Erik Darnell, driver of the No. 96 Academy Outdoor Sports Ford Fusion, will be making his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Darnell, who is scheduled to compete in seven of the final 12 events, spoke about the...
Erik Darnell, driver of the No. 96 Academy Outdoor Sports Ford Fusion, will be making his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Darnell, who is scheduled to compete in seven of the final 12 events, spoke about the opportunity in the AMS infield media center before practice.
"Obviously, I'm very excited to be in this position that I'm in right now. It's kind of a little bit unexpected, I guess, it kind of all happened in a hurry, but I feel very fortunate to be in this position. I'm very excited about making my first start this weekend. Atlanta is a track that I really like. I've run well here in the trucks in the past. It's gonna be a little bit of a challenge, a learning curve for me. I haven't spent much time in a Cup car before, the COT car, doing testing or anything like that, so it's gonna take a little bit for me to get up to speed, but I'm looking forward to the challenge. Those guys have a great team put together over there with the Academy Outdoor Sports Fusion and I'm looking forward to the challenge. I think it's gonna be a fun weekend."
HOW DO YOU VIEW THIS WEEKEND? "A little bit of both. Obviously, I have to go there and show that I'm able to do this and I'm capable of doing this in a Sprint Cup car because this is where I want to be down the line. To tell you the honest truth, I don't know that I have anything lined up next year yet on the Nationwide side or the Cup side or anything like that, so I think this is kind of my opportunity to go out there and show that I can run in these cars. Realistically, for this weekend I don't think I could put a finishing position or a number on it, but I think, for us, it's gonna be to go out, be solid in practice, make changes to the car to make it faster, qualify well and run all the laps. That's the big goal for this weekend. If you're sitting on jack stands, you're not learning anything, so, for me, it's gonna be going out there and just running all the laps and trying to get a good finish out of this and proving myself. I think that's a big thing. I'd like to earn a chance to race one of these things next year and this is my opportunity to do it with these seven races right here, so I've just got to go out and be solid and, hopefully, everything will kind of fall into place."
HOW MUCH DID THIS CATCH YOU OFF GUARD? "It was a little bit unexpected. I didn't really know a whole lot about it before it actually happened. As far as I was concerned, I had seven more Nationwide races this year and that was gonna be it for me, so it kind of came out of the blue. But I guess the sponsors had been talking about doing something a little bit and I'm fortunate to have Academy Outdoor Sports and Northern Tool + Equipment that want to do this with me, but, honestly, it just kind of came out of nowhere. Everything has come together really quick. They had to go put seats in the car this week and had to go talk to the team and talk to the crew chief and try to gel with them a little bit before we came out here this weekend, so it did happen in a hurry, but, so far, everything has been going very well and I look forward to going out on the track and seeing what I can do with the car."
DO YOU THINK IF YOU DO WELL THIS COULD LEAD TO SOMETHING NEXT YEAR? "That's what I'm hoping, but, to be honest with you, right now, I don't really know what's gonna happen next year yet. I didn't have anything lined up on the Nationwide side as of now, that I know of, so, for me, this is my chance to go out and kind of prove myself. Hopefully, we run well. Hopefully, we have some good finishes that can turn into something for next year. That's what I hope for and that's what I would I would definitely like to see happen because I do want to make it to the Sprint Cup tour one day. Being a young racer, this has always been my dream to make it to this level and this is gonna be my chance to go out there and show what I can do, but as far as plans for next year or anything set in stone, there's nothing there yet. It's all gonna depend on these seven races. Hopefully, they go well and we can turn that into something, but as far as these go, that's all I've got right now."
WERE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT THIS ENDING BOBBY LABONTE'S CONSECUTIVE RACE STREAK? "Yeah, I think so and I've got nothing but respect for Bobby Labonte and what he's done in this sport. Obviously, he's a champion and a great race car driver, and I don't think this necessarily had anything to do with him. I think this was Yates Racing had races that needed sponsorship and we were able to bring a little bit of that over to him. Obviously, being with Roush Fenway Racing and coming up through their truck and Nationwide program, they have an affiliation with them. Ultimately, down the line they probably wanted to get me in some Cup races eventually anyway, but with the way it is over there right now with five cars -- they've got to go down to four next year and I don't really think they had too much room to do that -- so when this opportunity opened up, they said, 'Let's go for it.' Again, I really feel like these seven races are gonna be my chance, my shot to show that I can make it at the Cup level and if this doesn't work out, I don't know where that puts me for next year, but, obviously, we had the sponsorship, they had the races open, and they said, 'Go for it.' It's nothing against Bobby Labonte. I kind of felt bad for him. I was happy to see he's in that 71 car this weekend. I like him. He's a class act 100 percent, but with the way the sport is these days money is a big thing. Fortunately, North Tool + Equipment was able to bring some of that to the Cup deal and we'll roll with it from there, but this is my shot. It's nothing against Bobby, but I'm glad to be in the car and fortunate to be in this opportunity."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE CHALLENGE OF GETTING TO THIS POINT? "I feel grateful that Roush gave me three years in the trucks to go out there and kind of learn the tracks and racing in these full-bodied cars is something that I wasn't used to running short-track late model stuff growing up. I feel like the truck series stuff could have gone a little better than it did, but we had some good results. I ended up fourth in the points last year, obviously, and I really feel like the Nationwide Series we've run very competitively over there this year. I think we ran up front and had a possible shot to win at Darlington. We sat on the pole at Milwaukee. The Nationwide stuff has been going very well and because of that, it kind of gave me my shot to do this. I think eventually, they wanted to try and see if I could do it at the Cup level and they wanted to put me in a car and see what I can do, and I guess this was the time to do it. I feel I've kind of proven myself in the lower two series and this is gonna be my shot and this is gonna be my chance to do it. I'm thankful to them for giving me the opportunity to kind of develop in the lower series and, hopefully, this is gonna show that I can do it at the Sprint Cup level and I can do this on Sundays because we've been doing it on Fridays and Saturdays for a while."
HOW DO YOU NOT OVERDRIVE UP HERE AND SHOW YOU CAN DO IT IN A CAR MANY VETERANS ARE STILL STRUGGLING WITH? "It's definitely gonna be tough. There's a lot on my plate, not only for this weekend, but the six races following this. Again, I haven't really tested one of these things very much, but in the little bit of testing that I've done, they're way different than a Nationwide car, they're way different than a truck. They're harder to drive. They've got more horsepower, but I almost feel that benefits me as a driver. I don't know why, but for whatever reason a couple years ago when we had more horsepower, I seemed to do better with those things -- when you actually had a little bit of throttle to control the car -- obviously those drive a little better than these do, but it's gonna be tough, there's no question about it, especially being a rookie in this deal and making my first start at Atlanta. But, like I said, with what I've done up to this point, with the series that I've run, with the tracks I've run at, I think we've had some pretty good results, and at one point you're gonna have to make this step and do it and this is it for me. It's gonna be tough, but I'm gonna go out and learn with the team. Those guys are an established team and we've got an established crew chief, and they've been together for a while, so they should be able to help me out a little bit with that.
"Plus, I've got some good teammates and some good people I can talk to at Roush Fenway with their experienced Cup drivers, and I'm sure they'll be able to help me out a little bit, but at one point down the line it's gonna come to where you're gonna have to take this step and this is it for me. There's a lot of pressure, but I think we'll be all right."
YOU'RE BACKING UP CARL IN THE NATIONWIDE RACE. WHAT WOULD YOUR GAMEPLAN BE? "That was originally the plan, but Max Jones and Jack kind of talked to each other and said that I've got a lot on my plate this week and just trying to concentrate on the Cup race, so Matt Kenseth is gonna be on standby for Carl for the Nationwide car now, which is good for me to let me focus on the Cup car at least for this weekend."
IS THIS TRACK BETTER THAN MOST TO MAKE DEBUT OR HARDER THAN MOST? "It's probably a little bit of both. Like I said, I've run well here in the trucks before. I feel like I know the track pretty well. It's gonna be a completely different beast doing it in a Cup car, though. If they had given me the opportunity to start on a mile track or a half-mile track -- Martinsville, Bristol, Phoenix or a Loudon -- it might have been a little bit easier kind of getting into this, but there's no question it's gonna be tough. This is a place that I really enjoy running at. It's got high speeds. It can kind of go either way with that one, but I'm looking forward to getting out there and doing this. It's gonna be a challenge. It's gonna be tough, but I think we can do it."
-credit: ford racing