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Kwasniewski aims to separate perception, reality

February 17, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Young rookie hopes to emulate Jimmie Johnson's respectful demeanor 

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- He wears skinny jeans and a flat-billed baseball cap, which sometimes leads people to tease that he should be part of a boy band. He has a car sponsor called Rockstar, and for flashy driver with a shock of blond hair, the name and the image both fit. Raised in Las Vegas as the son of a casino executive, Dylan Kwasniewski would seem to challenge everything about the traditional narrative of a NASCAR up-and-comer, to the point where he stands out like a blinking neon light.

No one is more aware of this than the driver himself. So when the 18-year-old Kwasniewski begins his much-anticipated rookie campaign in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, his most immediate goal won't be winning -- it will be convincing everyone that perception and reality aren't always the same.

"Gaining respect. That's definitely a topic that's been coming up that I've been saying," said Kwasniewski, a champion of both the K&N Pro Series East and West circuits who will race for Turner Scott Motorsports in 2014. "Obviously, me being an 18-year old driver, having sponsors like Rockstar, being form the West Coast, I'm a little bit different. And I don’t want drivers to think I'm this guy who's kind of a punk kid, I guess. I want to be known as a respectful driver who can race everyone clean and hard, and hopefully show people that I have talent and that I can race in this series."

Although he has yet to start his first national series event, Kwasniewski is far from an unknown -- he won 11 races and two titles in three Pro Series seasons, was a member of the "NASCAR Next" program targeting rising stars in the sport, and even was the subject of a documentary web series on AOL. He was fastest on the second and final day of Nationwide testing at Daytona in January, and earned final approval for Saturday's season-opener by virtue of his 14th-place finish in the ARCA race at the 2.5-mile layout this past weekend. Monday, he gave former NFL star and current Spike TV personality Dhani Jones a spin around the track.

So no, Kwasniewski is no ordinary rookie. Even so, this is a driver who a season ago was competing not on the big track, but on the Daytona backstretch as part of the Battle of the Beach. This is a driver who will be competing on most Nationwide Series tracks for the first time, who will be adapting to different cars and different rules and a different class of competition. And for someone who finished in the top five in nearly 65 percent of his Pro Series starts, this is a driver who is going to have to learn how to lose. 

"People keep warning me -- you've got to not get frustrated, you can't get all caught up in your finishes, because I'm going to have bad races. That's just what's going to come," Kwasniewski said. "I'm racing against the best drivers in NASCAR right now, so I'm going to get beat, just plain and simple, and I have to get used to it."

There's a self-awareness about Kwasniewski that belies his years, almost certainly a product of growing up with the tag of can't-miss prospect attached to him. He's exceptionally poised and polished in interviews, and clearly comfortable in his own skin -- not to mention those skinny jeans. And yet, his early on-track successes are only one part of all that; this is also a driver who was forced to grow up rather quickly after the sudden death of his father, former Hard Rock Hotel and Casino president Randy Kwasniewski, three years ago.

Dylan Kwasniewski calls his father his role model, a hard worker who rose from the south side of Chicago -- "the absolute ghetto," Dylan called it -- to run one of the best-known casino hotels in Las Vegas. For the younger Kwasniewski, who had just hooked up with sponsor Rockstar energy and was beginning to branch out from local to national circuits at the time, his father's death made him question whether he wanted to continue racing. But he kept going, knowing how hard his dad had worked to get him to that point. The support of people in NASCAR and a close circle of friends in Vegas got him through it.

"If I didn’t have them, I wouldn't be where I am right now. And really, the sport of NASCAR helped me out," Kwasniewski said. "This is such a tight-knit group of people, it's such a family sport, and everybody's willing to help out. So just having the support group of everybody in the racing industry and of NASCAR and my friends, that got me through. To be honest, that was definitely the hardest thing I've gone though in my life, but it made me the person who I am. It's made me definitely mature a lot quicker than I expected. And even though it was definitely a tragedy, I definitely took some good things out of it."

His career has progressed on a steady, upward trajectory ever since. The Nationwide Series in 2014 emerged as a possibility early last season, when it became clear that Kwasniewski's sponsors were interested in moving up to the national level. That entailed moving from Las Vegas to the greater Charlotte, N.C., area, where neon signs are typically reserved for pizza joints and movie theatres. "Just a whole different world to me," Kwasniewski called it.

As will be the Nationwide Series, where Kwasniewski will be short on experience at almost every race track he visits. The success of Kyle Larson, who made a successful jump from the Pro Series to the Nationwide tour -- and is now a rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- gives him hope.

"With Kyle Larson going up and competing well and doing that, it showed me that I can hopefully do the same," Kwasniewski said. "I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a challenge, but I think we've just got to take it slowly, take it one step at a time, and hopefully learn from a lot of these drivers and see what they have. But my biggest thing this year is definitely to gain respect, to show them I'm not just some young kid trying to be a standout or anything like that. I want to show that I can be a part of the NASCAR family and respect it fully."

Once again, there's the perception issue. Kwasniewski knows some people will look at how he dresses, glance at his background, and assume certain things. He hopes they'll eventually take a larger cue from the way he races, pushing Vegas and flat-billed caps into the background. Toward that end, he's taking his cue from the best in the business.

"Hopefully, I won't make too many haters on the way up there. But there's always going to be some," he said. "Hopefully I can be known as a guy who's personable, who can talk to the fans. Hopefully I'm not going to be considered a jerk. I don't like that. Somebody called me a jerk the other day, and I was like -- 'Man, why do you think that? Let me show you I'm a good guy. I promise.' So hopefully I'll be known as a well-rounded guy, and hopefully I can model myself after Jimmie Johnson, because he does really well at that."

Trying to emulate the six-time Sprint Cup champion? Dylan Kwasniewski hasn’t even taken to the race track yet at NASCAR's national level, but he's already off to a pretty good start.

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