AJ's column: Keeping the faith
Hi, welcome to my first column for RACER.com. Come and join us for the bumpy ride!
I'm writing this after Saturday practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire. Actually, I started it during the rain-out on Friday when we should have been qualifying. My crew chief and I every week get better and better at working together, so when we lose track time it is a bummer, but rain-outs aren't the disaster they were in the last couple of seasons. I've now got teammates who allow us to feed off of them, and we got a bunch of information with our track time on Saturday. So we just have to work off what we've learned in the recent and distant past and use that.
The down side is that with us basing our starting positions on points, we're 30th, and it's tough to pass round here at Loudon, so the practice sessions were all about making the car good enough to make the passes and we'll use some strategy to get up front.
This weekend all of us at Richard Petty Motorsports have the lightweight chassis, but my teammate Kasey Kahne is the only one that has the new Dodge motor. Only a few of these are made at a time, and obviously Kasey's the guy from RPM who's highest in the points at the moment, so to get him into the Chase is a big focus. From week to week, I don't know the situation. I don't know if he has it in every week or what the deal is. It doesn't matter: for the 44 car, it's just focusing on what we have.
Sonoma was an…interesting race, let's say. Coming through the field to seventh after being knocked into a spin – and on a circuit that's tough to pass on – was a satisfying feeling. On the other hand, seeing Kasey win, should I be satisfied or should I be wondering what might have been? A little of both, I suppose. To be completely honest, it was really cool to see him get the win. It was big for the whole RPM organization, Richard Petty and the Gillett family, and you could see in the whole shop this past week how getting him a victory and getting the team a victory had a really positive effect.
On the other hand, I really do believe without everything that happened, we could have been up there fighting at the front from the start. I think we might have had something for him. Whether we'd have beaten him, I don't know…Kasey was pretty strong. But I think we could have been top three.
Still, from what we've been through these past 10 weeks, and especially the last four or five races, where we were running really well and couldn't get a decent finish out of it, I was really satisfied with the seventh, and hopefully that'll be something that kicks momentum off and we can keep running stronger each week and collecting finishes. We really need to move up in points. I really hate where we're at right now.
When you get in a slump like we've had for a couple of months now, you'd think I'd gladly take any good finish, even if it's a lucky one where the car's been bad. But that goes against my philosophy, honestly. I'd rather have what we've been experiencing – running strong but looking for luck to come our way to get a good finishing. Eventually the luck will turn around. Those yellows that have been falling wrong will fall in the right way, and you'll get that extra gallon of gas, and so on. Those problems will come full circle, so I'd rather be running strong every week and just looking for the luck, rather than praying for luck to get us a decent finish with a bad car. We aim to be actually fighting for top fives and top 10s; not hoping that rain hits while we're on a different strategy and the fast guys are in the pits. We've got to make ourselves considered as one of the fast cars. That philosophy, I'm happy to say, is something the team shares.
I like the way this organization is going. People don't really understand how much everyone here had to go through this year. From my side, there was not knowing if I was going to be in a car at all, but thankfully they decided to start a fourth team. But I'm very aware that put a hurt on the organization resource-wise because RPM really wasn't ready for a fourth team. They've had to do a lot to get out there and build more cars; it was a strain on the team.
Also, I think with the merger of Petty Enterprises and Gillett Evernham Motorsports to form Richard Petty Motorsports, everyone really had to find their footing. Although they were focusing on the racing side of it, I think everybody would admit their focus probably wasn't 100 percent because there was just so much going on. So in the first six to eight races, the cars weren't great. We had that great finish at Daytona and had a couple of good races in there, but really we just weren't where we needed to be.
Now, though, we're getting there. We still need to be better, but we're getting there slowly and now we just need the luck. I'm happy with where we're at, and the sponsors have been great. Best Buy stepped up for our car, before that it was Stanley Tools. Sure, we're getting them more exposure, but I still recognize they're stepping up to help me and that's a good feeling – that it really is a full team effort right now, though of course it increases your responsibility. We're all in it together, all fighting from the same position, with the same tactics, with the same purpose.
We still have the last 10 races to sort out sponsorship for, but with everything that's happened this year, I'm confident something will happen to keep us going. It's the same attitude I've had all year. I can't worry about that off-the-track stuff – that's what the marketing side of the team is for, that's what my manager Tara is there for. My duty, as I see it, is to give people reason to want to be with me! At the beginning of the season, we did that; we had Hunt Brothers Pizza step up and come on board which was a big deal for us because they had been looking at teams like Stewart-Haas and, I believe, Penske too. On name status, they could have gone there, but they saw the passion I had and how hard our team works, and then other sponsors from the No. 9 car wanted to be on my car to help along. So it's been a big deal and I have confidence that we'll find ways to finish the season.
But like I say, the biggest thing I've gotta do is give people reason to be on the racecar. I have to keep running better, run up front – and stay there. The middle of the season has been tough – but it's been tough in a different way to the last two years. At least I'm in a car this year! The last two years I've missed a lot of races.
The great thing is, we've nailed down our contract for 2010. That's huge for us. I think that was finalized going into Phoenix. But it's a weird situation, isn't it? We're still trying to figure out the last 10 races for this year, but for next year we're all sorted! I don't know if RPM will be a four-car team in 2010 – that's something you'd have to ask the bosses, along with what manufacturer we'll be with. They're major questions that I don't know the answers to.
But what I know is that I'll be here next year and that's important because I want to head into the off-season with a lot more certainty than last year. Everyone knows I only got the deal finalized with two weeks to go before Daytona. And then the result we got there in the 500 kinda overshadowed the truth. It was only as we got into the meat of the season that we were really able to see where we were lacking, what needed improving, and so on. If we can focus on those things at the end of this season so we don't have those struggles next year, that's got to be a good thing. It's not rocket science: the more distractions there are surrounding us, the harder it is to focus on becoming more competitive.
In the shorter term, I think if we can get in the top 20 before the end of the year, then that will be satisfying bearing in mind what we went through right before the year started, and the slump in results – not performance – that we've been through mid-season. Yeah, a top 20 will mean we're able to hold our heads up at season's end. And then we must get working on 2010.
I'll get back with you soon. For now, though, just wish us luck. Right now, that's what we need most!