Since our trials and tribulations at Indy, I guess it's no secret that we don't have the best oval racecars in the IZOD IndyCar Series. As soon as we rolled off the trailer, we knew we were in trouble. It was a case of, “OK, we've got a slow car this month.” I knew I was going to have to be putting the No.26 Venom Energy car's rear wing where other people weren't in order to go as quick as them, so that's how I kept my sanity on Bump Day. I was mentally prepared for just that situation, and Ryan Hunter-Reay and I had a talk about potential cannibalism within the Andretti Autosport team – that we could end up in a situation where we're trying to put each other out of the race, when all we're doing is our job. So it was a tough situation, but we were ready for it.
The problem originated from the off-season, because we didn't do as much wind tunnel work for the ovals as we did shock and damper work for road and street courses. That's why I was frustrated that some people were asking, “How did this happen?” and my reply was, “How did you expect this not to happen?! We didn't do as much aero work as the others.” I mean, it is what it is: I'd say we've seen the benefits of what we did get done over the winter; we've definitely made progress on street courses. But to expect miracles on the ovals was just wrong.
There are no bad teams out there. Even the teams that used to be weak are still spending money in the wind tunnel and at shaker rigs. So if they're doing it, we need to do the same, or instead of being part of a Big Three, we're going to be nowhere. We were already behind Penske and Ganassi, and when we don't improve, other teams will fill the gap between us and the best.
It's logical, isn't it: I qualified 16th in 2010 at Indy, and I was best of the five of us – isn't that a big enough wake-up call already? As the field increases in depth, and you get a couple more Ganassi cars, you get three or four strong Sam Schmidt cars, and so on, well, so we must expect that last year's 16th is going to equate to this year's 27th if we haven't made progress. It's the old cliché – stand still and you're actually going backward in racing. And I'm afraid two weeks practice – with or without the rain interruptions – isn't enough to correct the situation. What's needed for that place is stuff you learn in wind tunnels – a lot of little things, not one big thing that allows you to “bolt on speed.”
What you can get done in that time is exactly what we did: Get the car to work with the wing at the level you saw on the last run in qualifying. A lot of people were worried about how it was going to go, and some people were trying to talk me out of it, but at the same time, I'd rather back it into the wall trying to get in than just sit there with the wing at a more comfortable level but risking not making the show. They pay me to drive and get the job done, and that's what I did.
I tried to keep as calm as I could and think, “OK, whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen,” but we were at the mercy of so many things that day. The weather was the big thing, but also if James Jakes had white-walled his tires or stuck it hard into the wall, I was going home. We were running out of time.
I felt for my dad, because earlier that day when I put in a banker lap and got it in the race, Danica didn't get to go because of the rain. I was sitting at my timing stand, and for me, it was best if it kept raining, but for dad's sake, it needed to stop. There were so many emotions that day, and the radio conversation between me and him before that final run got a little crazy at times: as you saw, we're pretty animated people. I also felt strongly for Venom, my sponsors; they deserved it more than anybody because they pay the bills. Looking back now, I can say, “Hey, at least we had a proper Bump Day,” and I'm sure the fans loved the tension. But it wasn't so good being part of the drama.
Normally in the race, I'd say speed isn't everything, but I think that's probably where we were still lacking. My car was not that fast, and it wasn't drafting. At least last year, if I carried more throttle, I could tow up on people down the straights. This year, that wasn't the case: I could be sitting in someone's slipstream and make no gains. At the beginning we came through quite nicely, but then plateaued when we caught up to the quick guys.
Everyone points out that Texas Motor Speedway is a very different oval from Indy, and they're right, obviously. But I'm afraid to say it just kind of highlighted our gap to the leaders again. If you look at the grid, there are a lot of similarities to the grid between Texas and Indy. The difference is that you can make up places and do a lot of passing, but with two sprint races, I didn't have the luxury of time on my side. Still, with the team helping me with slick pit stops, we went from 23rd to 13th in the first race but I didn't have the high line to make up ground on people. I started to bring it in toward the end of the race and just forced it. But the second race was much better for us. The high line was coming in, there were grip improvements because the temperature dropped as we went from evening to night, and we made some good changes between races. Suddenly we had a good-handling car and a third lane and so the race went better for us.
We climbed from 27th (just our luck of the draw, huh?) to finish sixth. I was pretty happy about that. If the race had been longer, or if I had started higher up, I think we'd have had an even stronger finish. Would we have won? I'm not sure; we'd have had to get lucky.
There's been a lot of back and forth about how the grid was decided for Race 2. It did bother me, but you have to be careful how you voice it. I agree with Dario, but I'm not going to go on TV and talk about it because the fans perceive you as a whiner and complainer – which Dario isn't. We're paid to do our jobs and it's best you just go and do that. Do I agree with how the grid was decided? No – and you hate feeling sympathy for Dario because he's in a position to go win every other weekend and he'd already won a race that night! But he's going for the championship, and when a race is influenced by a lottery, it's out of his control. A single yellow would probably have helped him into the top three, but there weren't any wrecks in the second race.
That brings me onto another point: Texas Motor Speedway is a dangerous place, and I think the IZOD IndyCar Series is lucky to have the quality of drivers it does right now. We're making a lot of close calls out there, plus we have the double-file restarts, and I think the lack of yellows is because we're just not making mistakes. However, when there is one made, I think it's going to be pretty major. Hope I'm wrong, but…
Milwaukee, the track where I scored my first IndyCar pole in 2008, was a bit of a bummer for us this year. We got a little mixed up with the tires in practice, so in the final session before qualifying, I only had one set to use and everybody else had two. The session before, we'd hurt the right rear on one set and instead of stopping with 15 minutes to go in the session and saving tires, we just used another set. So we had less opportunity to try different options in the final practice, and that put us into a little bit of an unknown for qualifying. It was a case of just getting what the car could give us, and on our run, the car bottomed a little bit, so I had to lift, otherwise I think we could have been further forward.
Ninth wasn't a terrible starting spot, but I went way too conservative in the race in terms of downforce – and we missed the balance, too, so that double negative just killed us. I couldn't even pull fourth gear at times, so there were guys driving 'round the outside of me. I was able to get a few cars on restarts and hang toward the front of the field at times, but as the race went on and the track got rubbered up, we just got shuffled back by the cars running less downforce who now had the grip they needed.
Iowa this weekend is a track I'm a lot more optimistic about, despite getting the downforce level wrong for qualifying. There are places to pass here, so it could be fun. Toronto and Edmonton should be good, too, because we'll see more evidence of last winter's road/street course work paying off. Are we better than the big guys? No, not yet. I don't think we improved enough to go and put ourselves on pole, although Ryan's been darn close. But do we have a shot? Absolutely.
But like I say, hopefully the revival starts this weekend in Iowa.
Thanks for reading.