It's got to be said, at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, it didn't seem a whole lot easier to pass. You can only get on the power so early before the two straights. Thankfully, there was a lot less passing to be done for me because we qualified third, behind Will Power and Hunter-Reay. That was more or less where we'd theorized we might be…but sincerely, we never expect
to be on that second row. That's always the danger: If you expect to do well, it will come back to bite you. On Friday afternoon, I was able to tell the team, “OK, we've got a really good car, and now it's a case of not screwing things up, because we have a good opportunity.” I was optimistic, at least.
But we weren't confident enough to save a set of red option tires like Will did, so we knew we couldn't go for the pole, but we were pretty happy. I didn't go back and check whether my fast time on blacks in that first session would have, in fact, put me into the top 12 in qualifying – I've got a feeling it wouldn't have. But it's just a risk you don't want to take. As I was saying to the team that day, every time you do one of these knockout style qualifying sessions, it feels like you lose a couple of months of your life. It's so stressful, knowing that everything's on the line, that this is your big opportunity to either fulfill your promise and define your race in a positive way, or screw up and spend Sunday looking for a lucky yellow. So it's very, very tense.
There's another angle to those qualifying sessions, too. We had a good car at Long Beach, but I was thinking to myself, “I want to make a change that I think will fix problem X, and will help at every corner, but at the same time, the car's pretty good already, so I don't want to get it wrong and screw it up!” It took two runs before I convinced myself, “OK, let's do it, let's make the change,” and I went out and there was a huge feeling of relief because, yeah, it was better. In fact, it made enough of a difference that I think if I'd decided on it earlier, I could have gotten through the first qualifying session on blacks and so saved a set of reds to fight Will for pole. But you can't afford to make a mistake in the engineering truck or on pit lane any more than you can afford to make one on the track. It needs to be positive change after positive change after positive change. One negative in there, and you'll be starting 15th: that's how close the field is. At Long Beach, from second on the grid to 22nd was covered by just one second.
We were saving a lot of fuel in the early stages, and pitted (I think) three laps before we had to just because we were getting held up behind Raphael Matos and because there's always the chance that there'll be a yellow that elevates you into the lead. That forced Ryan into pitting early, too.
Obviously, the first time I had got past Will, it was because he was having his gearbox problem out of the hairpin, so the second time was a great feeling. He's been the class of the field this year, so he's the guy everyone wants to beat. But I was lucky to be in a position to do that. Alex Lloyd had wiped off my nosecone while I was lapping him, but thankfully, it put me just about in the window for our second stop and the boys did a great job on pit lane so that it worked out I was third, having only lost one place to Will.
A second early stop did mean I'd have to be conserving fuel at times, which definitely meant going easy on the push-to-pass boost. However, the full-course caution for Graham Rahal's crash with Mario Romancini eased our fuel issue a little bit, so it was too tempting to not try and pass a Penske when the opportunity's there! So I slipstreamed Power and hit the push to pass and was able to out-brake him into Turn 1. Yup, it felt good!
Then I kept having a debate with myself: Should I push harder and burn more fuel trying to chase down Ryan, or sit here and be satisfied with second? About every other lap I'd push, then I'd back off and couldn't decide what to do. In the end, I was glad I didn't push any harder because as I came out of the hairpin for the final time, the car just didn't accelerate as well and then just before the finish line, it cut and nearly died. I thought, “Ah, so we were that close.” By the time I got to the back straight, it was bone dry. It's always spooky to realize how close you came to losing everything you've been working toward for the last three days.
I didn't think about it for too long. I think everyone in the IZOD IndyCar Series mentally switched to “oval mode” within the next 24 hours, because we now have four of them coming up. For a lot of us, the first practice session at Kansas will be our first taste of an oval in six months and, in an ideal world, I'd have liked to be out there testing like those rookies are on Wednesday. But there's an open test at Kentucky in the first week of May, so that will offer some extra preparation for Indianapolis.
I guess the reason I'm impatient is that it was Dreyer & Reinbold's oval aero program that was the real clincher for me signing with them and I want to see if my belief that we'll be strong is one of my better predictions! I'm pretty sure we'll qualify well at Kansas, and so long as we get a stable racecar for running in traffic, I see no reason why we can't be fighting in the top eight.
Thanks for reading.