Wow, haven't written a column for a while. For a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver to find time in between races and sponsorship commitments any time from mid-February to late November – is pretty darn hard. Even now, I've only just finished the kart race at the Performance Racing Industry show in Florida, so there always seems to be things to do. (Before you ask, our kart wouldn't run clean at the bottom end of the rev range, so we only finished fifth.)
Doing it now gives me a chance to review my season with Richard Petty Motorsports. I can look at it one of two ways. We were only supposed to run eight races in the season, but with creative work and the help of various sponsors we did all 36 races, so that alone makes me happy. I didn't expect that, because we didn't have a very big budget but we were able to go out there and beat some very good teams including a car from Hendrick Motorsports, a Roush car, a Red Bull Toyota and two cars from Penske Racing.
Then there was the way we finished the season having switched to Ford for the last three races. It made the feeling of only finishing 24th in points more acceptable. What I mean is that I have renewed hope going into next year. Of course, since the switch to Ford, a lot of the questions I get from people involve how big a difference there is between the Dodge and the Ford engines. Well, horsepower-wise it's a lot, though obviously I can't say the number. Also, remember the Dodge motor I ran all year was the older spec R5, so definitely for me the switch from Dodge to Ford was a big difference: It wasn't one particular area of the rev range, I'd say. There was just more horsepower everywhere.
I thought from the first quarter of the season onward, our cars were actually pretty good. Sure, there were races where we struggled, but I really thought in general our handling was OK, and I was saying that a lot during the races, too – “I just can't go any faster!” Especially on the mile-and-a-half tracks, we had to be spot on with the setup to run 10th-15th, and if we were just a little bit off, we'd be 20th-25th. But once we switched to Ford, it made my job easier: obviously you always want to be spot on, but it's hard to do with these cars.
An interesting side issue to the new engines is that I'm altering my driving style some more. I'm still adapting my technique for stock cars anyway, but now I'm not driving into the corners so deep. With the Dodge, I was always trying to make up in the corners what I was losing down the straightaways, and the only way I knew how to do that was drive it deep into the corners, so I'm making the corner quicker and getting back on the throttle quicker, because I knew what was going to be lacking. Now, with the Ford, I'm backing the corners up, and letting the car do a little more rolling because I know when I get back on the gas, the power is going to be there.
Our engine shop was taking a lot of heat for what was lacking with the Dodge engine, but it wasn't their fault. I felt bad because they were doing everything they could with what they had. The R6 motor – the last development of it – wasn't bad at all. It still wasn't the best out there, but we could see directly – because Kasey [Kahne, RPM teammate] was running around the same place as me in those last races – that the Dodge R6 was OK. My Ford had a little bit of an edge, but still the R6 was a decent step up from what I had been running, the R5. My point is, the motor shop had been doing a good job but there was only so much they could do with a block that was eight to 10 years old.
To help demonstrate our progression, and everyone on our team making the most of what we had in 2009, you may have seen that we created an interesting statistic. (NASCAR thrives on statistics, so I was real pleased to have this one pointed out to me!) I was the only driver in the history of NASCAR Cup to have been top finisher of races for two different manufacturers. OK, so that's not a stat that matches winning four consecutive Sprint Cups, but hey, I'll take it!
Anyway, that was then, this is now. I'm going into 2010 feeling positive: I've got a full program of races tied down, a principal sponsor in Best Buy, and a strong engine from Ford. It's such a different feeling compared to this time last year! It's great to feel that you and your crew chief can get to work on stuff that you want to get ready, rather than chasing sponsors and teams. It makes everything a lot more calm, and allows you to focus on running in a championship instead of scrounging money together to just try and make each race.
It's a good feeling but…one stress leads to another, you know? Now I'm worrying, “OK, now we have to go out and be strong right from the start of the season and start going for the championship.” My followers know me – I'm always going to be putting stress on myself, but it's a lot more of a positive stress than it's been in the last couple of years. I mean, if I win the NASCAR Sprint Cup, I swear I'll be worrying about the next year's championship from the moment I get up the next morning! I don't suppose Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus and the 48 team are sitting back right now and saying, “Oh, yeah, we're good for next year.”
I suppose a better way of saying it would be that this stress I've got now is a result of excitement. There are still a lot of things to work on, and there is a lot of change that our team is going through – RPM has let a lot of people go, we're moving into a new shop and we're merging with Yates so there are a lot of people who need to learn how to work together, obviously – so I guess I'm slightly nervous. But there's a real feeling that we can be contenders, so I just don't want anything kinda sapping that potential.
It's no secret that I'm always going to be open to running a Nationwide Series program, but it has to be a strong package on offer. There's no point in just running it in a poor car: those cars are so different from the Cup cars, you can't really use a Nationwide car on the Saturday to learn for the Cup race on Sunday. So I wouldn't accept a ride with just anyone, but I'd love to run it in good equipment and show my abilities. I really do want to do the races with the new spec Nationwide cars – I think from July they're going to run about one race a month with the new car. I'd really like to be in one of them – they took away from the rear wing, they went back to a splitter and the way the nose works I think will be different from the Cup car. I think the racing should be good.
I also love the way the front of the new Nationwide car is able to look like the street car equivalent. I think that the Cup cars hurt the fans who were fanatics about their brand because they look identical to each other and look nothing like what a customer can buy from his local showroom. What was NASCAR built on? “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” so getting back to that philosophy with the Nationwide cars – even if it's just the front of them – is a step in the right direction. And, of course, as a Ford driver, I'm lucky because the Mustang NNS car looks really cool!
But thinking about Nationwide isn't a priority for me. Right now, it's making the most of down-time, enjoying my time with the family and doing some extra racing. I went back to my parents' home in California for Thanksgiving, then went to Toronto – where my wife Lynne's family is – and then I was in Florida all this last week. Then I've got a couple of sponsorship things to do for Best Buy, the family comes here to N.C. for Christmas, there's the Daytona Kart Week right after Christmas. After that, Lynne and I will go to St. Lucia for four or five days.
My first race next year is going to be the Rolex 24 at Daytona. I'll be driving for Michael Shank Racing again – like I told the media at the Grand-Am test last week, Shank and I are going to be married at the hip until we win this damn thing! We're close every year, we're fast every year and we were fast at the test, too, but, of course, in 24 Hours a lot can happen. One thing we do know is that Ford has ensured it will do everything in its power to make up for last year when a crankshaft sensor issue took a lot of their cars out of the running. I'm excited to be working with the same people I work with in Cup on the engine side, so let's hope we can go out and fulfill our promise.
That's the most anyone can hope for, in any category of motorsport: to fulfill your promise. And if there's one thing I know, from now until the day I quit, I will always give 101 percent of my abilities in order to make the results reflect our potential.AJ