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Whitt slowly garnering success, spotlight

June 27, 2012, Jill Erwin, NASCAR.com



Whitt slowly garnering success, spotlight
Pupil of Earnhardt Jr., teammate of Patrick paying his dues in Nationwide

ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. -- Cole Whitt doesn't get a lot of headlines for a guy who's running fifth in the Nationwide Series, and definitely not compared to his team owner (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) or teammate (Danica Patrick).

But it sure feels like a lot to Whitt, who not long ago was running sprint cars in anonymity.

"I care about this stuff more than anything. This is my life, basically. I feel like every lap on the race track is like the last one."

--COLE WHITT

"For me, it's the most attention I've ever gotten," Whitt said at Road America. "I didn't necessarily get a lot of press before. I've definitely gotten it more this year than I ever have, and that makes me feel like I'm more in the spotlight. I know it's not compared to like what [Earnhardt and Patrick) are doing."

The freshly minted 21-year-old has finished in the top 10 of half his starts this season in the No. 88, which has had plenty of turnover in recent years. Since Brad Keselowski left for Penske Racing following the 2009 season, 11 drivers have spent time in the seat.

Whitt was ninth on the 4.048-mile Road America course, his first road race in NASCAR's top three touring series. The move from the Camping World Truck Series, where he was ninth in the points as a rookie, has been a big one for him.

"It's been a big learning curve, for sure, and probably even bigger than I thought it would be," Whitt said. "It was a little bit of a surprise about how tough it really is. I guess it's a testament to how strong the Nationwide Series is. There are a lot of teams that are just so fast.

"Our team's trying to get better and obviously that makes it harder with a rookie driver. But they've given me an opportunity to show what I can do. Obviously they believe in me and think we can do it."

It's not the first big move Whitt has made. He compared it to his escalation from go-karts to racing sprint cars in the Midwest. He went from dominating to racing guys who had been doing this for decades, who knew the racing style inside and out, and who had fanbases to back all that up.

And here comes the new kid, ready to shake up some things.

"I got my butt handed to me pretty good," Whitt said. "I showed speed, but I couldn't put the whole thing together. It took me about two years to start getting closer. That third year was when we finally ran good, won races, a championship. It just kind of all started clicking. Once everything comes together, it's not like you really changed a lot, it's like you can't do anything wrong."

Whitt hasn't reached that point in Nationwide. He admits he's had a few more torn-up race cars than he'd like to have, and he says that's the hard part of his "all out" attitude.

"If you ask the team owners, they'd probably say, 'Don't put pressure on yourself,'" Whitt said. "But, I mean, I do. I care about this stuff more than anything. This is my life, basically. I feel like every lap on the race track is like the last one.

"That's probably the hardest thing to swallow is when you have a pretty good race car or have a decent weekend going or trying to get better, and you go crash and take practice time away or make the guys work harder. But at the same time, you've got to give them all you've got, too, so it's like a double-edged sword. Honestly, it sucks, but it's part of being on the edge."

Whitt does see some similarities between this season and that first season in sprint cars. He's competing with veterans, and he's slowly learning his way around. To him, it's about paying dues. He said he knows it, and he's working on trying to do right by those around him while also giving his all.

He's hoping that the return trips to some of the tracks he's now seen in a Nationwide car will pay off with some better results. He'll know better what to expect, rather than hoping things transfer over from when he ran them in the Truck Series.

For instance, his first run at Dover in the Nationwide Series ended with a 14th-place finish, but it wasn't what Whitt was expecting after a runner-up finish in Trucks in 2011.

"That place, I expected to go in there and be one of the fastest guys," Whitt said. "I had so much confidence going into Dover. I was just thinking, 'I'm giving it all I can, and I just can't get it to the top of the board.' It's good to be that close, though, but that place was a little bit of a surprise. I really expected to go in there and have a shot to win that race or run in the top five, and it really didn't go the way we expected it to."

So now, as the Nationwide season nears its midway point, Whitt is focused on climbing higher in the points standings. What does he make of all the advice to take it slow? Well, that just doesn't fit in with his outlook.

"My expectation is to go out and win races and win championships," Whitt said. "That's just the way it is. I think our team feels the same way. When that all doesn't come together, it costs us a lot of stuff. But as long as the team can stay behind you, which they have, that will go a long way."