In a sport where family legacy and big money is a key to success, 22-year-old Cale Conley is hoping to make a name for himself the old-fashioned way: by driving hard and turning heads.
Working with Richard Childress Racing and crew chief Nick Harrison, Conley is trying to make the most of his opportunity with a limited Nationwide Series schedule, learning all he can from teammates Ty Dillon, Brendan Gaughan and Brian Scott.
"Nick’s been a home run," Conley told FOXSports.com Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "To be able to work with Nick is awesome. He’s a great crew chief and he’s really easy to relate to because he doesn’t come off like a brainiac, he just comes off as a regular kind of guy. At the same time when he flips the switch on for race mode, he’s one of the best out on pit road.
"Getting to talk to Ty, Brendan and Brian is a huge deal," he added. "They’re all fast. Ty and Brendan already have a win this year, so it’s fun to be able to lean on people that have been in my shoes where I’m at now just learning. Having free help is awesome."
While this marks the second time Conley has raced at Bristol, the new tire compound and the rubber laid down in Thursday morning’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race threw the young driver for a loop in Thursday’s two Nationwide practice sessions.
"It instantly went to the fence," Conley said of the line in Thursday’s pair of practice sessions. "That’s the line, it’s the preferred line, it’s the fastest way around. My first time here, I got a lot of practice getting up to speed running around the bottom, then in the race, it slowly worked its way to the top. It’s different now, because it’s instantly at the top.
Conley was 19th in the opening session, while he was seventh fastest in final practice. The 22-year-old driver said he was interested to see how the race would play out, as passing will be difficult with the best cars running the top line around the 0.533-mile speedway.
"Definitely a unique place," he said of Bristol Motor Speedway. "I’m way more confident now than I was my first go at it."
In his first trip to Bristol, Conley surprised many as he qualified 12th and finished the day 11th. Not only was it his time to Bristol, it was also his first career NASCAR Nationwide Series start.
The Vienna, W. Va., native cut his teeth at dirt tracks, something he believes has come to help his efforts at high-banked Bristol.
"Not having many stock car starts at all, it’s really nice to be on the fence at a place like this," he said. "It reminds me not so much of a dirt car, but an asphalt midget or asphalt sprint car at Winchester (Speedway) or someplace where the outside line would be preferred. It’s similar to that and easy to adjust your driving style. These cars are so heavy and momentum-based that you want to be as smooth as you can, but at the same time you’re running within one mistake of being in the fence. I like that feel and like the motion of sweeping up by the fence then coming back down. I’m sure it’s going to be exciting to watch 40 of us do this."
Conley is trying to make the most of his opportunity to work with Richard Childress Racing while running a 10-race schedule in the Nationwide Series. His road into the second-biggest racing series in America has not been easy. After making his Nationwide debut at Bristol, Conley followed that up with a trip to one of NASCAR’s most demanding tracks, Darlington Raceway.
"If anybody asks me what my favorite track is, I would say Darlington," he said. "It really whipped my butt. It was mentally grueling. It was one of the hardest places I’ve ever been. I can’t wait to go back and try it again.
"Being at Darlington for my second race was probably a little iffy, but I’m glad we did that," he said. "It made the rest of the races kind of seem easier. We’ve definitely had our ups and downs."
After scoring a career-best finish of 11th in his debut at Bristol, Conley finished 32nd at Darlington, 15th at Richmond International Raceway, 30th at Iowa Speedway, 31st at Dover International Speedway, and was 12th in his last race at Chicagoland Speedway.
"I need to really crank off some top-five finishes here finishing out my season and the races I have left, and try to secure sponsorship for next year," he said.
This year, Conley has partnered with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the first and largest organization for new veterans and their families. The IAVA has nearly 300,000 members and supporters across the country, with the goal of assisting veterans and their families, while also lowering the "unacceptably" high rate of veteran suicide.
While the 22-year-old racer does not have any direct ties to the military, he has been touched and inspired by the experiences he has had with the organization so far.
"It was an awesome opportunity to be able to help support and raise awareness," he said. "I’m new to what a lot of family members go through, especially the vets themselves. To be able to put myself in a situation to meet new people and hear what they go through while their serving, and not just their side, but also their families side. It just makes you appreciate what they’re doing for us to make the way we live possible. I think we take it for granted some times. To be in a position to help raise awareness for the cause is very touching and meaningful to me."
Conley said he understands he has to work hard to attract sponsors, but added that he hopes his on-track performance speaks for itself.
"I try not to let it get to me," he said. "I definitely don’t try to compare myself to other drivers and their career path, because when you start doing the comparing game, it never plays out in your favor … We’re here and we have to make the best of it. If I can crank out some good finishes in my next few races, I think that the stars with align and the man up above will make it happen if it’s meant to be. Right now, I’m living my dream and having a good time while doing it."
This season, Conley has four more opportunities to hone his skills behind the wheel of a Nationwide car, impress his fellow competitors and attract sponsors.
"I really need to show RCR that I belong," said Conley. "I 100 percent believe that I belong here in this series in an RCR car. I need them to believe in me like I believe in myself. If I can knock off some top fives — here at Bristol, Richmond, Dover — I feel like I can show them that next season when I go to some of these tracks for the second time I can contend for a win."