Janesville’s Travis Kvapil knows what’s at stake when he takes the green flag for next Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Two previous Cup seasons with two different teams produced disastrous results. He realizes that a third strike might make it impossible for him to ever get another chance on his sport’s biggest stage.
“The pressure is on,” Kvapil said late last week in a phone interview from Daytona.
In 70 previous career Cup starts, Kvapil has an average finish of just 27.3. He has never finished in the top 5 and has just two career top 10s. Those are the kind of numbers that will send a driver into a succession of bad rides or the unemployment line.
“I actually thought the Cal Wells thing was my last chance,” Kvapil said of his 2006 experience with an underfunded Cup team that finished outside the all-important top 35 in owner’s points. “Fortunately, Jack Roush believed in me and gave me an opportunity to drive his truck last year.”
Kvapil used the 2007 season on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series to revive his career, winning four races, collecting more than $700,000 in winnings and finishing on the lead lap in 20 of 25 events. A run of bad luck at the end of the season relegated Kvapil to sixth in the truck points race.
But Roush, who runs the largest organization in NASCAR, saw enough in a driver who turns 32 on March 1.
When Roush decided to expand his partnership with Yates Racing—now under the direction of Doug Yates, son of retired team founder Robert Yates—he put in a Don Corleone-like plug for Kvapil.
“I made it clear to Jack last year that one day I wanted to get back in a Cup car,” Kvapil said. “Jack said ‘We’re not hiring you to drive this truck for five years. We want to promote you up the ladder.’”
That ladder was supposed to include seasoning and seat time on the Nationwide Series (formerly the Busch Series). But other doors opened.
“It was just a crazy chain of events,” Kvapil said. “Robert Yates retired. Ford wanted to make sure it didn’t lose any more teams. Jack already had a partnership with Yates.”
And a deal was done.
The Yates and Roush teams have been sharing test data all winter. The Roush engineers will provide each team with the optimal race setup for every track. Then it’s up to each driver-crew chief combination to tweak that setup to fit their comfort levels.
Kvapil will pilot the No. 28 Ford while teammate David Gilliland stays behind the wheel of the No. 38 for his second Cup season. Longtime racing fans know that Yates’ No. 28 is one of the most historic in NASCAR. Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan and Dale Jarrett drove the car to more than 50 victories and a Cup title.
“There are a few numbers I feel like are really important,” Kvapil said. “I can’t wait to get the car back on the track. We painted it with black paint with blaze orange 28 on it, and when I saw it in the shop it kind of gave me the chills. It kind of reminds me of when Davey Allison drove it and the success they had.”
Kvapil’s car had two things going for it during Sunday’s qualifying session—a sponsor and speed. Kvapil turned a lap at 185.598 mph, the seventh-fastest time among the 53 drivers to make a run and the fastest among the nine Ford drivers. That qualifying time put Kvapil on the outside of Row 2 for the second of Thursday’s two 150-mile qualifying races.
Meanwhile, K&N Filters, which backed Kvapil’s truck team last season, signed a one-race deal to sponsor the No. 28 in the Daytona 500.
A good showing by Kvapil could convince the company—or others that have shown interest in the team—to come aboard for a full season.
“K&N helped my truck team out last season and they’re a great sponsor,” Kvapil said. “I’m really looking forward to making them proud for the Daytona 500 next weekend. They believe in what our team has in store for this season, and it’s just a thrill to have them associated with us for the biggest race of the year.”
Gilliland, meanwhile, has procured a seven-race deal with FreeCreditReport.com.
But that still leaves the Yates team searching for sponsorship for 35 of Kvapil’s races and 29 for Gilliland.
“That’s something that would solidify our team,” Kvapil said of a full-time sponsor. “Our biggest goal is to run good early in the season and solidify our spot in the top 35 in points.
“We do have the Roush group working behind the scenes to get some names on the sides of these cars. In reality, this thing got kicked off late.
“They didn’t have time to find a $20 million sponsor. We’ve had a number of companies we’ve had contact with. There’s a lot of interest right now.
“I can’t believe nobody is jumping on this deal having two cars locked into the top 35 in points.”
Teams that finished in the top 35 in points last season are guaranteed starting spots in the first five races. From the sixth race on, only the top 35 in this season’s points are locked into the starting grid.
That’s why it’s vital for teams to get off to a good start. It’s also why you likely won’t see Kvapil making any daredevil moves in the first five races.
“Our goal early in the season is to complete all the miles and get solid finishes so that we set ourselves up for the rest of the season,” Kvapil said. “You cannot allow yourself to fall out of the top 35. All it takes is one little hiccup and you miss a race and fall out of the top 35.”
For the time being, the two Yates teams are operating as though they have major sponsors.
“Production is going on in the shop as if we had two $20 million sponsors,” Kvapil said of Yates’ new facility, which is conveniently located across the street from the Roush headquarters in Concord, N.C. “We’ll run as long as we’re performing well.
“Even though we are unsponsored, the rescoures we have are tremendous.”
Those resources include wind tunnel time and acquisition of a seven-post shaker rig, a machine designed to simulate suspension dynamics.
“I’m eager to get the season going. I know we have all the ingredients,” Kvapil said. “We have great equipment. We have great crew chiefs. The foundation is there.”
Kvapil will be paired with veteran NASCAR crew chief Todd Parrott, who has multiple Daytona 500 victories under his belt and a 1999 Cup title with Jarrett.
“Todd is one of the best crew chiefs out there,” Kvapil said. “He’s a racer. He’s dedicated to building these cars.”