Joe Valento may have finished a respectable ninth in the most recent outing for the CARS Late Model Stock Tour at Ace Speedway, but even a solid top-10 finish is not indicative of Valento’s head-turning performance.

The 16-year-old driver from Scandia, Minnesota, started 17th in his No. 17 Friends of Jaclyn Foundation Ford Mustang fielded by David Gilliland Racing (DGR), but was caught up in a wreck early in the 125-lap race on the 4/10-mile oval. However, Valento battled back, seemingly passing cars at will and had worked his way into fifth by the halfway point.

He was running fourth when he was involved in another crash on the backstretch with 38 laps remaining in the caution-filled event, once again relegating him to the back of the pack. He then worked his way up to ninth with an ill-handling car to score his first top-10 finish with the CARS Tour.

The solid finish was a welcome result for Valento, who had turned in an average finishing position of 20.6 across the first three races of the 2021 CARS Tour season. 

“I’ve had a couple of rough races obviously, this being our rookie year,” said the well-spoken teenager after the CARS Tour’s Race at Ace 125. “We’ve shown good speed though. I think tonight proved that being able to run up in the top five for a good chunk of the race.”

The CARS Tour numbers certainly don’t tell the whole story. Valento and his high-powered DGR team won at Orange County Speedway in a tune-up for the Old North State Nationals in April, and also came home with a third-place result during a weekly show at Ace in preparation for the CARS Tour stop.

For Valento, it’s all about getting more comfortable as the year progresses.

“These cars are all about confidence and I mean that’s the biggest thing really for qualifying, racing, just in general is building confidence,” he said. “[I’m] learning and running at the different tracks, and learning how each and every one of their characteristics affect the car and just learning the car in general. Seat time has been really big for us.”

The heavy Late Model Stock has presented a learning curve, with Valento transitioning from running in the Midwest Truck Series in a vehicle which utilizes a Super Late Model-like chassis. In comparison, Valento notes the Late Model Stocks “drive like a dump truck.”

Still, he has plenty of talented veterans in his corner as he makes the move to racing in the Southeast. Among them are crew chief and accomplished short tracker Greg Marlowe, and team owner, former Cup Series regular David Gilliland. Valento believes that experience combined with the work ethic of his DGR team provides a valuable advantage.

Yet perhaps it’s a trait that can’t be taught, his patient personality, that has been his best attribute as he learns the cars and becomes embedded in the often full-contact world of Late Model Stock racing. 

“I can usually keep my head on during a race, just finish and let the steam out later,” Valento said.

That patience also comes in handy as he travels from Minnesota to tracks around the Carolinas and Virginia on a near-weekly basis.

“It’s a lot of flights for sure,” he acknowledged.

Perhaps soon a CARS Tour trophy will be his carry-on.