Kwasniewski 'focusing forward' in rookie year
May 14, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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Underneath the hip sunglasses and his trademark "ROCKSTAR Energy Drink" flat bill hat, Dylan Kwasniewski exudes all the youthful optimism and good vibes you'd expect of an 18-year-old living his racing dreams.
The ROCKSTAR brand sponsorship couldn't be more appropriate for the photogenic, super-engaging Las Vegas native. But Kwasniewski is the first to tell you, it's been a hard knocks opening act.
After stunning the field to win the pole position in his very first NASCAR Nationwide Series start at Daytona International Speedway in February, Kwasniewski's No. 31 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet has sometimes looked more like a pinball during the eight races since.
You can't say he hasn't pushed it to the limit -- brushing the wall in qualifying to get that fast lap or making bold moves mid-race to add to his eighth-place effort at Daytona. But even when Kwasniewski has positioned himself for a good finish, he's been caught up in someone else's bad drama.
So here's where the youthful optimism comes in.
"It's a learning process this season," Kwasniewski concedes. "It's frustrating not getting the finishes I want and know we can get out of the team. I've put myself in some bad spots and then had some bad luck as well.
"But you have to look forward, there's a long season ahead. We are a fraction into it and a lot more room to make up ground."
"Hopefully, knock on wood, we've gotten the bad luck out of there."
He's hoping a slight change in scenery -- car and track -- may help with that. For this week's Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway, Kwasniewski will drive the team's No. 42 Chevrolet normally driven by Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson.
And while the number will be different, Kwasniewski is looking forward to a familiar venue.
He figures he's turned more laps at the 7/8-mile Iowa oval than any other track the series visits – thanks to five NASCAR K&N Pro Series starts there highlighted by two victories (West Series in 2012 and East Series in 2013).
The comfort of knowing a track can't be overstated, according to his veteran crew chief Pat Tryson, who wants people to remember that Kwasniewski's raw talent can't always triumph completely new – and ultra-competitive -- situations.
Kwasniewski's nine NNS starts in 2014 are the only NASCAR national series races he's ever competed in.
"I think everyone knew it wasn't going to be easy," said Tryson, who has worked with Sprint Cup drivers such as Mark Martin and Ricky Rudd.
"Dylan simply doesn't have that many stock car races. Most of these tracks we go to, it's the first time he's ever seen them. So this season, it's been about keeping him level-headed.
"He's doing better than what we thought he would do just based off his level of experience. The second half of the year will be a lot better, that's when he'll start seeing the results from suffering some the first part.
"It's been a really big learning curve, but he's done a good job."
Like Kwasniewski, Tryson expects Iowa to be a bright beacon on the schedule.
"It's a lot better scenario for him," Tryson said. "He's been there before, you don't have the Cup drivers there, I expect him -- based on how we ran at Richmond -- that he'd be one of the guys to beat at Iowa. There's not as much pressure when the Cup drivers aren't there and the short tracks seem to be more what he's used to than the bigger tracks."
Counting his eighth-place finish at Daytona, Kwasniewski has five top-15 showings. But back-to-back crashes in the last two races -- at Richmond, Va. and Talladega, Ala. -- derailed promising runs and dropped Kwasniewski to 13th in points entering Sunday's Get to Know Newton 250 at Iowa.
All respectable numbers, but it doesn't help your ego when a rookie -- 18-year old JR Motorsports driver Chase Elliott -- is leading the Nationwide championship standings and has a pair of wins already.
"I'm sure it's hard on him, He may not admit it, but you see a guy 18 or 19 winning races and 'I'm not,' but they come from two different experience levels. He's going to be fine, though. I think the second half of the year, you're going to see a big difference.
"People don't realize Chase goes testing in Cup cars and Ty (Dillon) tests Cup cars and we only tested one time with Dylan, so it's really an unfair comparison because he doesn't have the laps all these places.
"I mean he'd never even made pit stops before this year really. Every part of it has been a learning curve. And we're making some adjustments as we go, getting the cars better and becoming more and more competitive. JR Motorsports is a little ahead of us, so we've got to get to point we're competing for wins and top-fives."
A two-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series champion (the first to win East and West titles), the NASCAR garage has already taken note of his potential.
Chip Ganassi Racing signed him to a driver development deal in March where he joins a stock car lineup including current Sprint Cup Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader Kyle Larson and veteran Jamie McMurray, who has won both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
One lesson Kwasnieswki has already learned is that often perspective is as important as a fast car.
"At the beginning of the year, I wanted to go out there with a bang, start on a good note, race with these guys right off the bat and do really well," Kwasniewski said "I've been used to that the last two years. But I have to throw that out the window.
"I want to be the best out there on the track, every driver does. But even within the rookie class, I'm at a different ballgame.
"I just have to be the best I can, and do everything I can off track to get the team prepared. I can't get caught up in the finishes I've been having, just keep focusing forward."