What You Don’t Know About: Being a NASCAR Driver

“Do you guys ever turn right?”

As far as bad jokes related to NASCAR go, this one is up there. (We do turn right a couple of times a year when we run road courses. But yes, for the most part our races are on tracks where we just turn left.)

Another common question — way too common, actually — is, “What do you do if you need to go to the bathroom during a race?”

The answer to that one is always the same: You don’t want to know.

From an outsider’s perspective, stock car racing probably appears to be a really simple sport. If you only flip on a race for 15 seconds before you change the channel, then it probably appears to just be cars going in circles really fast. And what’s special about that?

I’ve had plenty of people tell me, “Hey, I’ve driven down the highway at 100 miles per hour a couple of times! I can be a NASCAR driver!”

I’ve heard it all.

It’s difficult to explain to people why what I do for a living is very different from your everyday speed demon doing 75 down the interstate. That’s because I’m one of the fortunate few who have actually experienced it. A lot of people have swung a baseball bat. Plenty have attempted a long three-pointer. But not many people have been behind the wheel of a machine that’s built to test the very limits of physics. Going fast is definitely a crucial aspect to being successful as a driver, but the real art of the sport is in the preparation necessary to get a car and a driver ready to move at speeds of up to 200 mph for several hours. Many of the technologies found in everyday vehicles today were first used on our racecars. Cars are such an incredibly crucial component of our society, and as NASCAR drivers, we’re at the forefront of testing their limits.

That’s what makes this sport special.

The first time I got behind the wheel of a quarter midget, which is basically a tiny racecar, I was seven years old. At that age, the focus wasn’t on speed, but rather finesse. I had to learn how to handle and maneuver a vehicle.

Early on, I was able to get by mostly on talent. I had sort of a natural feel for racing. But once I made it up to XFINITY and Sprint Cup, I had to face a harsh reality. Everyone at NASCAR’s upper levels is a master behind the wheel. They understand cars and racing on a deep level and will do whatever it takes to get the finish line one millisecond before you. So your success isn’t only determined by what you do on race day. Instead, it usually comes down to what you’ve done to prepare in the week leading up to the race.

I’ve heard some people describe what I do as a weekend job. I wish that was true. The reality is that if you want to race at this level, you’re going to have to work seven days a week. And even when you’re not working, you need to be thinking about work, because your competitors definitely will be.

The climb to a championship is a thorny mountain. It’s not supposed to be easy. That’s what makes it special.

I start preparing for my next race pretty much as soon as the last one ends. It’s out of necessity as much as anything. I don’t have the best memory, so after a race — while things are still fresh in my mind — I like to sit with my crew chief while we’re flying home and run through a mental inventory of everything I saw and felt inside of the car. Over the course of 38 race weekends in a year, eventually things start to run together, so it’s important to always be focused and in tune with the details. I keep a lot of notes on every track on the schedule because each one has its own nuances. Imagine if basketball players had to play on a different-shaped court with different basket heights every game. That’s essentially what we’re asked to do our entire season.

Over time I’ve somewhat figured it out track by track. The perfect example — early on in my career, I used to struggle a lot at Loudon, in New Hampshire.

We could always go fast in practice and qualify well there, but I struggled with the car during the race. I had trouble figuring out how to manage my tires and generally where and how to pass people at the right times. But we worked at it, tinkered with my strategy, and two years ago we won there.

Today I feel confident heading to any track, but only because I went through the process of feeling uncomfortable for a little while. You can’t really have a huge ego in this sport. It’s crucial to acknowledge your shortcomings and work on them.

Success comes in pieces. You find something that works one week and apply it to the next. Eventually, all the pieces come together and make a great picture.

People unfamiliar with NASCAR often don’t understand that this is a team sport in every sense. Everyone knows that a driver has his pit crew, but that’s only a small fraction of the people needed to make his machine go. In football terms, a driver is essentially the quarterback of a race team. I have to make the plays, but I’m useless if I don’t have the right people around me to tackle, block and catch the ball. For the most part, just like a football team, we only win if everyone is on the same page.

There are just over 400 employees at the Team Penske shop, the source of a lot of our success. Our team is constantly evaluating and re-evaluating how we build the car. We’re assessing what tiny adjustments we can make to get a little lighter and go a little faster. Football may be a game of inches, but NASCAR is a game of millimeters and grams. I work closely with a lot of smart engineers and my crew chief to determine what the car will do on the racetrack. My job as a driver is to get a sense of what the car feels like and feed the team my input. Together we’re chasing after that half-a-10th of a second. In our sport, that can be the difference between first and 20th. Faster than the blink of a eye.

The construction of the car is one aspect of the operation, but practice is also key. When we’re turning laps, I give feedback about how the car feels, where we’re strong and where we’re weak. All of this is based on feel, so the challenge comes down to articulating things in very specific terms. As a driver that’s where your relationship with your crew chief is so important. You have to understand each other. He’s your head coach. He’s not in the car to feel the things you’re feeling, but if you can explain them well enough, he can instruct the road crew to make adjustments that will help us go faster.

Let me give some love to the road crews, who might be the most underappreciated people in our sport. They travel as much as anyone – maybe outside of the guys that drive our haulers to each and every race — and they are a crucial component of any success you might experience. They’re basically in charge of fine-tuning your car all weekend long during our practices before a race so you have the best chance to win. To be on a road crew takes a tremendous amount of talent because you have to able to change such tiny and specific things very quickly. They are all skilled mechanics who have worked for years to hone their specific areas of expertise, be it shocks, tires, engines or whatever. If my road crew has a good week, I usually do too.

One thing you’re not thinking about when you’re gunning go-karts at age seven is that someday, if you want to make it big, you’re going to need a big sponsor.

The relationship between a driver and a sponsor is crucial — and also pretty unique in pro sports. You literally owe these companies your livelihood, and you must represent them well if you want to keep driving their car. These machines and the teams that support them are expensive, and it’s on the driver to keep everybody happy. When you have companies that are investing millions and millions of dollars, you have to constantly think about how you can deliver value to them.

Sponsors fuel our sport (pun intended). We all know what happens when we run out of fuel. We are dead in the water. We aren’t going anywhere.

What do I mean by service the sponsor? I mean you always have to be on, essentially. Whenever there’s an opportunity to fulfill your obligation, you do it. In most sports, before a game starts, an athlete is given some space to hang out in the locker room and get in the zone. In NASCAR, we don’t have that luxury. On race day, drivers usually do four or five sponsor appearances before a race starts, sometimes all the way up until we are climbing in the car to start the race. It’s part of the routine. Service the sponsor.

A NASCAR race is a series of decisions. Some are made as a team, and some are made by me on the fly. It’s the sum of those decisions that ultimately determines the outcome of the race.

But it’s important to note that there’s no feeling out process during a race. That’s what practice is for. From the second the green flag drops it’s, Go hard straight ahead with maximum focus!

All out, every lap. Lap 1 needs to be just as fast and clean as Lap 100, and hopefully Lap 500. Not everyone can do that. It takes focus and persistence.

Maintaining that level of concentration is probably what grinds on you as much as anything else. It’s so easy to mess up in one of these cars when you’re traveling at the speeds that we do. And mistakes can be very expensive and very dangerous. In football, if you mess up, you fumble and maybe the other team scores, but you get the ball back and can make it up. In our sport, if you mess up, you crash and you are out. Zero chance of winning.

To take it back to the comparison I hear all the time about driving fast on the highway — well, imagine driving as fast as you can on the highway and doing it for hours, without letting up. And that entire time, you need to stay completely focused on everything that is happening both inside your car and on what’s going on all around you. In our sport, there are no timeouts, no water breaks, no opportunities to regroup. You can’t just pull over and take a break.

When you’re in that situation, after a certain amount of time, it’s very easy for a single detail to slip your mind. And when it does, that’s when you lose.

Pit road is generally where a lot of dumb things go down, especially for the driver.  If the speed limit on pit road is 60 mph, we want to be going 59.999. Anything less is a disadvantage, but anything over is a penalty that can ruin your race. When you’re working with that margin of error, you can get burnt. And after you have been concentrating so hard for so long, it can sometimes be easy to slip up there. So even when we have a caution flag, we are still concentrating.

A few weeks ago I was trying to get around another car so I could go down pit road and I hit the commitment cone — which is the cone separating pit road from the track. You can’t do that. That’s a penalty. That one mistake put us behind a lap behind and we never caught up. Knocking over that cone essentially killed our race. That entire week, the work of 400-plus people on this beautiful machine, all went to waste by hitting a cone for a brief second.

We’re willing to put up with all the hassles and distractions, though, because winning a race just feels that good.

I look back on my Daytona 500 victory in 2015, and what stands out is one particular decision.

Daytona’s an interesting track because it’s wide open. You don’t lift off the gas at all. That’s just the type of racing that track produces. It’s essentially a high-speed chess match. You have to be on your game in terms of knowing what the other drivers are going to do —  anticipate and counter. Every block and move you make has to have a reason behind it. You weigh risk against reward. That comes from watching film and scouting. We race each other every week, so you pick up on other drivers’ tendencies. Guessing what another driver will do before they do it will always give you a millisecond edge that can give you a win.

For me, the most difficult decision of that Daytona race happened when I was leading and there were cars three-wide behind me, with Clint Bowyer at the top. I could see the pack catching up and I needed a push. I went to the top lane because I saw Clint was there, and I knew from working with him earlier in the race that he was very aggressive. My car was handling good and at that point I needed someone who was willing to knock the back bumper off my car to keep me out front. Clint was the guy.

That decision was one of probably thousands my team and I made that week, but if I had made the wrong one things probably would have turned out much different. I’m still learning a lot about this sport, and that excites me. At the same time, I love that my past successes (and especially my past mistakes) have made it so I can now approach every track with confidence, because when I feel good about a race, it’s contagious throughout my entire team. If we don’t win, we know it was just a thorny step on our climb to victory.

Every week on this circuit, we work hard to create a world-class, state-of-the-art car, down to the tiniest detail. We compete against many of the brightest minds in the racing world. And we risk life and limb in a constant push to get closer to perfection.

But no, we don’t turn right. Good one.