After four rounds we have two runner-up positions and we're fourth in the championship table, ahead of both Ganassi cars and one Penske. My optimism for the season was justified and only one or two occasions – some within our control, some of them out of our hands – could have put the Z-Line Designs No. 22 car higher up.
I know every driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series can say that, though, so let's just say that I really think Dreyer & Reinbold Racing is proving a lot of people wrong in 2010. Some of them thought I was being too optimistic at the start of the year, and assumed the Penske and Ganassi cars would quickly occupy the first five places in the point standings. Well, both myself and Ryan Hunter-Reay are spoiling that domination, and I think that's great news for the series.
Certainly not all my predictions have been right, though. As you'll recall, I ended my last column so optimistic heading to the third round at Barber Motorsports Park. If I'd been told that I'd only be 11th on the grid, I would have been massively disappointed. And guess what: I still am, because it simply came down to us not believing in ourselves! We made a couple of changes during practice, and didn't think they were making any difference and we changed back – and in hindsight, we should have stuck with them. It was hard because the track was changing, and you're second guessing yourself the whole weekend. We were practicing at something like 9 a.m. on the Saturday, but not qualifying until about 4 p.m. and so the track conditions were 180 degrees different, and the temperature was about 50 degrees different! That's how it felt, at least…
So we just didn't get it right on the day, and it cost us, big time. The way the field is at the moment, any little slip will see you bumped. You can't afford to get it wrong. And once the changes had been made, there was no way out: they were major enough that in the time available during qualifying, we couldn't have switched back to what we had. It wasn't until afterward, when we were able to sit down and analyze everything, that we were able to say, “OK, we aborted the other options a bit too early, so let's go back that way.” The proof of what we'd done wrong was there with my D&R teammate, Mike Conway, who had stuck with our changes a bit longer. He made a couple of additional tweaks, got it really working, and stuck his car on the front row.
So that left a big task ahead for the No. 22 branch of the team on Sunday: a bunch of cars to pass on a circuit where I thought it would be almost impossible to overtake. But thankfully, that was another prediction I got wrong! We were able to make things happen. The car was so good in the race, and not only that, it looked after my Firestones really well. Once we got 15 laps into a stint, and everyone else was really struggling, we were ready to pounce, and that's a similar situation to what we had in St. Pete. At Barber, we also set fastest race lap, and that's encouraging. We're working things out: sometimes it's at the start of the weekend, sometimes it's at the end, but it's a good foundation we're building right now and encouraging for the road and street courses coming up in July and August.
It was disappointing that our performance in the Barber race was only for seventh place but, as a driver, it makes you feel like a hero when you can start to overtake people. Through the race I was looking for different lines. Obviously, when you're close behind cars, you do everything you can to keep a wing out in clean air so you've got some downforce. Also, although everyone was complaining that the track surface is very abrasive, I thought that on the racing line it was actually getting very polished, and that made it feel like you were losing grip. If you went off line, you could find more grip on the unused asphalt, so that's another reason you'll have seen me taking different lines to corners.
You're kind of led by the car and what it wants, so if it understeers on turn-in, you generally turn a little earlier or you play about with the pedals a little to see if it likes more or less weight on the front, and so on. You have to understand what the car wants so you can maximize the tire grip and mechanical grip. That's especially important on long corners and decreasing-radius corners in particular. It's so easy to overload the front axle, so you have to dance around on the pedals a little.
We pitted at the first yellow, which, as the race winner Helio Castroneves proved to almost all of us, was the wrong thing to do, but from mid-grid and with a strong car, we had to roll the dice. From then on it was just flat-out trying to make up places, and like I said, it was hard but not impossible. I think Barber would benefit from having a more legitimate overtaking opportunity, but at the same time, they don't want to ruin the facility. That's the dilemma the owners have, because it's a pretty cool circuit and a fantastic facility, and if you start changing it, there's a chance of screwing things up. They need to study the layout very carefully before deciding what to do and where to do it. Maybe they should call the guys at iRacing and do some design proposals on a simulator first before they start digging.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.