So, that was a proper oval race in Kentucky, wasn't it?! I'm finding it pretty hard to wipe the smile off my face a couple of days later. And that's also because we had a strong car, and I think I drove well, too. I don't know which of the aero changes made the difference, but the cars are massively easier to run side-by-side now. It feels like a whole different ballgame.
We aren't comparing apples with apples though. Everyone was naysaying Richmond this year but, let's be honest, that track was never a great one for racing; and by the same token, last year's Kentucky race was OK anyway. But there's no question these aero changes have improved the racing, and I reckon Chicagoland will be even better. Last year, I spent a good 30 laps or so running three wide, which you never like: It makes you uneasy. I was the cream in the Oreo for a while, and then I was on the high side too, which is always the worst. But the upside of being up top is that if you're gonna crash, you don't have far to go.
Our new power boost button is a help too. Normally we have a 10,300rpm rev limit, and the power boost allows you to go to 10,500, with 20 shots of 12sec each. So let's say I'm running in fifth gear, and in the tow. Well normally I'd be hitting the rev-limiter a little bit, but it also pulls me out of the corners better than sixth gear, obviously. So when I push the button, not only does it give me 5hp through the whole rev range, it allows me to rev to 10,500 and I'm never going to hit the limiter. So it can give you an extra 1.5 to 2mph on the back straight without changing to sixth and letting the revs die away. You have to come off the gas quite a long way to disengage it. We're still not at Champ Car power, and it's not the boost that we had in Champ Car, either, but it's still good and useful.
In Toronto, the car felt pretty good. We struggled initially and then it got more and more competitive. And then in the race, I made a dumb move: I expected Ed Carpenter to have seen me, I dove underneath him when he let Danica by, and that took us out of a good weekend, unfortunately. We were going to get a lot of good points, and instead we ended up missing out. I look back and I think how stupid I was, because if we'd got a decent result there and at Watkins Glen, I'd have been in the Top 10.
Toronto was disappointing already, though, because I was tucked up behind Dario, I'd had a good start, it was supposed to be a two-by-two start, and Will Power came across and busted my front wing. No hard feelings, though: Will said it was his fault. It was just bad luck for us, and to be honest, that's how our year has gone. We've had a lot of very good performances, a lot of bad luck and some mistakes on my part: and others that were a mix of all three.
I was pleased with my performance in qualifying, at least. I thought I was going to get pole which, considering how bad we were last time I was there, in 2007, is a major turnaround. It was an example of the team doing a great job to correct difficulties. I think we are showing we have the qualifying pace, there's no doubt about that, and we'd like to think we can get another couple of poles before the year's over. At the end of last year, we sat down together and said, “OK, if we're not in the Firestone Fast Six on at least three occasions, we're going to be disappointed.” And we've been in the Fast Six in every road and street course but one – Long Beach – and there we were seventh. So I'd say we've been pretty good.
I think part of the reason for this improvement is my own performance. I feel much more confident about putting a lap in. When I joined the team two and a half years ago, I told them that I always felt my weak point was qualifying, and if you ever looked at my past career, I always raced well but couldn't get everything out of myself in qualifying. Well this year, I've improved on that massively, and that makes me feel good, because I feel that's not a weak link any more.
Now, don't get me wrong, I realize there's a lot of improving to be done and a lot of learning to be done, but I feel a lot more confident and comfortable. And that also comes from getting a better car, and from being partnered with Justin Wilson last year. He helped me a lot, because although our cars weren't as good as they are this year, he could really carry a car, and that's what I learned from him. So this year, I think there have been times when we've gotten a little bit more out of the car than it really had, but at least we are showing as a team that we can compete. That's the main goal.
Edmonton was a bit more of a struggle, though again we got in the Fast Six in qualifying. But once Paul Tracy was past, we couldn't retaliate right away. There wasn't a whole lot we could do. I was saving more fuel than him – I think on the first stint, we went two laps longer – so we could have got him there, but I think my in-lap wasn't quick enough. Then we ran a second set of reds, which was probably a mistake: when everyone else went red-black-red, we went red-red-black. Our thinking was that the last stint would be a long one, and we were fearing the reds would fall off, but actually the car's handling was comfortable on reds and not so comfortable on blacks. When Tracy started struggling, I think we'd have had something for him if we'd been on reds, but we struggled to get past Wheldon and Tagliani, so I couldn't catch him anyway.
But you've got to tip your hat to the KV Racing boys: they're doing a hell of a job over there: those cars look very good. Sometimes when you follow a KV car…whoa, it's impressive. Same feeling we all get every time we follow the Penske guys!
Kentucky has been a big confidence-booster for us all. I think we had shown some really strong pace on ovals, but I felt in traffic we weren't quite there. But after this weekend, I feel we're very close now. We could run with those guys up toward the front, and that makes me feel we've got a shot when we go to Chicago to really give everyone a run for their money. The rear feels secure now, and so even if I was directly behind someone, in their dirty air, I felt it was going to understeer, which on an oval is a lot easier to deal with than catching the back of the car!
This weekend, my home race, in Mid-Ohio, I feel we should be very competitive. Unfortunately a lot of teams have tested here and we haven't but I think we should still have a good shot at it. I'm basing that on how we ran in Watkins Glen (where we didn't quite have the speed that the top two or three had, but it felt close) and also taking into account Mid-Ohio last year. We ran well until I made a stupid mistake, but we've made a lot of gains since then. So I think we should be pretty good.
I guess what I'm wanting is a strong qualifying followed by no bad luck on raceday. Just a simple, progressive weekend will see us show what we can do and have the results to back it up. Here's hoping!