2018 was the start of a new chapter for driver Josh Bilicki. For the first time, he would have a steady home, his own NASCAR race seat at JP Motorsports in the XFINITY Series. Sponsor Prevagen jumped onboard his No. 45 Toyota entry and the year was a go just two weeks out from Daytona in February.
However, the usual struggles of a brand new team hit the Wisconsin native good during Speedweeks when he missed the show for the season opener. That led to a DNQ the following week in Atlanta before officially making his first start in the third race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Since then, however, Bilicki has made every race since and currently sits 33rd in driver points past the halfway point of 2018.
And while the team has battled through a low budget, bad luck and eight different crew chiefs, it made its first race with a composite body two weeks back at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It’s an addition Bilicki feels will step the team’s performance up toward the fall.
Even more than the lighter body, the return to road course racing is what can give the team an extra boost. Bilicki, whose background is filled with road racing, finished a career-high 12th at Road America. Now, entering Saturday’s Zippo 200 from Watkins Glen International, the 23-year-old is optimistic about the team’s chances to grab his first top 10 or better.
Bilicki spoke with Frontstretch at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to discuss his assessment of the team thus far in 2018, how road racing can impact sponsorship and his place among the XFINITY underdogs.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch: We’re past the halfway point of the season. How would you assess how the team is performing so far?
Josh Bilicki: We’re improving a lot. A brand new team, so you have struggles. It’s like starting a business, you have struggles with employees. Seeing we’re past the halfway point, we’ve had the same employees for a while now… months. We’re starting to gel together.
We had a streak of bad races, mechanical issues, and we took care of those to finish 28th at Kentucky. Not a great finish but a big step up from where we’ve been. [At New Hampshire] we’re in a composite car for the first time.
Catanzareti: How is that composite body different? Which were you using before?
Bilicki: I was using a steel-body car, which weighs about 175 pounds more. And you can’t run the undertray underneath the body, which generates a lot of downforce. At a mile-and-a-half track, it’s a big disadvantage because the composite flexes and moves a little more.
I’ll be running that for most of the season now.
Catanzareti: That’s what everyone has been running this year, right?
Bilicki: There were only a few who were running steel. It was me, the No. 55 earlier this year. Every now and then Chad Finchum and Spencer Boyd, Josh Williams and Timmy Hill. Other than that, every other car is composite. It will be nice to be on an equal playing field now.
Catanzareti: You said the team has stayed the same for most of the season. Were there any small changes overall or the same group of guys from the start?
Bilicki: At the beginning of the year, we had almost a completely different group of guys. We just shuffled them out, see who gelled. They are all hard workers but some don’t work well with others. We’ve had my crew chief Terry [Elmore] for a couple weeks now.
It’s nice to have familiar faces every time because last year jumping from team to team, you work with a different crew chief, crews and it’s hard to gel with them so you know what to expect.
Catanzareti: You mentioned last year how you were moving around. Team to team, series to series but now you’re in a stable place. What does that do to a driver?
Bilicki: It helps going back to the track knowing it’s the same group of guys, the same car you ran last week. It’s hard to adjust to different chassis so it’s been nice not worrying if I’m going to fit in this seat. It definitely helps me mentally going forward.
Catanzareti: The team missed the first two races of the season. I don’t know if you were expecting to miss any races this year. It gave you a delayed start. Was that how it worked out?
Bilicki: It did but we put this deal together very last minute, just two weeks up until Daytona. So, we had very short notice. We knew Daytona was going to be close. And missing it hurt us for Atlanta but we made the best of the situation and have made every race since.
I wouldn’t say it set us back. It was disappointing but my sponsor Prevagen was very understanding knowing it was a new team. The No. 55 had points from last year, the No. 45 had none. It’s tough to show up with 47 cars and try to qualify your way in. Plus, I had never been there before.
Catanzareti: Have the finishes been indicative of the car’s speed?
Bilicki: Yes and no. There are times the car has speed — we had a mechanical issue at Iowa, we probably would’ve had a decent finish there. Other than that, we have had some top-25 and top-30 finishes. Now, with this composite body, we’ll be fighting for top 25s more often, hopefully top 20s.
Catanzareti: Did you expect more at the halfway point of the year?
Bilicki: No, I think we’re making a lot happen with a little. A lot of teams say that but we’re really are. With the limited resources we have, I think we are making a lot happen.
Catanzareti: A lot with a little, you’re handling the team’s social media apparently!
Bilicki: Social media is a big aspect of being a driver. And not just that but meet-and-greets. As a driver, you have to be very versatile and to work on social media, be good in front of the cameras, the crowds, everything. Sometimes, it gets a little overwhelming but you deal with it and keep going.
Catanzareti: Not a lot of young drivers have to do that. Big teams don’t really need them for those small things. You are building this team, not just from driving, but from everything in the background.
Bilicki: Even as far as finding sponsors, we work on finding our own sponsors from social media to managing everything else. It goes back to what I said about making me very versatile and how it will help me in the future. Once we start competing for top 15s, top 10s, we’re going to look back at everything we’re doing now and it will be a lot easier to do then.
Catanzareti: What would you classify as a small team?
Bilicki: I think the cutoff line… would be JD Motorsports. You look at them as a whole and they’re huge, four cars. Legitimate small teams, I think the line would be Spencer Boyd‘s team on down. You do have some small teams, Kaz Grala [Fury Race Cars], but he does have support from Ford. We don’t have much support from anyone.
Catanzareti: So, different levels of small teams? Because they’re hitting top 10s.
Bilicki: Oh yeah, they’re doing great and they’re making a lot happen with a little. Their little may be completely different than our little right now, and that’s why they’re able to compete for top 10s. But you look at what they have versus Joe Gibbs, they’re doing a great job. I think there are different stages with small teams, we’re the little-little team.
Catanzareti: There are a lot of small teams in XFINITY, more than in Cup. Is there a mutual respect through the garage? A lot of guys are going through the same struggles.
Bilicki: There are Cup drivers who obviously drive with us. It’s a touchy subject. Some say they don’t like them here. I like them here. When they come, I learn a lot. There is a lot of respect in the XFINITY garage for other drivers. I think Christopher Bell is one of the best drivers in the series and I respect him. He goes racing three or four races a week sometimes.
Catanzareti: Is it different from the Cup garage? You got a taste of that last year.
Bilicki: I think so, I really do. There are some pretty deep battles in both but in the Cup garage, they have been battling longer. You got Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, not a lot of them like each other. In XFINITY, you don’t have that because drivers come and go a lot quicker.
The respect is a little greater in XFINITY but once the drivers move to Cup, it will be a different story.
Catanzareti: Do you see yourself as a long-term XFINITY driver, someone like Jeremy Clements, who makes a career off XFINITY? Obviously, you’d want to move up but that doesn’t always happen.
Bilicki: Yeah, I’d like to be in XFINITY for three or four years just to learn, that’s the main thing. You want to step up the program next year and run more competitive. This year, we’re running top 25s, next year it’d be nice to run for top 15s.
My eventual goal is definitely Cup. I want to race Cup full time and that’s where I want to be.
Catanzareti: Do you think you can make a living off XFINITY? Even if you’re not with a big team?
Bilicki: I think you can. There are ways. You look at a guy like David Starr, who’s made a living off racing Cup, XFINITY, Trucks. He’s another gentleman. There definitely are ways, you just have to work hard for that.
Catanzareti: Speaking of Cup, you’re one year off your last Cup start [New Hampshire, July 2017]. To do that before a full-time Cup season was pretty big for a young driver.
Bilicki: It was very cool. Rick Ware gave me that opportunity. It was a little last-minute deal. We didn’t have a big budget so we ran about 15 laps in practice. It was my first time there and it’s a tricky track, flat, use a lot of brakes.
It was a good week. My goal was to bring the car home clean and we did. It was fun, I learned a lot of I think I can apply what I learned last year to this year in an XFINITY car.
Catanzareti: People were surprised you ran an oval. Did that test your versatility racing on these ovals?
Bilicki: Obviously, my background is road course racing. My first oval was actually with Obaika Racing in 2016 at Phoenix. Other than that, I had very limited time on an oval. The time I did have was on a quarter-mile.
Being a versatile driver helps all around. There are things I learned you can learn both ways. The biggest challenge for me so far has been 1.5-milers and superspeedways. Learning how to pack race, how the aerodynamics affect the car.
Catanzareti: How much longer is that going to be your last Cup race?
Bilicki: [Pauses] It’s tough. This year, I’m putting my primary focus on our program here at JP. I really would’ve liked to have run Sonoma and Watkins Glen but if I had any additional sponsors, I would’ve kicked it toward our team.
I let teams know all the time that if you need a driver, I’m at the track, I’m here for the road courses. Especially the Charlotte ROVAL. You see a lot of drivers having struggles there. That’s a track I would do very well at because I have run rovals very similar to that before.
I’d like to make a Cup start this year yet. But I’m not going to work too hard on that, I’m going to keep my primary focus on JP. We’ll see what happens, a lot of things happen last minute.
Catanzareti: When you watch the footage from the ROVAL, do you go, ‘Oh, I can handle that’?
Bilicki: It’s going to be tricky. I think I will be able to handle it and pick it up quicker than most, like how AJ Allmendinger said he did. We have a test day prior to the practice day in XFINITY so it will be nice to run that and get laps.
Maintaining your position in the race and not getting knocked out will be the important thing. It will be a chaotic race.
Catanzareti: Were you happy when you saw it added? A lot of people want more road courses and I’m sure you’re on that team.
Bilicki: There is a whole list of road courses you can add but I think that’s really cool that Charlotte is doing something completely different. You see your fans say they don’t like it but I think a majority will like it.
Catanzareti: How do you prepare for the road courses? Big opportunities for you.
Bilicki: Mid-Ohio and Road America, I think we can shoot for top 10, maybe even a win. Last year, we finished 12th with used tires we ran all race. This year, we have a tire budget, a tire sponsor.
I haven’t prepared much for them. I’d really like to use a Toyota simulator rather than just iRacing. I have so many laps at Mid-Ohio and Road America, I don’t need to prepare as much. I prepare more for the ovals than the road courses.
Once they do come up, the week before, I’ll spend all my time on iRacing preparing for them. There are little things like riding a bike that you never forget.
Catanzareti: Is it easier to sell sponsors for a road course race? You’re able to tell them you may be very competitive.
Bilicki: Yeah, it certainly is. Especially Road America, that’s my home race. I still live in Wisconsin. Last year, we had a lot of local sponsors come on board and same this year. It is easier for that but it’s still hard.
(Below is a video capture of our conversation with Josh Bilicki)