By: Ashley McCubbin
After working in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series the past couple seasons, Jerry Baxter has returned to the NASCAR Cup Series, reunited with Bubba Wallace at Richard Petty Motorsports. Although they were only able to get four races in together before the coronavirus hiatus, the pair scored a pair of top-15 finishes, highlighted by a sixth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Recently, POPULAR SPEED caught up with Baxter to get his thoughts on NASCAR returning to action at Darlington Raceway, his performance with Wallace, and more.
POPULAR SPEED: What are your thoughts going into Darlington?
JERRY BAXTER: Well, everybody is pretty excited about it. it’s kind of like we just went through the off-season again, kind of like when we’re leading up to the Daytona race; we’re pretty much starting from scratch. Everybody is excited and glad about going there, and the cars are prepped really good.
PS: They’ve changed up the format to have no practice. With that said, how has that changed up your preparation in ensuring your close to where you should be for race time?
BAXTER: Well, that’s kind of why we have the engineers and simulation. They do the best job that they can with all the history from there with the last few years of travels, making sure the splitter doesn’t hit, and other things. They run all the simulations and then we have to just go for what our best guess is set-up-wise, and run all that, and you just go there, and you’re confident that it’ll be right. Sometimes you hit it, sometimes you don’t. Hopefully we have enough information that we’ll be good.
PS: Obviously we have a very condensed schedule now with four races across two weeks. How does that affect preparation at your end?
BAXTER: It’s a little bit different because when we go to the track right now, the car is completely ready to race and it won’t get worked on, just going through the tech line and then going right out on the grid. Through a normal weekend, you do your practice and then when it’s over with, you go through with everything – sometimes you have to change all the brakes, hubs, and stuff, but you do a lot of maintenance work and have three to four hours to get all that done. With this situation especially with no practice, you have to be ready to race as nobody is going to touch it again. That’s the biggest thing – it’s a little bit more time consuming at the shop.
PS: These past months, a lot of people believed that teams just sat around and didn’t do anything. But I imagine there was some work going on behind the scenes….
BAXTER: We’ve only been back in the shop for two weeks right now. We’ve done a lot of work over video chat with all the people and our engineers to try and be prepared – done research stuff, simulations done ahead of time, but the good thing about it is even though we were off for seven weeks, the cars for Atlanta and Homestead were already prepared and ready to go to the track. So when we came in here and brought all the employees back, it really was like we hadn’t been away for anytime because we were right on schedule.
Now the schedule is going to get a little tougher now that we’re going to run twice a week for a while it appears, so it’ll be a little bit harder on the people here in the shop to make sure you’re prepared for twice a week.
PS: Obviously that’ll put a lot of pressure on the pit crews to ensure that they are ready to go. How are you ensuring they’re ready to go, whether activities and things during the break or leading up to this weekend?
BAXTER: The crew has been practicing four days a week for the last few weeks, and the guys that go behind the wall, which are actually the guys that work on the cars here, they’ve been going down there to practice too, because everybody a little rusty. So they do quite a bit of reps every day leading up to the event, and of course they’ll get a ton at Darlington because the tire falls off so bad. So they’ll be pit stops, and they’ll be back in the groove. I’m not worried about that.
PS: Prior to the break, what were your feelings towards the performance by Bubba and yourself?
BAXTER: Well, the way I try to look at everything is I’m trying to look at where the average finish was last year for RPM and I believe it was about a 24.9 finishing position, and trying to look at what we’re doing this year. We’re only four races in, but we were in the high teens for average finish, so that’s kind of our goal.
When you look at the series, those big teams with Penske and Hendrick and Gibbs and all those teams that have four cars, those are all cars that when you add them 4, 4, 4, all of sudden you add it up and there’s 20 cars that are really good cars. Not to say that the guys that run 20th to 30th aren’t good cars, but they’re not the mega teams. So if you’re able to run inside the top-20, that’s pretty much a success.
We’ve had some success this year as our best run this weekend was at Las Vegas – a sixth, which was nice. But those goals are pretty lofty at this point, but hopefully later in the season we will be able to run inside the top-15 weekly. It’s big expectations but we just have to keep going. We’ll be fine.
PS: Where do you feel you need to focus forward for improvements?
BAXTER: Just reps. Bubba and I haven’t worked together for four years, or something like that. We did a lot of races together in the Truck Series so it’s just him and I getting used to each other again, and like I said, I feel like we’re starting from scratch again. I do talk to him each week, but it’s not the same as being at the race track. So we just need to run more races and we’ll grow together.
PS: How did you initially get involved in the sport?
BAXTER: I don’t know. I pretty much have done it my whole life. My mom and dad were involved a little bit; they were raced out on the west coast, and it just took off from there.
PS: For aspiring crew chiefs who hope to work in the sport like you are, what is one piece of advice that you’d offer them?
BAXTER: Well, my time is different than what an aspiring one would need. Now a days, they need to have a super good education, maybe having an engineering background. That’ll make life a lot easier for them to go. Crew chiefs like myself that are not an engineer are getting few and far between, so that’s my best advice – school, school, a lot of school.
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