This time last season, Danny O’Quinn was Roush Racing’s star on the rise. En route to winning Busch Series Rookie of the Year, the 22-year-old Virginian had racked up a total of five top-10 finishes to establish himself as a driver to watch.
Unfortunately, one year later watching instead of racing has become the norm for a driver often labeled the “poster boy” for what’s wrong with the series he once seemed ready to conquer. Sponsorship issues kept his Roush Racing team from putting together a full-time effort for his sophomore season, and as the year began O’Quinn sat helplessly, without the resources he needed to keep his career on track. Eventually choosing to play the role of underdog at single-car team Mac Hill Motorsports, O’Quinn is still affiliated with Roush, but making the best of any opportunity he has to get himself back on the map – and away from racing oblivion.
Frontstretch talked with O’Quinn about the difficulties involved with a small-budget operation, the frustrations of running a part-time schedule, and the overwhelming amount of fan support he’s received during a trying time in his career.
Tom Bowles, Frontstretch: You’ve obviously been put through a difficult year. Can you explain the roller coaster of emotions you’ve been on, going from Rookie of the Year to part-time Busch Series participant?
Danny O’Quinn: It’s definitely been frustrating. At the end of the year last year, everything was going really well, getting the Rookie of the Year award – and two or three weeks later, you find out you’re not going to be running (maybe at all). So, it’s kind of frustrating from that standpoint. But I was fortunate enough that Roush let me talk with some other teams, and see if I could get some other races. And I know Jack MacNelly and everybody over here at Mac Hill Motorsports – Tony Lambert, the crew chief, he used to crew chief for me. They were nice enough to give me an opportunity to race 7-8 races this year. Keep my feet wet, keep them in the door, and help out the team and myself both.
Bowles: How did you know Mac Hill so well?
O’Quinn: Actually, the crew chief over here was working for me at the time he got the job at Mac Hill, and I kind of got to know (owner) Jack [MacNelly] and everybody over the past couple of years, since ’05. I always kept in touch with Tony, and things kind of opened up this year – they didn’t have anything going on, and neither did I. So we put together some racing with Power Equipment as a sponsor, and I came over here and did some racing for them.
Bowles: Of course, when you make that type of change – going from a team that has everything to one that doesn’t have nearly the same amount of resources and sponsorship money – it can be a big adjustment. How has racing for the underdog this year changed your perspective?
O’Quinn: You know, it’s definitely different. When you’re over there (at Roush), money is not an object. But at the same time, I grew up racing, my father owned our team, and we didn’t have necessarily the money to do everything quite the way it needed to be done. I grew up with that, and honestly, it makes you appreciate what you’re doing more and the people around you; they put more effort into what they’re doing. It’s not just another job; they know that in order to keep things running, we have to put 110% into what we’re doing.
But it’s tough, no doubt. That’s pretty obvious when you look at what these guys have got to spend and work with. When (the Cup-owned Busch teams have) four or five cars on the track, it takes four or five runs for us to learn what they’re doing in one run. Things like that definitely hurt us. Not having the Cup engine programs, or the time at the wind tunnels, or pulldown rigs or things like that, that’s the stuff that can really bite you. But I think we do well with what we’ve got right now. We’re looking into the future, and hopefully he can pull sponsorship over here. Jack and everybody here know what we need to do it correctly, and I feel like if we can pull the right financial backing, we can go out there and be as successful as everyone else. But it’s all about money, and it takes money to get the resources you need to run well.
We’re moving to a new shop this year, we’ve really got some things that are looking up; if anybody came over and took a look and what we’re doing here, they’d be pretty impressed. Jack and everybody are willing to do what it takes to be successful; we’ve just got to get that someone (with money to) give us that opportunity.
Bowles: Having been in both scenarios, now, what’s been more gratifying for you as a driver? Coming home 15th in a car that you knew just struggled to get to the track, or finishing fifth with a car that had everything in it you could have possibly wanted?
There’s a couple of different ways of looking at that. As a driver, you’re trying to finish the best you can every week. So that part of you says, well it’s nice to finish fifth or fourth or something or have a chance of winning; but once you’ve been on the other side of the spectrum, you say hey, you really made the most of what we had. When you finish fifth, you may have had a fourth-place car and finished fifth; but another time, we may have had a 25th-place car and finished 15th. (In that situation) we really made the most of what we had.
Look, I’m used to winning races in everything I’ve been in, so it’s been a little frustrating in the last year or two not having a chance to maybe win one of these things yet. And deep down, that’s really what I want to do. I’m not going to sit there and say I’m the happiest person on the face of this earth (when I don’t finish first) – winning makes me happy. That’s what I strive for.
Bowles: How has being in this position changed the way you drive on the track? Do you find you’re digging that much deeper?
O’Quinn: Yeah, I think so. When we go to the track, we know what we’re up against every week. You know, the frustrating point of this year has just been not racing every week; so when I do get in the car, it’s been a month or so since I’ve ran, and I have to take time to get affiliated back to driving. Only running part-time has been kind of tough on me, but at the same time, I feel like I put 110% into everything I did on the track driving, and we’ve finished all the races. We’ve had some problems, we’ve had some things come loose, but we’ve finished, haven’t torn anything up in the races, and that’s all we can do right now. We need to go out there and make the most out of each run we’ve got, try to keep the sponsors we’ve got happy, and try to attract more over to this team. And that’s what makes me feel good about what we’re doing here. I’ve got people here that believe in me… and I believe in them. And that makes a big difference.
Bowles: You seem to be indicating patience is key, that by finishing races you build experience as a driver. Is that the hardest thing, scaling back at the right times when you know you only have a couple of opportunities to prove yourself to potential sponsors? We saw at Memphis, there were a couple of kids that had one-off deals where it seemed like they felt they had to be the next Jeff Gordon… like that was their only shot.
O’Quinn: I think so. Different owners see it different ways. Some people feel like you have to go out there and run in the top 10 your very first race, some don’t. But I think that puts a lot of pressure on you sometimes, and can create mistakes. Honestly, I ran a couple of Roush races this year, and if I look back at Kentucky, there was a lot of pressure on me to go out there and perform really well, because I didn’t know what the future held at Roush really early in the year. I think that (type of pressure) could have led to some of the issues at Memphis, too. It was definitely a crazy race down there, and we’ve all been there; this is a big jump from whatever you may have been running before the Busch Series. There’s a lot of great race drivers here, and nobody gives an inch on the track.
Bowles: Of course, it’s been a struggle for some of these Busch guys all season long. Having been in the position of some of these younger guys, do you feel like the push is on now especially because the Buschwackers take away so many spots at times, too?
O’Quinn: Well, when you go to a lot of these racetracks and there are 20 Cup guys in the race, you’ve got to really be spot-on to run 10th to 15th. So, you’ve really got to push hard to be up there racing with those guys. They’ve got so much experience.
A lot of people like to see them there, a lot of people don’t. From a driver’s standpoint, there’s times where sometimes I wish that there weren’t so many. But at the same time, I understand that it’s good for the series and good for us drivers to go out there and race with those guys. It teaches you a lot, when you need to be racing and when you need to be conservative. So, a lot of times, it’s good to have them out there, it pushes you as a rookie driver to really stand on it and be competitive.
Bowles: In terms of being able to develop your career, Danny, what things do you do to try and keep yourself fresh when you can only run a handful of races per year?
O’Quinn: Well, just being at the track. Trying to do everything you can to get a little exposure. Whether it be doing an interview with you, or trying to get on TV, that’s the only way you can really brand yourself right now is try to get every little bit of exposure you can.
Whether it be trying to go to the track every week, just walking through the garage area – if you’re not out there doing something, you’ll get forgotten real quick in this business. There’s so many people coming through the doors every day that you really have to keep yourself visible.
Bowles: Danny, this is the first time no full-time Busch Series driver is moving up to Cup next year. Now, owners seem to be grabbing from the open-wheel series instead; is that discouraging to know you’ve come up through the system naturally, and all these other guys that haven’t even raced stock cars once are getting the prime opportunities?
O’Quinn: That’s definitely frustrating. And I don’t have anything against anybody coming over and trying to race. But the fact they’re going straight to Cup, with no experience with Busch or Truck, is kind of shocking to me. I think it’s kind of shocking to most people. In my opinion, someone like Sam Hornish [Jr.] – he’s a great racecar driver, and there’s no doubt in my mind that eventually he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the Cup Series. But I think it’s obvious he would really benefit – those guys would benefit from running more Truck and Busch races. I know they’re great racecar drivers, but I’ve drove stock cars all my life, and these things are not easy to drive by any means. I think even for some of them, most would probably say the same thing a year from now (that are coming into the sport today). It’s definitely frustrating to look at them getting the opportunity to just go straight to Cup on their open-wheel background, but that’s part of it.
Bowles: What does that do for morale, though, for all these guys who have come up through the stock car ranks only to have no owners take a chance on them. Is going away from some of the homegrown talent threatening the sport’s future?
O’Quinn: It’s definitely discouraging, but that’s where the people who are going to prevail are not going to let that happen. You’ve got to keep doing your thing, and it’s either going to happen or it doesn’t. You can’t let it beat you down; there’s a lot of things in life that don’t go your way, and that’s just a fact of the matter. There’s nothing you can do about that.
As frustrating as that may be, that’s where (the trend is) going, and we’ve just got to deal with it and figure out ways to work around it right now. And that’s where someone like myself, that’s where I’ve got to work hard and keep myself a fixture in the NASCAR ranks.
Bowles: There’s been so much in NASCAR about friendship and how that’s helped within teams, like in the case of Hendrick Motorsports. So, who are the people you’ve become closest with in your time at the garage?
O’Quinn: I’ve gotten to know quite a few people through working at Roush. I’m really good friends with David Ragan. It seems like I could always go to him and talk to him about stuff. Sometimes, just having guys like that, him and Erik Darnell, we all come in here together and we’re all experiencing similar things, and it’s good to be able to talk to guys like that.
I (also) know Johnny Sauter really well. When they pulled me out of the car at California to let David run it (last year), Johnny came up and said, “Don’t worry about it.” He just came up and talked to me; I didn’t really know him at that point, but I thought that was pretty cool of him to do. And last year, when I was running at Roush, Carl [Edwards] was very willing to come up and talk to me and help me with things also.
Bowles: You mention how close you and Ragan have been; have things changed at all now that he’s running the Cup Series full-time?
O’Quinn: Same old guy. Me and him are really good friends. He’s busy now, he don’t get to do too much anymore, but if you ever need anything, all you gotta do is ask him. He’s a great guy. I haven’t seen him change very much; I think a lot of those guys, when they get to Cup, they do change a good bit – but I don’t think David has.
Bowles: Speaking of Roush, you’ve gotten to know both Edwards and Matt Kenseth. What was your opinion on how their incident unfolded, and was it handled correctly?
I think that a lot of times – we’re all out there racing, and there’s certain times where you get frustrated. You get frustrated in the car, and it doesn’t matter if it’s your teammate or not. (What happened) just shows how much they care about what they’re doing, that they get frustrated about what’s going on. They just don’t let things build up in their head; I don’t think Matt does, I don’t think Carl does, either one.
It may have been the wrong thing to do, it may not have been (to have a public confrontation). But I think that a little frustration amongst the teams isn’t the worst thing that ever happened. Obviously, that gives them an opportunity to iron out their differences they might have had. It may end up working out best for both of them.
Bowles: Final question; your fans, they have been incredibly supportive of you in particular throughout the course of the season; those who cover the sport have seen how many you have and how dedicated they are. What do you have to say to them?
O’Quinn: That I really appreciate what everyone’s sent me. I’ve got just as much fan mail this year not racing as I had last year. And it makes me feel good that people believe in me still – and I promise I’m not going to give up on this thing. Every time I open up a piece of fan mail and I read that, it gives me that much more motivation to go out there and make things happen.
That’s probably the best feeling in this whole job, is having a little kid walk up to you and ask you to sign something for you, or anyone for that matter. It really makes you feel good… and to all the people that are out there backing me, we will be back. It may take us a little longer that we want to get everything secured that we need, but we’ll be back – and they’ll have someone to root for once again.