Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland may be running the show that is the 2017 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season, but kids like Ronnie Bassett Jr. are soaking up every mile turned and learning in every race finished.
Bassett, 21, is one of the more experienced drivers in K&N East, a series populated mostly by inexperienced drivers yet to finish out their teen years. Starting his 50th career race last time out at Watkins Glen International, the Winston-Salem, North Carolina native is enjoying a return to full-time racing, bringing more competitive runs to the table over years past.
Yes, despite his presence in the last four seasons prior to ’17, Bassett hasn’t started every race since 2014, when he finished 11th points with only three top-five finishes. Jumping to this year, Bassett earned his first win at New Smyrna Speedway to start the year, has six top fives and is currently running a career-high streak of six straight top-10 finishes.
With only three races remaining on the season, sitting 64 points behind point leader Gilliland, we spoke to Bassett to talk about the uptick in performance in 2017, his change of heart for his family-owned team and what his plans are for 2018 and beyond.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: It’s been a pretty solid season for this No. 04 team. How has it been going for you as a driver?
Ronnie Bassett Jr.: We started off the season really good, coming out of the winter with a win. We had a second-place finish in the second race and other than the cut tires in the three races we had, we were in the top five.
Catanzareti: Being 21 years old, you’re one of the more experienced guys, you’ve been in this series for a few years now. How do you feel your experience benefits you when you’re racing 17- or 18-year-olds?
Bassett: It’s a big deal when we go to the bigger racetracks. This day in time, everyone 16 or 17 years old are probably running more than I am in different divisions. So, it equals out. It’s kind of tough but overall it does help being a little older and being at these racetracks more than one time before.
Catanzareti: How are you a better driver now than you were in 2014?
Bassett: I’ve just learned a lot. I’ve been running myself with a great group of people to help me make my career what it is.
Catanzareti: Watkins Glen is your 50th K&N East race. Overlooking your success over the years, how do you grade yourself? Where do you feel you can improve?
Bassett: We definitely have some room to always improve. I only have one win in all those starts. It is tough, we do it in a family deal so we don’t have the big bucks that some of the other teams have. When we do win or get a top five, it means a lot more to us than it does to some others.
Catanzareti: How much did that win mean to you? As I said, you’ve been in it for years and you finally got that win, led your first laps.
Bassett: It was a lot. Last year, we won it and they took it away from us so that was actually our second win. We consider that [laughs]. It was pretty neat, we had a really good racecar that night. Both my brother and myself had great cars, not just me.
It was nice to come out the first race of the year to show we were going to be competitive.
Catanzareti: Was it more of a statement deal? How did that change your mindset?
Bassett: Yeah for sure. At the beginning of the year, our goal was to win a championship. The first few races, we were on track to our goal and we had some misfortune happen to us at Bristol, a cut tire at South Boston. Two cut tires in two races… that hurt us a bit.
We’re still fourth. We’re taking it a race at a time and hopefully we can get one more win before the year is done to get a solid points finish.
Catanzareti: Six straight top-10 finishes, a career best. What has changed? Has consistency always been on your side in your career or is that something only this year?
Bassett: No, I haven’t really been consistent. We have one good run, then we finish 15th. Like I said, it all comes down to preparation at the shop, we work really hard to make sure our cars stay together and continue to run the full distance.
Catanzareti: Is this your year to prove yourself?
Bassett: It is. Like you said, I’m getting a little older in the series. Hopefully, we can make that next step if someone was able to see it and help us out.
Catanzareti: Have you put efforts into a race in Trucks or XFINITY?
Bassett: You got to look ahead. We’ve talked about it a little bit but the biggest thing is that it comes down to is funding. We have a family-owned deal here and we can’t go out and run a full Truck schedule with the funding we have now. So, we definitely have to have that.
Catanzareti: You want to go out and win, but you also want to prove to other teams that you can do so. What is the pressure like?
Bassett: You got to be real patient. Some of these races are really long, 150 laps. And most of them, we are on the same set of tires so you have to manage your tires and car. If you don’t have fenders or tires on it by the end of the race, you’re probably not going to win. You have to manage your racecar and manage the race. Hopefully by the end, you’ve saved enough and your car is still in one piece.
Catanzareti: I bet your get asked a lot about racing your brother [Dillon]. We see it with the Truex brothers, Busch. For you, coming up through the ranks, what has it been like personally?
Bassett: Just like today, we always start side-by-side. We probably race each other harder than anyone else in the field just because we want to beat each other. It’s pretty neat that we get to do it together, we both work in the shop. It’s a brotherly bond.
(Below is a video capture of our conversation with Ronnie Bassett Jr.)