If you only took J.R. Fitzpatrick’s side of the story, you’d think he hadn’t had a good result in five years in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. You’d walk away believing that he had either wrecked, broken or blown an engine in each and every one of his 66 career starts in the series.
“People are going to start calling me ‘Black Cloud.’ That’s how I feel things keep going for me, like there’s this black cloud hanging over me,” Fitzpatrick said. “Ever since NASCAR’s taken over (the old CASCAR Super Series), it seems like we’ve never been able to get the monkey off our back.
Don Thomson Jr., right, has been a calming influence on J.R. Fitzpatrick as a crew chief. (Photo: Matthew Manor/NASCAR)
“It seems like a little bit of bad luck keeps hitting us. Near the end of races, the car falls off or something happens. We’ve been working hard on keeping that from happening.”
The statistics, however, paint a slightly different – and more positive – picture.
The 25-year-old from Cambridge has eight career victories, 11 poles, and he’s finished in the top three in the final point standings in each of the past three seasons. Fitzpatrick has an amazing 30 top-10 finishes in 37 races from 2010-12.
“Fitzy’s probably one of the most talented drivers in the series,” said two-time Canadian Tire Series champion D.J. Kennington. “Every race he goes to, he’s a factor.”
Kennington won his Canadian Tire Series championships in 2010 and 2012. Ironically, it was Fitzpatrick who finished second to him each time, and there’s likely nobody better than Kennington to diagnose precisely what it will take for Fitzpatrick to unseat him as champion.
But Kennington hasn’t won multiple titles by being dumb.
“I know exactly what it is he’s missing,” Kennington said with a laugh. “But I’m not telling you.”
No matter. Fitzpatrick will point to a number of near misses on the race track – like a dominating performance at Kawartha Speedway, where he led 236 of 250 laps and failed to win, or being spun out of the lead while en route to certain victory at Barrie Speedway, or breaking in the second-to-last race of the 2010 season to cost him the title that Kennington eventually won – as examples of championship aspirations gone awry.
But nothing stings worse, or likely sums up, Fitzpatrick’s hard-luck status, better than the race at Delaware Speedway in June of last season. With 20 laps to go, he’s stretching out his already comfortable lead on the rest of the field, when a freak occurrence intervenes. The track lights shut off mid-race, prompting a red flag.
While sitting there stopped in the darkness under the red, a leak in the brake line of the No. 84 Equipment Express Chevrolet bleeds out. And Fitzpatrick’s chances at victory are gone.
“When people talk about (NASCAR Canadian Tire Series), they say the 84 team is good – good driver, good team – and we put on a good show with exciting finishes,” Fitzpatrick said. “But they’ve also said the one thing missing is little things.
“It’s frustrating to even talk about. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. There’s no question we’re a championship-winning team, but there’s just always that little bug that bites us.”
Fitzpatrick has the presence of Don Thomson Jr. as his crew chief. Thomson is one of Canada’s most decorated short-trackers, having won multiple CASCAR championships – including five in a row from 2001-2005. His last full season behind the wheel came in 2011, when he finished fifth in the final NASCAR Canadian Tire Series standings.
He moved atop the pit box for Fitzpatrick last season, but not for the first time. Thomson built and crew-chiefed a late model program earlier in Fitzpatrick’s career.
“Really the place is built around him. He really created this whole empire at Fitzpatrick Motorsports,” Fitzpatrick said of Thomson, whom he likens to an older brother. “He’s by far the most experienced guy in the pits, and he’s a great crew chief. I think being a crew chief for first time last year while not driving was a learning curve for him, but he’s been doing his work and the whole program is getting better.”
Fitzpatrick sees the leadership role that Thomson has embraced, and he realizes that he may need to do more of that himself, too.
“The car’s always been fast everywhere we’ve gone, but so many things that keep happening are out of your control,” Fitzpatrick said. “Sometimes I come home and I want to kick anything that’s in my way. Every time we’re winning and we’re fast, it seems something stupid happens. It comes to a point where you go, ‘Why me?’
“I think me not getting so worked up and emotional in the car, that would be perfect start for us. I’ll admit, I’m pretty bad for that. Look at that race at Delaware – we stop (for the red flag) and the brakes start leaking. Who do I get upset at? I can’t get out and start kicking the calipers, can I?
“I’ve got to let my emotions turn into a positive influence on the team. I’ve gotten (angry) in the past, and I think that’s what hurt us.”
It took Kennington 18 years to learn how to manage races well enough to win his first championship in 2010.
“It’s patience. I honestly think that’s the only thing holding him back,” Kennington said. “You don’t have to push Fitzy to go fast. You’ve got to pull him back. He’s got one speed, and that’s wide open.
“It’s hard to learn that. You’re a racer. It’s like I always say, you want to go as fast as you can for as long as you can. It’s hard to mentally tell yourself you need to save some stuff, and it’s even harder when you see guys driving away from you that you know you can catch.”
Fitzpatrick appears ready to take that next step toward a championship. Perhaps he’s even beginning to see the sun start peeking through those “black clouds.”
“I think the biggest thing that keeps me going is I want a NASCAR championship,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think part of the big blowups I’ve had in the past is frustration over the whole season. We’re winning, we get dumped or something else happens. I’m probably not as mad as the guy I’m yelling at as it seems.
“Hey, we’re a racing family. I’ve been around it my whole life. My dad raced, and he had a real passion for it. I’m the same way.”