marketing & Communications, said. “But at the end of the day, we got better magic than what we expected.”

“Jeremy Bullins idolizes Leonard Wood. So, you have magic there because he has that admiration for what the Wood Brothers did all these years.”

“We gave Jeremy a list of topics, like the role of the crew chief and tricks of the trade, but the topic was all that was needed,” Kennedy said. “Jeremy was smart enough and knows enough about the history of the sport and just started asking Leonard questions and the conversation just rolled along.”

“And to add to that, Leonard has forgotten nothing. He remembers every details of every race that he has ever run, and what he did to the car. It’s crazy, but it is a wonderful resource to have.”

“What is interesting to me is that we do some basic scripting of concepts when we do these videos,” Hunt said. “But when you take Leonard Wood and Jeremy Bullins and put them next to each other, it just becomes two guys talking about a sport that they love.”

“Then you start to really feel their passion and that makes for some really good content that race fans are going to enjoy. It’s great to hear that conversation and to have those perspectives.”

The team chose social media, and YouTube in particular, for this venture not only because of the growing popularity overall, but more specifically because of the way the NASCAR community has embraced it.

“We see that social media is a great way to reach out to that fan base,” Hunt said. “Certainly the NASCAR community has embraced the sport via social media and we want to be a part of that.”

“We also believe that given our long-standing history with the Wood Brothers as the primary sponsor, we can use this medium to take consumers of our products and make them fans of the Wood Brothers and Ryan Blaney as well.”

“It’s mutually beneficial for both of us. We will share this with the race fans through YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, but we will also share this internally with our own customers to try to build that fan base for us all.”

“The great thing is that the NASCAR fan base, media, sponsors have all embraced social media so well,” Kennedy said. “So, it made complete sense to use any of those outlets to help promote this concept. We know the NASCAR fan base is looking for content in social media now. By helping put together video productions like this, we know that this is where they are getting their content.”

“We want to be part of that viral buzz.”

The YouTube videos have also allowed for the marriage of this historic race team with their up and coming new driver, as well focusing on the family theme, from the Wood Brothers family to the Blaney family to the Ford family.

“With this ‘old school’ race team and this ‘new school’ driver, it’s a great combination,” Keenan said. “The Wood Brothers have a large, loyal fan base already and Ryan Blaney will bring a whole new set of fans to the Wood Brothers, Motorcraft and Quick Lane.”

“Also, there are a lot of families involved in this effort, from the Wood Brothers to Ryan Blaney and his father Dave, to the Ford family. You have a whole variety of generations that will catapult this going forward.”

“That family connection really is big,” Hunt said. “Ford Motor Company is a family company and the Wood Brothers have been very loyal to the Ford family, racing nothing but Fords for 65 years. And now you have an up and coming driver who also has a family history in racing. It really does make for a great story for everyone involved and we look forward to capitalizing on that.”

“We are passing on the torch from generation to generation and we look to highlight that connection as well on YouTube.”

For everyone involved, from Tim Keenan, who originated the concept, to the Wood Brothers themselves who have fully embraced this new medium, the project has truly been filled with excitement.

“The Wood Brothers are thrilled about doing it. I want to give them great credit for being open and spending the proper time to get this down,” Keenan said. “As someone who had this idea, from a germ to the end, this is some of the most fun you can have.”

“And I hope that shows in the end product because that makes it even better for the viewer.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

RPM Move Labor of Love for northAmerican Van Lines

(EXCLUSIVE) Anyone that has ever moved understands the enormity of packing their entire lives and belongings up, as well as unpacking in the new location. So, imagine moving an entire race shop right in the midst of preparing for the sport’s biggest race the Daytona 500, now just weeks away.

Well, that is exactly what Richard Petty Motorsports did with the assistance of their new partner northAmerican Van Lines. And for the moving company, it was not only a first but also a labor of love.

“It was very interesting to move a whole race shop,” Brian Brooks, President of E.E. Ward, which is the licensed northAmerican Van Lines agent appointed to move RPM, told POPULAR SPEED. “We had moved a Porsche performance race team this year during the summer and we did some other warehouse moves this year, but nothing to the extent of what Richard Petty required.

“It was very much a one-of-a-kind experience. We were being entrusted with millions of dollars of product and parts that make cars go really fast in NASCAR. We saw that as an honor and such a great opportunity to handle the heart and soul of their business and everything that happens inside that garage.”

“There was definitely some specialty equipment involved,” Brooks continued. “There was a special kind of crate to hold the mufflers and axles. Those are not things we use every day and we had to rent 180 of those from Atlanta.”

“So, we had to acquire some other equipment to make the move happen. We partnered and brought in a local service provider by the name of Bobby Bolton Machinery and they moved heavy specialty equipment on a flatbed trailer. We also brought in Commercial Works to help with the light machinery we had to move.”

“We created a relocation plan and executed it with partners, as well as our own over-the-road crews that handle household and office moves,” Brooks said. “They were onsite with lots of trailers, roughly about 12 trailers going back and forth constantly between the two locations. We had roughly 15 men per day onsite. All combined, we had 25 men on site for four or five of the heavy impact days, January 2nd through 5th.”

Just how did this relationship between Richard Petty Motorsports and northAmerican Van Lines come about in the first place?

“In the summer of 2014, we performed a move for Mike Evranian, Director of Sales for Richard Petty Motorsports, and we relocated him for his new position,” Brooks said. “Mike was extremely happy with the move and we kept in touch. Mike reached back out and told us about moving their entire facility. I flew down to Charlotte and we met with their race leadership and discussed their needs. At the beginning, they were going to do the move on their own but they realized that might not be the best way to go. So, after several conversations, we put together a package that would work and helped them relocate.”

“We did a walk through and then one of my partners did a couple more walkthroughs and then we came up with a plan. A lot of pre-planning and getting the proper equipment, getting trailers onsite and staged all had to occur. This was a facility that could not stop working but there were things that they didn’t need right at that moment. This was the time that this had to happen because once they are into the season, it’s about racing and you cannot have a break in the operation.”

While northAmerican Van Lines worked their magic on the moving side of the equation, the staff at Richard Petty Motorsports also had to get into high gear with their own preparations. In fact, Philippe Lopez, Operations Manager for RPM, prepared for the move in a most unique way.

“I went to church,” Lopez said. “I was dreading it to tell the truth. When I knew we were getting closer and started talking about the building we were going to, I was dreading it at first. I knew everything we had. Moving the cars is easy but if you walk through the race shop and see all the cabinets and all the tools and everything that’s involved, we have a lot of stuff.”

“When Sammy Johns (Director of Competition for Richard Petty Motorsports) told me the people from northAmerican Van Lines were going to help us, I started feeling relieved,” Lopez continued. “They had a point man Brian Brooks and every time we met, I started feeling better and better. Even though he would tell us just how large a job this was, he was able to give us their system on how to number and pack crates and how to keep inventory.”

“I can’t tell you how smooth it went. It was really incredible. We ended up with 25 tractor trailer loads. They started unloading on January 2nd and by the 5th, three and half days later, all 25 tractor trailers were unloaded.”

“Yes, we still had to put everything up, but their system and the way they helped us prepare, the move went incredibly quick. It was incredible.”

The partnership between the RPM staff and the movers at northAmerican Van Lines and E.E. Ward helped the race team achieve one of their dreams, to move back ‘home’ and to become more independent.

“Really for the last three years or so, Richard Petty Motorsports has relied really heavily on Roush to do all aspects of the car, the bodies, the engineering, everything,” Lopez said. “The upper management, Richard Petty, Sammy Johns, Brian Moffitt, they know it’s time to grow now. It’s time to expand a little bit.”

“So, we wanted to take on the paint and body and finish fabrication and where we were at, there was no way we could do that. It was too confined of a space. The new space is ironically the old house of Petty. So, we are just coming right back to where we were not too long ago.”

“This move will give RPM the ability to get on our own two feet,” Lopez said. “We appreciate everything Roush does for us and we’re all in the Ford family. But it’s time we start developing our own identity and are able to do things the RPM way.”

“The big thing for us is to stand on our own two feet,” Lopez continued. “We are still going to rely on Roush for our chassis and for a lot of engineering help but when it comes to bodies, we’re going to have a little bit more freedom to customize our cars to our drivers. That’s where I feel like we may have been a little soft in the past. Now we can tailor things to our drivers @aric_almirola and @SamHornish and I’m sure you will see the results of that.”

The moving partnership has also led to an exciting new relationship, with Richard Petty Motorsports naming northAmerican Van Lines the “Official Moving Partner for Richard Petty Motorsports” for the 2015 and 2016 race seasons.

“We’re very much honored that Richard Petty Motorsports selected us,” Laura McKay, Marketing Manager for northAmerican, said. “We’re proud of all of our agents, particularly E.E. Ward, that led to this partnership.”

“We are proud to partner with an organization that has similar values to us,” McKay continued. “We’re looking forward to partner with the race team and to potentially utilize the partnership to benefit some of our charities like Habitat for Humanity and Habitat Restores. We’re also involved with the Gary Sinise Foundation as the official mover. We help move severely disabled veterans into homes. I know that Richard Petty is very involved with helping veterans so supporting those types of organizations is something that we look forward to doing.”

Although northAmerican Van Lines has a long history of moving, in fact they are one of the oldest companies having been founded in 1933, their staff was definitely in awe of the undertaking to move Richard Petty Motorsports. And they did have a few moments where the enormity of their task and partnership really struck them.

“There were a couple of ‘wow’ moments,” Brooks said. “The first was probably when I met with the RPM leadership team and did a tour of the facility, seeing the magnitude of what was taking place. There was still one race left in the season at the time and it was full action. Seeing all that was occurring in the work area with the crews and getting the cars ready was definitely a ‘wow’ moment recognizing what it took to put these race cars on the track.”

“The second ‘wow’ moment was when I informed my driver Jason Carpenter who I had selected for the job. I mentioned this to him and he said “You are about to see a grown man cry. I’m shaking because this would be the greatest honor that I could ever have as a mover.”

“Then he told me a story about when his grandfather took him to see Richard Petty when he was a little boy,” Brooks continued. “He told me that he would do whatever I needed to make the move possible. Jason is in the top percentile of our drivers and is a top performer. With his reaction, that was another ‘wow’ moment.”

“We didn’t realize how much this would mean to our guys who were out there moving every day. As they passed these race haulers and see them go down the road and see the 43 trailer, that let me know that this was something great, something good and something that we could give back to our own fleet drivers.”

“Even though this is moving items we don’t move on a daily basis, we know that Richard Petty Motorsports entrusted us with their whole world and all their belongings.”

“That is why this was such an honor.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Offseason Full of Action for NASCAR’s Biggest Stars

While the headlines have been filled with how @KurtBusch is spending his offseason in court, many other NASCAR drivers are having other, more positive experiences in their time off from the sport.

NASCAR’s most popular driver @DaleJr. spent a bit of his off-season in the college bowl world, participating in the coin toss at the TaxSlayer Bowl. Thanks to Junior, Tennessee, who had not won a bowl game in six years, won the toss and elected to receive the opening kick. The Volunteers went on to crush the Iowa Hawkeyes in a score of 45 to 28.

In addition to some football, Junior did some business over the off-season as well, launching a brand new Truck team for JR Motorsports with up and coming driver @ColeCuster00. He also tweeted about another business opportunity he is trying to nurture, bringing Wrangler Jeans sunglasses, of all shades and hues, to market.

“Trying to get these @WranglerJeans @spyoptic into production. Wild scheme. Sign me up for a pair,” Junior tweeted.

Other drivers, like @JoeyLogano and @KyleLarsonRacin, experienced major life events over their off-seasons. Logano married Brittany Baca in Asheville, North Carolina at the Biltmore estate. The Team Penske driver and his new wife also celebrated their nuptials with a unique cake shaped as a Goodyear tire.

Larson, after finishing up 2014 as the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, went straight to parenthood in his off-season. He and his girlfriend Katelyn Sweet welcomed their son Owen, weighing in at 7 pounds, 14 ounces and measuring 19 and a half inches long.

And of course, Larson is working hard in the off-season, continuing his tradition of racing whatever and wherever he can, most recently in the Chili Bowl Nationals.

Four-time Cup champion @JeffGordonWeb did some racing of his own over the off-season. In fact, he won his first and probably only trike race against a fan as part of the entertainment at the Washington Wizards vs. the San Antonio Spurs game.

Gordon also will be reuniting this off-season with his former crew chief Ray Evernham to auction off the No. 24 Pepsi-sponsored Chevrolet Monte Carlo, their last race winning car together, at Barrett-Jackson. All proceeds from the auction will go to Gordon’s Foundation.

“That car was so memorable,” Gordon said. “And to think that was our final race win together.”

Drivers @TonyStewart and @ClintBowyer have been doing their best off-season ‘Into the Woods’ imitation, tweeting pictures of their hunting adventures. Bowyer also sponsored his sixth annual Youth Deer Management Hunt, teaching 20 youth about how to be safe in their first deer harvest.

In addition to the hunt, Smoke has also been in his element working as part of the track prep crew for the 2015 Chili Bowl Midget, just as he has so often done at his beloved Eldora Speedway.

Some NASCAR drivers vacated their cars during the off-season and took to their feet instead. @JimmieJohnson, @Josh_Wise and @LandonCassill participated in the HITS Triathlon Series in Naples, Florida during their off-season. The six-time champ finished 15th well behind Wise, who finished sixth, and Cassill, who finished ninth, due to his getting lost and going off the course.

“That was a LONG and lonely 72.3. Yes 72.3, I’m the guy that missed a turn and added a few miles. A huge thanks to my family for all the support, nothing like seeing them at the end,” Johnson tweeted after his racing adventure.

@KyleBusch did his own preseason testing during the off-season, taking a baby stroller for a few quick laps in anticipation of his future fatherhood. He did so while also sporting a belly pack with a baby doll in tow, readying himself for his long-awaited and anticipated heir.

While Busch anticipated impending fatherhood, reigning NASCAR champ @KevinHarvick has been spending practically every waking moment of his off season parenting his young son Keelan. Off-season bonding has included Monster Jamming, finger painting and sharing an indoor picnic with Jimmy Johns eats on a rainy day.

NASCAR’s power couple @DanicaPatrick and Ricky @StenhouseJr. have been focusing on the dollars, with Patrick welcoming a new sponsor and Stenhouse Jr. raising dollars for charity. After participating in the GoDaddy Bowl, Patrick got busy with new sponsor TaxAct, while Stenhouse participated in the Racers for Autism and the Chili Bowl Kick It fundraising events, all for good kids’ causes.

After making the Chase, @Aric_Almirola spent a bit of his off-season attending the Univision Deportes Awards, where he was nominated for the Best Car Racing Performance Award. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver was nominated for his achievement as the first Cuban American driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race after he scored the Coke Zero 400 win at Daytona.

“It’s an honor to be recognized not only for my Hispanic heritage but for my performance in NASCAR,” said Almirola. “With everything my family gave up to come to America and have a better life, I am so proud to be successful here and for my abuelos to know that their sacrifice led to me living my dream of being a successful racecar driver. This was definitely the best year of my racing career, so it’s really humbling to have that acknowledged by Univision Deportes.”

Hendrick Motorsports driver @KaseyKahne had a very unique off-season experience, flying in a crop duster plane. After the experience, Kahne tweeted “Crop dusting the produce fields in Yuma, AZ. 5 to 10 ft. off the ground at 100 mph was pretty rad.”

@SamHornish, who is back in Cup competition, had an off-season challenge, building a model hippie van out of 1,334 pieces, which was a Christmas gift from the family. Jamie McMurray, on the other hand, had a more sedentary off-season parked in front of the television getting caught up on Renovation Reality on the DIY network.

@DavidGilliland, however, had one of the longest off-seasons, traveling across country, ala Clark Griswold, with the family. Gilliland also re-upped at Front Row Motorsports, as well as extending his sponsor relationship with Love’s Travel Stops.

And finally, @AJdinger is re-creating his Rolex 24 experience in the NASCAR off-season. He is again wheeling the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing LIGIER JS P2 powered by Honda.

“For me it’s been good,” Dinger said. “I’ve always thought the cars just looked beautiful. Anybody that you’ve ever talked to that sits in one of these types of cars, they rave about how fun it is to drive.”

While the drivers, with the most likely exception of Kurt Busch, are enjoying their off-season activities, all are preparing for the first race of the 2015 season, the Daytona 500. The Great American Race will kick off on Sunday, February 22nd.

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
Editorial

NASCAR’s Perfect Digital Storm

(EXCLUSIVE ) In a sport where the growth of technology has exploded on track and in the garage, there has also been a perfect storm occurring for NASCAR from a digital perspective. In fact, NASCAR recently achieved the milestone of one billion total page views across its digital platform this past race season.

“It all started with NASCAR making a decision to bring those digital rights back in-house,” Colin Smith, vice president of NASCAR Digital Media, told POPULAR SPEED. “Our partners in that space before were very savvy but their priorities were just a little bit different than ours. We felt that it was too important of an initiative and too important of a communication issue for us to not have complete control over.

“So, when you bring the rights back in-house it just allows you the freedom and flexibility to reinvest back into that platform and do things on an optimization level that maybe another partner has not been able to do for you.”

After achieving the full rights, NASCAR launched their digital presence on January 3, 2013, right in the midst of gearing up for the Daytona 500 and the full year of racing.

“It took us awhile to really get our sea legs and really understand all the capabilities of the platform,” Smith said. “And then we needed an entire year to go through the process to see our strengths and weaknesses, what we were doing well and what needed work.

“So, in the offseason of 2013, we began prepping for 2014. We really saw in the analytics we had that the changes were paying off. And that led to a better user experience which led to more engagement which led to more page views, not only on our dot com platform but also our mobile platform as well.”

After learning lessons from 2013, the perfect digital storm continued with the excitement generated not only by the racing in 2014 but also the brand new Chase format itself.

“With @DaleJr winning the Daytona 500 and a new Chase format, all of those things played into the excitement that the fans had,” Smith said. “And they went to the digital platform to consume as much information as they could on what was happening on track. It was really a perfect storm of things happening on track and insights from prior years that all came together really, really well in 2014.”

From fans to the sanctioning body itself, no one quite knew what to expect with the new way a NASCAR champion would be determined. While this created some challenging moments across the entire company, the perfect storm continued digitally as NASCAR introduced several new initiatives in which fans could participate in a very different way.

“It was year one for us so we really didn’t know what to expect,” Smith said. “Not only was it year one for us from a digital perspective, but it was year one for everybody across the entire company as we completely restructured how the champion was crowned.

“So, we created our own Chase platform from a digital perspective which all came together to create this digital Chase experience.”

“The flagships were these Chase grid games, the Perfect Grid Challenge and the Chase Grid Battle,” Smith continued. “They did very well for us and we saw new registered users coming to play the games. The biggest lesson that we learned, though, is technically the Chase actually begins with the Daytona 500 because if you win, you are in the Chase. We learned that if we actually talked about the Chase even before it started, fans were really engaged with that content.

“So, in 2015 we are going to start a lot earlier in talking up the Chase, as well as talking about drivers’ strategies and what they might do because it was new for them as well.”

The NASCAR Digital Logo (Photo Courtesy of NASCAR)
The NASCAR Digital Logo (Photo Courtesy of NASCAR)

Managing this perfect digital storm takes a full complement of talented staff, from those that engage fans socially to those that handle the digital development and live race day experiences.

“We have a staff of about 75 folks that are dedicated solely to digital,” Smith said. “If you include our social team in that, it’s probably another ten or so folks on top of that. We have a few people that we picked up that were already here at NASCAR. We picked up a handful of people working in the industry in various capacities but we also were fortunate to get a lot of people that had different digital experiences, from sports, retail or entertainment. Everyone brought their expertise and experience into the mix.”

“The team is really split up with half on the front end and half on the back end,” Smith continued. “Our front end is our ad services group, our products team, the social team, the mobile team, and the digital marketing team. And on the back end we have our infrastructure team and our site team and our live race day operations team. We have a handful of developers as well and use a handful of really strong third-party development groups to help us recreate our mobile application live race day experience.

“It’s a lot of people working full-time making sure that digital platform stays stable and healthy.”

Not only has this past year been a perfect digital storm, but NASCAR expects that this will be the way that future generations of fans will interact and consume stock car racing.

“There is no question that this is the future of engaging race fans,” Smith said. “We have heard from a lot of folks out of NASCAR that their kids enjoy interacting with the sport through things like our RaceView mobile app. They rarely watch a race without having that mobile application up and running side by side and clicking around to find out all the information we provide on the individual drivers.

“There is no question that the next gen fan and that more diverse next gen fan will be reached through these digital components.”

For the upcoming year, NASCAR is working digitally with several partners on two other initiatives that will continue to engage fans through technology, including fantasy products and live streaming of races.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working on our fantasy products,” Smith said. “It’s a very active group for us. It’s not as large as other leagues like the NFL but it is very competitive with the others. What we’ve learned is that the user base is by far our most active users. They are constantly consuming information about the sport and drivers. They will take as much information as we can give them.

“Building fantasy is more than just supplying a need for the avid fans. It’s a great way to get more casual fans involved too. We’re actually rebuilding our Streak to the Finish platform so fans can jump in and out during the season. We are also making it more mobile friendly so you can pull out your smart phone and be done in a short period of time.

“There are definitely opportunities out there and I feel like we’re right on the edge of fantasy becoming a lot bigger in our sport than it is today.”

“Starting in 2015, both Fox Sports and NBC Sports will be live streaming the races as well on their platforms,” Smith continued. “You will have the ability to authenticate yourself and have that package and you will be able to live stream the race to your tablet, smart phone or other mobile device.”

“We also have our Race View product which is the virtual representation of the race. We call it our super product because it’s filled with information, driver telemetry, live in-car audio and track positioning. We find a lot of people access that content on race day as well. There are a pretty strong complement of products to enhance that race day experience.”

Another major initiative in NASCAR’s perfect digital storm for 2015 is working with the tracks themselves to ensure that fans can access and utilize all of this new technology now available to them.

“That’s probably one of the three biggest things that NASCAR as an industry is working on,” Smith said. “Connectivity at track in a way that fans can go and access not only NASCAR’s digital platform but if they are a fan of other sports, their team’s platform as well. And they want to be connected so they can upload pictures of their experiences, as well as keeping in touch with families and friends while at track.

“There is a ton of activity happening at the track level and at the league level to enhance that experience. It starts with connectivity but there is also the fan experience overall, such as the Daytona Rising project, which is best in class as well.”

So, will this perfect digital storm continue as NASCAR gears up for the 2015 season that will kick in just a few short weeks? According to Smith, an avid race fan himself, there is no doubt about it.

“Fans can expect to see new site experiences, a richer gaming platform, educational tools to learn more about the sport, and more detailed stats and live analysis around the racing action in 2015,” Smith said. “We are looking forward to building on this momentum in the upcoming race season.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

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Uncategorized

Sargeant ‘Super Pumped’ With Snowball Derby Finish

EXCLUSIVE By Mary Jo Buchanan – In his first ever Snowball Derby, sixteen year old @DaltonSargeant secured his place as an official up and coming racer by finishing runner up to winner @JohnNemechek.

“I was super-pumped,” Sargeant told POPULAR SPEED. “It was really exciting for sure. At the end of the race, I picked up a few positions at a time and it got really exciting at the end. It was four-wide on that final restart and I didn’t know how it was going to end up.”

“On the last pit stop, we made the decision to take four tires rather than two. It put us back a little ways in starting position but we were able to pick up a few positions quickly. I think we were in third and I moved up into second. I slipped a little bit on that final restart but other than that, things went really well.”

“I’m really happy with the team’s performance as well as mine. It feels pretty good to finish second behind John Hunter Nemechek. He’s one of the best so not bad to be beat by him.”

While Sargeant was a Snowball Derby virgin, his crew chief Richie Wauters celebrated his 20th anniversary of running that race.

“We got Richie Wauters crew cheifing my car and he’s done it quite a few times,” Sargeant said. “His biggest thing about that track and that race has been the tires. He always wants them under that car to use at the end of the race. He chose to take four tires, and I agreed with him, although we lost four or five positions, we were able to make them all up really quickly. That really helped us.”

Sargeant has worked with Wauters and his team in the past. In fact, all of his seven super late model races that he has run has been with that crew chief and team.

“Just from their past record and everything they’ve done whether with Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola or Steven Wallace, where he has won before, it’s a well-performing team,” Sargeant said. “I haven’t had any doubts about how good his equipment is or the decision he makes.”

“I use Richie to mentor me. They also have Bobby Gill working for Richie Wauters Motorsports and he has won the Snowball Derby twice. His information really helped me out and taught me how to run the track. He helped me know what to do and what not to do. He taught me how to run the race and be there at the end.”

In addition to his second-place finish, Sargeant was also proud of being able to hold his own against some of the best in the sport, including the likes of Kyle Busch Motorsports driver @Erik_Jones and Nationwide Series Champion @ChaseElliott.

“Battling against Erik Jones and Chase Elliott and all the best guys was great,” Sargeant said. “We were running up front and passing all of them. It couldn’t have gone any better. All those guys were super-tough to race with but it helped me gain experience racing with them. It’s just going to help in the future knowing I can race with the best of them.”

Sargeant has taken a bit of an unusual route in his racing career, starting off in go karts but then moving to Europe to run European karts and then European Formula Open-Wheel cars. But he sees his future as progressing closer to home in the NASCAR ranks if possible.

“Last December I moved back to the States and from there I began racing late model stocks in North Carolina mainly and in that area,” Sargeant said. “From there, it has just grown and I’ve been trying to gain as much experience as I can.”

“At every track, I’ve been trying to gain more knowledge and hopefully keep on improving. That’s the most important thing to do.”

“For 2015, we don’t have anything solid yet but we are looking to run with Richie Wauters Motorsports in late models. We’re working on some other stuff right now as well. We’re also working on some sponsorship for sure.”

For now, however, the young racer is simply reveling in what felt to him like a Snowball Derby win.

“It was one of the best runs that we’ve had so far,” Sargeant said. “It’s a huge accomplishment to know that you can run with the best guys, really perform well and gaining experience for the future.”

“That race as a whole was a great learning experience for me that will really help me down the road and for the next path that I take in racing.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

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NASCAR Cup Series

Goodyear Gold Car Tradition Challenged by New Chase Format

EXCLUSIVE By Mary Jo Buchanan – For thirty years this year, Goodyear has been awarding a specially designed gold car at the banquet in Las Vegas to the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

But this year, with four drivers in contention due to the new Chase format, Goodyear and the gold car artist Mike Dunlap have their work cut out for them.

“This year is really, really tough,” Stu Grant, Goodyear’s general manager of worldwide racing, told POPULAR SPEED. “Our artist Mike Dunlap kind of knew in the past who the champion might be as he carried some momentum into Homestead, either his on-track momentum or his points cushion. As the season would wind down, we would talk every Monday after every race. We would say which make we might be able to rule out. If you can rule a body type out, that’s good.”

“We would have this dialogue as we got into Homestead and we had a pretty good clue as to who the champion might be. We could see what was happening and we never missed. We guessed right every single time.”

“This year, it is impossible to guess because there is no momentum at all,” Grant continued. “The strategy now is to bring all four cars along as far as possible, with all the pieces, parts, decals and engraving so we have a chance of getting a completed car, interior and exterior, by the time of the banquet.”

“So, it’s really presented a major problem for us and for our model maker to determine who we think is going to win. It’s created a lot more sleepless nights for Mike and a lot more work for him.”

What makes the gold car production so challenging is that every car is made specifically for that driver, down to every detail inside and out.

“The models are so unique and it is that driver’s car,” Grant said. “It’s his interior. It’s his seat belts; his cup holder; everything is that individual. Mike takes photos of all the interiors and makes the little pieces for all four of the guys.”

“So, you can figure out that if you have to multiply all that times four, it’s just a lot of preparation on his end to have all the bases covered so we end up with a full, completed model for the trophy.”

Another challenge, especially this season with the new Chase format, is that there are only three people involved in the gold car production process.

A detailed look at the Goodyear gold car that was presented to Kurt Busch after his championship in 2004
A detailed look at the Goodyear gold car that was presented to Kurt Busch after his championship in 2004

“Mike is essentially all by himself,” Grant said. “He does the model, manufactures all the parts, assembles everything and puts it all together. He gets all the decal packages from the individual teams so we detail it all just right. And he provides all that to the engraving.”

“Mike does not do the engraving of the logos on the side and hood of the car,” Grant continued. “That’s done by the engraver and the gold plating is done by another individual. So, essentially there are three stops. Mike does all the work all year long but then, when it gets close to the end, we do the engraving and the plating and put it all together.”

Even with these challenges, the gold car will be celebrating a special anniversary, its 30th time of presentation, sort of.

“We’ve had a relationship with Mike for 30 years and this is our 30th year but there was one year, in 1989 with Rusty Wallace, where the engraver had a health issue and couldn’t get the car engraved and completed in time,” Grant said. “It just didn’t come together in time so Rusty got a NACAR crystal car, which was beautiful in its own right but it was a last minute call. We realized we couldn’t get the gold car together in time for Rusty.”

Interestingly enough, Roger Penske, who has an opportunity to win that gold car this year with driver Joey Logano, was the originator of the Goodyear gold car.

“The original idea actually came from Roger Penske,” Grant said. “Roger had a relationship with Mike Dunlap, who is our model maker and Mike made for Roger gold cars for his Indianapolis 500 winners. In the conversation at one point where Goodyear was looking for a unique trophy for NASCAR, Roger hooked us up with Mike Dunlap thirty years ago – this is our 30th year – and that’s how it got started.”

“It’s been really interesting to watch the evolution of the models over the years. They’ve just gotten better and better and more and more detailed. They are just phenomenal. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful one of a kind, unique work of art.”

Grant also recalls two other special moments with the gold car, one positive and one not so memorable.

“One of the neatest things that I’ve seen when our Chairman gave away the car at our reception on Friday before the banquet was when Jimmie (Johnson) won his fifth car and here was Rick Hendrick and Jimmie and Rick points to the B pillar and says ‘See the 25th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports logo?’

“It’s teeny tiny but it was their anniversary and the model was that detailed, Grant said. “Rick made the comment to Jimmie ‘That’s just so neat. That’d be really special to me.’ And Jimmie turned to Rick and said ‘It’s yours, boss.’ I thought that was pretty cool. Jimmie figured out right away that Rick thought that was special and he gave him the car. I thought that was really neat.”

“The only other thing that I remember was with Jimmie’s fourth car that arrived on Wednesday in pieces,” Grant said. “We had a courier service actually bring it out and they at some point dropped it. It’s in a big heavy case and we opened it up and it was all in pieces. The tires were off it. We managed to piece it together for the presentation and tried to hold it level so the body didn’t fall off. We made it right in the end but that was trying to get through that. We survived and fixed the car up so Jimmie didn’t have a car that looked like it finished a short track race.”

So, will this year’s Goodyear gold car make it given the challenges it faces with the new Chase format?

“We hope so,” Grant said with a smile. “Mike might be putting the finishing touches on it as we walk on stage Thursday morning in Las Vegas.”

“It’s a challenge but he is trying and we are pulling for him and trying to do the best we can. It’s something that we are really proud of the fact that we can present a trophy that has that much interest and is that much of a draw.”

“It’s so special to see the reaction of the driver, the crew chief and the owner when we unveil that at our reception. They are so appreciative of that and they think that is so special. That’s why we’re proud of that.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

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Uncategorized

NASCAR Full of Fond Farewells in Final Weekend

By Mary Jo Buchanan – With the last racing of the NASCAR season at hand, there are many fond farewells being said at track and reverberating throughout the garage area.

In the Sprint Cup garage, farewells include those between crew chief Steve Letarte and driver @DaleJr., as well as @MarcosAmbrose bidding a fond g’day to his NASCAR career.

“It’s certainly starting to set in that this is the last time we’re going to get to work together and go to the racetrack together,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “All the guys are getting that sense as well — that whole team there he hired and put together.”

“There’s a lot of emotion there, a lot of strong relationships and also just for him personally he might be crew-chiefing his last race.”

Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. have been a potent team, ending their run together with five wins (four of which occurred this season) in a total of 141 starts, 36 top-five finishes, and 74 top-ten finishes. The duo has been together since 2011.

While Earnhardt Jr. has significant praise for his crew chief, the feeling is completely mutual according to Letarte,

“I’ve said this before and no one believes me, but the truth be known, I really don’t think I’ve done much in the last four years,” Letarte said. “I think Dale has done it all, and I just get a lot of the credit.”

“I think Dale and I both at the end of 2010 were at a point in our career that we had to look in the mirror and decide how much effort we were willing to put in to turn it around for both of us,” Letarte continued. “Luckily for me, his answer to that question was whatever it took, and my (answer) was whatever it took. And we surrounded ourselves with a bunch of guys that had the same answer and that’s what we’ve done.”

While Dale Jr. will bid Steve Letarte adieu after the race on Sunday, Letarte will begin his new role as a member of NBC Sports’ broadcast team for the 2015 Sprint Cup season.

The Cup garage will also bid Marcos Ambrose farewell as the driver from down under ends his NASCAR career at Homestead.

“It’s been about nine years since my family and I came over the ‘water’ to try out this experiment of NASCAR,” Ambrose said. “And, it’s been great. We’ve won races, had good runs and met a lot of wonderful people.”

“But, it’s time to take my family back across the ‘pond’ and go home. I made that decision this year, and once we did that, we started working towards that plan. That’s what this year has been like, and everyone has been very supportive.

“I have had a good time here in NASCAR,” Ambrose noted. “It’s the most competitive form of racing in the world, and there is nothing like it. I will miss NASCAR, and I will watch it too. I will watch the night races in the morning in Australia with breakfast, and that will be fun. I’m looking forward to that.”

As Ambrose says goodbye to the No. 9 car in the Richard Petty Motorsports stable, he noted several NASCAR memories that he will carry with him for a lifetime.

“I have good runs, memorable races that I’ll carry with me for sure,” Ambrose said. “It was great winning for ‘The King’ and racing for wins at Watkins Glen. These are memories that I’ll have for a lifetime. I would have liked to win on an oval, sure, but I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot too. Now, it’s just time to go back home with my family.”

Just as the partnership between Ambrose and the ‘King’ will be coming to a close, there is another partnership finale in the Nationwide garage as @TBayne21 runs his last race with the Wood Brothers.

“It’s been such a ride with the 21 guys, and they’ve become part of the family and I’ve become part of their family,” Bayne said. “You think about the history that we’ve had together over the last four years.

Bayne gave the Wood Brothers one of their most exciting runs with his win at the 2011 Daytona 500 when he was just a 20-year-old rookie driver. Bayne is now set to achieve another dream, racing full-time for Roush-Fenway Racing.

“To drive that 21 car has been incredible,” Bayne said. “They have given me so much support over the last four years. They’ve made it possible for me to get to a place where I could have this new opportunity.

“When I told them in May about the announcement I was about to make in Charlotte, they told me how much they’re behind me and how much they’ve appreciated what we’ve done together,” Bayne recalled. “I was actually standing beside the trailer talking to them and they pointed up to the Daytona 500 sticker and said ‘that’s one thing that will never change right there. You got your first one here. I don’t care if you get 25 more, this was your first one and we’re so glad we were able to be a part of it.’

“Ultimately the goal at the end of the day was for me to be a full-time Sprint Cup driver for Jack Roush,” he said. “The Wood Brothers played such a big part of my career and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.”

In addition to fond farewells being said in the Cup and Nationwide garages, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France noted two other significant endings in the sport, that of the Nationwide sponsorship of the series that has borne its name for several years, as well as the ending of the ESPN coverage of the sport.

“It’s bittersweet,” France said of both ESPN and Nationwide farewells. “ESPN has been a partner off and on from the inception of their network and so while we’re excited about NBC coming in next year, it’s bittersweet to wish them goodbye.”

“I think they will tell you that it’s going to help them with coverage down the road because of the story lines that are created,” France continued. “So, that’s all good but bittersweet in one respect.”

“And then Nationwide has done everything you’d want somebody to do when helping us,” France said. “But they’re staying in the sport in a bigger, better way.”

“So, that’s good for them and we’re excited about that. And then XFINITY will get us started in 2015.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

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XFINITY

Chris Buescher: A Season Worth Talking About

EXCLUSIVE By Mary Jo Buchanan – @Chris_Buescher, who will be participating in the season finale NASCAR Nationwide race at Homestead- Miami Speedway this weekend, has had quite a busy rookie year. In fact, he has scored 15 top-10 finishes in 29 starts during his rookie season, including his first career NASCAR victory earlier this season at Mid-Ohio.

As he completed racing at Texas and at Phoenix, as well as taking a side trip to the SEMA show, he took a moment to reflect on the year that he has had competing as a rookie in one of NASCAR’s premiere levels.

“I feel like the last half of the season has been a really big improvement over where we started,” Buescher told POPULAR SPEED. “So, it’s been nice being able to go to the race track and be really competitive.”

In between the Texas and Phoenix races, Buescher had the opportunity to make one of his rookie season dreams come true by coming to the SEMA show, as well as having the opportunity to show off a bit for Roush Fenway Racing.

“SEMA has always been a place I’ve always wanted to go,” Buescher said. “It’s a car person’s dream. It was an amazing show, just huge. We went out there with Roush Performance. They had a booth outside and they broke off a big parking lot and took their Mustangs out to give people rides.”

“It just so happened that we had one of our Nationwide show cars out there and we ended up taking it out there and made a little noise,” Buescher continued. “We actually jumped it and we hit a table top that was set up in the center. That was interesting. It ended up really well. I was surprised. I got to drive both Mustangs and they were incredible. I got out laughing every time. The amount of power is unreal and they drive really, really well. It was a blast. I loved it. The only thing I didn’t like was that I only got to stay two days.”

While Buescher has enjoyed every minute of his rookie year, including the SEMA experience, he is not ready to give himself the highest of grades for his season overall.

“I’m always hard on myself,” Buescher said. “I came into the season expecting to win a couple of races. It was awesome to get the win in Mid-Ohio. It added a little boost to the whole team and made them realize that we can do it. It put some confidence in us and that’s when we picked up our momentum.”

“But I feel like I should have run about three to five spots better for the year but that’s just me trying to get more seat time and trying to better ourselves. I’m hard on myself but that’s the only way to get better.”

Buescher has learned many lessons, but the biggest lessons learned are somewhat surprising.

“Most people would tell you that patience is one of the biggest things that you can learn in a race car,” Buescher said. “That’s been tough for me.

“Also, the aero characteristics of this car are so much different than the ARCA cars I came out of,” Buescher continued. “These are more dependent on side force and down force. That makes it tough to predict things like that. Aero is pretty touchy because you can’t see it, you don’t know where it’s going to be and it’s always changing with the cars around you. When the cars are bunched up, it’s been an even steeper learning curve. We’re starting to get a little bit of a hang of it.”

As he looks back on his rookie Nationwide season, Buescher is also most grateful for his mentors along the way.

“At the beginning of this year, I was new to most of these race tracks,” Buescher said. “So, going to Ricky @StenhouseJr trying to get advice was helpful. He would tell me to hold it wide open in qualifying and that it would stick but as a rookie that didn’t sound right to me. It did take some time, but he wasn’t lying. It’s incredible how much grip these cars really have. I leaned on him quite a bit at the beginning of the season. He hasn’t been out of these cars long and he knows a lot about them.”

“I would also say that Trevor (Bayne) who has been running these things has been a big help. And then (Greg) Biffle and Carl (Edwards) have been there for me adding a little bit more on top of it.”

While Buescher’s biggest accomplishment was the race win, he also takes pride in other good runs as well in his rookie season.

“There have been a lot of good runs, like Talladega finishing second and not getting caught up was a good one,” Buescher said. “Looking back, we were involved in three of them but we just never hit anything. I don’t know how in the world we escaped it but it was neat to have a solid run at the end of all that mess.”

“And then we’ve had some really solid runs like at Dover. That was a turning point for us. It was our first time there and that is a really difficult race track. Going back to the time of being able to run fourth and hang with Kyle Busch and Joey Logano was really neat.”

So, what does the soon to be graduating rookie have planned for the off-season and beyond?

“It’s interesting with NASCAR’s new rules for testing as the off-season is going to be a little slower moving than previous years I’d say,” Buescher said. “We won’t know what to do with ourselves. We’ve been running on the simulator a little bit to practice as much as we can. We’ve spent a lot of hours there.”

“I’m going to go back home to Texas for a couple of weeks to see my parents and my sisters. They are actually in the Austin area now.”

“We’re not set in stone but we will be back next year for the 2015 season,” Buescher said. “The plan is full-time with Scott (Graves) as crew chief. I feel like the majority of our team should be right back with us. We have a good group of guys and we have chemistry which will be helpful going into next year.”

“We’re always chasing partners and sponsors, trying to get everything aligned. We’ve made some pretty good progress and in fact, that was part of the reason we were at SEMA.”

“We got some leads there and we should be in good shape for next year.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan