St. Pete is a circuit I like a lot, a real challenge – cambers, crowns in the road, bumps, a blend of quick and slow corners, and there are opportunities to pass. It's interesting to try and get the car balanced so that all those features on the track surface help instead of hinder you. Sometimes a lot of what we do as drivers is missed, but I noticed from the race footage that the low camera heights and angles at St. Pete really help show some of the finer details of what we go through.
Again, we qualified on the second row, and the early laps were interesting, with everywhere slightly damp but with us all running on slicks. We all spent the early laps just trying to find our limits – all of us except Marco Andretti, who went past everyone! He made it look like the rest of us were just on a Sunday afternoon drive, and honestly, for five minutes I thought, “Wow, this is going to be Marco's day.” But six laps later, as we finally got some heat in our tires, his were going off and he went the other way at the same rate! The tables can turn so quickly. Firestone made the red option tires pretty soft, so there was a bigger difference between them and the blacks.
What pleased me was that when the reds went off, it felt like it didn't affect my car as much as it did others, and then I could catch people up, and start re-passing them. It was quite a tortoise-and-hare effect. I find that if your car is dialed in, the reds just make the car go quicker – you can lean on that extra grip. But if you've got an imbalance, the reds will exaggerate that (like what happened to Marco). My balance was close, although the car was a bit loose in places. Matt and I have been working on getting the front more positive, and I remember one lap at St. Pete, going through the quick right-left at Turns 11 and 12 when suddenly the front bit hard. I was on the steering lock-stops to catch the tail of the car, and trying to gather it up felt like slow-motion – enough time for me to think, “Er, this isn't good,” – and by then I was past the brake zone for the final hairpin. It had turned into one massively long moment, and I was fortunate to get away with it.
On that last restart, with 25 laps to go, I was second behind Power but ahead of the other two Penskes, and I thought, “Uh-oh, we'll have to work hard to even get on the podium.” But when we got the green, Will took off well, so it meant I could, too – my car immediately felt good and I was able to lay down a quick lap. Coming onto the pit straight next time through, I gained a lot of confidence from seeing that the gap back to Briscoe and Castroneves was actually bigger, so I thought, “OK, I can handle them, let's get to work on Will now.”
I was able to put him under pressure at least: I had stored up my push-to-pass, and I used one a lap to see if I could get any closer, but it didn't make the difference I needed. A few laps from the end, Will had his own sideways moment on a tight left-hander and laid down some big dark lines and I thought, “Yes! This is it, this is the chance!” But he gathered it up. I needed him to have made actual contact. I think Will had between two and three tenths on everyone at St. Pete – he could pull a quarter-second on any of us pretty much whenever he wanted over the weekend – and yet we finished less than a second behind him, and we're proud to have beaten two Penske and two Ganassi cars!
In my last column, I said that the road courses might offer Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's best chances of winning this year, and I wasn't so sure of street courses. (You can't be sure because you can't test on street circuits: by definition, they're temporary!) So as we finished second in a street race without any help from good fortune, then what does that mean for this weekend's round three at Barber Motorsports Park, a natural road course? Let's say I'm optimistic. Both in Sao Paulo and St. Pete, Matt and I made good progress to tune the Z-Line Designs car to suit my tastes – and there is still more to come. Our car's already pretty good now and we know we can make it better, so that has given the whole D&R team a major lift.
I've been going back and forth with Matt, who was asking me whether we want to run the weight distribution as we did in Barber's preseason test, or run it as we've run for the past two races. Well, in the test, we were running 25lbs overweight, which costs about 0.2sec per lap, so taking that out should put us even closer to the front, in theory. If we can get the weight distribution sorted so it handles as well as it did in the test but without those 25lbs, then we're looking good. Let's hope so, because it's going to be very difficult to make passes at Barber.
I'm pretty positive for Long Beach, too. I took pole for the last-ever Champ Car race there in 2008 and, given the way we're going already this year, qualifying in the top four and finishing on the podium should be the very lowest of our targets.
Just so long as we don't have another race like Sao Paulo.