The past couple of years we've won two of the four races leading into the Indy 500. This year we've won three of them, and although I wouldn't describe it as a miracle, I do realize it's a pretty rare thing to win three consecutive races. There are so many elements to a race that could go against you, so when you find success, you never want to get cocky about it or expect things to keep going smoothly. You could be leading with one lap to go and puncture a tire, or someone could spin in front of you and take you out and suddenly that run you had going is over.
So although I get accused (by RACER, actually!) of being a glass-half-empty kinda guy, I'd say I'm just a realist who assumes nothing. I always feel fortunate to win one race, even though I drive for a team as strong as Verizon Team Penske.
A CAUTIOUS START
Look at St. Petersburg: we started on pole but only finished seventh. With the way the yellows fell, I don't think our strategy would have won us the race – sometimes, it's just the luck of the draw – but I'd also say I wasn't aggressive enough on restarts and got swallowed up. Why? Because it was the first race of the season, and you never want to start the year with a DNF, so I was being extra cautious.
I can take positives from that event, though: 1) We proved our basic pace by qualifying on pole, 2) we finished the race, 3) I got the chance to pass a bunch of cars which is always fun, 4) I got to learn some more about the characteristics of the new car and new engine over a race distance, and 5) my Penske teammate Helio Castroneves won the race.
LIFE ISN'T A BEACH
Like I say, it doesn't take much to tip the balance against you. Look at Long Beach qualifying: on my final flying lap, I was under my previous time all the way around, and then I clipped a curb too hard at Turn 8, got sideways, so suddenly my other teammate Ryan Briscoe ended up with fastest time. (As it happens, that was the race where the Chevrolet-powered cars got penalized 10 grid spots for a precautionary engine change, so both Ryan and I felt a bit flat afterward because we started 11th and 12th). But my point is, if you don't maximize everything, you'll get beaten in this series.
The harder the job, the more satisfaction you get from doing it right. Starting 12th, you can understand why I thought it had all the makings of another unfulfilled weekend in Long Beach. I won the race in 2008, but the past three years, I've taken pole and always something has happened to ruin it for the Verizon team. So to win from halfway down the field was really enjoyable. Even without push to pass, and on a circuit which traditionally is one of the more difficult tracks to pass on, a lot of our progress was from passes we made on track. This car punches a bigger hole in the air than the last one, so you get a better tow effect down the straights.
At Barber, we didn't go through to the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying because a red flag came out on my hot lap so it didn't count. I was angry at the time but to make the most of a weekend, you have to cut out that emotion and just deal with the result. So myself, Tim Cindric (my strategist, and Penske team president) and my race engineer Dave Faustino just got our heads together to discuss how to make the best of the situation we found ourselves in, starting ninth.
Actually, our plan was pretty simple: just keep putting ourselves in clean air, not held up by anyone, so that we exploit the fact that we have the fastest car. So whether it was me passing someone as soon as I could, or Tim pulling me in for a pit stop if he thought I'd caught someone who would hold me up, the important thing was to keep making sure I had a clear road in front of me so I could drive flat out and really use our basic pace. And it worked. When we were on soft red tires and others were on the harder blacks, there were moments when our No. 12 Verizon car was running three or four seconds a lap quicker than the guys ahead, so that by the time we'd all made our final pit stops, I was in the lead.
A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY
I'd say the teams in the IZOD IndyCar Series are still finding out the different characteristics of this Dallara DW12. Penske has the strength in depth that meant we were the best-prepared team at the start of the year, but we're finding our challengers change from race to race. Sometime it's Ganassi, sometimes it's Andretti Autosport, sometimes there are others. However, because more of this car is spec than with the old car, once you get near the limit of the car's potential, it's hard to make any big steps apart from altering downforce levels; the biggest step we've seen was in Brazil, where the Honda teams were allowed to run a different turbocharger.
I've got to say, this year – partly because of where we started at Barber and Long Beach, and partly because of the closeness of the competition – I've definitely spent more time at maximum attack. As a racecar driver, that's what you want because that's what you spend your whole career preparing for. So although I was frustrated at the time regarding where we started at those two races, the satisfaction of coming through and winning was huge and I like the fact that our three race wins this year have been won in three different ways.
Having said that, I'll go back to what I said at the start: any single thing going wrong on any given day will usually alter a result. If I had mis-timed a pass in Long Beach and got into an incident, if the strategy at Barber had been ruined by a poorly-timed full course caution, if the team had made any mistakes on a pit stop in Brazil, those wins would probably not have happened. That is why racing is a team sport, why it requires everyone on the team collectively doing a better job than the next team. What's that expression – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link…? Well, I'd say so far in 2012 the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske team has no obvious weak links, and I hope you've enjoyed watching us over the past couple of months.
I'll get back to you very soon to preview the biggest race in the world.
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