“We’re going to be taking pictures this weekend, man,” NASCAR XFINITY Series Rookie of the Year candidate Brennan Poole joked to a friend during Game 4 of the Charlotte Hornets playoff series against the Miami Heat. “You better come down to get a picture with me in Victory Lane.”
It all seemed like a joke. His friend Jordan, who works with Camping World Truck Series rookie Rico Abreu, certainly took it as a joke.
But Poole was only half kidding.
All week, Poole was telling friends, family and business associates alike that they better be with him to take pictures in Victory Lane. Later, he admitted it usually isn’t something he does.
Hailing from humble beginnings from an area approximately 30 miles outside of Houston called The Woodlands, Poole continuously holds a smile on his face.
Why shouldn’t he? He’s dating Miss New Jersey 2015, Lindsey Giannini, he just turned 25 , and oh, he works full-time in the field he spent several years attempting to make the most out of every opportunity that came his way.
Poole went from racing full-time in the ARCA Series in 2012 to racing one every few months until the chance came his way last year to compete in the XFINITY Series for 17 races. When the opportunity arrived, he pounced on it, embracing a chance he never saw coming.
If it weren’t for a call from Chip Ganassi Racing, Poole believes he might still be sitting on the sidelines, working odd jobs, such as filming Dartfish — a program used by major NASCAR teams to compare competitors, along with members of the same team.
Poole’s up and down career has been one highlighted by difficulty to find sponsorship, similar to many of his peers who can’t seem to catch a break. For a while, that was Poole.
Competing in the ARCA Series for five races in 2013 and seven in 2014, he never had a set schedule. But with three victories in 12 starts, he began to catch the attention of those who mattered.
Harry Scott, Jr., who recently formed HScott Motorsports in the Cup Series, partnered with Ganassi to field the No. 42 XFINITY Series car for Kyle Larson. But Larson was only scheduled to compete in 14 races, leaving the team searching for a marketing partner and driver package for the remaining 19 events.
That’s when Poole received the call he had been waiting for.
DC Solar, a renewable energy production company, was coming on board for what was originally 15 races. Just like that, with a fresh look and an added confidence, Poole was gearing up for his first season in NASCAR competition. Poole’s wavy, long hair was set to flow with the cars in the sport’s second-tier division.
Poole’s 2015 campaign was one he expected, facing obstacles at new tracks, along with being in a new type of racecar with more difficult competition and new people surrounding him. He ended the year with a pair of top 10s in 17 starts (DC Solar added two races due to recognizing the return-on-investment with Poole), along with an average finish of 18.6.
“Last year, I was just in shock the whole time and I got my butt whopped at a lot of places just because I was just in shock,” Poole said with a chuckle. “I couldn’t believe I was even on the track. My focus wasn’t where it needed to be.”
Come the off-season, Poole’s plans were unclear. Scott and Ganassi parted ways, leaving Ganassi in charge of an XFINITY Series program for the first time since 2008.
Evidently, DC Solar agreed to fund a second car for the organization, giving full his first shot at competing full-time in NASCAR.
“I think it’s pretty cool to know we’re running for a championship,” Poole said. “It gives everybody on the team that morale boost week-to-week. We’ve been getting better, so that makes everyone really pumped. Everyone is really motivated and working hard right now. That extra confidence just carries over through the whole season.
“It’s my dream to run for a NASCAR championship, so I have that opportunity. I’m really grateful for all the stuff DC Solar has done for me. Without them, this wouldn’t be possible or with Chip [Ganassi, team owner] letting me drive his stuff. All of it has been really cool and I just feel really fortunate to be able to do what I do.”
The difference thus far into the season has been one Poole believes is a difference-maker in how he is competing. He believes that now he is in a car on a weekly basis, he understands what he is looking for in the car, giving more time for him to dial it in once the team unloads for practice.
Through the first seven races of the year, the No. 48 squad finished inside the top 10 once, with a 10th-place result at Phoenix International Raceway. However, it must not go without saying that Poole did have several top-10 runs going, only to have misfortune come into play.
At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Poole was running inside of the top 10, but ran out of gas, evidently finishing 11th. At Auto Club Speedway, pit strategy failed him, forcing the rookie to pit for gas with approximately 15 laps to go, finishing 13th after running around seventh late in the going.
“Dang,” Poole says when thinking back about those two races.
But come Richmond International Raceway, the No. 48 team showed up to the track with a different feel. The car was handling to Poole’s liking, qualifying seventh for the 250-mile race. Racing to the lead with 19 laps remaining in the race, he stayed out of pit road during the penultimate caution to take the top position.
With Poole competing up front on old tires, he was part of a nine-car wreck on Lap 135. While it might not have led to Victory Lane, he earned his second top 10 of the year, beginning a four-race stretch of top-10 results until the series reached Pocono Raceway, where he finished 12th in the rain-shortened contest.
While Poole is dealing with the nuances of being a rookie, the leader of the No. 48 team is a veteran of the XFINITY Series.
Crew chief Chad Norris left Roush Fenway Racing during the off-season, becoming the man on top of the No. 48 team’s pit box. Instead of working with a Ford, Norris joined the bowtie group to work for a team other than Roush for the first time in his career.
Norris’ first race as a crew chief came in 2005, when he oversaw Matt Kenseth’s effort in what was then called the Busch Series. He was a Sprint Cup crew chief in 2012, working with veteran Carl Edwards for 17 races before being sent back to the XFINITY Series as Travis Pastrana’s crew chief.
When the Pastrana experiment failed, Norris was paired with Trevor Bayne, followed by Ryan Reed and eventually, Darrell Wallace, Jr. With three XFINITY Series victories — one each with Kenseth (2005), Bayne (2011) and Marcos Ambrose (2011), he opted to leave his comfort zone, joining Ganassi with the hope of a fresh start.
“Chad is an awesome guy,” Poole explained. “We have a really good relationship. We joke around a lot with each other. He’s incredibly smart and has a lot of experience. He’s been helping with some stuff on pit road, how I break down the corners and my racecar and changes we need to make throughout the race. All of that has been good.
“He’s helped me out with some restart stuff, which is something I struggled with last year and a little bit this year. I feel like our restarts have gotten a lot better. It’s stuff like that, and being able to work with a guy who has so much experience helps me and gives me more confidence. Him having confidence in me helps me, too. Everything is working together, and we’ve just been clicking and grooving.”
But what might even be more astonishing in Poole’s mind is the resemblance of one of his first crew chiefs.
“He’s very similar to guys I have worked with in the past,” Poole continued. “One of them that comes to mind is David King. He helped me a bunch in Late Models, and we won a bunch of races together and a championship. I’ve been joking around with my dad that he’s the David King of the XFINITY Series.”
Through 14 races, Poole is on the verge of surpassing Norris’ top-10 total (seven) with Wallace in 20 races in 2015. The current duo of Poole and Norris has six top 10s thus far, along with an average finish of 12.1, 1.1 spots higher than the old duo.
“Brennan has done a really nice job of getting his car where it needs to be for the race and getting some solid results up to this point,” Norris said. “I have worked with several young drivers over the last few years and Brennan is one of the best at getting himself mentality and physically prepared each and every week to hit the track and give 100 percent.”
In addition to working with Norris, the rest of Chip Ganassi Racing has continuously shown support for Poole.
Chip Ganassi Racing fields a pair of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series entries, with one for Larson and the other for veteran Jamie McMurray. The organization has put Poole’s effort with the Sprint Cup ones, creating a family atmosphere within its Concord, N.C. shop.
“We work pretty close together,” Poole said. “It’s really great in our shop. Everybody works together so well. I’ve never been part of a team like this before, where everyone is on the same page, helping everyone, believes in everyone and likes everyone. It’s crazy. It’s just really fun to be a part of.
“I work out with all of the pit crew guys in the gym. We do yoga together, shoot hoops together, lift weights together and just spend a lot of time together. It’s just cool to see how everybody gets along. Everyone is still striving for one goal, and that’s to win. For me, it’s really cool to be a part of that with these guys. I’ve never been part of anything like that before.”
With the chemistry flowing with the Sprint Cup guys, the XFINITY Series team is gaining confidence, according to Poole. He frequently leans on Larson, who won the inaugural XFINITY Series contest at Pocono, setting the bar high for CGR.
Often, Poole compares himself to the No. 42 team, and rightfully so in his mind. Larson is one he looks up to. The former sprint car driver worked his way up to the Sprint Cup level by the time he was 20 years old. Going from splitting the XFINITY Series ride with Larson to having one of his own, he says the goal is to do his own thing, rather than work off setups Larson came up with last season.
“We’re not the same kind of driver, so they had to tailor it differently,” Poole said. “This year, having my own guys, being able to work on my own deal every single week, we’ve been able to learn and figure out the little things I like to have a little bit better to get us some more speed.”
Rewind back to the Thursday prior to the XFINITY Series Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway, Poole sees Jordan once again. This time, he made sure to remind Jordan where he should be on Saturday afternoon.
“Hey man, I’m telling you, we’re taking pictures this weekend,” Poole repeats with a chuckle. “You better come down and hang out and take a bunch of pictures.”
Poole began believing his words more as the weekend roared on. Speaking with the owners of his primary backer, DC Solar’s Jeff and Paulette Carpoff, he wanted to let them know what his plans were come Saturday’s main event.
Making two prior visits to Talladega’s 2.66-mile circuit, Poole was quite familiar with the track that utilizes restrictor plates on engines — a mechanism used by NASCAR at Daytona International Speedway as well in order to prevent the cars from being too spaced out or go too fast during the event.
In 2012, Poole finished eighth in the ARCA Series race at Talladega, running inside of the top 10 for the majority of the 94-lap contest. Come 2015, he was piloting the No. 42 car in the XFINITY Series. However, early issues in the race regulated him to a 28th-place finish.
But 2016’s race at Talladega was different.
Poole’s fresh hair cut, mixed with what he calls “swagger” on the No. 48 team, created a different vibe come that late April day.
Sitting on pit road, as Poole usually does as part of his pre-race ritual, he saw Jordan once again.
“I’m like alright, you’re going to come down to Victory Lane and we’re going to take a picture together after this race,” Poole told Jordan. “He was like whatever.”
And that might have been the motivation the rookie needed.
Poole started the day in 11th, methodically working through the pack. He stayed inside of the top 10 through the contest, avoiding the chaos behind him.
Just before the fifth caution flag of the day flew on Lap 105, the new leader was car No. 48. It’s something seemingly unheard of out of the Cup Series, where Jimmie Johnson’s spotter Earl Barban continuously radios in, “new leader — 48.”
For Poole, it appeared as if his week was coming full circle.
When the race restarted on Lap 109, Poole opted to restart on the high line, restarting ahead of Sprint Cup Series regular Austin Dillon, rather than veteran Elliott Sadler on the low side. For three-quarters of a lap, Poole held the lead in a tandem with Dillon, holding off Team Penske’s Logano and Sadler. However, the pair of cars on the lower part of the banking stayed connected for a few more feet, giving them the advantage entering the frontstretch.
Poole attempted to get fancy with Logano as Sadler dropped back a few yards, with Logano blocking the No. 48 car coming to four laps to go. Both drivers went to the low side, leaving Dillon and teammate Brendan Gaughan in the middle of the racetrack.
As the field came to the start-finish line with three laps remaining, Jeb Burton spun in the tri-oval, forcing overtime.
Logano — the leader — chose the inside line, with Poole restarting in the high lane once again. But this time, trailing the No. 48 was the underfunded Jeremy Clements, who competes for his family-owned team with a limited budget.
Clements, using help from Dillon on the high line, was able to push Poole until they entered Turn 3, when the high line slowly drifted back. Coming to the white flag, Poole was side-by-side with Sadler’s teammate, Justin Allgaier, who was the third car in line on the low side.
As Sadler went onto the apron momentarily coming off Turn 2 on the final lap, it enabled Poole and Clements to get to Logano’s door halfway through the backstretch. But Sadler and Logano pulled away exiting Turn 4, leaving Poole to seemingly battle for the third position and nothing more.
Sadler got into the rear of Logano’s No. 22 Ford, creating a melee in the tri-oval as the checkered flag was in the flag man’s hands.
Coming across the finish line first amidst the chaos was indeed Poole.
“Well, after I crossed the finish line, I was like oh man how funny is this?” Poole joked, referencing his week of joking with his friends. “I was also thinking about all the moments and hard work I did to get to that point. To think that you’ve won the race, you’re like, ‘man, they can’t take this win away.”
However, they did take the win away.
Poole sat by the finish line for several moments, along with Sadler as NASCAR attempted to figure out who won the race. But after a few minutes of uncertainty, Sadler was declared the winner.
NASCAR officials signaled the caution period at the time of the incident, and per the rules, the field is frozen once the caution is out.
Instead, Poole settled for a career-high third-place finish.
“When he thought we had won, he was freaking out – like everyone was – because I had been saying it all week,” Poole said about Jordan. “That came to my mind for a moment. I was like, ‘this is quite funny’ because I’ve been saying it all week.”
All kidding aside, Poole’s mind was racing in the car, gathering his thoughts after a roller coaster finish. And in the end, it was the same humble man from The Woodlands, Texas that stepped outside of his racecar, embracing the opportunity he never believed would come his way.
“It was just a cool feeling to know that I could win these races,” Poole explained. “I feel like I’ve been slowly, but surely been proving that I can do this. We will win one. It was very emotional for a while, especially when I thought I had won. Waiting on the finish to see who had won and then not winning was disappointing. But at the same time, it was still a great day. We got our best finish. We were up front all day, worked with a lot of veterans, gained a lot of respect from a lot of people and racecar drivers, which is huge. I feel like everything that came out of it was all positive.”
While the task right now is to make the Chase and contend for a title, the focus for Poole remains on the future.
The humble side of Poole refuses to get too ahead of himself. While he has to think about the future, he does not want to rush to the Sprint Cup level like many have done in the past.
A few years ago, Poole admits he could only dream of having him name on a Sprint Cup car. But suddenly, thanks to Ganassi believing in his ability behind the wheel, that dream might soon become a reality.
“I want to win races here and a championship,” he said. “I want to move up. I want to get the same thing at the Cup level. It seems like at each level, every driver has to prove themselves. It gets tougher as you go up. I’ve been so close a few times here, certainly with Talladega the closest. It’s just special. It gives my team that extra confidence boost as well.
“It’s like, ‘hey, we’re here and we’re coming for ‘them.’ Everyone is working really hard. Everyone believes and trusts one another. Having that speed while being out there just makes us even stronger. When you start believing that you can win, you win. I’m happy that we have all that on our side right now.”
The reality of the situation for Poole is his performance will determine his future. DC Solar, as he says, has been great to work with. The company’s expansion to a full-time schedule is one example of what can happen if he runs well.
While there is no timeline for Poole to make the jump to NASCAR’s premier division, he is still on Cloud 9. He is still the same kid who was victorious in his ARCA Series debut in 2011 at Salem Speedway. He is still his humble self, smiling as much as he can while understanding what is at stake — his career.
“A few years ago, I don’t know if I could have told you I would get here,” Poole said. “For someone to do all of the stuff that he’s done in racing – the amount of races and events that he’s won over his career as an owner – is amazing. He’s certainly been able to pick some good guys, so for him to show his faith in me is huge. He’s a cool guy to race for, too. He’s got that personality where he just wants to win every race. If you’re like, ‘Chip, we can’t win every race,’ he’s like well why not? That’s the kind of guy he is. I really like racing for someone with that type of attitude.”
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