Hi Everyone —
I have mixed emotions about my weekend in Michigan, but first things first. In case you were wondering about the mandatory meeting NASCAR had us attend on Friday morning here’s the scoop. Mr. Helton basically told us that if we had a problem, he would like us to come to NASCAR and discuss it. They would prefer us to talk to them versus complaining all the time and airing our dissatisfaction in the public. I think what led up to it was when drivers started complaining about how hot it was in the new car. Looking back, I will never forget watching Bobby Allison climb out of his Buick back in the 80s, just drenched. NASCAR is a sport. Of course we are going to get hot. There are many ways we can make things cooler in our car. It’s not the new car’s fault that we are hot. I also think some drivers have chosen to share their frustrations with their performance with the public and blame it on NASCAR. I never have done that. I don’t believe in that. When there is a race and one guy wins then obviously, he has his car working better than everyone else. That is what competition is all about. When the meeting was over, I went and found Mr. Helton and I told him thank you. I love this sport. I am a fan of this sport. I love the fact that our president has so much passion for what we do. He is in there with us. He loves racing and he wants to make sure the fans have a good time when they come to the race and I do too.
As for our performance this weekend, I had a pretty fast car in practice. We ended up having a late draw since we were outside the top 35 in points. Only a few cars got to make a qualifying attempt before it started to rain. NASCAR lined us up by the rulebook which meant I would start back in 36th place. To be honest, I did not mind it at all. Michigan is the perfect place to start in the back because there is so much room to race. I also looked at it this way … in 2003 I was leading the Daytona 500 at halfway when the race was called for rain. I could have won that race if it was run to its completion, but I had it won right then. I didn’t have any interest in tempting fate. I wanted that Daytona 500 trophy rain or shine. The same held true for qualifying at Michigan. Give me a starting spot and I’ll take it because you never know what could happen during qualifying. I didn’t care where I started. The NAPA Toyota was in the race.
When the race started we ran three or four laps and went from 36th to 40th. I made one turn up against the fence and passed two cars. I knew then that I would have to run up high the rest of the day. That wasn’t easy. Running that close to the wall without messing up and ending our day was a lot of pressure. It was worth it because there was a lot of speed up there if we could do it right. We had a car that allowed me to do it right.
After that first pit stop, we were able to make a serious run and ended up running in the top 10, top 15 for most of the race. We had a really fast car. We also got some really nice TV time for NAPA. Then on the last lap, Martin Truex got into the wall and then got into me. We crashed and ended up 23rd. As I reflect back, I am a little disappointed. We ran really well all day. We were able to drive up there, pass a bunch of cars and just run really well. I know as a racer, running well cures a whole lot of hurt so in the end, I am feeling better than I have been over the last several weeks. I hope I am getting cured.
All and all, we gained enough points to head out to the road course in California in the top 35 in points. And most importantly, out of all those things, I think we finally got a direction when going to these big, banked tracks. We haven’t had that all season. We searched and searched. The things my car did on Sunday made me feel like a driver again. It felt great and I loved it.
Currently, I am testing at Kentucky Speedway. We are here for a two-day test. It’s important for us to be here because when you find something that you feel works like we had at Michigan, and like David Reutimann had at Charlotte, you want to build on it as soon as possible. We want to take what data we got and what Reutimann’s team obtained and refine it. We need to investigate and see if there are any nuisances of those exact setups that we can change, tweak and adapt so that we can achieve an even better performance.
Coming up this weekend is Infineon Raceway. It is our first road course event of the season. Last year Terry Labonte filled in for me. This year I am back at it. I feel really good about our three cars. I got myself a new steering wheel that will help quicken my steering ratio. Plus, Michael McDowell will be driving a second NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota. I wanted to thank NAPA for all their support and if all goes well, McDowell and I can get them double the exposure. I really like that kid. He has a whole lot of road racing intelligence and knowledge. We are going to lean on him heavily for setup suggestions. McDowell is only 23 years old but has raced all over the world. He is an accomplished, successful road racer. MWR will be leaning on McDowell. He had a great test up at Virginia International Raceway. I feel really confident about his ability. I can’t wait to watch him show off. This is really his first chance to let everyone see his incredible driving talents. I am proud that he will be running a NAPA Toyota alongside me.
Here’s to a big weekend up in the NAPA valley!