Through no fault of his own, Josh Bilicki thought his race was over. After having a rear tire go flat, Bilicki was working his way back through the field in last month's NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Road America when a crash in front of him threw up a wall of smoke and dust, blinding oncoming traffic in a narrow, high speed section of the course. Bilicki slowed down for the crash, but was hit in the rear by another car, sending him into the grass and into a sponsor sign.
Still unable to see, Bilicki thought he hit a wall, and that he caved in the nose of his car.
"We're in this wreck, the car's damaged," Bilicki told his team. "Sorry, guys, I think we're done."
But Bilicki wasn't done. In fact, the incident was the beginning of something that would make any Badger Stater proud.
Bilicki had hit a Sargento sign, which he ended up carrying on his front bumper for hundreds of yards afterward until he was finally able to shake it off. After eventually finishing 13th, Bilicki found out he had quickly gone viral on TikTok, Twitter and Facebook alike, causing him to quickly forget that the massive pileup he avoided tore up one of his team's cars and also prevented his own from getting a better finish.
"I was pretty upset that the whole incident happened, I didn't even think about the comical side of it," Bilicki told CBS Sports. "We ended up having a good finish, so after the race a family member came over to me and said, 'Hey, look at this, you're all over social media, the Sargento sign' – It's like, how perfect is this?
"A Wisconsin driver hitting the Wisconsin sign -- we had a Wisconsin sponsor on the car, too, with Gravely Mowers -- so it's like this trifecta of all things Wisconsin, at Road America, too, so that's more things all things Wisconsin."
Bilicki reached out to Sargento shortly after the company embraced the incident -- by changing its Facebook header to Bilicki's car carrying their sign -- and so it was arranged: This weekend at Watkins Glen, Sargento will sponsor Bilicki in Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series race, where he will drive the No. 45 for Alpha Prime Racing.
A native of Menomonee Falls, Bilicki is the latest in a long line of Wisconsin drivers to make it to the NASCAR Cup Series, and Wisconsin pride is an enormous part of Bilicki's career. While most drivers move to the Charlotte, N.C. area, Bilicki resides in Slinger, which allows him to be local to a number of his sponsors in his home state.
The process of making a name for himself in NASCAR, though, has differed for Bilicki compared to his predecessors. Rather than the short tracks of Wisconsin, like the famous Slinger Speedway or Madison International Speedway, Bilicki came to NASCAR having raced mostly on road courses growing up.
"When I made the transition and I burst into NASCAR in 2016, 2017, a lot of the short track guys here who grew up with Matt Kenseth, Dick Trickle, Alan Kulwicki, had no idea who I was because I didn't grow up racing short tracks," Bilicki said. "I grew up racing tracks like Road America, but not many racing fans around here honestly know much about road course racing.
"... So a lot of people were kind of scratching their heads, and driving for smaller teams with some lesser equipment, sometimes it puts a lot of pressure on me to perform, and sometimes it's very tough to perform well. Especially at the Cup Series level, if you're driving for a team that spends a fifth of some of the race-winning teams."
Gradually, Bilicki has been able to make his way into better opportunities with better race teams while continuing to build his reputation. After running the full Cup season for Rick Ware Racing in 2021, Bilicki signed on with Spire Motorsports to drive their No. 77 part-time in 2022, while also running select Xfinity Series races for Alpha Prime Racing -- a growing multi-car organization co-owned by longtime independent driver Tommy Joe Martins and Caesar Bacarella.
Complementing his Cup schedule with some Xfinity races is important to Bilicki. With most teams on smaller budgets and a much smaller gap between the front and back of the pack, Xfinity races allow Bilicki the opportunity to compete for good finishes and build his confidence even if his results in Cup don't match his efforts.
"The Cup Series is just so competitive that sometimes it takes away a little bit of your confidence. You go back to the Xfinity Series, and you go to a track like Darlington where we ran earlier in the year, and my first laps there were like 15th or 16th and I feel like, 'Alright, this is fun, this is competitive,'" Bilicki said. "Road America we qualified 12th, just I think like .02 seconds outside of the top 10. So I was bummed about that, but that's huge for our small team. We still are spending a third of what the big teams are in the Xfinity Series, and the road courses are a great equalizer.
"We really put a lot of emphasis into the road courses, Watkins Glen being one of them. We're excited to go there, and if we can have a top 10 run or top five run, that's a win for us. That's a huge day, a huge points day, huge day for Sargento, huge day for myself. And that just builds confidence up like, 'Alright, I can do this.'"
Looking toward 2023, Bilicki shared that his goal is to be able to run full-time with Spire in Cup, an opportunity he believes would allow him to help build the team's program while also giving him some potential long-term stability and a reprieve from his usual uncertainties of racing on year-to-year deals.
"I think I'm in a pretty good situation with Spire," Bilicki said. "Looking forward, we can build our organization to a top 25, top 20 team. Now we're competing against Hendrick, Penske, they're billionaires – they're guys that are spending $40 million a car. And for us to take our smaller budget and compete against them, which we do – there's occasions where we've run top 10, top 15. We want to try to take that every week though and be that competitive every week.
"So next year, the ideal situation would be locking in a full-time season with Spire and then run a handful of Xfinity races as well."
Bilicki now has 87 career Cup starts to his credit, earning a career-best finish of 10th at Daytona last year and a season-best of 16th at Atlanta in March. After representing Sargento in the Xfinity Series race, Bilicki will trade in his Cup helmet for a headset to serve as a spotter for Spire's No. 77, which will be driven this week by sports car champion and former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller.