Hi Everyone –

Daytona Speedweeks are finally underway.

When I first set foot on the grounds of the Daytona International Speedway, it was in the mid-70s. I stood on pit road and it all looked pretty cool. When I came down in 1983, I was driving a Dash car. I felt all kinds of anxiety, ignorance and even a little bit of bliss. I never will forget when I pulled onto pit road and then made it onto the back straightaway in my little four-cylinder car. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s a long way down there.’ It was pretty intimidating since I basically drove on quarter-mile tracks up until that point. Then move forward almost 20 years and I will never forget the feeling I had when I won my very first Daytona 500 in 2001. It was the first points race in my NAPA AUTO PARTS car. The following year, we came close to duplicating the win and then we got the victory again in 2003. I will never forget the feeling I had and where I was mentally. The same could be said about 2004 and 2005. My physical and mental state matched the competitiveness of the NAPA AUTO PARTS car. It’s been a tough couple of years since then, and probably the toughest of my entire career. Entering this season, I feel like my NAPA AUTO PARTS car is back and I am right there with it.

How about that wild Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night? It was wild for me because at one point on lap four, I saw the UPS car wreck right in front of me and I had to think to myself, ‘Do I still own that car?’ Then I saw the Aaron’s Dream Machine slide in front of my lap and I said, ‘I know I own that one.’ I called Bootie on the radio and said, “Are there any more cars out here that I own or have anything to do with because they are all trying to get me.” Eventually, we were able to make our way up to the top five. I got in another little skirmish with Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon. I got some damage and had to come to pit road for some minor repairs. It was great after all of that to still be able to climb back up through the field. Unfortunately, I got into another bind with 35 laps to go. I tried to get in a hole that I thought was there. When I got in it, it was there, but then I wasn’t able to close the deal. It got me into the outside wall and our race was over.

As for Sunday’s qualifying session, it was somewhat of a disappointment for the NAPA team especially when you compare it to last year’s outside-pole effort. Last year, my NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota was bouncing all over the track, but it was fast so I didn’t say a word. This year, I could tell we weren’t as fast and it still wasn’t quite driving well. I was thinking that we should get it handling better for qualifying in order to see if it would help get more speed out of the car. Bootie was able to get it driving well, but  when we made our qualifying lap, it was still slow. I was disappointed with our result because we have more power than we had a year ago. We have less drag in our car than we had a year ago. We didn’t have a rule change since the last time we were here and somehow, we still ran slower. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Good news is qualifying at Daytona is not an indication as to how the car will race. We proved that in the Budweiser Shootout.

So now my NAPA team is shifting into race mode in preparations for the Daytona 500. It is like running a marathon. I have to prepare mentally. My experience at Daytona has given me a good idea about what has to happen in order for me to get to victory lane for a third time. I have a plan and I am going to think about it all the time until the green flag drops on Sunday. All I am focusing on right now is how am I going to get my NAPA Toyota to victory lane. This requires mental toughness and that toughness is needed all the way up to 20 laps to go. I will concentrate on being smart so I can put myself in the right position and then I will go for it. I really feel like I am in a great place, mentally. My team is in a good place. I believe the opportunity to run well is there so I can’t wait to seize it and hopefully, win my third Daytona 500.

Wish me luck!

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