Thanks for returning. We've had an interesting few races lately in the Alliance Truck Parts Dodge Challenger and we currently lie fourth in the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings with six races down. That's not bad, I suppose, but inwardly we're cursing because we know it could be better and frankly, I'd rather be 10th but 20 points off the leader, rather than fourth and 54 points off. But we've still got 27 races to go and I drive for Penske Racing, so those are two clear upsides!
All of us in this No. 12 team have a tradition of keeping our heads down and moving forward and nothing's going to shake us from our goal. The title was our goal, is our goal and will remain our goal.
I've taken some steps to improve myself and I've spent a lot of time at the shop with the guys, trying to do whatever we can to make things run smoother. We handled some of the problems during our last off-weekend between Bristol and Texas, and so we went to Texas and were fairly happy with the car on race day, but we ended up having a lugnut come off. That allowed the ride height to go down, so we ended up riding on the splitter, which meant the front of the car didn't want to turn.
That happened at lap 140 and we went from running third – despite an earlier setback – to finishing 11th. It could have been so much better, but then, considering the severity of the problem, it could have been worse, too.
During the race, it wasn't possible to tell what was causing the splitter to hit the deck, so when we pitted for tires, it's not like I could say, “Lift the hood, check what's causing the problem,” because then we'd have just lost too much time and track position. After the race when we got back to the garage, we saw our ride height was three and a half rounds off; bear in mind, when you see adjustments being made to ride height during practice, we make quarter- and half-round adjustments, so you can imagine how radical – how radically bad – our handling had become with this problem.
And, Texas Motor Speedway is not a track where you can drive around a problem like that. I mean, obviously it's never good to have the splitter on the track because any time you hit a bump, your front tires are no longer stuck to the ground. I was OK running at the bottom of the track but any time I tried to move up to the next groove, it was pretty nerve-wracking, especially when people went side by side because bottoming out at the wrong moment could have sent us lurching into them and Texas is a fast track. If you can avoid rubbing, it's best to do that! Anyway, a potential top-three result turned into a finish just outside the top 10, and none of us want to waste opportunities like that again.
You always end up coming away from races like that thinking about what might have been. A thousand little things can happen to a NASCAR driver or team to hurt their performance in a race, but it's frustrating that when you get an unusual problem that can't be solved quickly, it happens during a race instead of during testing. We've done a fair bit of testing this year – at Nashville Superspeedway, Gresham Motorsports Park (in Jefferson, Ga.) and Walt Disney World Speedway, Orlando – but nothing we've tested would have prevented that one-off kind of problem. Now, though, we can probably take some preventative action.
Funnily enough, despite being full-time in Nationwide, I've done more testing for Penske's Sprint Cup team over the past 12 months than I have in the NNS car. By contrast, I've only done one Cup race in that time period – and that wasn't even for Penske!
However, it's a good feeling to know that I'm contributing to Penske Racing as a whole, in particular by testing the fuel injection systems. Roger paid me a big compliment last year at Phoenix regarding how much of a help I've been to the team, so if Roger's happy with me, then that's what matters.
In the Nationwide schedule, Richmond is up next and there's not much from other tracks that you can apply to it; the closest thing is Iowa, but that's a lot bumpier, and even though it's only a little bit bigger, it feels a lot bigger. But I like Richmond a lot: I've had success there not only in IndyCar but also had good days there in Cup and Nationwide, too. It's the kind of track I like because both ends are different – you have to compromise, perfecting one end to give up a little performance at the other end, so success there is quite driver-dependent.
But before that…I'm really happy to say that I'm going to be running this weekend at Kansas in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, driving the SKF-sponsored Penske Dodge Charger. It's going to be fun to be on the top rung of the NASCAR ladder once again, and although I have to qualify on speed because we haven't got any points in Cup, I'm very confident we can do that and give Penske Racing a three-pronged attack on Sunday.
Thanks for reading, and keep watching.
[Editor's note: don't miss Sam paying tribute to his hero Rick Mears in the June issue of RACER magazine!]