2019 was Stewart Friesen‘s breakout year in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. The Ontario native won his first two races since joining the series in 2016, and he advanced to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
This year has been much worse for the 37-year-old. Friesen only has one top-five finish through the first 10 races of the season and currently sits below the playoff cutline at 14th in points. The decline is mainly due to growing pains, as Friesen’s team, Halmar Racing Team, split from its alliance with GMS Racing during the offseason, bought its own shop in Statesville, N.C., and switched from Chevrolet to Toyota. Essentially, it’s a brand new Truck Series team this year.
In addition to being full-time in Trucks, Friesen, who resides in New York also races dirt modifieds throughout the Northeast. New York has banned travel to and from several states, but it hasn’t affected his busy racing schedule thanks to a provision for sports teams and not being at any track more than 24 hours.
Frontstretch caught up with Friesen to discuss his travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, his 2020 Truck changes and struggles, if he can still make the playoffs and whether or not he wants to be a Truck Series lifer.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch: You race a lot in the Northeast. How much harder has it been harder to get into those areas with certain restrictions?
Stewart Friesen: Yeah, obviously New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have kind of teamed up. If you’re traveling in from pretty much anywhere in the South that’s seeing spikes in COVID numbers, they put a ban on that. You have to do a 14-day quarantine. Fortunately for me, I’m in and out with the Truck races in less than 24 hours. So I’ve been able to skate on some of that stuff.
Actually, the one-day shows and not practicing the day before in the Truck Series has allowed us to keep on living somewhat of a normal life.
Massie: Last year, you were third in points at this point in the season, had a bunch of top fives and led a ton of laps. This year, those finishes haven’t been there. What hasn’t been clicking this year?
Friesen: It’s been a struggle. Last year, we were teamed up with GMS, and kind of everything had snowballed the two years before racing with those guys. Just a lot of depth in that program. Over the winter, we bought our own shop and started our own team from scratch, a lot of support from TRD, obviously. We bought a couple chassis from KBM [Kyle Busch Motorsports].
It’s been a work in progress. Not a lot of experience on the team in Truck Series stuff, as far as engineering and that stuff. Just getting our guys into the [Toyota Racing Development] simulation and finding a baseline has been tough. We’ve had some strong trucks in the third stages of races. We’re fast at Pocono [Raceway]. We were very fast at Texas [Motor Speedway]. We had improved our truck quite a bit at Kansas [Speedway] for the doubleheader, but had a tire get cut down in the first race on Friday, and then got in that wreck in the third stage of Saturday’s race. We just didn’t have anything to show for it.
Pretty much every time we hit the track, the first stage is a big question mark on what we’re going to unload with. We’ve missed it on the loose side more often than not. We’re just trying to develop some sort of a pattern to our pull-down information and data and where we’re missing so that we can start to unload with top-10 speed.
It’s been tough. Obviously, with COVID, it wasn’t a great time to start a team. But back in December, when everything was kind of falling into place, this wasn’t on our radar. We figured we’d get some practicing in and be well on our way. But it’s been a struggle.
Massie: Long term though, how will this manufacturer change pay off?
Friesen: Toyota’s definitely got our back. They’re not happy to see us struggle either. They’ve been helping us and trying to get us up to speed. Through the month of August, we’ve got a couple more races coming up. Hopefully, we can go to Michigan [International Speedway], Dover [International Speedway] and the Daytona [International Speedway] road course and raise the bar for ourselves.
Massie: How closely has your team been working with the other Toyota teams?
Friesen: Not very closely as of yet. Hopefully, we can kind of tap into some of that knowledge. We’ve talked to some guys, but really, it’s not anything close to how we worked together with GMS last year. We’re on a little bit of an island right now, but like I said, we’ll figure it out. We’ve got sharp guys, and we’ll get down that road.
Massie: There’s six races left until the playoffs. Is it still possible to points race your way in or do you have to swing for the fence six times?
Friesen: No, I don’t think so. Unless we can start banging out some big stage points, but we’ve been lucky to be 12th or 13th at the end of the first stage a lot of these races. So we’re going to need to hit on something here, probably win a race, I believe, to be in the playoffs. You need to be able to win to get in there and keep it going. So I think that’s what’s going to be what it takes. It’s going to be tough to point in.
Massie: You’re always a favorite to win at Eldora. How disheartening was it to hear the Truck Series wouldn’t be racing there this year?
Friesen: Yeah, it’s a bummer. Being a dirt guy, that was a big highlight on our schedule. That’s the race that got us into the Truck Series. If it wasn’t for that race, I don’t think the allure would’ve been there for Halmar to get involved. It stinks. Obviously, they’ve had to do what they’ve had to do at Eldora. They’ve been missing out on a lot of sprint car races and late model races on top of it. It’s a bummer, and just hearing some rumblings that there won’t be a dirt race on the schedule at all this year, it’s obviously a little disheartening for a dirt guy.
Massie: You’ve started to establish yourself as a Truck Series veteran. The Truck Series has a history of drivers who would make a career out of being there. Are you trying to work your way further up the NASCAR ladder, or do you want to be a Truck lifer?
Friesen: I really haven’t had a solid opportunity come around with the right sponsorship to be able to do any Xfinity racing or anything like that. I’d obviously be more than open to it if a situation presented itself. Right now, the Truck Series fits in my lifestyle. I live in New York and run 50 dirt races a year with the modified stuff. And the Truck Series schedule kind of blends nicely with that. It’s good, I really enjoy what I’m doing with the Truck Series. It’s something that’s always been a dream to compete at, and being five years into it now, it’s been really, really cool. It’s something I never really thought would happen six, seven years ago. I’m enjoying it, but yeah, I’d definitely be open to any other opportunity for sure.
Massie: How much time would you say you split between being up in New York and down in North Carolina?
Friesen: I’m down in North Carolina a lot more than I was in years past, when the trucks were built at GMS. Just obviously trying to help Tripp [Bruce, crew chief] and everybody there and trying to be a little bit more hands on with everything, just trying to help organize the guys a little bit.
I’m not there a lot, but two or three times a month, I try to get down.
Massie: Obviously, COVID took a toll on your racing schedule for the year, but how many races are you still looking at running for 2020?
Friesen: We’re at our 34th modified race tonight on top of 10 Truck races. We’re just trying to plug away.
It’s been weird. These races for the modified have been kind of popping up a week ahead of time here and there. It looks like there’s a couple in Delaware that we’ll hit in August. We’ve definitely got an open calendar for the big stuff. I don’t know what our Super DIRT Week or Eastern States 200 weekends, which are the two biggest for modified racing, even if they will happen or how they will happen if they do. Just kind of have to wait and see.