Late into last offseason, Cole Whitt had no intention on competing in NASCAR during the 2017 season. No ride and no opportunity meant that it could be the first time the California native wouldn’t compete in a racing series of any type since 2009.
But Mark Smith, owner of TriStar Motorsports, called Whitt up, notifying the driver the family-run organization was making a jump full-time to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It would be the first time it competed full-time in the top form of motorsports since 1997 with Gary Bradberry as the driver.
Fast forward 28 races and the regular season has come and gone. The No. 72 car sits 33rd in the championship standings, earning a best run of 12th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Leading laps in the Daytona 500 and top-20 results at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway have been some of the highlights for the new team.
At Richmond Raceway, Frontstretch caught up with Whitt to discuss the team’s season and more, as he is looking to improve throughout the final 10 races of the year.
Dustin Albino, Frontstretch.com: How would you assess the first 26 events of 2017?
Cole Whitt: For a rookie year, for a team that’s never really done it… obviously me and Frank [Kerr, crew chief] have our experience in the Cup field already, which probably has been a big help to all of it. Taking care of all of our own cars, building all of our own motors, building our own cars and doing all the odds and ends, I think we’ve done really well because we’ve taken on more than what most teams would when they come into the sport. You do inherit cars, but we have a mix-match of different cars and where they came from. We have some of the old Tommy Baldwin Racing cars, which is RCR stuff and then some are HScott cars, which is old Hendrick stuff.
You kind of have these differences in cars and we figure out what works for us and what doesn’t and where they work and why. It takes a while to figure out what these cars are, what they do, where they excel, and where we went to take them. Frank has done a great job and the guys have done a good job. I’ve tried to be smart and put good races together. We race really well. We don’t have great speed, but we make up with that in the way that we race. We know that right now, we are trying to get more speed, but we’ve got to get to the end of this year to build more and do more. I think we’ve done a good job for a small team.
Albino: Where do you think TriStar Motorsports has excelled this year?
Whitt: I think it’s all in the racing. Falling off is our biggest thing. Any track that we’ve gone to that has the falloff has played right into our hands. Richmond in the spring had a lot of falloff and we ran really well through the middle part of the race. Darlington was good. Some of the short tracks have been able to help us out a little bit more than places like Michigan or Kansas, which are our Achilles’ Heel at the moment.
We’ve still had some good runs and performed well, but the bigger tracks like that is where simulation and aero and advantages that the other teams have that really shine and there is no falloff and their cars run the same speed all day long. We seem to be better at places like Atlanta, where you can work on a good race setup and maybe be a little bit slower for the first 10 laps, but be really good at the end of the run 40 laps in.
Albino: 2017 it is the first time that TriStar Motorsports has been back full-time in the Cup Series since the mid-1990s. How difficult was it to make that jump so late in the offseason?
Whitt: It wasn’t as hard for me as it was for them. I walked through the shop at one point and we had nothing. No cars, no nothing. It was a little alarming, but with the charter that that Bob [Jenkins, owner of Front Row Motorsports] allowed us to use with one of his older cars to run Daytona allowed us to not have to build a speedway car until Talladega. That one week made a big difference because you have to get ready to go out west after Atlanta. We were able to work on downforce cars right away and forget about Daytona and let it be whatever it was going to be.
It’s been good. From where we started to where are now, a lot of people didn’t think we were going to make it and here we are. People are realizing that we are going to be growing into something.
Albino: How much additional pressure was put on you because you were the driver they chose to bring them back to the Cup Series?
Whitt: None, really. To me, what it really came back to is I had a really good relationship with Mark [Smith], back from the past with the XFINITY stuff. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do this year, if I was even going to race at all. Mark called me and really wanted me to do this thing. I wouldn’t say he talked me into it, but he got me back to wanting to do it again. I’m glad I did because it’s been a lot of fun. I think he would be really proud of what we’ve accomplished. I know his family is. To be a part of that is pretty cool.
Albino: Did you not want to race?
Whitt: There were some moments that I didn’t really feel like it. The situations that were possibilities just didn’t seem like they were going to be that much more fun. Yeah, they would be jobs, but I always got into racing because I love racing and what I do and compete and try to take a team and build it to the next level. The opportunities other than this were not that.
Albino: Who do you share information with since you don’t have a teammate or technical alliance?
Whitt: We build our own stuff. Frank is pretty well known throughout the garage just for being Frankie Kerr. That’s a good thing. He has a long list of people he can bounce ideas off of, I’m sure. He does a lot of that himself.
We just try to communicate on how we’re going to race well because we know what our strengths are and where our weaknesses are. We try to really sharpen our strengths and our weaknesses as much as I can. We’ve got to try and be better on the long runs and be there at the end of the day.
If we can run all the laps and have a car that doesn’t fall off, that’s how we can beat our class and be the first small team. When you look at what we have to work with, I don’t think we have what anybody in the garage has. I think we’re one of the smallest teams by what we actually have to work with in terms of resources. That’s something to be proud of and what we can accomplish with it.
Albino: How challenging has it been to make a living competing for smaller race teams?
Whitt: It’s hard. You have to wrap your head around it as a racecar driver because I didn’t get into this for the money. I got into it because I like to race and I like to compete. Sometimes, people look at us and think, ‘Well you’re not competing if you’re not there to win.’ But we see our wins in different ways.
Darlington was pretty much a win for us, running 23rd in the Southern 500. That’s a good showing. At Indianapolis, a lot of people might not say we earned a top-12 finish, but it’s like we were there in the right place at the right time, took care of our equipment and come home top 12 in the Brickyard 400 in the first year with this team. Things like that, we’ll take it however we can get it. We led laps at Daytona and ran good at Atlanta — top 20. We had a top 20 at Martinsville. Just to be able to run top 20 and outrun some of the guys who have more resources than us, our competitive nature is just to beat those guys. There are some races within the race that people don’t notice at times.
Albino: What do you feel like you need to prove to the other, bigger team owners that you can get it done?
Whitt: I don’t care to prove them anything. I thought about that before in the first couple years, being a rookie and having a chip on your shoulder and showing the guys, ‘Hey I can do this.’ Now, I’m at the point where I want to take TriStar to the next level and I think we’re doing that from where they started. I’m proud of what we have accomplished this year. I’m just here to help them step up and run as good as they can.
Albino: How does having limited funding affect TriStar Motorsports’ mentality?
Whitt: The one thing I’ll say about TriStar is they don’t take away from allowing us to perform. Do we might not buy the most amount of tires for practice? Maybe not, but we always get what we need. That’s something TriStar has always done and I don’t think they will ever cut it back to where we are showing up and racing on used tires. As a team and a family, I don’t think they’ve ever run like that. If they can’t afford to do it as this level to the point where it starts hindering performance more than what you’ve got right here, I don’t think they would do that.
Albino: Has funding been the biggest setback since you came to this organization?
Whitt: Funding is what makes the world go ’round. If we had a $20 million sponsor, we would be a totally different team. We would do a lot of different things. Let’s be realistic; if you get an $8 million sponsor, you’re not going to step up to Hendrick and Joe Gibbs Racing. To take a step up into bigger sponsorship just to have something solid and continue to help the team grow is something that would be helpful to build the program. Funding makes the world go ’round. Sponsorship would help us take a step up in the right direction.
Albino: How influential was Mark Smith on your career?
Whitt: He was huge in my career. It’s kind of funny because his family grew up in the same area as my mom grew up. They are just good people. Their family is real similar to mine and I guess that’s why we kind of got along. Mark was one of those guys that would try and help you if he had the opportunity.
When I was saying I had the chip on my shoulder and something to prove, still, he was the only person who would give me the opportunity to give me a job and drive for him. We ran out and ran in the top 10 in a car that hadn’t run in the top 10 in a long time. He gave me an opportunity to step up, and just did things for me that other people wouldn’t do.
Albino: Have you thought about plans for next year?
Whitt: No. The team continues to plan on in the direction that it’s heading and we’ll see what 2018 holds.
Albino: Would you like to come back and help build something?
Whitt: Yeah, it’s been pretty cool to be a part of it. I don’t know what the future holds for them or me, but I’ll be happy to be a part of it. I’m happy to just be in this position. It’s a pretty cool opportunity and I know that the team will be around for a long time doing really good things.