In this week’s interview, we catch up with current NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Matt Mills. Mills is in his third year of driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for B.J. McLeod Motorsports.
In this interview, we talk about how Mills got his early start in racing, how he got his ride with B.J. McLeod and if we’ll see him in a Cup Series car in the next few years.
Early on in his career, like most drivers, Mills started racing go-karts at a young age. This is where current NASCAR drivers get there start.
“Like the majority of the field, everyone starts in go-karts or quarter midgets,” Mills said. “I did that for two to three years, then realized I wanted to make the next move which was racing Modifieds up in Ohio. They’re pretty popular up north. Did that for a year and then I actually began testing Outlaw Late Models at the end of that year, then we would just stay in the Late Models for a couple of years, and then transferred over to the CRA Series and started to travel a little bit more around the Midwest and down south a little bit.”
“We were getting more serious about it. Sponsorship kept kind of presenting more opportunities to us, kept chasing the dream to where I got my start with Bobby Dotter in 2016.”
Mills knew from a young age that he wanted to do racing for a living.
“I played baseball and football for about 10 years,” he continued. “My dad raced Motocross, AMA Series, when I was growing up. So he actually started me on a dirt bike at three years old. I went that route for a little bit but didn’t do anything competitive enough. I saw his injuries and stuff from racing. About 11 or so, my dad said, this is your time, you can go race Motocross. I really didn’t want to do that.
“I loved racing, we were fans of NASCAR. We went down to a local track, just a couple of miles from down the road. We decided to give it a shot and fell in love with it.”
Mills remembers the first time he sat in a racecar and believe it or not, it didn’t go quite as planned.
“I remember the first time I sat in a go-kart,” he said. “I spun out on the first lap, in the very first turn. I held it to the floor, didn’t know what to expect so I held it wide open, quickly realized that wasn’t going to be the case.
“The first time I was in a racecar, I kind of got the basics down. My very first heat race, I led every single lap and spun out on the last lap. I got to the white flag and I was thinking, I’m going to win my very first heat race, but no, it’s definitely a surreal feeling. It’s something that you start out playing matchbox cars, wonder what it would be like to get in an actual car. Just to get that opportunity, oh crap this is real. You get freaked out a little bit, I always got nervous before races, still do to a certain extent.”
Mills also remembers the first time he went to a racetrack.
“Every Sunday we watched racing, just me and my dad” Mills said. “I think we didn’t start going to NASCAR races until about nine. My first race was Bristol, the year where Kurt Busch won and Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon got into a shoving match with each other and it snowed that year. That was my first NASCAR race. Then my first NASCAR race I was in was at Bristol (2016).
“So yeah, we had been traveling to one or two NASCAR races a year. We didn’t have a whole lot of money growing up, so it’s kind of able to go do what we were able to do and just watch it on TV. I actually have a picture when I was 11-years-old at Darlington and the caption says, “Wouldn’t it be cool to race here someday?” So I’m looking forward to being able to post that when we go back to Darlington later this year.”
While his first memory was going to Bristol, Mills says a driver should be warned about making their first start there.
“I quickly realized that Bristol is probably not one of the best places to make your debut there,” he said. “Like I said, you can’t catch a break there. You’re always around somebody, you’re always working, it’s a hard racetrack. So the first 100 laps of the race weren’t too pretty. We weren’t wrecking or anything like that, we finished the race. The last 100 laps, however, I started to figure it out and starting passing people. It’s definitely a humbling moment.”
Growing up, Mills received some fluff from his peers, especially his grandma, questioning his career choice.
“I think that kind of comes from everywhere,” Mills said. “You always tell people that you want to be a NASCAR driver. Like I told my grandma that and she was like, yeah whatever. When we first started making our NASCAR debut, we had haters back home but then when you get to a certain point like now, you don’t have anybody talking crap, unless it’s NASCAR critics or keyboard warriors. If you wreck or something, they’re like who is this underfunded guy? He doesn’t belong out there, which really doesn’t happen anymore unless you wreck or something.
“Last weekend, I had no negative comments (finishing 10th at Daytona). Nobody saying, like he doesn’t deserve to be there. Eventually, they all kind of turn over, it’s a bandwagon thing.”
For a driver like Mills who doesn’t have the equipment to compete for wins, he explains the misconception of what it is like to be a driver.
“The biggest way to prove those people wrong is just go out there and do your job,” he said. “They really don’t understand the underfunding aspect of it. It’s not that I blame the media coverage for it, but they (TV) really only show the top-10. All the fans that don’t see us, people, they think we’re bad or something. If they would talk about the underfunded teams a little bit more, like at Daytona where Justin Haley won in that Spire car. So if they would just talk about us a little bit, they would understand, wow, they know what they’re doing. Like Corey Lajoie, Ross Chastain, they talk about how hard it is to race for 30th than to race for top five.
“I talked to Matt Tifft about and he says this year has been way harder to run 25th then it was at RCR to run top five. I think the fans need a little bit more help on the media coverage side, where they can see we’re back there racing our tails off trying to keep a job. At the same time, there are a lot of fans supporting us. You would be surprised how many fan letters we get in the mail.”
Even with the top-10 run at Daytona, the Xfinity Series driver says it doesn’t raise his expectations that much more.
“We still have the same goal going into every weekend,” Mills said. “That’s to bring all the cars home in one piece. Try to have the best finish we can, but also to be smart about it. That also goes for the rest of the year, just bringing clean racecars home. Trying to stay up in the owner points. That was the biggest change from last weekend, it helped out from a points position. It really helps a small team in a position like that and build a points gap, to try and qualify in on races. So we really got a good edge there at Daytona, but it doesn’t really change our aspect of races.
“You know, we didn’t have any more financial sponsors come on-board, just because we finished good at Daytona. It’s just really building a comfort level as far as points go.”
Mills continues on to explain why it seems that fans cheers for a guy like him, rather than a guy who has a chance to win every week.
“It’s easier to pull for someone that has a chance of winning every week,” Mills added. “Where us, it’s like man, I hope he gets a top-20. It’s really an inspirational story, I guess. The people who come to our race shop, they see we finish top-20 and say, that’s a good day. So it’s a little harder to cheer for, but then again, it goes back to the media aspect of it, where there are a lot of good battles throughout the field. There are 30 cars out there they don’t know, they’re racing their ass off. I think that would help a little bit of it, but right now, it’s hard to find funding, even for the underfunded guys that are asking for a lot less. That’s what keeps us apart (from the competition) and I think fans need to realize that a little bit more.”
Before making his NASCAR Xfinity Series start, Mills was racing in the JEGS/CRA Touring Series, which then lead him to his full-time job at B.J. McLeod Motorsports. Mills explains how that opportunity came about.
“I met B.J. my very first NASCAR start with Bobby Dotter, you know, they kind of help each other,” he said. “B.J. was right there and taught me a lot about Bristol that first day and then, we always have just kind of been friends. We would see each other at the racetrack, ask each other for advice. Then that following year, I ended up running a couple of Xfinity races for him, then I ran out of funding. So I just kind of hung around the garage, Tommy Joe (Martins) was running for B.J. McLeod in the Xfinity Series that year. I was asking Tommy about the Truck stuff and I got to run Truck stuff for Tommy Joe for a lot cheaper at the moment.
“Then the following year, I was running for JD Motorsports and I wasn’t having a lot of good luck as a big-time rookie in the series. So, it just wasn’t a good fit. Therefore, B.J. and I were becoming better friends off the track really well, and he was seeing what I was going through. He thought man, I want to give you a shot the following year. So I was like alright, let’s do a couple of races this year and talk about the area with JD Motorsports, and see how that goes. It went decent, wasn’t anything spectacular but I just enjoyed the atmosphere over there (B.J. McLeod) a lot more. At that moment, B.J. was trying to gain more inventory, more employees, got a new shop.
“The following year was looking really good, he was like, I will give you this opportunity if you give me this opportunity. So we took a shot and I absolutely had a blast this year so far. I think we’ve got like six career-best finishes now. The top-10, that’s going to be pretty hard to beat. I’ve had a ton of fun, I’ve learned so much from B.J. We’ve had great support this year from the sponsors. The whole team, we’re turning a lot of heads. Really, all three of our cars ran good all year. B.J. and Jessica, they’ve done a lot with this race team and they’re continuing to grow it.”
With that said, Mills kind of already has an idea what 10 years would look like from now.
“I think a lot of it right now depends on NASCAR,” Mills said. “I’ve got a good showing on my sponsorship for the next six to seven years, but it just depends on NASCAR. It changes so much, every year and with this new GEN7 car they’re talking about, I don’t know what that means for the sport. It might be good, it might be bad, I really don’t know at this moment and I don’t think anybody does. So, I think NASCAR is going to go through a change, I can’t tell. The plan right is now is try to go back to B.J.’s the following year, maybe a year after that I don’t know. I have a good idea on my funding, my hope is to be in the Cup Series five years from now, but it depends how the sport does.”
The Virginian native also gives his take on whether it’s more difficult or easier now to break into the sport as a rookie.
“The price for a ride was a lot cheaper now then it was 10 years ago,” he added. “I really don’t know what it was like 10 years ago, were they seeking out talent? But right now, the sponsorship dollars are cheaper to go buy a ride, however, at the same time, it’s a little bit harder to go find something. The economy has changed the past 10 years. It’s not terribly hard for a rookie to have the opportunity, the main thing is about these underfunded teams or big teams, what they’re looking for is to finish races. Don’t go out there and wreck every time. It doesn’t matter if you go out there on the first lap, put it on top of the board and then lap 2, you’re in the fence. Every team owner looks at that.”
Mills also gives his take on why you should cheer for him as a driver.
“I mean, if you go up to us on any given weekend, we’re just normal guys,” Mills said. “We’re coming from humble beginnings. I didn’t have a family owned company or anything like that, so we are out there just trying to make a living doing what we love. I would love to have more fans to cheer for me, it grows every day but we’re still trying to make it right now.”
Mills has 28 starts and counting overall in the Xfinity Series in a span of three years. He has just one top-10 finish, which came at Daytona in July. Prior to his best finish at Daytona, Mills finished 17th at Talladega earlier this year.
Mills also has 11 Truck Series starts to his credit, his last coming in 2018.