I guess you could say that there aren’t a lot of racetracks out there that I haven’t visited. I’ve been to a lot of the small “hometown” tracks around the country—especially in the Midwest—and I have raced at countless NASCAR-sanctioned venues. During the racing season, my commitment to the M&M’s Racing Team is my top priority. However, as my schedule permits, I try to visit a couple of dirt tracks during the week before I climb behind the wheel of the M&M’s Winston Cup car on the weekend.

Quarter-miles, superspeedways, dirt, or asphalt—it’s hard to say which is my favorite. To be honest, I just want to race. I always tell people that if there’s a track out there that I haven’t been to, it is more than likely on my list of tracks where I still want to go.

Since I try to race at so many different places each year, I get asked a lot of questions by some of the drivers I meet. They’re always picking my brain, trying to get some tips from me on the track that we’re at. Most of the time, I’m trying to do the same thing.

It doesn’t matter that I’m a NASCAR Winston Cup driver when I’m out at these quarter-mile dirt tracks; we’re all on an even playing field—I’ve just been racing a whole lot longer than some of those guys out there. Since I have been to so many of those regional tracks over the years, I thought I would try to help some of the drivers who may be visiting a track for the very first time.

Ask Questions

There are two things that I always tell drivers will help them get around a track where they have not been before: make phone calls and get plenty of seat time before the race.

You’re probably wondering how making phone calls will help you do well at a racetrack. Well, I have been to a lot of places with this car. Whenever I’m getting ready to go to a track that I haven’t been to before with my Late Model dirt car, I get on the phone a couple of days before the event. Joe Walsh— he takes care of my Late Model car—and I make as many phone calls as we can to get some information. We’re trying to stack the deck and get ahead of the game before we actually get to the track.

You see, if you are going to a regional track, there are always going to be hometown drivers who go there every weekend. Call them and ask them questions about the layout of the track, different things they’ve tried—just any advice they can give you.

It also wouldn’t hurt to call the chassis manufacturer for your car. More than likely, the manufacturer has a car that runs at that track. The manufacturer will be able to help you with the kinds of spring and gear combinations you might need to run.

Making these phone calls is kind of like testing in the Winston Cup series. Not every team can go and test every track before we race there. So, my teammate Johnny Benson and the No. 10 car will go test a track like Atlanta, while the M&M’s Racing Team and I go and test Las Vegas. We’ll come back home, talk and share what we learned about running at those two tracks. That way, we’re ahead of the game when we head out to those venues for the race weekend.

By calling other drivers and other people in the know about the track, you will be able to figure out the basic setup you’re going to need to get around the track. You really should use other people’s experience to your advantage.

Seat Time

Once you get to the track, the key is to get out there and get as much time behind the wheel as you can. The track changes from week to week, so there’s not going to be one certain setup that is going to work every single time. And that’s really the hardest thing for a driver to deal with, especially at dirt tracks.

Not only does a track change weekly, but it changes constantly during the course of an event. Keeping up with these changes is a challenge for the driver and the crew. There are so many adjustments that can be made, and you can really dial yourself in or out very quickly. Once you run a few laps, you may realize you need to go the opposite direction with your setup. If you get out there and run your hot laps, you should be able to figure out what changes need to be made. It may even help you figure out what kind of challenges you will face during the race.

With each track you visit, it gets a little easier. Once you’ve run one quarter-mile dirt track, then you are really ahead of the game when you go to the next one. It may be a little bit different, but I can guarantee you that it will have a lot of the same features as the first. And once you have been to two tracks, it makes the third that much easier.

You get to the point where you can look at the track and recognize the similarities to other tracks where you have raced, and you get a feel for how the car should be set up for its best performance. It’s like building blocks. The more experience you have at the tracks, the higher you can climb and the better you will become.

I hope this little bit of advice helps any of you guys who want to break into the world of weekly racing, or for you drivers who already travel to various small tracks near your hometown. Some of the advice may sound silly to you, but I can attest to the fact that it works. If it weren’t for making those phone calls, I wouldn’t have won or even started some of the races at the small dirt tracks that I have.

And if you see me at your home track one day, don’t be shy. Come up and introduce yourself—I’ll be more than happy to give you some advice. I may even need to pick your brain about the track.