On the surface, our results in 2010 make it look like the usual situation for the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge. But look beneath that and I think we have a lot of reason to feel encouraged. We were fast in the first three races but we haven't had a chance to convert that speed into hard results. But we're not alone in that. Just ask…well, any number of good drivers in good teams out there!
I think Penske Racing has a strong partnership with Dodge. Being their only team, we can work together to focus on a common direction. I think our organization as a whole has made a good step forward, and within that – if you ask the No. 77 guys – then we are the ones who have made the most progress within that team shift.
But, good finishes? They've been harder to come by so far this season. At Daytona, we were third in our Gatorade Duel 150 with three laps to go and had a problem, so we ended up with a 36th-place starting spot. Then we had a water temperature gauge break on the grid so we had to fix that, and under the rules, that means the car has to go to the very back – 43rd. So, we were just trying to gradually make our way forward in the race, knowing we had 500 miles to get it done, but I guess we should have been in either more or less of a hurry because we were in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. My teammate Brad Keselowski had a tire go down and discovered it in Turn 1. I went low to avoid it and Brad's No. 12 car came off the wall and down…
Roger Penske apologized to me for our mechanical problems having put us in that position but he can't control that kind of issue, any more than the rest of us can. At least the consolation was that we were genuinely fast. One of these days, we're gonna turn this luck around, but we haven't got there just yet.
At the Auto Club 500 at Fontana, I was anxious to do well because the race sponsor is my sponsor, and things started off looking good. We qualified eighth, but then we got caught speeding on pit road – my fault – so we went a lap down, and by the time we got our lap back, we didn't have enough time to go and fight it out at the front. We spent most of the day running in the pack. At one point, we stayed out with about six other guys and were trying to pass Jeff Gordon for the lead and then the yellow came out as he nosed back past me. That meant I was on the inside line for the restart and, at that track, that wasn't where you wanted to be.
That was frustrating, because if we could have gotten that lead, we could have stretched it out until the guys who took two tires and four tires caught back up. We'd also have gotten points for laps led… I guess under the circumstances, we'll take a 16th but it really should have been better.
On the No. 77, we're trying some different things from the No. 2 and 12 cars: We're at the forefront of what Penske Racing is experimenting with, setup-wise, so we're the guinea pigs and it's turning up some interesting things. It made us fast in Fontana. We were fast in practice at Las Vegas but then we didn't hit the nail on the head for the race. However, the good news is, although we did some things wrong in Vegas, we felt we learned things for several other circuits – including Atlanta last weekend. I think that might have been my most solid run ever in a Cup car. We ran top 10 all day, got as high as fifth place, and only an engine issue dropped us down the field. As you saw, there were two extremes in the team – Kurt winning, Brad getting wrecked – but all three of us were top-10 cars in Atlanta. That should make Penske Racing very proud, and also very encouraged for the future. It's certainly boosted my confidence.
Next, we head to Bristol, which is still the most different track in terms of its specific requirements from a driver and a car. It's almost as different from a regular course as a road course! It's a place that owes us, that's for sure. Last year I think we started 35th and got up to seventh with around 30 laps to go and then had a radiator explode and take out the two right-side tires. But again, we look at the positives: In my three previous visits there, at that stage in the race we'd have been two or three laps down, so to be on the lead lap and in the top 10 makes me feel positive. Putting to use the things I learned the previous visit to a track is the only way to make progress in the sport. Like the cliché says, there's no substitute for experience.
And I do have experience. Now in my third full season of Cup racing, I'm able to pick apart the corner better and decipher it for Travis Geisler, my crew chief (with Sam at right -Ed.). A lot of times you'll be loose getting into the corner and then you're tight in the middle. These days I can say, “OK, I want to tighten it up on entry and free it up in the middle.” Well, if we made it a little better in the middle, we wouldn't have to arc it out so wide turning in, so then we've taken care of the looseness and also made it better in the middle. Last year I'd have said, “We need to fix the entry and then fix the middle,” but in doing the first bit, we'd have made it worse in the middle. So for me to be able to describe what we need to fix the most and then move forward from there is part of why we've looked better in practice. We just haven't had the improved finishes on race days.
Last year I commented we needed to have faster pit stops, and I'd say we have made progress in that regard. In fact, we spent one of our test days just working on pit stops – me getting in and out of my box correctly, and the crew trying different potential scenarios.
Of course, the big news for NASCAR as a whole has been Danica Patrick's arrival in the Nationwide Series. As someone who has made the transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars, I've been asked quite a bit about it. I was in Texas last week promoting the fall race at Texas Motor Speedway because AAA is going to be one of its race sponsors. Dario Franchitti was there and we were talking about Danica and how difficult it's going to be for her. Look at the success Dario and I have had in Indy cars (OK, so Dario only got six months in NASCAR before that team ran out of money) but then look at our results in NASCAR…. Cup cars almost go against everything you ever learned in open-wheel racing. It's not going to be easy for Danica, even in such a strong Nationwide car, but most of us appreciate all the attention she's brought to NASCAR.
She's also brought a lot of attention on herself. But on the other hand, from what I've heard, she's getting paid more per Nationwide race than some of the stars in Cup. I've always believed that if you want to attract a lot of attention, you've got to put up with the hassles that go along with that. So, even if the races don't go the way she wants, she is gaining a lot of exposure. I wish her luck.
For the rest of us, the big change that's coming up soon is the switch from rear wing to spoiler and I'd like to think it's to our advantage. It gives teams an opportunity to make a lot of progress, and that should favor the bigger teams with better research and development departments. At this point, I don't know if it will suit my driving style. The last two years we've worked on making my driving style suit the car a little better. But now this year, we are looking at tailoring the car to my driving style.
By the way, something I haven't heard anyone mention in the media about the spoilers is that they're a little bit lower than the wing, so when you're pushing someone you can see through their car better than how we used to. It's a difference of about two to three inches, so hopefully that will reduce the likelihood of chain-reaction accidents where you can't see a wreck up ahead.
So, given our luck recently, that sounds like a good deal for the No. 77 team!