Hailie Deegan looks forward to the season of growth, opportunity

Through Bob Pokrassen
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

Hailie Deegan didn’t have the rookie season in trucks she wanted in 2021. There is no doubt about that.

With just one top-10, an average finish of 20.9 and 17th in the standings, the 20-year-old had one of those seasons that many would call a “learning experience” for a young driver.

In a way, it wasn’t surprising. She had about four years of experience racing stock cars, and without practicing at most locations, she got to know the truck and the track during the race itself.

In another sense, Deegan had shown potential for better results. She had 11 top-10s and two wins in the NASCAR West Series in 2019 and four top-5s and 17 top-10s en route to third in the ARCA standings in 2020.

Deegan entered the trucks with the support of Ford Motor Company, and the David Gilliland Racing team had competed in the series for the past several years.

But 2021 was not the best for the organization. Deegan’s teammate, Tanner Gray, had two top-10s and finished 18th in the standings. At the same time, Ryan Preece, a Cup driver, did win a race, showing that the team had equipment that could run up front.

Some may view 2022 as the critical season in Deegan’s development. But her ability to create a brand on social media should keep her in the driver’s seat and allow her to develop.

Hailie Deegan, the daughter of extreme sports athlete Brian Deegan, has over 3.1 million followers on TikTok, 1.1 million followers on Instagram, 692,000 followers on Facebook and 401,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel.

It’s no wonder that a starting racing series like the Superstar Racing Experience asked her to compete in a number of events last year, despite not yet having the desired success in NASCAR. Ford has put her in a sports car for a race later this week in Daytona to help her gain some experience – and knowing she has plenty of fans who will be interested.

“Something I’ve really focused on is social media [and] being able to market myself,” Deegan told FOX Sports. “It came very naturally because of the household I grew up in, and my dad was really good at that.

“That was very normal for me. I loved social media. I love creating content and showing people my journey and my life.”

If Deegan doesn’t give her sponsors value on the track on a day when she’s not running forward, she can at least offer them value on other platforms.

“I probably wouldn’t be in the drive I’m in right now, racing the truck series full-time, if I hadn’t done social media,” she said. “Because it’s very hard to sell a car sponsorship if you can’t guarantee TV time. It’s very hard to guarantee that.

“Sponsors want to see numbers. They want to see, ‘I’ll put my logo on your car. How much product is it going to sell me?’ I can give them that with social media.”

Young drivers often feel that they don’t have much time to get results before they are considered to be at their competitive ceiling. They also worry that if they take too long to develop, potential sponsors seeking to market young people will eventually consider them too old.

However, with her social media following, Deegan should have a little less pressure on the job as she would have to rely on her sponsors to give her time to improve her performance.

“I feel like I have a lot of pressure on me because of the fan base I have,” said Deegan. “It’s very difficult when you have your entire group of followers from every social media platform. Every social media platform has its own demographic, so I feel like you’re always under pressure.”

Does Deegan Really Think Her Fanbase Would Leave Her If She Didn’t Win? After all, last season she was elected to the truck series Most Popular Chauffeur.

“If they stayed with me last year, they will definitely stay for a long time,” she said. “Last year was a struggle, just because of a lack of experience I had in a truck.

“They’ve seen me develop first hand whether it was on my YouTube channel [or] the racing vlogs we did every race. We didn’t miss a single one.”

Of course, Deegan has moments when she wishes she could make mistakes without the spotlight. But she knows you can’t have one without the other, so she can handle the comments people make about her progress.

“There are times when I wish I could just do my thing and develop and not worry about what people are going to say or go on Twitter to see [when] I wonder if that wreck ended up there,” Deegan said.

“It’s pretty fun too, because when you get into a wreckage, it’s always there, so you can really see it all the time. Honestly, I can’t push that away, because that’s who I am, and that’s who I am made it myself. That’s just part of it.”

Deegan believes she can show improvement on the track this season. She had enough races last year where she felt she could have finished better.

“Mostly just finishing those finishes. I feel like we’ve had so many good runs, whether it’s a mistake on my part, whether I make a bad restart or a mistake by the pit crew,” she said.

Deegan hopes to do some Xfinity races sometime in 2022, and if she shows any progress in trucks it wouldn’t be a big leap to see her full-time in an Xfinity car by 2023.

But she won’t see this as the year that decides whether she will have a successful stock car career.

“It will take me a while to get where I want to be,” she said. “This season I want [be] … just going out and getting better all the time – me as a driver, me as a person, be my best self.

“That will come with time. I don’t think next season will be a ‘I have to do this, or I won’t race anymore’.” I think I’ve built a core relationship with my sponsors. This is my plan. This is my trajectory of what I’m trying to achieve.”

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Thinking out loud

NASCAR has had a policy in recent years that posthumous inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame are not given time for an introductory address by a representative. The rationale was that with five inductees and trying to keep the program moving, it would give more time for live inductees to speak.

With the move to three inductees, NASCAR still planned to follow that up for Friday’s induction ceremony. But Julie Stefanik, widow of Mike Stefanik, was unaware of the policy until a few weeks before the event and had already written a speech.

So she posted the speech on social media, and the response from fans and industry members alike — including inductee Dale Earnhardt Jr. – urged NASCAR to include Stefanik’s speech in the program.

This wasn’t like some of the early Hall of Fame inductions, where a relative of the inductee – unknown to the industry and fans alike – would speak and make people wonder about the connection. It made sense for Julie Stefanik to speak. She was her husband’s mocker. She is well known in the racing world. Fans and industry people wanted to hear what she had to say.

With three inductees, there should be enough time for a posthumous inductee’s relative to speak. If there’s someone whose words resonate with the NASCAR fanbase, that person needs to get those 10 minutes in the spotlight to honor a loved one.

Social spotlight

State of the day

Six drivers who have raced for JR Motorsports have also won Cup titles: Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick.

They said it

“Nothing that racing has given me will ever top this night. … To get into the Hall of Fame with Dad is probably as good as it ever gets.” — Dale Earnhardt Jr. at his induction into the Hall of Fame

Bob Pockrass has devoted decades to motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 after stints with ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bob pokras. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

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