It's great to be blogging again for RACER.com, and I'm in a totally positive frame of mind; I race for Roger Penske, I have a full-time ride in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season and the Alliance Truck Parts Dodge Challenger seems like it's up to the task of competing for the championship. What's not to like?!
The strength of Penske Racing in the Nationwide Series fills me with confidence because I know that with just a little more luck than we had at Daytona, we'll be getting top fives and top 10s on a regular basis and that's what wins titles. From the moment Roger confirmed I was going to be driving a full season, I knew I'd be upset if I didn't finish in the top three in the championship; I feel like we're strong contenders for the title.
Given that my teammate Brad Keselowski won't be at all the Nationwide races this year, there will be some extra work to do, but I feel we've done a pretty good job so far of knowing where we need to be – and Brad will be there for 20-plus races, so there won't be much of a deficit of information. It's great to have Brad, as the 2010 NNS champ, to compare notes with because he has a really good idea of what he wants from a Nationwide car and a lot of the guys at Penske have faith in what he's saying. That pooling of information can only help our campaign.
I definitely feel as though I'm jelling with this car, and I think that's due to familiarization and also a different outlook on how I approach the races. I have a really good relationship with Chad Walter, my crew chief, so that helps, and there are some things that have changed for me personally which might be helping, too.
Phoenix at the start of this month demonstrated that it's not all going to be easy sailing, though. Going back to a track where five months earlier I'd scored my first stock car win was a good boost to the confidence (although to be totally honest, I've always felt good about going to Phoenix – it's a place where I won a couple of IndyCar races), and we thought we had at least a good basis for a setup. But from first practice we knew our car wasn't as good as it had been last November, because the track conditions continue to change as the new surface settles. We worked really hard at it, and we started and finished sixth. By the end, we knew what we did wrong that prevented us from being more competitive, so now we need to focus on becoming better at turning post-race analysis into pre-race analysis.
The big news for Penske Racing as a whole this week was the announcement that in 2013, Roger will be running Fords instead of Dodges. The guys from Dodge have always been really good to us, but Roger wants to see where we rank as a NASCAR outfit and, as pretty much the sole Dodge runners, we've not been able to baseline ourselves for the past couple years. That situation always raises questions because you can never be sure where you're at – is our team good, bad or somewhere in between? So with the Ford program looking very strong right now, Roger's putting us in the best place he can. His first thought is always for the team he's built, and whatever he figures will give us the best chance to win championships, that's what he'll do.
People have asked me about using the Nationwide Series to springboard up to the Sprint Cup Series next year, but I think that really depends on sponsorship. Even becoming champions won't guarantee we graduate…but I'd much rather discover that while having the title under our belt!
For now, I enjoy running Nationwide – although now that I'm doing the SPEED Center deal, it's not as if I get the extra day with my family by racing on Saturday! SPEED got hold of the guys at Penske and asked if I'd be interested in being a race analyst, and at first I thought it was just a cool offer, but then I had to go do an audition and there were maybe four or five others I was up against. Regardless of whether I wanted to do it, that made it a competitive situation, and my natural instincts kicked in – I was determined to do the absolute best I could and try and get their offer!
Thankfully, SPEED ended up picking me and, in the end, I decided that yes, it was a good thing to do, so now I'll be talking about NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1. Who knows if it's something I'll want to do as a career later in life, but it's great practice, just in case. I'm getting to do it at a time when I'm still racing so I don't have a tremendous amount of pressure on me – I probably put more pressure on myself than they do to me – but it's a good learning process. They tell me I do a good job and all I'm thinking about is how to be better at it. I've been interviewed for the last 12 years of my life, so it's nice to be able to flip the script around. Well, OK, they're still asking me more questions than I'm asking anybody else, but I enjoy it.
After a top-10 finish in Las Vegas, we now move on to Bristol. Statistically, it's not been a good track for me – whenever we ran good there, we'd end up having a mechanical problem, a pit stop issue or damage – but I like it for the simple reason that there's no other track like Bristol on our schedule. I feel that if we do things right, it's a place where we can definitely win. Chad's won there as a car chief in the NNS, so we've got that strength on our side. So…will it be challenging? For sure, but something I anticipate with dread? Absolutely not. I don't think there's any point in being negative about any of the tracks we go to. I learned a long time ago that any time you have a “worst track” or a place you don't like, you have to find something to like about it because a bad attitude virtually guarantees you'll run worse there. So you have to accept that there'll be places where you're naturally good and others where you have to work harder at it. Like I said at the start of this blog, I'm looking at everything in a positive light now.
Thanks for your time. Hope to bring even more good vibes soon!