Local body shop, Sprint Cup team owner Dusty Whitney works his way to the top with entry in Daytona 500
When Dusty Whitney first got into the racing game, he didn't automatically set his sights on the top.
He had always been ambitious, but cautious. He was willing to start from scratch, blending small levels of risk with business decisions. So when the 34-year-old Ypsilanti native sits atop the Whitney Motorsports pit box in the infield of the Daytona International Speedway today, the moment won't be lost on him.
In his second year as a Sprint Cup owner, the Ypsilanti High School drop out is a relatively small fish in a huge ocean of multi-million dollar racing operations. That sits just fine with Whitney.
"I've always been someone that sets my goals and works hard at stuff, never gives up at stuff and just stayed positive," Whitney said in a phone interview on Saturday.
"When I started racing 12 or 13 years ago, I didn't say, 'Hey, I want to be a Sprint Cup owner or driver.' I just took things year by year and whatever challenges me and whatever I could afford to do, that's kind of what I did."
Whitney began working in local body shops after dropping out of high school following his junior year. After taking classes at Washtenaw Community College and eventually becoming the owner of three body shops in Ann Arbor - two Whitney's Collision Centers and Dusty's Collision - Whitney set his sights on more.
He never lost sight of the importance of dealing with people fairly and honestly.
It's one of the lessons Rick Fischer, the owner of Fischer Honda in Ypsilanti, tried to convey on a kid who sometimes angered Fischer for charging too much to mow his lawn. But in Whitney, Fischer saw a kid who was willing to work.
That led Fisher to loan Whitney $25,000 to start his first small body shop in Depot Town.
"He doesn't have an ego that's blown out of shape, he makes good decisions and he treats he people well," Fischer said Saturday. "So I never worried about the kid. I tried to give him some advice about what to pay attention to, but he's come through all of this.
"Just think of where he could be in five or 10 years. I don't think it's unrealistic to think that he could be on the same trajectory as Roger Penske some day. It's all pretty incredible."
After cutting his teeth as an owner in the Nationwide Series, Whitney jumped up to NASCAR's top level last year. He started small, purchasing equipment from other owners, including Richard Childress Racing and Ray Evernham, learning with every step he took.
He went through his share of growing pains, qualifying on some weekends and leaving early before race day on others. He found a capable driver in J.J. Yeley, who will drive the same No. 46 Chevrolet the Whitney Motorsports team finished last season in.
As much as the goal was to begin the season by qualifying for Daytona, Whitney wasn't willing to go overboard in his efforts.
Whitney said he used a smaller motor program than many of his fellow owners, a move he knew would make it difficult for Yeley to qualify. But after finishing 17th in the first Gatorade duel race last weekend, Yeley grabbed one of the final transfer spots for today's Great American Race.
"That's just how I have always done all of my businesses - I start them out on less money, we work hard and we work smart and at the end of the day, it just works out," he said. "So I didn't want to spend most of my money for the year on just Daytona because it's just one race."
For Yeley, qualifying while working for an owner committed to doing things right, made the entry into today's race even sweeter. Yeley will begin 33rd in the 43-car field.
After the Whitney Motorsports entry crashed during one of the 150-mile Daytona qualifying races last year, Whitney believed crew chief Tony Furr made enough improvements to give Yeley a shot last weekend -Â even while running as an underdog.
"Taking a brand-new team with new equipment, less horsepower and going out here and running well, I hope is opening eyes," Yeley told reporters this week. "To start as late as we did, to make the Daytona 500 based on racing our way is a big accomplishment."
At the center of it all is Whitney, who always followed racing even before getting into the business himself. So today, he will show up for another day of work beginning his second year in the Sprint Cup series, thankful for what he has and where he has come from. Although this is only one race, he knows, Daytona is special.
"It will kind of take a moment to sink in for sure," Whitney said. "There's going to be a couple hundred thousand people there, so you've never been in a place where there's that many people at one time. So it's a pretty big deal, and I'm looking forward to it.
"Hopefully, we can have a good day in the race and hopefully have some luck on our side. I think we've got a good enough car to stay there and run strong all day."