I've been bored out of my mind down here in Daytona, because I didn't go home between the Rolex 24 and the start of our NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Lynne and I drove down here with the dog, and by the time you drive back home after the Rolex 24 and then come back for Cup qualifying, there's no real point. Anyway, the weather's been so bad in Charlotte, it doesn't sound like we missed much by sticking around in Daytona.
We enjoyed our holiday in St. Lucia over Christmas, but I've got to confess, I'm not really a holiday kinda guy. I can't just laze around. I'd rather be home and working out, or just at home in general. So, it was good to get back to racing…
But, oh, man! Words can't express how frustrating the Rolex 24 was for us at Michael Shank Racing. Our Ford-Riley was fast – we'd started from the outside pole – we were heading for a podium and then had a drive-line failure with just over an hour left. It's just one of those races that I love – it's so much fun, and we thought we could at least get Ford and Mike Shank the exposure they deserved for their efforts. I can't say this strong enough: It was a great program and we just got unlucky.
Personally speaking, I was satisfied with myself. In the five years I've done that race, this was my best performance. I was ill with a bad, bad cold even before I got to the track but I was able to triple-stint, never really put a wheel wrong and I was fast. So I can take some pride from that, for sure. But it doesn't really matter if you don't win. I mean, I'm happier to fight tooth and nail in a car that's fast and then have something go wrong than to be in one of those cars that just drives around off the pace to finish sixth. At least we had a chance to win; that's the only reason I do that race, you know? The way things were going, without cautions, third place was going to be ours but, to me, that's no different than breaking down: It's not a win. But I felt bad for Mike and Ford because they missed out on the publicity they deserved.
Apart from karting, that will probably be my last race outside of NASCAR this year. Mike has his regular drivers in place for the rest of the year, but if Ford wants to put a deal in place for a third car at Watkins Glen or the second Daytona race, when we're racing on the same bill, I'd love to do that. It's always an adventure. I mean, racing past GTs that are 10sec a lap slower (and that's the fastest ones!) sure keeps your mind, hands and brake pedal busy. I don't know if this year because of the economy, more well-funded but inexperienced drivers were out there, but this last race was nuts in terms of traffic. I think that's one reason that the attrition rate was so high, for example, and for those of us who stayed on track, it was tough getting around them.
But now I'm back to my main business of the year, where everyone's lapping within about a second of each other, and from one corner to the next you're gaining inches on the car in front instead of yards! It's a deep privilege to not only drive for Richard Petty Motorsports in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series but to be carrying The King's legendary No. 43 at the biggest race in the championship. That number's almost mythical, isn't it? My dad was a big Richard Petty fan and that got passed down to me, so, while being with RPM last year was great, to be in “his” car is beyond that. It adds a little pressure, to be honest, but I know that's self-generated.
Sorry about the shameless promotion, but I'm so happy to be with Best Buy because this is honestly the first time I've been branded with a company. With Red Bull, I was a part of it, but Red Bull is its own entity: I was one of many Red Bull athletes in all sorts of sporting disciplines around the world. Then last year, because of the changing colors of the No. 44 car, I wasn't associated with just one partner; several people supported us. This year, to be branded as Best Buy's guy is a special and settling sort of feeling. The work I do for them and with them will have long-term goals.
So my first race in the No. 43 Best Buy Ford Fusion is shaping up fine at the moment. We were 25th quick out of 50-something cars in qualifying, but that puts us 12th for our half of the Gatorade Duel. Of course, the Duels are all about settling grid positions for the Daytona 500, so unless you think you're gonna be on the front row, the important thing is to be safely in the show, and that's what we've achieved. The Duel itself is a chance to focus on your race setup for the 500. Don't get me wrong, as a racecar driver with pride, I want to win every race I'm in, but you sure don't want to risk wrecking your racecar for the 500 by trying for an unachievable goal.
It feels like a slow build-up to our biggest race of the year, but hey, after the last few years, I'll take anything. As usual, every driver and team is left in a situation of not knowing how relevant their performances in the Duel are for setting up for the 500. The big race starts later and goes into the night, so track temperatures are way different. Also, track conditions aren't going to be the same, because the track will get rubbered up during the Duels, but we're expecting it to rain at least once more before Sunday so how we're finding the car toward the end of Thursday's race isn't how it will feel when we start the 500. When we're debriefing on Thursday, we need to recall how the car was behaving at the start of the Duel, not just the end.
But then there's another argument – and a strong one – that any time you're gaining track experience, it's relevant. So myself and Mike Shiplett just have to work our butts off to really analyze the information we gather on Thursday to apply it to Sunday. And one thing I know: Mike is a guy I want in my corner. I really enjoy working with the whole 43 team, but Mike as crew chief is as dedicated a guy as I think I've ever encountered in racing. He puts so much effort in: he eats, drinks, sleeps, dreams and has nightmares about this sport! He helps me enjoy it, he gets my personality, he knows I get frustrated – and I'm working on that, by the way – and he knows when and how to calm me down. It's going to be a great year on the human relationship side, I'm sure of that.
As for the results, well, I'm working on being a big picture sort of guy. So I'm content (not happy) with a top 15, a top-10 finish is good, a top five is great. Daytona is its own beast and then Fontana starts the season. Winning the 500 would be something I cherished the rest of my career, and if I only was to win one race in my NASCAR career, the Daytona 500 would be the one I would choose. But it's important to remember that it pays the same points as any other race, it's just one of 36, and this is the first year in my NASCAR career that I've been able to set genuine long-term goals instead of just trying to get to each race. In a way, that “big picture” thinking is going to help me stay calm and not do anything risky this weekend.
The flip side to that is that I've put more pressure on myself because, thanks to Richard Petty Motorsports, Ford and Best Buy, everything is so much better than before. I'm constantly aware that 2010 is my best chance yet. There are no more excuses.
Wish me luck.