Your fulltime job is racing for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series where your car owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is one of the best superspeedway racers NASCAR has ever seen. What advice has he provided as you prepare to make the Daytona 500?
“I was always the guy to ride around in the back, save your car to the end of the race. Dale said, ‘Screw that,’ and he told me that I needed to go out there and have the mentality of almost like going out to GoPro Motorplex or any go-kart track around the country, where you’re beating and banging and somehow everybody ends up finishing the race even when you’re super aggressive. He said, ‘Do whatever you’ve got to do to be up front and do whatever you’ve got to do to just be able to learn how to pass. Learn your car. Use the first three-quarters of the race to learn your racecar, try to make moves. If you fall back and you get to the tail of the line, who really cares? Just learn because you’re going to want that knowledge for later in the race.’ So, I did that the very next time I went to Daytona and there was a significant difference in the way the stats were at the end of the race. I had a different approach in 2020 and had a lot of success. Just being aggressive, not really daring, just learning the car with a wreckers or checkers mentality.”
Earnhardt tested the NextGen car at Daytona in mid-January. Have you gotten any insights from him about how different it is or how similar it is before you get into the NextGen car yourself?
“I talked to Dale after his test at Daytona and he said it’s a little bit different, but it handles like a speedway car. In fact, it should handle more like an Xfinity car, and the package should be more like that. The Xfinity Series has been my bread and butter these last few years, so it’s going to be a new set of challenges, but we’re excited for it. We’re excited to learn it, we’re excited to get on track down in Daytona and really figure it out, but we won’t know until we get there.”
Before you run the Daytona 500, you have to run the Duel. Last year, you came up a little bit short in the Duel. Have you replayed that race, and is there anything you would’ve done differently?
“I feel like last year’s Duel was one of the best races I’ve ever put together in my career. We kind of struggled on the pit stops just because we don’t have a fulltime crew, so that kind of hurt us. The first lap, we started the race in last – in 21st or 22nd – and by the time we got to turn three on the first lap, I was splitting Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, who were running 13th and 14th down the back straightaway, and I got up to 12th getting into turn three on the first lap, so I passed 10 cars. I felt really comfortable last year, I felt comfortable with our crew chief, Darren. The car drove great and that has me really confident going into this season. Darren really knows what he’s doing underneath a racecar, and if we can just go and do our job and race to our full potential and minimize mistakes, there’s no reason we can’t get into the race this year.”
Even though it was a limited Daytona experience for four last year, did you have a “pinch me” moment when you were pulling off pit road and onto the track?
“A few times. Walking out, we had a rain delay after the first Duel. We were in the second Duel, and we were heading out to the grid and they’re pushing the 4 car of Kevin Harvick out to the grid, and it was Rodney Childers (crew chief) and Kevin Harvick walking next to me and I looked over and said, ‘Wow.’ I used to play as this guy in a video game and now we’re going to race on the world’s largest stage at Daytona International Speedway and be able to go head-to-head with these guys. Getting laps in there, that was really surreal. I was so focused in the race. Once I put my helmet on, I was so focused and ready to go to work. Once you’re up there with the big dogs and you see all those paint schemes and you see those numbers and drivers, it’s a pretty surreal moment. And then we wrecked and I got out of the car, unfortunately, with two laps to go and I just took a second to look around and thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ Growing up as a kid never even expecting to make it to this level in my racing career – it’s always been a dream – and to be able to just take a second and do a 360 and look around and just really take that moment in – that was a really special moment to me. We just raced against the big dogs and, unfortunately, we came up short, but I really wanted to take that moment in.”
Is it helpful to have that experience in your hip pocket?
“I think it’s great having that experience with those Cup guys. I mean, we ran in the top-10, all the way up to sixth at one point. Kyle Busch was right behind me for 20 or 30 laps. Just trying to gain those guys’ respect and be able to show that while I am an Xfinity driver, I can hang with these guys and keep the car straight and not be tearing up other guys’ equipment. I think just getting the respect from the other competitors is the most important thing from last year, and being able to see what that race craft is in the Cup Series. It’s a big leap up to the Cup Series. It’s a challenge, and those guys are the best stock car drivers in America, and to be able to follow them and learn from them, it’s a big opportunity.”
Racing for an independent team with no guaranteed starting spot means you have to balance speed with self-preservation. How do you run up front in the Duel and make sure you keep a straight racecar and are there at the finish?
“You always have to be patiently aggressive, just trying to stay ahead of things and trying to put yourself in good positions. I’m going to drive my ass off just to do my best job and be aggressive from the start of the Duel. Hopefully, we’re locked in and that’ll mean a different approach, but you’ve got to be on it from the drop of the green flag.”
Last year as you readied for the Daytona 500, Linda Beard told you to “drive the piss out of it.” Does this fit your checkers-or-wreckers mentality?
“Missing qualifying last year due to tech inspection stuff really put us in a position of, ‘Hey, we need to be the highest open team.’ And, like Mrs. Beard said, ‘Go out there, son, and drive the piss out of it.’ And that’s what we did. I don’t know what the entry list looks like this year. We had 44, 45 cars last year. I’m not exactly sure how many we’re going to have this year. It might be less than that. That might stack the cards a little bit differently this year and we might be in a different position this year as far as the task at hand. We’ve just got to wait and see how qualifying goes and that’s really going to set us up for the Duel.”
Everybody loves an underdog. Do you go into Daytona with a chip on your shoulder, knowing you can upset the apple cart with these multicar teams and carry it as a badge of honor?
“Definitely. Even last year, racing up with these guys, there’s a picture of me leading the top line. I had Bubba Wallace behind me, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Leading those cars and being in our 62 Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet – the one that you don’t see every weekend and has one fulltime employee, crew chief Darren Shaw – it’s pretty remarkable what we were able to do. And moments like that, I feel like, definitely earn you respect in the sport. So, I definitely have a chip on my shoulder going into Daytona of, ‘Hey, we can still do it.’ We might be an underdog when it comes to everything on paper, but I know Darren Shaw, he brings really fast racecars to the racetrack. The Chevrolet power is incredible and the cars drive really well. I have everything on the table that I need to go out there and perform. Once we get out there, it’s my job to get the car into the Daytona 500.”
You’ve got more races with Beard Motorsports planned for this year. How important is it to come out of the gate strong and set the tone with your limited Cup Series schedule?
“I think the most important goal for us in setting the tone is completing all the laps. That’s what we want to do. We need to have a racecar – we only have one of them at Beard Motorsports – so we need to be finishing these races with the least amount of damage possible. We know some guys will wreck out, so we’ll just hope we don’t get collected in it. Completing all the laps is our number one goal, and bringing the car home in one piece with as little damage as possible. With the resources that we have, it makes it a challenge and it’s difficult only having one car, so your mindset is a little bit different. Let’s say if you had a backup car and you had another for the second superspeedway race of the season, that’s going to be a challenge, maybe not racing to my full potential and making moves as I normally would if we did have another car back at the shop. It’s definitely going to be difficult adapting to that because I’ve always been a checkers-or-wreckers racer and trying to be aggressing and make big, bold moves in trying to get to the front. This year, it might be hanging around in the back and let the other guys wreck, and don’t dice it up and try to finish the race.”