Seems like we've been on a real series of adventures since I wrote for you last, just after Milwaukee. But it's resulted in two more wins for Andretti Autosport – one for myself in Iowa, one for Ryan Hunter-Reay at Loudon.
Let's start with my win. In my last blog I said I was positive heading to Iowa but, to be honest, over the first half of the weekend that optimism took a bit of a knock. The tires are changing from year to year and that's been catching me out recently. I tell you, it's tough to roll off the truck with the same setup that worked for you in your previous race at this track and then discover that this year it doesn't work and you're nowhere. But that's exactly what happened and we just had to chip away at it through the weekend. I didn't qualify well: I was flat on the gas all the way around but the car was really sliding everywhere.
However, we all know on a short oval if you can get the car underneath you, you can get to the front in a hurry. I needed to get a good start, which I did and it snowballed from there. Eventually I got past Dario Franchitti for the lead, and even when he came back past me a couple of laps later, I could see he wasn't pulling away. I thought, ‘OK we've got it, I've just got to capitalize on it.' You know, I've had cars like that before and we've led laps and actually dominated races and come up short. I knew it wasn't going to be over until we crossed the line, but I knew if the strategy went OK and if my crew did their usual good job in the pits, we had a real chance of victory.
I also saw that Dario's car was set up for running in clean air and he was struggling once he was behind me. I almost wanted to radio to Tony Kanaan and say, ‘Hey, if we can put Dario behind us, we can leave him behind and it'll just be you and me.' And, fortunately, that was the case: it came down to the two of us…and it was the No. 26 Venom Energy car that rolled into Victory Lane. Afterward, TK said something about he'd have had strong words with me if we hadn't been fighting for the win, but I am 100 percent sure I did nothing unethical. He had a full wing underneath me, he understeered, he then got in my dirty air and his car took off up the track. I didn't chop him, I did not change my line. The truth is in the replays. And we all know if it had been him ahead, he'd have done the same if not worse, given how he was driving that night, even against his teammate.
Anyway, it was a great relief that the whole Venom Energy team played their part to perfection and we got that victory. It had been way too long. Obviously I was super happy for Dad and Granddad. They've always stood by me, rock solid.
Given how we performed at Iowa, I had some real high hopes for Loudon last weekend, but out of our team, it was only Ryan who got it together during qualifying – and that's a real puzzler for all of us. Ryan's car and mine rolled off the truck with pretty similar setups and I started off really strong and then the track sort of went away from me. I was looser than Ryan on the same setup the whole weekend so, basically, he was understeering when I was running the thing flat. (I was P2 in the first session). Then, as his car became more balanced, mine went loose. The typical changes that should help the back end were just not working and, in some cases, were making things worse.
So for the race, we just rolled the dice and I thought I was going to have a really good car under me. Unfortunately, we didn't get to prove it. I had a mega start going and I was behind Alex Tagliani but the pair of us had to swerve to the right to get around Mike Conway's spin, so my right rear hit the wall. After that, I was so loose and I was at the mercy of my right rear; it was way out of whack. Dad and my engineer were trying to park me, but my thinking was, “Just keep hammering away at it until the wheels fall off; I'll be darned if I'm gonna give up.” So instead we just came in and took a lot of front wing out. I was just looking at it like we could win the A.J. Foyt Oval Trophy half of the championship. (With Dario crashing out later, it's still looking OK for us. We're still fifth.)
And then what happened, happened. I was just trying to stay out of people's way – although I guess I didn't do a great job of that – but not sure I could have done much more on a restart. I was pinched between Tomas Scheckter and TK. It's a tough one to call. Whatever, I'm not one to really go throwing blame around on Twitter. If I have a problem with them, I'll call them. In this instance, I don't – so I won't.
Anyway, Ryan stuck around to watch me win in Iowa, so I was real pleased to be there for his win at Loudon, especially because 1) the guy truly earned it, and 2) it really is such a big deal for Dad to have had three drivers in the winner's circle this year. I know there's a protest from Newman/Haas and Ganassi, but the way I look at it is that Ryan was the leader under yellow so, at the green, the second-placed guy cannot cross the start/finish line first, otherwise it's a no-start and everyone has to go around again. Simple as that.
Obviously, I think the race restarting at all was kinda crazy, because I think the job we do is dangerous enough without running slicks on a wet oval. I mean, seriously! But I guess there was some miscommunication, because I know Brian Barnhart would never do anything to jeopardize our safety; that's his big concern and I believe him when he says he was sickened by what happened.
In between Iowa and Loudon, we had the two Canadian races and Mid-Ohio. It's fair to say that when I'm pushing for those last couple of tenths you want for qualifying, I'm still struggling with the back end of the car. In the races, it's not so bad because the pace obviously drops a bit compared with qualifying, but I still feel I'm working harder than I need to be which obviously uses the tires up too quick and the car gets looser. Whenever the back end is not tied down on entry, I simply cannot be as quick because I lose my strong point. When you have to drive according to the car's style instead of your own, you're never going to be as quick as when you're able to drive the car in your own natural way.
Basically, Ryan does a really good job of putting up with a loose car on corner entry, while Mike doesn't really brake heavy so he doesn't ask a lot from the car, whereas I do. I demand a really good back end and when I get that, I'm quick but when I don't, I'm not and we haven't yet found what that “x factor” is that will give me what I need. The annoying thing is that sometimes we do hit it: No one outside the teams themselves got to see the test times from Mid-Ohio, but we were top three, and that was down to me having the car I need. Being able to, for lack of a better phrase, drive the hell out of the entry was all I needed to go quick. But then we went loose again on race weekend. Still, we got a top-10 finish there and in Edmonton, too. Toronto got me a fourth place, but it wasn't pretty and I apologized to Oriol Servia and Justin Wilson after our clash. I just went into Turn 1 too hot to back out when everyone stacked up.
Bearing in mind we've got two new circuits coming up – Baltimore and Motegi road course – I think some people are expecting some change in the order up front. I'm not so sure. A lot of people are going there with setups similar to other tracks: at Baltimore, you'll use your setups from other street courses, and Motegi will need one of your regular road course setups, so I think you're probably going to see a lot of the same guys at the top. However, I'm still going to be really working hard to find that difference in setup between me and Ryan, because he'll have what works for him and I'll have something similar but with a couple of adjustments for corner entry.
But I think if you're looking for the great equalizer…well, you better pray for rain. A wet track means the balance of the car plays a lower percentage of what you're doing. Also, in the wet, you're not really charging in – the pace is a lot slower – so we have to change our style. In the rain, it comes down more to just plain and simple instinct, and learning to control the machinery. We were very quick in the wet in Brazil, so…let's hope.
Obviously, even better would be to have the car we need for all conditions, and when we do get it, having that ability to develop it further when track conditions change. I'd rather be chasing the track than the car.
So I'll try and get back to you before the final couple of oval races. In the meantime, see you in Sonoma, Baltimore and Japan.