Lessard Comes Full Circle With Talladega Victory

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Raphael Lessard in victory lane Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway. (HHP/Andrew Coppley Photo)
Raphael Lessard in victory lane Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway. (HHP/Andrew Coppley Photo)

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Raphael Lessard’s victory in Saturday’s NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series event at Talladega Superspeedway, in some ways, brought the Canadian racer full circle.

As an 11-year-old, Lessard said he attended a race at Autodrome Chaudiere in Vallee-Jonction, Quebec, where Kyle Busch was among those in attendance. He took a picture with Busch that day, though he never imagined that one day he would be driving for the two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.

“I took a picture with him (and) my dad,” Lessard recalled. “It was like a star coming to Quebec. I never thought he was going to be my boss one day.”

Fast-forward a few years and Lessard was racing in the Southeast, driving a super late model for David Gilliland Racing. He was impressive, winning four times en route to the 2016 CARS Super Late Model Tour championship.

Lessard believes it was that performance that eventually put him on the radar of Busch and Toyota Racing Development.

“When I first started racing here in the south it was with David Gilliland Racing and I was racing against his (Busch’s) super late model program,” Lessard said. “I think he saw me when I won the CARS Tour championship and he saw what I could do behind the wheel.”

Lessard spent another year as part of the David Gilliland Racing stable in 2017, but an important moment in his career came during the Easter Bunny 150 at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway on April 15, 2017.

That was the day Lessard had his first conversation with Busch.

“I raced against him a couple times before that, but talking with him, that was pretty much the first time I think,” Lessard recalled.

Raphael Lessard in 2016 driving a super late model for David Gilliland Racing at Hickory Motor Speedway. (Adam Fenwick Photo)
Raphael Lessard in 2016 driving a super late model for David Gilliland Racing at Hickory Motor Speedway. (Adam Fenwick Photo)

Lessard joined Busch’s late model team prior to the 2018 season. The 19-year-old wheeled Busch’s Toyota to victory during the super late model portion of the U.S. Short Track Nationals at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.

After a year of dabbling in various divisions, including five starts in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series and a few ARCA Menards Series races, Lessard graduated to the Kyle Busch Motorsports Truck Series program this season.

He uprooted himself from his family and moved to Mooresville, N.C., in order to be close to the Kyle Busch Motorsports shop. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which has prevented him from traveling to see his family during his downtime.

“I moved to Mooresville, N.C., in January and it’s a crazy year to be moving, for the first time, from home. My family is all in Quebec. It’s been crazy, I haven’t seen them in a while,” Lessard said.

Without practice or qualifying to help Lessard get a better handle on his truck, he’s struggled to keep up with the learning curve this season.

However, on Saturday at Talladega, things all worked out in his favor. He stayed out of trouble, survived a chaotic final restart and was ahead of Trevor Bayne when the final caution flag waved, allowing him to earn his first Truck Series victory.

“You never know what’s going to happen at these superspeedways and at the end I was in position to win,” said Lessard. “I was third on the restart. My crew chief (Mike Hillman Jr.) told me to go as hard as I could and push the guy in front of me, so that’s what I did.

“The guy behind me gave me an awesome push. He did an amazing job to push me to the lead. Then the caution came out perfectly. I can’t believe it. It’s amazing.”

From racing super late models a few years ago to winning on the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway, Lessard admits he has come a long way in a short period of time.

“It’s mind-blowing. All I can say is don’t stop believing and keep on working hard. A lot of people told me I couldn’t do it, that I was not going to be able to get to this level,” Lessard said. “We kept on pushing hard and I’ve got a great team behind me.”