Travis Kvapil, the 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion from Janesville, Wis., was hired earlier this month to replace Brendan Gaughan at Penske South Racing for the 2005 Nextel Cup Series season.
He will drive the No. 77 Dodge and compete for the Rookie of the Year championship.
Kvapil, 28, talked about his new job and what he expects in his first year in a stock car.
Question: You drove in three Nextel Cup Series races this year. How different was that from driving a pickup in the truck series?
Kvapil: It was quite a bit different. The races are longer and more pit stops are involved in the Cup Series. The biggest difference I noticed was how important the team aspect of it was. In the truck series, you could have a 16-second pit stop and maintain your position or you might even gain a spot or two. In the Cup Series, if you have a slow stop or you're off a little bit, you're really going to lose positions. The competition is so close. You could be running 25th on the track and running similar lap times to the guys running in the top five. The depth of the competition and the importance of every member of the team make Cup a lot tougher.
Question: You qualified fifth at Martinsville last October in your first Nextel Cup Series start. Are time trials a big part of your game, much like your new Penske South Racing teammate Ryan Newman?
Kvapil: Throughout my short-track career and running Late Models I always thought I was a great qualifier. In the truck series over four years I only had one pole. I don't think I'm one of the great qualifiers like Ryan Newman blazing the laps off every week, but I feel like I do a good job in the race communicating with the team, telling them the adjustments that need to be made to the race car. I guess that's where I think I excel with my performance, during the race, making the car faster and being there at the end of 500 miles.
Question: Do you work on your own race cars?
Kvapil: Definitely, as I was running Late Models and short tracks, it was me and my stepfather (Richard). A couple of my buddies would come over and help work on the car, but I was the main one building the car and repairing it along with my stepfather. I was very hands-on, and I think that's been a big asset for me getting to Nextel Cup racing, knowing the nuts and bolts of a race car and what makes it work and what makes it go faster on the racetrack.
Question: After winning the truck championship in 2003, was 2004 a tough season?
Kvapil: We had a pretty big mountain to climb in 2004 with a new manufacturer and a new team and a new owner. We had a lot to overcome. My expectations were to go out and win the championship last year in the truck series, but we fell a little short of that. We won a couple of races and picked up a pole, but the last part of the year we started to struggle and dropped out of the championship chase. It was a bit of a disappointment to win the championship and come back the next year and finish eighth in the points, but getting those two wins was great.
Question: Why did Roger Penske pick you?
Kvapil: I think he believes in me and thinks I can get that 77 Dodge in victory lane and be a good spokesperson for Penske/Jasper Racing and Kodak. I want to make the 77 car like the 2 and 12 car, a car to contend with every week. We ran a few races last year, and apparently he liked the way I race.
Question: Have you talked to your teammates, Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman, yet?
Kvapil: Ryan and Rusty were really good to me at the three races I did last year. They offered free advice and any information I was looking for they were right there to help me out. You couldn't ask for two better teammates. You've got a young guy like Ryan who's doing a great job and someone like Rusty who's got a bunch of experience and a number of years under his belt. I think I've got both sides of the coin to draw from. Hopefully we can all work together and make all three cars successful next year.
Question: Will Buddy Baker work with you like he did with Brendan Gaughan?
Kvapil: I'm not sure what his role will be yet. I know the little bit of testing I've done he's been there offering advice. I imagine he'll be there. I look forward to working with him. He was a very successful driver with a ton of experience, and he knows what it takes to go fast around the racetrack.
Question: It looks like the rookie of the year championship will come down to you and Kyle Busch at Hendrick Motorsports. What is your main objective?
Kvapil: I feel like the 77 team will be a contender to win the rookie title next year, and I'd have to say that's probably my No. 1 goal for 2005. I think we've got a great shot at it. I know we've got the team and sponsor and people behind me to go ahead and do that. I want to finish in the top 20 or top 15 in points. Anything better than that would be great. I want to win a race next year and be in contention to win races and I know I'll have the equipment to do it. I feel like as a driver I can do it. I'm sure there will be a bit of a learning curve and things to get used to, but I want to win next year and I'll be disappointed if we don't.
Question: Will you have to make a lot of adjustments with the way you drive a stock car?
Kvapil: I've only run three times, and I really don't have a lot of preconceived ideas of what the car should feel like or drive like. With some of the rule changes and new bodies, I think coming in as a new driver will be a good thing. I'm not going to know what the car felt like last year. I'll just take the '05 Charger and try to make it fast. I think my driving style is actually going to be more beneficial to Cup racing than it was in truck racing. I've always been a driver who wants to be there at the end of the race. I like to work during the race to make it faster and come on strong at the end. The races are longer in the Cup Series and you get more opportunities to work on the car versus the truck series. Sometimes you only got one or two pit stops to make adjustments, and if you didn't get it right, you couldn't make it to the front.
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