It started off as a strange weekend, and, it ended as a bad one when I brushed the wall and had to retire the Motegi Racing Wheels Dreyer & Reinbold Racing No. 24 car.
Twin Ring Motegi was almost exactly as I remember it – same bumps in the same places – so I had no problems getting on it. We rolled off the truck with a car that had some understeer in it, and finished 16th fastest in the first session. We thought, “We've got an OK car, we can make it better and maybe even get it into the top 10 in qualifying.” And throughout those two practice sessions we made the car feel better and better and better – and we never went faster. We had a better balance, I braked later, had more mid-corner speed through Turn 3 and got back to the power sooner in Turn 4 and never went as fast as we did when we had understeer in the car. Extremely confusing – me and my engineer, Yves Tourand, were just sitting scratching our heads over that one.
The balance gave me the confidence to go hard in qualifying, but the car just didn't stick as I went into Turn 3 over the bumps. You've got to get the mid-corner speed up and get back on the power a.s.a.p., so I ran it in there like a freakin' maniac, got back on the gas and the car jumped sideways. Major crossed-hands moment, I can tell you.
It sharpened my reactions but it killed that lap and the start of the next one, so we ended up 22nd on the grid. At Motegi, it's pretty difficult to pass so, from that point, we decided to go for an alternate strategy…in other words, come in at the earliest yellow. So when Baguette wadded his car, we came in once and then we topped off again before the restart.
We made some reasonable progress, too. I think I was up to 14th or 15th at one point. But I touched another car on one of the restarts and so ended up running one of the stints with a broken wing which lost me about five percent front aero, so then it was a case of just hanging on until it could be fixed at the next pit stop.
Then when we tried to change the strategy some more and take some fuel under yellow, they waved the green right when we pulled in the pits. So that put us about half a lap down. In one way, that was a pisser, but on the other hand, it meant we could judge what progress we'd made with the setup, and I've got to say, I think Dreyer & Reinbold guys had given me a pretty good car. My lap times were good when I was running alone – catching the pack in front quicker than the leaders were gaining on me. But I got a little bit high coming off of Turn 1, and ran out of room to catch this kind of high-speed drift we'd gotten into and ended up brushing the wall in Turn 2.
It was a fairly even, side-on job so there wasn't much damage to the car – just a bent toe-link – but the angle of impact had been enough to break the header on the engine, too, so that was us done for the day. So I apologize to the D&R team, especially Yves and the No. 24 crew. It would have been good to see the checkers and see where we ended up. I'm thinking we were probably quick enough to be 13th or 14th even with the earlier problems. Got to say, mine was definitely the most boring of the incidents out there today. (I hope my former KV teammate Mario Moraes is OK.)
It was a good business weekend for my sponsor, Motegi Racing wheels. Jody Groce, the president of the parent company Wheel Pros had brought along some of the guys who work for him along with some dealers and distributors of their wheels. There were also a couple of tire companies represented, people WheelPros do business with, and they had some good meetings, including with the Indy Racing League, Randy Bernard, Terry Angstadt and Honda, just to tell them what they do, what they're trying to achieve and so on. Wheel Pros are really high on IndyCar now so I think it could be pretty productive in the business-to-business sense.
No word yet on racing at Homestead for the finale. Obviously I want to do it and, talking to the guys on the team, I think they want me. Motegi Racing has said it will chip in with some support, but obviously it's down to Dennis and Robbie and their other sponsors. What we do know is that it will have to be decided fairly soon because there's a test at Homestead on Monday next week, and it would benefit the team and me to be able to do that test and get some miles under our belts.
Strange thing, but that would be my first test in about three years and that experience can only help. But I think it would be good for the team, as well. It seems like the 1.5-mile ovals are either crazy-ass, three-wide pack racing like Chicago or Texas, or they're the opposite – too hard to pass on. It's all about track position, so if you qualify 17th, you're running single-file and stay 17th, and Motegi is a pretty good example: if you don't qualify well, you're screwed. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's race pace and strategies are pretty good: it's the extracting those extra tenths for qualifying that needs some work. Trust me I'd be happy to help – all through 2011 too, if I'm completely honest…
The championship battle is looking pretty good, isn't it? Dario probably wasn't as fast as the Penske cars, but he made a good start, his crew were fast in the pits as usual, and he wound up with second. He wasn't any match for Helio, but that's not who he's fighting: he's fighting Will, so Dario played it smart and did what he had to do.
I don't know all the points possibilities for the two of them, but for the final race, all Will has to do is blanket Dario. Having said that…knowing Will, he's like me: he'll want to beat the other guy. He's not one of those drivers who goes out and wants to cruise to the title by finishing just behind a rival; he'll want to win, or at least beat Dario. Should be a proper showdown.
Sadly from where I was sitting, I was able to watch most of the second half of the race, and I've got to say Danica did a nice job today. She looked pretty racy out there, beat all her teammates, mixed it up with the front runners and beat Dixon, too. When you beat a Ganassi or Penske car on an oval, it's a pretty good achievement.
As well as Motegi Racing Wheels – whose support of me really gelled with the Japanese spectators who are really enthusiastic and also very, very polite and correct – I'll also thank my boys at Kicker Car Audio, CEC, AlpineStars, Oakley and Monster.
I'm off to get some rest before the flight tomorrow. Maybe by the time I land on Monday, there'll be some news about Homestead. I'm gonna spend the 13-hour flight with my fingers crossed.