For the past few seasons, ARCA transplant ML Motorsports has established itself among the top-tier part-time operations still around in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. A consistent top-20 performer, young Shelby Howard picked up for the team where veteran Mark Green left off, keeping the No. 70 a bona fide contender every time it comes to the track. However, like any small-time organization, limited resources have made the implementation of NASCAR’s NNS CoT a work in progress for the squad. Frontstretch caught up with Howard at Charlotte earlier this month to discuss how the program continues to hang in there, making strides towards the 2011 season despite those economic difficulties – even if the results don’t yet show it.
Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: You’re driving for one of the few part-time teams out there actually tackling the new car. How is that project progressing for your team?
Shelby Howard: It’s going pretty good. It’s been a huge learning curve for us. We’ve gotten all of our new-style cars from KHI and that’s helped us a lot with the process, but we’ve still got a lot to learn, how to keep the front splitter off the ground and stuff like that. Some of the bigger teams that have the dollars to work with [already have figured that out.] It’s good that we got to run the four races this year, it’s taught us what to expect next year and what we have to work on over the winter.
Keith: The results your team has had with the new car have dropped down a tick from where you were, a consistent top 20 in the old car. How close are you to breaking through with this new car?
Howard: We’ve made a lot of progress. Our results haven’t showed it, and I’m not confident they’re going to show up here [at Charlotte] either. We know what we need to do, and [in practice] we learned a lot. But we don’t have all the parts here to do it quite yet. There’s a lot of stuff you do with the sway bars to control the travel on the front of these things, and we’ve learned a lot. We’ve just got to go home and apply it, get some time on a seven-post. The full-time teams, they’re on it all the time, and we never get any time on it. I feel like we’re really close.
Keith: You had a chance to drive a truck for KHI earlier this season. You’ve been with ML Motorsports for a few years now; that’s the first time you’ve driven in NASCAR for another operation in awhile. What were you able to take from those three races, both in building a relationship with KHI and getting into some top-tier equipment?
Howard: It did help. Obviously, we already had a relationship with KHI and their Nationwide stuff, but it helped to get to know some of those guys better. I learned a lot of little stuff working with them that they do and can apply it to what we do every week. They’re obviously one of the top teams in the Truck Series and I learned a lot running with them.
Keith: In the Truck ranks there’s obviously a lot of experience there, too, with Kevin Harvick among the veterans who race part-time in the series. Ken Schrader has also driven the No. 2 truck this season. Who in the garage have you been able to lean on?
Howard: On the Nationwide side, Kevin [Harvick] is probably the one that I’ve been leaning on the most. You know, we were up in Michigan during practice and he got in my car, drove it. I’ve been able to lean on him quite a bit.
Keith: The Nationwide Series is kind of in flux right now, they just had a town hall meeting this week. There’s talk about limiting chassis for next year, the new car is going full-time, and some sort of limit to Cup driver participation could be in the works. What is your take on the direction the series is going right now?
Howard: You know, I really don’t know what to think about it. No matter what they do, I don’t foresee it affecting our team. Whatever they decide to do, whether it’s limiting the Cup guys that want to run with us… when they come over and run with us, they just make us that much better. It also hinders our results a bit, too. Our focus is just to get our racecars better, our team better. We plan on running 22 races again next year, and just doing the best we can for those 22 races.
Keith: Same sponsorship situation as this year?
Keith: There’s just a handful of races left in the season. How does it change your approach to know that the season is winding down, if at all?
Howard: The second half of this year has kind of changed for us, because with the old-style car… we know there’s stuff we can improve on, bodies, front suspension, stuff like that. And we’ve kind of drug our feet on doing that, because we know we can’t run those cars next year. Some of these big teams, like KHI, they don’t care. They’re going to keep working on these old cars and make them better until Homestead. That part’s a little frustrating, the way everything’s laid itself out, but we pretty much have the same two cars and have been running them all year.
Keith: The testing ban is still in place while transitioning to the new car. Would you have the resources to take part in testing if it was open, and would that benefit a team such as yourself?
Howard: Well, I definitely think the new car is ready to come out [full-time] next year. And as far as testing goes, we would be able to take advantage of it. I think it would actually help the smaller teams more than the big teams. The bigger teams, they’re on the seven-post machines and doing stuff constantly that we don’t get to do. I’m not going to say that we come to the track less prepared, but we’ve got two hours to figure stuff out that they’ve been working on for two days on a seven-post machine. The on-track time for us would be big, and we would definitely take advantage of it.
Keith: How much of a relief has it been to be in the Top 30 this year?
Howard: It’s a big relief. I didn’t know how much of a relief it would be until we got there. But like today, we go out first to qualify. If I was worried about having to make the race today, it would be more pressure. But I’m not, so it helps things out. We’ll run practice, and if we’re running out of time before we’d stop early – no matter if we had something left to work on – just to get in qualifying trim to make sure we could get into the race. Now, if we think we can make the car a little better, we’ll take a chance and stay in race trim, not even get to a mock qualifying run. It helps us race a little better.
Keith: Is there any sort of partnership between ML and Jay Robinson Racing beyond the No. 70 number?
Howard: We’ll share a little bit in the garage together, but it’s largely the number situation. Still, it’s been a good situation for both teams.
Keith: What constitutes a successful close to 2010?
Howard: Closing this year, we’d love to get a couple top 15s under our belt. Over the winter, we plan on getting these new cars all together, going a couple places and doing some testing, getting the front of these cars figured out. I think next year’s going to be successful for us.