Of all the drivers who have raced full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series over the past two years, none have faced a steeper learning curve than Cody Ware. And subsequently, none have made more obvious improvements in both their driving and in their results in 2022.
The son of car owner Rick Ware, Cody was tabbed as the driver of the family team's No. 51 beginning in 2021 despite little more than sporadic starts across NASCAR's top three divisions from 2014 to 2020. And in 2021, that inexperience showed with just three finishes inside the top 25 all year, no finishes better than 21st, and six DNFs due to crashes in 32 races.
But at nearly the midway point of the 2022 season, Ware and his race team have demonstrably improved, especially in the past month: Ware has had two top 20 finishes in the past month, finishing 19th at Darlington and then earning an 18th place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
In the grand scheme of things, that's only a modest uptick in performance. For Ware, though, it's validation of the growth that he has had as a driver, and that his team has had after aligning themselves with Ford and forming a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing.
"Looking back now, I almost don't recognize the driver that I was at the start of this season, and definitely not recognize the driver I was last year," Ware told CBS Sports. "I think it's just a testament to not just my hard work and effort, but the hard work and effort of everybody on the team in giving me the tools and resources to learn and grow. Being able to work with Ford and be on the simulator, and learning a lot of stuff from the engineers over at Stewart-Haas, as well as our own engineers becoming more versed with the information and data that we now get being aligned with a manufacturer, has helped my knowledge base grow.
"... I think I'm starting to gain more confidence in myself and the position that I'm at with the team and in the series to really dig myself in and grow. And that's what I'm just really trying to continue – exponential growth. And hopefully the results become more consistent and we show more speed through the rest of this year."
Compared to his competitors, Ware's path to racing in Cup has been anything but linear. He dropped out of medical school to focus on the family business and driving racecars full-time, but his father's finances were not such that he could get extended opportunities to develop in lower series. As such, Ware was fast-tracked up to Cup -- by his own admission, likely too early -- while gaining experience through racing sports cars and select IndyCar starts in 2021.
With now 70 Cup starts under his belt, Ware can now claim to have some experience as a driver at stock car racing's highest level. The next step after that has been building relationships in the garage area and gaining respect from his competitors -- Something that doesn't come easily for Ware, who has spoken openly about his issues with anxiety and mental health problems.
Earlier this season, Ware made a concerted effort to break out of his shell by reaching out to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. about becoming workout partners. Stenhouse agreed, and Ware has since worked out regularly with Stenhouse, rookie drivers Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton, as well as other drivers from the Xfinity and Truck Series -- something Ware believes has been a good experience, and something that ties into a greater purpose.
"Just coming from my anxieties and mental health stuff, I've really not been a very outgoing person even at the racetrack," Ware said. "And so I definitely secluded myself and sheltered myself off to the point to where it probably, on the outside looking in, probably seems a little bit standoffish.
"I think for me to get to work with some of the guys that are at the next level up from where I'm at and get to learn from them, train with them, and just build some camaraderie in us all trying to be a part of the Cup Series, I think that not only helped my confidence, but definitely showed other people what I'm really about – who the real Cody Ware is, and the effort and the skill that I do have when given the right opportunity."
Exactly who the real Cody Ware is, indeed, is a moving target. Much of the fanbase that he has gained has been through his online persona, as he is open about his niche off-track hobbies, specifically his love of Japanese anime and video games -- for inquiring minds, he's been watching Tomodachi Game and season three of Attack on Titan.
Ware's goofy online persona has helped him develop a cult following, and it has also helped him defuse any Twitter toxicity that comes his way. It has, however, invited plenty of people who do not take him seriously, nor understand the lengths he has gone to seriously commit himself to racing.
"I've always had passions and interests outside of racing my whole life, but obviously I made the choice to sacrifice everything – from finishing out my college years and losing a lot of friendships and relationships to go racing," Ware said. "I think people have this conception of 'Oh, just because he jokes around and has a sense of humor and is a silly dude, he doesn't know how to flip a switch and put on the game face and go racing.'
"I'm up at 7, 8, 9 o'clock in the morning every day on the weekdays training and working my ass off with Ricky and these guys doing cross-fit, physically becoming the best I can be. And on the race weekend, it's game on. We're not messing around with the amount of money we're spending and the sponsors we have on board. It's important that we are serious and putting our best effort in."
Ware's best effort, and the results that have come in two of his last four races, have come just in time for what seems like an ideal time in the schedule for him. Beginning this week at Sonoma, four of the 11 races leading up to the NASCAR playoffs take place on road courses. And Ware's extensive road racing background -- particularly in the Asian Le Mans Series, where he was champion in the LMP2 Am division two years ago -- suggests that those races could be his best opportunity to contend and truly demonstrate what he is becoming as a Cup driver.
Ware and his team, however, have not had much of an opportunity to build their road course program. Earlier this year, a steering rack issue limited what they could learn in the first road course race at Circuit of the Americas. And with the introduction of the Next Gen car to the Cup Series, his focus as a racer has largely shifted to the tracks he and his team must master from week to week.
"Honestly, if you had asked me last year about a stretch of road course races, I'd have been a lot more excited about it than I am now," Ware admitted. "... As a road racer, I always enjoy going road racing. But I'd almost argue that both from the team perspective and myself as a driver right now with where we're at with the car and the season, I'm probably more of an oval racer than I've ever been in my life.
"Obviously with the time we've had on all the different types of tracks with the Next Gen car, not really counting the one road course, that we're probably better suited to the ovals at the moment."