For the last three seasons, the Verizon Team Penske No. 12 car has visited Victory Lane twice in the opening few races. This year is different, and seven races in, we're a little frustrated and we just want to go out and kick everyone's backside! We've got the pace. It's just a different thing every time that holds us back.
You know what happened at St. Pete [if not, read all about it here]. Well, at Barber, we qualified second and finished fifth, but actually felt that was a bit of an achievement in the circumstances.
If I hadn't run wide at Turn 1, would I have had anything for Ryan Hunter-Reay that race? Yeah, I think so. We made a mistake on setup in qualifying and gave the car too much understeer, while Ryan did a great lap and got pole. But at least we understood where our time had gone, and we had the car adjusted fine for the race. The problem with starting on the outside line is that you're braking for a left-hander and also looking in your left mirror for someone on your inside and at the same time I was having trouble adjusting the fuel mixture, so I was busy multi-tasking and ran wide and off the road.
Once we'd dropped to eighth, we wondered, “Should we use up tires to get back up to the front, or should we go for just two pit stops and hope for a yellow?” It's a real dilemma to be in because you don't want to go for an alternative strategy and then need to switch back again; you make a decision and then commit. Well I got to lap 31 before pitting, and if there had been a yellow at any point in the next stint, we'd have been golden, but there wasn't another one for the rest of the race. So I had to just make each tank of fuel last 30 laps and that required sticking to a lap time about one second off the pace.
And even then it was very close and we ran dry as I crossed the start/finish line, so I guess that means we got our calculations pretty accurate…. Looking back, maybe we'd have done better if we'd just gone for it and done a three-stopper. For sure, that would have been more fun anyway.
Long Beach didn't bring the results we were hoping for, either, but for different reasons. In qualifying, I did one flying lap, not a particularly great one, and then backed off to get a clear lap, ready to go for The Big One…but when I crossed the timing line next time through, I got the checkered flag! It was just a misunderstanding between myself and team president Tim Cindric, my strategist, and so I'd backed off too much. It would be arrogant to say, “Oh yeah, I was gonna be on pole,” because for all I know I might have made a mistake or whatever. But the lap that got me third wasn't stellar, so I'm pretty sure we had the potential to have found the tenth or two tenths I needed for P1.
That had a huge bearing on the starts and restarts, because as polesitter, you choose when to go. Behind them, the rest of us wait, and then a bit further back, people just go when they go. So we got shuffled a bit and then we struggled on the harder-compound tires. Then later in the race we got clipped by another car as we turned into our pit box, which ripped part of the rear bumper, so I had to come back in again to have half of that removed. Plus the anti-stall device was giving us trouble all weekend, and on the last stop it actually caused us to stall, which kind of defeats its reason for being there. That probably cost us a top-five finish.
Sao Paulo should have felt even worse, because we clearly had the quickest car in the place and we ended up with a mechanical failure. But actually, we had a blast in the Verizon car before we had our issue, and I just felt energized being able to race hard. Of course, I had to: I'd started 22nd….
After qualifying, Team Penske got some stick in the media for not sending Helio and me out earlier to set a banker lap before the red flag, but like Tim said, if James Jakes' car didn't give way and brought out the red flag just 40 seconds later, then it would have been Hunter-Reay who missed out because he set a banker lap on black tires and we'd have all gone quicker on reds. So it's a fine line between being damned if you do, damned if you don't. We were just the wrong side of that line.