March 10, 2023. This was a blip on the schedule for the ARCA Menards Series drivers at Phoenix Raceway. For Jesse Love, it was the race that put him on the path to a championship.
Love didn't finish this race. He ended the day 27th after he was collected in a crash. This followed the ARCA season opener at Daytona where Love placed seventh after a lapped car caused him to spin.
"I was just like 'What can I do wrong again this year to not win that many races?'" Love said about his early-season frustrations during a conversation with NBC Sports. "Because last year I won like three races and the year before that I won probably four or five races.
"I knew I needed a breakout year. I don't think I quite knew how to do it though."
Love figured it out after his crash at Phoenix. He won eight of the next 11 races. Love ended the season with 10 trips to Victory Lane and the ARCA title, matching Ty Gibbs' mark from the 2021 season. Love also secured a full-time Xfinity Series ride at Richard Childress Racing.
This turn was sudden but how did Love make it happen? The speed in the Venturini Motorsports cars did not change. It was the driver that changed.
"I kind of let go of the mentality of wanting to not fail," Love said. "I just started focusing on succeeding."
Love pushed everything that he could not control to the side. He turned his attention to how he could execute throughout the race week.
The change in mindset led to success on the track. It also had an effect on how Love reacted to incidents with other drivers.
"I would say probably about two months ago, I really noticed his maturity," Fox Sports' Jamie Little told NBC Sports. "It was a race between him and William Sawalich. Things didn't work out the way he wanted them to and his interview was so good afterwards.
"He didn't deny that they had bad blood or got together, but he didn't say anything negative about him like 'I'm gonna take him out next time' or 'We're gonna even the score.' He was just grown up about it."
Keep the personality
Little, who leads the Fox broadcast booth during the ARCA season, does not believe Love has lost his personality as he has learned to better harness his emotions. She has seen it on display away from the track and over the course of the 20-race schedule.
That personality is evident when Love describes his love of golf and his favorite courses to play across the country. Love frequents Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, which will host the 2024 U.S. Open, for matches with Daniel Dye.
This personality is also on display when Love talks about his love of classic rock and the enjoyment he gets from playing drums, ukulele, saxophone and guitar.
Love was a big fan of Rush growing up. This was an appreciation he gained traveling with his father to and from races in California, Idaho, Oklahoma and several other states.
They would listen to classic rock while Love's father would regale the members of the team with stories about Black Sabbath recording their first album, the members of Yes arguing about chords and Neil Peart writing the lyrics to all of Rush's songs.
This personality also comes through when Love details some special moments behind the wheel as he took on iconic NASCAR tracks for the first time.
"I always have a little bit of realization moments in the car (about) where I'm at, like halfway through a race," Love said. "I'm like, 'I'm at dang Bristol right now and I have a shot to win this race. Pretty crazy.'
"When I was doing that at Talladega, I was like, 'This is really, really, really wild.'"
Positive role models
Love won 10 races during his dominant ARCA season. This stat was a product of him changing his mindset but this was not a switch that he flipped one night before kicking off his first three-race winning streak.
Love made the change in his approach during the ARCA season, but it was only the latest step in a process that began with his parents and continued with the people outside his family that chose to support him.
"Growing up, John Bickford and Jeff Gordon were people that my dad could talk to and I could talk to, to just try to figure it all out and get through the ranks correctly," Love said. "Alex Bowman was a person that I grew up talking to a good bit.
"Some USAC guys like Justin Grant. Even some of the Cup guys that maybe you don't talk to as frequently. Even one small conversation with them goes a super long way at the end of day."
The connection between Gordon, in particular, and Love goes back to Love's childhood. His father, Jesshill "Duke" Love, was friends with Gordon. They would travel together and race midgets together on the West Coast.
Love, who was 5 years old at the time, would go on these trips. He would ride around on an ATV and spend time with big-name racers, such as Gordon and Grant.
Love won multiple quarter midget championships before the age of 10 and began working with Toyota at 12. He signed a contract at 15. Yet Gordon remained a key figure in his racing career. Love was able to call the Hall of Famer and ask for advice as he gained experience.
A fitting example is Love's first race at Phoenix. This marked the first time that Love would experience aero and its effects on the car. He did not know what to expect, nor did Duke.
Love was able to call Gordon.
"If the driver has the ability to reach out and call Jeff Gordon and have Jeff Gordon be willing to take your call and spend an hour with you on the phone talking about aero and the impact on the car and how you use it to your advantage and to another driver's disadvantage, the confidence that that brings to that driver is immeasurable and incalculable," Duke told NBC Sports.
Bickford, Gordon’s stepfather, is someone both Love and his father pointed to as a catalyst for this growth. Bickford had numerous conversations with Duke early on and made him aware of steps Love needed to take to prepare for the spotlight.
"John was extremely influential," Duke said. "He said, 'Hey, when he shows up, he has to show up ready for TV. And so you need to take him and have him sit and work with people who are good with TV. He needs to sit and work.
"'You need to come up with the top 20 interview questions and Jesse needs to write and basically have answers to those ready to go so that once somebody puts a microphone in his face, he's ready.'"
Bickford's advice also focused on outside influences. He told Duke to steer his son clear of people who weren't of high moral character.
This was a point of emphasis considering that Love had to move from California to North Carolina at the age of 15 after getting his contract from Toyota. The family could not pick up and move across the country with him. They also couldn't send him alone.
Enter Dustin Edge, a grassroots dirt analyst for Toyota Racing. Edge began working as Love's driver relations manager when the young racer was only 10 years old.
Edge moved to North Carolina with Love and served as a guiding light until Love turned 18 this year. He helped Love prepare for adulthood and the important parts of making it through the week — doing laundry, cleaning house and making lunches.
"(Dustin) was God-sent to be Jesse's driver relations manager in all honesty," Duke said. "Dustin was a big brother for Jesse. Jesse has a big sister, but he didn't have a big brother. Dustin was his big brother. "
The living arrangements have changed. Edge has moved on to Toyota. Love is now an adult with a full-time Xfinity deal in front of him and a staggering amount of ARCA success behind him.
This move to the Xfinity Series and Richard Childress Racing was a recent development. Sheldon Creed announced his departure from the organization in early October. Two weeks later, RCR announced Love would take over the No. 2.
Andy Petree, RCR's vice president of competition, recognized that the organization was taking a chance by signing Love on such short notice. It was one he was willing to take after his first meeting with the young racer.
"My wife asked me when I told her we'd interviewed a new driver," Petree told NBC Sports at Martinsville. "... She said 'what did you think about him?' I said, 'He's young. He's got this confidence about him, but he almost sounds humble confident. It's almost everything you'd want in somebody like that.' I'm excited about what's going to happen."