Josh Bilicki understands his place in the sport, but frankly he’s tired of getting treated like a pinball.
That’s life in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Just not Saturday. Not for Bilicki. Not at Road America.
“Especially if there’s a restart with five to go – or under five to go – you know there’s going to be carnage,” said the 25-year-old racer from Richfield. “That’s one reason NASCAR’s so popular is the fans like to watch that.
“But as a driver who came up through sports-car racing, that’s definitely not how I was taught to race. So it’s been an adjustment for me, and for me to actually teach myself that this is how we race and for me to return the favor.
“The past couple of years, I’ve never really returned the favor. But this year, B.J. McLeod basically said, do what you have to do, don’t take any prisoners.”
Without big backers, a family fortune or help from one of the manufacturers, Bilicki is in a no-win situation in NASCAR in the short term. He and the smaller teams for which he has driven – B.J. McLeod Motorsports this weekend – realistically aren’t going to victory lane, and they have to decide what a “win” would be for them.
Bilicki will start McLeod’s No. 99 Toyota 30th in the Henry 180, scheduled for shortly after 11 a.m. Saturday. The car is relatively new, and the team will have a full allotment of new tires, which is a luxury.
“Definitely a top-10’s possible,” said Bilicki, whose career best is 12th in this race three years ago. “A top-five would be really cool. That’d be a win for us.”
Bilicki made his NASCAR debut in 2016 at Road America and turned his focus from sports cars to stock cars. He has hustled for sponsors since to cobble together partial seasons in the Xfinity Series as well as the premier Cup Series. The results have been consistent with his experience and budget, but Bilicki’s hope is that out-performing the equipment eventually will yield bigger opportunities.
That’s what make a race like Saturday’s all the more important. Bilicki has made countless laps around the 4-mile layout in Elkhart Lake. He has squeezed performance out of old cars on used tires with no practice. Other than three years ago, though, the results haven’t matched the effort, and that’s been tough to stomach.
“The first year I went there, in 2016, no previous stock-car experience and I think we qualified 23rd and DNF’d,” he said. “In 2018, we were running in the top 15 and lost brakes. That was the result of used parts; I was probably pushing harder than I should have been.
“Last year we were poised to have a top-10 finish with Ryan Sieg Racing, and with two laps to go, one of the JR Motorsports cars basically just used me as the brakes going into Turn 8 and pushed me off track and we got into another car that was already off track and we finished 20th. So it’s just kind of the name of the game when you go to road courses.”
In addition to familiarity with the track, several other factors play into Bilicki’s hand Saturday, or at the very least hurt him less than most others.
First, NASCAR eliminated practice and qualifying to limit track time and consequently potential coronavirus exposure for teams. With Bilicki’s budget, that means he loses out on only a couple of laps, whereas the bigger teams and many drivers with less experience on the track give up 20 or 30.
“Last month actually when we went to Indianapolis – the road course for the first time – we had two practice sessions and we only did five laps in the first practice session,” Bilicki said. “We were eighth in the first practice and we skipped the second practice to save the car.”
Although Bilicki had top-10 speed at times at Indy, he finished 23rd after getting bounced around late in the race.
The second factor is 2020 pit procedures for Road America and a handful of other Xfinity events that prevent teams for gaining or losing positions under a normal stop under the caution flag. Teams can change four tires or add fuel within a time limit and restart in the same position relative to the other cars that stopped.
“If we enter the pits 14th, we’re going to come out 14th,” Bilicki said.
While that might not sound like a lot, it would put Bilicki a lot closer to a finish that comes as close to a win as can be expected.
“It’s tough for me to balance if I want to race really hard or if I want to race clean and just let everybody else up front take themselves out,” Bilicki said, referencing last year’s race, when another Wisconsin driver, Nic Hammann, finished 15th last year mostly by staying out of trouble.
“We’re going to race hard, but there’s guys we might not want to race hard against and by. In that scenario, we might just let them go and crash each other out.”
Then if push comes to shove, Bilicki will be ready to push back.