The route to stardom in motorsports can be quite circuitous, and even then there's no guarantee it will get you where you want to be in the end. Travis Kvapil, the 2003 NASCAR Truck Series champion, is all too aware of this phenomenon. Until recently, his Sprint Cup career has been marked by both solid performances and having the proverbial rug pulled out from under him, be it team turmoil (being the rookie third driver at Penske during the Rusty Wallace/Ryan Newman feud), sponsorship struggles (operating on race-by-race funding at Yates) or some other ill-timed anvil from the heavens.
But for 2010, the 34-year-old Wisconsinite has a full-season ride in the No. 34 Long John Silver's Ford fielded by Front Row Motorsports, a plucky low-budget team that both tripled in size and gained backing from the manufacturer over the winter. And, listening to Travis, one gets the feeling that he and the team might soon be famous for something other than having the guaranteed spot on the starting grid that comes with being in the top 35 in owner points.
RACER: How would you rate your season so far?
Travis Kvapil: I feel like we should definitely be performing a little bit better. We're back in 32nd in driver points, and our No. 1 goal is to keep the car in the top 35 in owner points, but personally, my expectation is to be around 25th or so. This is a small team that has tackled a lot over the off-season with expanding from one car to three cars, so we know we're going to have some growing pains, yet we've had some pretty solid runs. But we've also had some days where we've been pretty far off, so we'd like to see some overall improvement and up our performances a little bit. We're hanging in there, and I know we can get better as the season rolls on.
RACER: How much of a relief is it to be in the top 35?
TK: Just to be able to go to these racetracks and concentrate on race trim versus spending the whole week and all your practice laps worrying about making the car go fast for one lap is a big deal. When you're in that situation, a lot of times you put all your effort into qualifying and your race stuff gets neglected. It's a big relief knowing you're in the show Sunday no matter how Friday goes.
RACER: Are you impressed with the reliability of the Roush-Yates engines, or have you come to expect that having driven for Yates Racing in 2008 and part of last year?
TK: I know Doug Yates and the Roush-Yates engine program build engines that are powerful and reliable. We may have been starting the year off with a different manufacturer, but I knew that was one part of the equation we didn't have to worry about. Unfortunately, the one DNF we did have at Phoenix was engine related, but it was because a piece of rubber or a rock or something got in and knocked the oil pump belt off; nothing those guys could have done. When you're trying to stay in the top 35 you have to finish races, and having those engines is a big asset for us.
RACER: And having support from Ford is also an asset?
TK: For sure. When I first started talking to Front Row Motorsports a year ago and they talked about their plans and the direction they were going, one thing we were trying to figure out if there was a way to get manufacturer support, and when we started the conversation with Ford it really put the pieces of the puzzle together. We're a very small team and we don't have a lot of engineering on staff, so when we can use a lot of the technology, the data, the wind tunnel time and seven-post shaker rig time that Ford provides, it really helps us out. It's going to take a while to make use of it and really build on it, but at least now we have it at our disposal.
RACER: What about another vital asset you have at your disposal, your crew chief Steve Lane?
TK: I knew him before we started working together, and he's a great crew chief. He's a racer; he grew up around racing and just loves working on racecars. He doesn't worry about the size of his motor home or his paycheck; he just wants to race and get the most out of our racecar. He's a huge asset not only for the No. 34 team but for the whole company. He does a great job of taking everything we've got and maximizing it.
RACER: What kind of relationship do you have with your teammates, David Gilliland and Kevin Conway?
TK: I've been a teammate with David in the past and we became good friends on and off the track, so it's one of those deals where if one of us makes changes to our car and feel like it's an improvement, we feel like that information can go to the other guy and work for him.
And Kevin's a young guy and a rookie, so as drivers with three or four years under our belts, David and I try to help him out and make his learning curve as easy as possible. There are little tricks to every racetrack we go to, and it's nice to have a veteran give you a little of that inside information before you get there, and that's what we're trying to do with him.
RACER: Even with all your resources – both technical and human – you are still a team of modest means and, as a result, an underdog. Does that drive you guys to work extra hard?
TK: It really does. I see a lot of positive and forward movement with this team. It's going to take a little bit of time to develop these racecars – make them lighter and faster and understand what we've got. It's not going to happen overnight, but if you look around the garage, there are some pretty good teams that we're next to when they line us up by points, and I feel like consistent top 20s and top 15s are right around the corner.
RACER: What do you reckon are your prospects for the Sprint All-Star Race?
TK: We're really excited about it. Long John Silver's is promoting its Baja Fish Tacos and really making a push to get all of its supporters to vote me into the All-Star Race. For me personally, it's just such a cool race. I remember watching it growing up and thinking how neat it is for these guys to race gloves-off and wide open with no points on the line. Everything's ratcheted up a little bit more and there's a lot of intense action.
RACER: Would you say the format makes the All-Star Race more of a crap shoot than a restrictor plate race?
TK: A plate race is definitely more of a crap shoot, but when you line up any of these guys with 10 or 20 laps to go and dangle that $1 million carrot in front of them, there are a lot of crazy things that can happen. They're not going to be afraid of moving the guy ahead out of the way if he's holding them up. When you're racing for points, there are a lot of risks and chances you don't take when you're just racing for cash. Hopefully, we can be a part of that excitement.Tom Anderson