When last week started, Jack Hawksworth didn’t know he would end it by making his NASCAR debut.
That changed Tuesday morning when the 28-year-old British sports car driver received a text from a friend at Toyota letting Hawksworth know a seat was waiting for him at Joe Gibbs Racing, a result of Jeffrey Earnhardt’s departure.
Hawksworth was in Chicago, on a brief vacation from his full-time job competing in IMSA before he was going to fly home to England for the first time in weeks.
Instead, he found himself flying to Charlotte, North Carolina, later on Tuesday. Waiting for him was a couple of hours in the Toyota Racing Development simulator, a seat fitting, a NASCAR mandated drug test and a JGR crash course in the world of NASCAR.
It was “completely, absolutely nuts,” Hawksworth told NBC Sports of his whirlwind week. It was all made possible due to his work with Lexus and TRD over the last three years in IMSA.
Hawksworth said a potential NASCAR opportunity “had been talked about” earlier in the year “but it obviously had never come to fruition at any point.”
Three days after receiving the text message, Hawksworth arrived in the garage at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a track he’d competed on in IndyCar and just four months earlier in IMSA, where he had won in the GTD class.
But walking into the NASCAR garage for the first time – for his first NASCAR event in any capacity – brought about a feeling he hadn’t had since late 2011 when he first visited the U.S.
“It literally felt like I was just arriving in America again,” said Hawksworth.
With the help of crew chief Ben Beshore, the rest of the No. 18 team and his teammates in Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones, Hawksworth spent two practice sessions Friday figuring out how to handle a stock car.
“I was able to jump into basically a plug-and-play situation were everything was ready to go,” Hawksworth said. “The mechanics were on the ball with everything. Ben was able to get me up to speed with everything, explain how everything worked within the series.”
Hawksworth described the “huge difference” between NASCAR and what he’s used to driving in a Lexus sports car around the same track.
“Suddenly the braking zones were double the length of what I’m used to and the corner speeds were much lower,” Hawksworth said. “I found the car quite easy to overdrive, so I have to basically rein it in a little bit, so I have to slow myself down and kind of back up my entries to the corners and try to drive to the limit of the vehicle.”
He also had to get acclimated to a manual H-pad transmission.
That’s one of the areas Bell and Jones provided insight on, as well as how to navigate the pit road speed limit.
“It really was a good atmosphere within the team,” Hawksworth said. “The accommodation of the three of us really helped us lift our game up.”
It all led to Saturday, where a “confident” Hawksworth put the No. 18 Toyota on the front row, qualifying second to Austin Cindric.
“I didn’t really have any pre-conceived idea of how the race would play out or how qualifying would play out,” Hawksworth said. “I was just trying to approach it with an open mind and do the best job that I could.”
As the field rode around the track during the race’s warm-up laps, Hawksworth experienced a surreal moment that reminded him of his childhood.
“I used to have a game which I had on my computer when I was little, I think it was ‘NASCAR 95’ or something like that,” Hawksworth said. “The view inside the car as I was doing the warm-up lap reminded me of that computer game, especially when you got Austin’s No. 22 accelerating next to me and it would pop up just outside my left window net.”
Welcome to NASCAR
Once the green flag dropped, Hawksworth was all business.
“I knew it was a 75-lap race. I just wanted to get through the first lap and hold position,” he said. “Once I got through Turn 1, I just wanted to settle into a rhythm really, try to evaluate how the car was, just like I would in any other race.”
It wasn’t a flawless first stage for Hawksworth. On Lap 15, while trying to hold third place, he was hit from behind by Cole Custer in the final turn, which resulted in both cars going around, but they were able to continue.
Hawksworth finished outside the top 10 in the first stage after most of the leaders stopped to pit before the stage concluded.
He would have a much more enjoyable second stage. On the initial restart, he made a three-wide pass to move into fourth.
Two restarts later on Lap 37, Hawksworth cleared Bell for the lead entering Turn 3 as a multi-car wreck unfolded in Turn 2. Three laps later, he claimed the stage win under caution.
“I felt like I was beginning to understand the restarts,” Hawksworth said. “I was beginning to understand how the other guys were racing. In the end it felt like we were in position to compete and have a go at trying to win the race.”
Then the day fell apart.
A slow pit stop resulted in Hawksworth restarting deep in the field where the racing was like a “dogfight.”
He went off course on Lap 67 while ninth and got grass on his grille, which would take a toll on his front brakes.
“End of the race kind of a bit of a write off,” said Hawksworth, who brought the No. 18 Toyota home in 15th.
He didn’t have much time to stick around. Hawksworth left the track for a two-and-a-half hour drive to Detroit for a seven-hour flight to England, followed by the drive to his apartment in Bradford, where he discussed his weekend via phone.
At home, he took the time to watch his NASCAR debut on TV, where he got a kick out of seeing “cars going around with half the body work missing.”
What stood out to him days removed from the event?
“I really enjoyed the experience and it was just something completely unique and completely different atmosphere to anything that I’m used to,” Hawksworth said. “To pinpoint one weird thing is difficult because everything felt strange.”
Hawksworth is definitely open to stepping into the NASCAR world again if the opportunity arises. It won’t be next weekend at Road America, as that conflicts with an IMSA race. Matt DiBenedetto will be driving the No. 18.
But when NASCAR races on the Charlotte Roval on Sept. 28-29, there’s no IMSA conflict.
“I feel like I’d go in there with experience and with a race underneath I think we could go in and be serious contenders to win,” Hawksworth said of a hypothetical second start. “I’d relish the chance to have another crack at it.”