Race Weekend Central

Rookie Roundtable: The Class of 2017 On Racing NASCAR’s Top Series

How bright is the future in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series?  Judging by this year’s rookie class, you might want to invest in some good sunglasses.  The Cup Series features five rookie drivers this season, racing for some of the sport’s bigeest teams as well as some smaller organizations.  While Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are swapping the lead in the Rookie of the Year standing almost every week, Ty Dillon is lurking, and youngsters Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding are working on making their equipment better each and every week.

Amy Henderson and Mike Neff sat down with four members of this year’s freshman class earlier this summer to talk shop on the learning curve, realistic first-year goals and more.

Is racing in the Cup Series what you expected it to be in terms of competition and what you’re learning?

Daniel Suarez, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota: I knew that it was going to be tough, and it was going to take a lot of work from myself and from my team. So far, it’s been just like that.  The competition has been very difficult.  Everyone is very good and very competitive. It’s hard to be racing at the front.  I have a great team, and they’ve been working very hard for me.

Ty Dillon, Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet: Luckily I made some starts before this year started and got a little taste of really what it takes to be good in the Cup Series, racing with some of the guys and knowing that every time you hit the racetrack you’ve got to be better, you’ve got to be improving.  You’ve got to be studying, doing everything you can as a driver to get better as well as getting your car better, too.  Every aspect of your game has got to be on point.  I really feel like it’s two jumps up when you leave the XFINITY Series to go to the Cup Series with all the things you have to pay attention to.  You have to change your style of preparation.

Corey LaJoie, BK Racing No. 83 Toyota: I definitely knew the competition would be stout.  I didn’t know the gap in equipment was as vast as it is between the teams that get manufacturers support and the teams that don’t.  The learning curve is steep, but I feel like the guys who have been in better cars, the better team you’re with, and the better the cars, I think the learning curve is a little less steep. Those guys learn at the same pace as everybody else, but their potential is much higher when they’re in capable cars.

Gray Gaulding, Premium Motorsports Nos. 15/55 Chevrolets: Definitely.  I think racing in the Cup Series as a rookie has been a great for me because every single week I’m racing with the best in the business—the Jimmie Johnsons, Kyle Busches, Matt Kenseths.  I can go on down the list; these guys are the best in the business.  I’ve been able to learn a lot from them so far this season. I’m looking forward to learning more, and getting to know these cars more and talking to these guys.  It’s definitely been tough, but… we’re slowly building.

Has the time you spent in the XFINITY or Camping World Truck series prepared you well for this level?

Suarez: I think the XFINITY Series did a lot.  I didn’t do a lot of racing in the trucks, but for sure, my two years racing in the XFINITY Series helped me a lot for the Cup Series.

Dillon: I think so.  Racing for championships in both series and the travel and being around the racetrack (helps with) knowing what to expect as far as being a championship contender. Trying to run the high levels in those series gives me a little more perspective on how to put together a whole season.  When you have a successful season, you’re not making splashes for the next race or crashing out.  Focusing on consistency as meant a lot to my career, so it’s definitely been helpful this year to start out having a consistent year.

LaJoie: Nothing really can prepare you for running Cup.  Even the guys who do a bunch of XFINITY stuff to try to prepare, it is all new, it’s all different.  Even the guys that are running 38th, 39th in Cup are really good.  There are maybe 15 or 17 guys in XFINITY that really understand how to race, and man, it’s tough.  Obviously having more experience would be better, but when you get here, you have to keep proving yourself every week and keep learning and trying to keep getting better.

Gaulding: I think it has prepared me a lot. Every series I raced in, I never stayed in it too long to where I either dominated or beat guys who raced in it.  I would say my parents, every single series I raced in, they moved me up every chance I could to race with bigger and better guys. So, when I got the opportunity to run in the Cup Series, I couldn’t say no. It’s been a great opportunity.  I feel like I’ve been prepared for this.  I know I’m only 19, but I feel like my body’s in great shape, my head is in the right state of mind and I’m ready to go.

What is your biggest strength as a driver?

Suarez: I guess patience. I feel like I’ve been through a lot in my racing career so far, and I feel like I’m a smart driver.  I’m maturing and learning what I can do, and that’s helping us out in these races.

Dillon: I think our strength so far is capitalizing each weekend and getting the most out of our car.  We’ve had some good finishes even though we might not have had the fastest speed at some of these tracks.  We’ve had some really good finishes just digging deep every single race, and just grinding away has been our strong suit. And when these guys make mistakes, we’re there to capitalize. We’ll get faster racecars, and I’ll get faster as a driver as time goes on, and as long as we keep that grinding attitude that we’ve had this year, we’ll start jumping up in the points pretty quickly.

LaJoie: I’m not sure there are a whole lot of strengths, but trying to get the most out of the cars.  Sometimes when stuff breaks, tires blow, stuff that’s out of my control, you can’t really do anything about, which has happened to me several times, but I feel like I’m getting a lot better at driving the car and giving feedback. I’m just going to continue to try and keep getting better and drive the car to its potential, keep it one piece and take whatever it will give me.

Gaulding: I feel like my biggest strength is being able to get out there and let it rip—that’s kind of my driving style.  With these cars, you’ve just got to get out there and kind of overdrive them sometimes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  If you go out there and drive in the corner five car lengths too deep, some places it’s good.  But at [Charlotte] this is not good.  So I kind of have that aggressive driving style already.

Where do you still need to improve the most?

Suarez: Everywhere. There is room to improve in every single area, but in every single race that we have this year, we get better and better in every single area.  I think that’s normal.  It’s just a process that we have to go through.

Gaulding: Probably my biggest weakness is not having experience at these tracks.  Every single week is a learning curve, and the first 20 or 30 minutes of practice, I have to learn the track because I’ve never been there, and that’s sort of tough. I feel like I do have some strengths and a couple weaknesses I’m trying to work on every single week, and it’s slowly getting better, but it’s a long season, and the more I work on it, the more I get better, I think the better I’ll be in the long run.

What’s the most important lesson you have learned so far in 2017?

Suarez: I think it’s impossible to say just one.  It’s a lot: longer races, more adjustments, less downforce.  There has been a lot of stuff going on. I’ve had a lot of changes in my racing… there have been a lot of different things that I’ve learned this year.

Dillon: There have been a lot of lessons.  Probably just knowing what your ca is going to give you week in and week out.  Knowing your expectations and capitalizing and getting the most out of the weekend.  It’s a different ballgame.  In the Cup Series, there are guys who have lots of speed at times, and it’s all about managing every aspect of your weekend and putting a strong run together. You’ll get good finishes and be where you need to be, let the speed come to you in the racecar.

LaJoie: I’m growing every week in every aspect. There’s not really one thing I’ve gotten noticeably better at; it’s just been trying to log laps, trying to do the little things right, like getting onto pit road and getting in the box just right, trying to get the car tuned up in practice like it’s supposed to be. I’m having a lot of fun. This BK Toyota and the team is continuing to get better. We’ll keep chipping away at it.

Gaulding: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is really pit road. Earlier in the year I got two straight speeding penalties, and that set us back and hurt us with (getting) good finishes. I’ve been trying to work on getting better on pit road because every green flag stop, and those small seconds matter so much on the racetrack.

What is a fair expectation for your performance in your first full season at the Cup level? What would you be satisfied with?

Suarez: Hopefully we can be more competitive—race more in the top 10, race more in the top five. We’ll go from there.  If we can do that, we’re going to be fine in the second half of the year.

Dillon: I think we’ve done a lot of things that we’ve set out this year to do.  The first one was to make sure we get better every time we come to the racetrack.  I think if we continue doing that and we kind of reset our other goals to finishing on the lead lap, finishing in the top 20 to finishing in the top 15, and scoring segment points is now our new goal.  It’s really nice to reset your expectations halfway through the year, and so we’re going to go and work hard towards that and get a little bit more speed out of our racecars every weekend, and we’re very, very capable of winning Rookie of the Year and being in the playoffs.

LaJoie: Looking back at the entirety of BK Racing over the last six or seven years, their average finish as a team is like 33.8. Anything better than that, for me, is good. Obviously, I want to be up there competing for wins, but if I try to drive this car as fast as the other guys, it can’t take it, so my ultimate goal at the end of the year would be a top-30 average finish.  The first couple of weeks, we didn’t even have a functional crew, stuff was falling off every week—the West Coast swing was brutal.  We had some bad finishes, but lately we’ve been finishing 27th, 28th, 29th—racing inside the top 30.  I’d be satisfied if I get to do another year.  There are a lot of things I’ve learned this year that could apply to next year that hopefully I can get another chance to do it. I’m trying to grow my social media platform as well, trying to be the best I can on and off the racetrack, engage with fans, so hopefully more people know about Corey LaJoie.

Gaulding: I feel like honestly, I’ve had a B-; maybe a B- would be a good way to grade my season.  There are things I feel like I definitely need to get better at—small things, like trying to help my crew chief better, trying to get to know these cars, trying to watch more video of these tracks. I feel like I need to do a little bit more studying away from the track; I’ve been working really hard to do that.  Overall, I feel like I’ve gained a lot every single week, so hopefully by the end of the year I’ll get it pretty close to an A grade. I’d love to get in the top 30 in points.  I feel like that would be really cool, to say you finished top 30 your first season out in this competition would be a really good year for us.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career to date?  What’s the biggest piece of advice they’ve given you?

Suarez: I think my teammates.  They have been really good to me and given me a lot of advice.  My team, everyone.  I’m very, very lucky to have a great team behind me who are willing to support me. I used to work a lot with Kyle (Busch). I still work a lot with Kyle the most, but all of them, and the Furniture Row guys.  We all talk a lot and get long really well.

Dillon: Probably my whole family. I get advice from them every single day and every time I get out on the racetrack, so it’s hard to pinpoint one piece of advice.  My family has definitely been the most influential, my wife as well, just being a very positive influence on my career.  They always have my back.  I have a great group of family and friends around me, which makes this life, which is really awesome, and racing, very enjoyable to me. When our baby gets here, I want to show her what Dad can do, so I’m looking forward to that day.

LaJoie: It’d probably have to be my dad (racer Randy LaJoie), since day one.  He probably put a helmet on my head when I was 3 years old.  He’s pushed me, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but he gave me the mindset it takes to get here.  Maybe sometimes his parenting skills were a bit questionable (laughs), but looking back I understand it a lot more now than I did in the moment. He’s been a big influence, and I try to bounce as much stuff off him as I can.  The most common advice he gives me is, “don’t hit nothing.” Sometimes I heed that, sometimes I don’t.  The goal is to always try not to hit anything, but sometimes something out of your control happens and you hit the fence, so we’re going to try to do less of that over here at BK this year and try to get some good runs.

Gaulding: There have been a lot of people along the line, on and off the track.  It’s been really good to get to talk to veterans and Cup champions like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.  Kevin Harvick, he believed in me when I was 12 years old, so he’s been a pretty big influence. Being able to talk to Denny Hamlin… all these Cup guys, they know I’m a rookie, they know I’m trying to learn, and being able to talk to them and learn as much as I can (is important). When I drove for Kyle Busch, he gave me a lot of good advice on the different racetracks, and the groove and how the track changes… a lot of things about the racetracks and about the cars. Just being able to pick his brain and hear what he had to say was probably the most valuable.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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