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(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Beyond the Cockpit: Dakoda Armstrong Improving at JGL Racing

Sitting 12th in points in the XFINITY Series, Dakoda Armstrong is on a string of races more consistent than any other driver: he has finished all 12 of them in 2017.

After a rough opening to the 2016 season that saw only four top 20s, the Indiana native has seen significant improvement this year with JGL Racing, which gets support in the form of engines from Joe Gibbs Racing. With this consistency bringing the No. 28 Toyota team into the final playoff spot at the halfway point of the regular season, Armstrong is staying realistic in his 2017 expectations.

Frontstretch sat down with Armstrong to discuss his clean start to the campaign, his thoughts on his NASCAR career to date and if he is ready to jump to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series anytime soon.

Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Let’s start with this 2017 season so far. How is it going for this team? We don’t hear a lot about teams like this but you’re working hard.

Dakoda Armstrong: We always want to run better, but we’ve done a great job at finishing races; we have finished every race. Really, it’s about continuing to get better, do our job and making sure we do the best we can with what we have.

Catanzareti: 11 races into the season, where do you feel you need to improve on?

Armstrong: Just getting our cars to where they have a little more speed, handling. We’ve lost so much aero just from the overall change. We don’t have the resources that the top guys have but we do a lot with what we have. We have been getting some help from having Gibbs engines, that has helped a lot. We have good horsepower.

Pocono saw another top-20 finish in 2017 for Dakoda Armstrong. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Catanzareti: We talk about the Cup teams that are in XFINITY and how much tougher they can make it on smaller teams. But you get a little of both there with help from Gibbs engines so what is your experience like?

Armstrong: From what I can tell from it, obviously with the Cup drivers it makes it difficult, but those cars they run, they’re going to run every week. Even with younger drivers, they run very well. So really, we have to beat those cars no matter what. That’s who we are competing against.

Catanzareti: You were in good stuff for a race last year in Iowa; you got a top-five finish with JGR. Looking back almost a year, what are the feelings like?

Armstrong: There were a lot of emotions just trying to get in that car and trying to relate what I drive. There are just little things here and there that make those cars run better longer and have more speed right off the truck. I learned a lot from it. It was really cool that we go to do that and it helped me with confidence, just knowing I could do it.

Catanzareti: How tough is this series? Everybody is trying to make a name for themselves and you’re one of them.

Dakoda Armstrong hopes to build JGL into winning contention. (Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)

Armstrong: I would say this series is the toughest it’s been in a long time — ever since I’ve been in it. You see the Truck Series, it seems they’re struggling a little here and there, competition fades in and out. But this series is very strong.

Catanzareti: You’ve made that progression from ARCA, Trucks, XFINITY. Maybe don’t grade yourself, but look back on your career and how far you’ve come. You have more experience than most in this series now.

Armstrong: I’ve had a lot of good experiences. Obviously, I would’ve liked to have been a little better in a lot of ways. But I feel like the stuff I’ve been in and the opportunities I’ve had, I made the most of them. I’ve learned a lot, I feel I’ve improved a lot as a driver in knowing what the car needs and what I need to do.

I think ARCA helped a lot. We had a lot of good races in there, that was a lot of fun. Even in Trucks, I wasn’t in Trucks as long as here. XFINITY is a tough, tough sport. We’re doing the best we can and I think it’s impressive to take a small team and have moved up. We have a lot of pride in that. That’s been cool to see happen.

Catanzareti: You’re trying to build this team to become large. Do you see a long-term future with this team and yourself?

Armstrong: A lot of it is sponsor-dependent, that’s the hardest thing. I’d like to say yes right off the bat. I don’t see JGL going away, they’re making the right moves to expand. This year, we’re going to run the No. 24 team full time with different drivers. That is good improvement, people wanting to come here and race. That says a lot of where this team has escalated.

Catanzareti: You’ll be 26 this July, everyone talks about these young drivers, 18, 19; they make me feel old. When you look at them, do you feel you have paid your dues in this series and that you’re worth something more?

Armstrong: I guess so. I was one of those 18- or 19-year-olds and it went by fast. This is a weird sport to be 26. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m getting up there. I’m almost a veteran.’ It is weird to think that.

I feel like I’ve been around a lot. I know most of these tracks by now, done them multiple times. I consider myself a veteran of the sport now, not as much as a lot of them. Still, it does make you feel old when you get a lot of these young guys in here for sure.

Catanzareti: Are you ready for the Cup Series?

Armstrong: I think the competition is tougher in Cup, but that is just because the teams are a lot closer. If it’s the right opportunity, I think I’m ready. It’s just about making sure; I feel like I have stepped up too fast in a lot of other things, just wanting to be out there and to put your name up there. Now I’m at the point where there is no point in going to Cup unless I’m getting in something good. If it’s a car that won’t run well, there is not point because I’m not going to be able to carry it. I have to get in something good and that’s what I’ve been waiting on.

Though no Cup start, Armstrong raced for Joe Gibbs Racing in a one-off at Iowa in 2016, finishing fifth. (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Catanzareti: Has the Cup Series been on your radar? Is it something you’ve tried or is it something people just bring up?

Armstrong: Growing up, yeah, that’s the goal, it’s always been the main goal to be a Cup racer in NASCAR. As I’ve went along and went through Trucks, XFINITY, I’ve seen how it’s OK to take your time. There used to be a time where if you weren’t 19 or 20 and already in Cup, you weren’t going to make it.

You see a lot of organizations now, they don’t care, they want experience. They’ll take the time to build people up. There are exceptions, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, who go right there. I think you can still wait a little longer and be OK.

Catanzareti: Ryan Sieg, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace; one week and we have three of them. When you see fellow drivers like them, who you’ve raced with for a long time, move up to Cup, what do you think about? Does it give you a little more, ‘Ah man, I have to hurry up’?

Armstrong: It’s not like I’m in a hurry. There have been opportunities to do it and I haven’t felt it has been right. I would rather stay in XFINITY and be more on the competitive side and make the playoffs than running 35th in Cup. That’s not exciting for anybody. Obviously, people are going to do it but it’s not my deal.

Catanzareti: You’ve had Cup opportunities before and you have taken them down so you can learn. You don’t see a lot of drivers do that, how tough was that?

Armstrong: I think it happens more than you think. There’s a lot of guys who want to have that experience in. Obviously, when you have the sponsorship to go to higher teams, that’s a different story. I think everyone jumps on that. Take teams who run every once in a while, if you have nothing else, that is great. But I’ve had opportunities to stay in XFINITY, people want me here. I’ve been blessed to come back here, stay fresh and to keep learning.

Catanzareti: You think it builds your character having to wait, having to learn patience? You’re not an Erik Jones who is already up there and he’s a teenager. You’ve been around longer and you’re having to wait. Does that build character and how important is that?

With 118 XFINITY starts, Armstrong has only five top 10s. (Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

Armstrong: I’m just racing what I can race now and I’m happy to be doing it. Obviously, I’d like to be in Cup but I don’t want to just do because I can. I want to make sure it’s the right deal. I guess it has on that — building me to be patient and to learn, wait to make sure it’s the right thing.

It’s hard to come back when you get in something and don’t run well. it’s hard to get those second and third opportunities.

Catanzareti: Expectations for this season? Hopes and goals are obviously a little different.

Armstrong: Expectations… being that we’re in the playoff block, I think making the playoffs is a realistic expectation. It’s not going to be easy. We have to continue to improve and we have to keep finishing races and all that. It’s hard to say what else, but I want more top 10s. That is a realistic goal we can get to, we haven’t been there enough.

The competition has been tougher this year. It’s been harder for us. We’re better and the results don’t show it all the time.

Catanzareti: I don’t think I asked you about finishing every race this season. You’re the only driver to do that. That’s pretty remarkable. Have you taken notice of that?

Armstrong: I pride myself in that’s where I’ve been good at growing up. Taking care of equipment and finishing races. It’s put us in the spot we’re at now, so that’s a good part of it. We have to continue that.

Obviously, it’s really hard to have a whole season without trouble. That’s why we have to put what we call points in the bank. We have to get a buffer there. There are really good teams behind us who, if they stop having bad luck, they’re running better and could pass us. Every position matters for us, we’re points racing to the max. We’re do anything we can for extra points, not every team is focusing on it, but we are. It’s a lot bigger for us.

Catanzareti: Are you a fan of the playoffs? It does seem to give your team an extra opportunity.

Armstrong: Well, it does. If we finish 12th in points in a season where there are no playoffs, nobody would say anything. Being there is that playoffs, there is more exposure and it’s more pristine to make it. A bigger deal. It definitely helped people down in points, there is always a reason to fight. It gives you that opportunity, if you have those good seven races, you have a chance to win it all.

(Below is a video capture of our conversation with Dakoda Armstrong.)

About Zach Catanzareti

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