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Even before the 2011 season got off to a rousing start at Daytona, the Commonwealth of Virginia was home to one of NASCAR’s bigger feel-good stories. Joe Denette, a lifetime race fan and a recent Mega Millions lottery winner, opted to use his winnings to start a Truck Series race team, and, paired with native Virginian and series regular Jason White, will field the No. 23 truck for the full 2011 schedule.
Frontstretch caught up with White and Denette in Darlington to discuss the 2011 season, the future of Joe Denette Motorsports, and just how special a first-time visit to the track too tough to tame really is.
Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: How’s the Lady in Black treating you?
Jason White: Well, we didn’t get any stripes. The truck is really good on race runs, not as fast as we’d like in qualifying runs, but I think as the race goes on we’ll be good. We’re really fast through [turns] 3 and 4 and wide open through 1 and 2. I’m really looking forward to the race.
Keith: Joe, what’s it like being an owner at a track like this?
Joe Denette: It’s awesome. I’ve always thought about… this is the first time I’ve ever been to this racetrack. I’ve been to a lot of them, but Darlington. This is special.
Keith: I’d just know I’d be freaking out if those were my quarterpanels out there.
Denette: Can’t worry about that. It’s Darlington, you expect to scrape the wall. You expect to scrape the wall and keep on going. The vehicles now, at least they can hold up a little bit better than the old ones where you’d put a 4×4 between the frame and the body just so they could handle the Darlington stripe.
Keith: You’re a month into a brand new operation and ran excellent the last time you were on the track. What have the growing pains been like, and where are you?
White: A couple of weeks ago at Phoenix, we unloaded fast, ended up 10th. We had a little bit of trouble in the pits. If we hadn’t had those troubles we’d have finished higher. It was a great weekend, and then of course Daytona we had a heck of a truck and were running up there with everybody before getting caught in somebody else’s mess; somebody cut a tire or something and there was just nowhere to go.
We’ve been really fast, so that’s good. We got these trucks together at the last minute, so there’s been a few little issues, but no big deal. We’re working through them, we’ve got great trucks and good engines to get through these races. We’re going to shoot for a top five or so, to win this race, and then we’re going to Martinsville. We’ve got a great opportunity to win that race, I think we do.
Keith: The challenges of putting something new like this together, did anything catch you off guard?
Denette: For myself, not really. Like Daytona, when Jason got hung up in that [Big One], it’s Daytona. You expect it to happen, you just don’t know when. You just hope you’re in the right place at the right time. It happens in all three series.
White: That was crazy.
Denette: You just check it off and head to the next race.
White: We’ve got good guys here, and they’re done a heck of a job preparing the trucks. KHI’s helped us out a ton, Mark Smith engines and then these guys, they’ve been working till 2 a.m. the past couple of nights just trying to get to the track. They’ve done a heck of a job to get us here.
Keith: Jason, the story behind your new team is a great one. What’s it like working for such a passionate owner?
White: It’s unbelievable. Joe’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. First time I ever met him we went out to dinner, had a lot of laughs, had a good time. It’s awesome to work for this guy. I mean, I was down after Daytona, I really thought we had a chance to win the race, then we wreck out and finish 30th. I thought this stinks, Joe was just like ‘man, forget about it, we’ll get em next week.’ That makes me feel good, he’s pumping me up when I should be pumping him up his first race in the Truck Series. But it’s been exciting, and I can’t wait to get this season rolling to where we’re racing every week.
Keith: You’ve driven for a lot of teams the past few seasons now that you’re a fixture in the Truck Series. How has that impacted your driver development?
White: I think it’s definitely helped. I’ve seen a lot and by far I think this is the best opportunity that I’ve ever had. We’ve got really good stuff. It takes a lot to learn these trucks. To drive for those other teams, to see what they have, to not have as good equipment as I have now has definitely helped. I’ve learned all the tracks. Like right now we’re just fine-tuning, trying to make little tweaks to get us better. It’s definitely worked out well.
Keith: Listening to your team on the radio, you all were mentioning more than any other team specific competitors and numbers over the radio. Is that common practice and why?
White: I got behind the [Nos.] 33 and 18 a couple times and they’re the best trucks out there. We just try to compare ourselves to the best trucks, see how they’re handling, what they’ve got for power, how they’re traveling through the corners. If you base yourself off of them, you’re going to be as good as they are. We changed a few things to get our trucks to handle more like theirs.
Keith: How important was that top 10 in Phoenix at the shop?
White: It was great. The guys were excited to get a top 10. We had a fuel issue, we couldn’t get fuel into the truck, so we had to go back to like 36th. To go from 36th all the way back up to 10th was a big deal.
Keith: You’re a single-truck operation right now. Is another truck in the future and is it a necessity to have a teammate these days at this level?
White: The great thing is we have an alliance with KHI and they have three trucks. We’re kind of a teammate off of them so to speak. Having a teammate could help a little bit. But right now, getting this off the ground and getting us rolling, we’ll be pretty good. A year or two down the road, it’s hard to say what will happen.
Keith: The Trucks are seeing a very competitive field for the third race in a row. Why has the Truck Series become the place to race?
White: The last couple of years, the Trucks definitely haven’t been this competitive. This is probably the most competitive it has been in the 17 years of the Truck Series. If you look at the times, the top-30 trucks are all within half a second. It’s almost like a Cup race. It’s actually more competitive than Cup lately; you’ve got about 25 good Cup teams and the rest are OK. Here, you’ve got 36 spots and 30 good trucks. It’s amazing how competitive it is this year.
Keith: Is there something from a business model perspective that’s proving more attractive than NNS or Cup operations?
White: I think it’s less races. [And] SPEED does a heck of a job covering the trucks. The ratings are up and they’re a lot of fun. A lot of people are getting great exposure off of them.
Keith: Darlington’s a one-day show. What’s that like?
White: It’s hectic. The one day shows, I like them, but the two days are a little easier on you, on your guys. These shows, you’re just making all your decisions rush rush rush. But it’s good for the teams, it cuts down on costs and that’s why they do it.
Keith: You’ve had a long partnership with GunBroker. How did it come about, how have you kept it going and how often are you on the site?
White: It’s amazing. I’m on the site every day. I actually did them a pitch about six years ago, a sales pitch, said I want you to sponsor me and they did an NNS deal for five races. They liked what they saw, and I told them ‘hey, I’ll grow your company if you come along with me.’ GunBroker and NASCAR are a perfect fit and they agreed to do it. Every year since, their company has been growing, it’s been successful and they enjoy the racing. It’s a win-win for everybody.
Keith: Are you a shooter?
White: Yeah. We do a bunch of shoots and hunts, outdoor championships. I have to do a hunt in the next week..
Keith: That sounds like a hard life.
White: Haha, yeah. It’s fun to do that. I don’t get a lot of time to do it, but I definitely like going and doing it.
Keith: Joe, besides Darlington, do you have any other tracks circled as a place you just have to visit this year?
Denette: I’m planning on going to 18 races, at least 18. My wife said this past week “I’ve got to go back online and check the schedule.” We just had a baby the Phoenix race. He was in my arms watching the race and I was like this is cool. He’ll be going to his first race in Martinsville. We’ll be doing all the local tracks… we’re from Fredericksburg. I’m looking forward to going to Nashville. This was one of my special spots. Darlington, it’s the oldest track. I wanted to be here.
My favorite out of all of them is Bristol. There is nothing like Bristol. We just over this weekend between myself and my brother got a suite for eight years. Now we can sit there, go in style, bring friends and all that. It used to be the hardest ticket, but the way the economy is now, they’re available. Five years from now, the economy might be stronger than it was. Hopefully it will be. Then you’re not going to find seats at Bristol again. And I’ll be sitting up there, thinking we got our seats.
Keith: From an economic perspective, is now the time to get into NASCAR?
Denette: Yes. Actually it is. Start-up is a lot, it’s a lot more startup. We had GunBroker coming on, everything came together just perfectly. We were going to start a team and we were talking about running three different drivers to make a full season. Then, we have a proposal come up that says we’ve got a driver to do a full season that comes with a sponsor. Do you know Jason White?
I was like, “I parked next to him last year at Martinsville. This is going to work out great!” So he came on board with GunBroker sponsoring all the races and we’re going to be at every track. There’s not going to be a single start the truck up and park it after two or three laps. Only way that’s going to happen is if something happens to the truck. We’re not looking for that to happen, but we’ll be at every race.
Keith: Being Virginians, how special was it to see the Wood Brothers win the 500?
White: I thought it was awesome. I mean Trevor Bayne to win that race, and the tradition of the Wood Brothers and the No. 21, you can’t get a better story than that to happen.
Denette: I’m a Bill Elliott fan and when he drove for the Wood Brothers, I spent some time in their pits, I’ve come to know him a little bit… it was nice seeing them win. Seeing them win and not one of the four, as they say, “only four teams per owner”…we all know that’s not how it really works. Yeah, he only owns these four, but his equipment is running for these other three teams. It was nice to see a single-car team do that good.
Keith: Does seeing that happen on such a big stage change your expectations for 2011?
Denette: That says that anybody can win. That’s not saying anything negative about Trevor, it’s great to see younger people win races. That draws more younger people to the track. It says hey, anybody can finish in the top five. And, it says any driver can win at any time.
A win was not in the cards for the No. 23 team, with White collected in a lap 73 incident trying to avoid the damaged truck of Nelson Piquet Jr., ending a promising night that saw the squad post their first ever top-10 qualifying effort.
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