Our luck has been "not so good" of late, and everybody on the team agreed that Nazareth was the track to put us back on the road to success.
As usual, we arrived at the track on Thursday. We arrived with only one truck, one engine, and one shot to get it right. (All the other trucks were at the shop getting dents straightened, and fenders painted).
On Friday morning, I got in the truck and felt very comfortable. I always seem to do well at Nazareth, and Jerry (our soon-to-be-famous crew chief) has a handle on how to set up a truck for this oddly-shaped track. The early practice session kicked off, and we were fast. It felt good… actually it felt GREAT! We nailed the setup the first time, and we knew that with a tweak here and there, we could be even better. The first practice session ended with us 3rd or 4th on the speed chart. (Did I say it felt good?)
"...we were on front row, and loaded for bear"
After practice, we went to the garage area and compared notes. When all was said and done, everybody agreed that there wasn't a whole lot more that could be done with the truck. So, we buttoned it up and waited for qualifying.
We drew a late number for qualifying, so all we could do is wait for our turn. When it came time to make our run, it felt like the truck was on rails. For the second time in three races, we had a legitimate shot at the pole. The qualifying lap ended, and we were second on the chart. We were VERY fast, but our friend Joe Ruttman was even faster. Considering our recent luck, we were happy to share the front row.
On race day, the weather forecasters were talking about rain. Some of the local media types even told people to stay home because they thought there was no chance to get the race in… This made many of the teams (including ours) to change our strategy, and prepare for only half a race. If a race makes it to the half-way point, the race is deemed "official", and a rain shower can end the race early without NASCAR having to schedule a re-start the next day.
Anyway, we were on the front row, and loaded for bear.
When the green flag dropped, Joe Ruttman launched himself into the lead, and jumped way out in front of myself and the other lead trucks. I dropped into a comfortable third spot, and basically rode out the laps until the first caution came out. Most of the field pitted, be we didn't. You see, we had a strategy of making it through the race on only three pit stops. Other teams were going to have to need a fourth stop. Staying out on the track can be great for picking up track position, but it can also backfire, because your tires are going to be pretty worn out while the leaders have fresh rubber. This first caution gave us the lead for a few laps (and the precious bonus points that goes with it), but when the green came out, our tires caused us to drop back a few spots. We still had a strong truck, so this was no biggie.
"As the laps ran down, I found myself in sixth place, and I was catching up to Jack Sprague and Steve Grissom..."
Another caution came, and it was time for us to get tires. We went into pit row, but once again we had a slower than average pit stop. It hurt us to the point where we actually went a lap down to the leaders. Despite being a lap down, we were still clicking off some of the fastest laps on the track. Eventually, we climbed up to where we were the first truck to be one lap down, and as soon as we got there, another caution flew. It again was time for new tires.
Because we were the first truck one lap down, we were able to be next to the leader on the re-start. When we took the green flag, I was able to jump out and run a good distance ahead of the first place truck. Then luck was working FOR us for once… Another caution came out, and because we were ahead of the leader, we were able to come around and get back on the lead lap. We were back in the hunt!
Now…To this point, we had probably the fastest truck on the track... we had absolutely no damage on the truck, and luck was bouncing our way.
As the laps ran down, I found myself in sixth place, and I was catching up to Jack Sprague and Steve Grissom, both fighting for the fourth spot. Grissom had a beat-up truck that was blowing smoke, shooting sparks and who knows WHAT else… besides all that, he was still in fifth spot. Sprague did not have a good race at all (Gee… in fourth place and you call THAT a bad race?… Must be nice!) Anyway, the checkers flew and I ended up in sixth place. A much better showing when compared to other races of late. If I had another 5 or 10 laps, I could have been in the top five for sure, but I'll take a sixth any day.
Next Race: Michigan 200
Looks like the bad luck is behind us now. It's off to Michigan, to what I consider to be my "home track". Growing up in Northern Ohio, the track was only about 45 minutes from my home, and I went to (what seemed like) hundreds of races there. To be out ON the track and competing is a great thrill for me, and I'm really looking forward to this coming weekend.
Last year was our first race here. We had a very good truck, but you wouldn't know that by looking at our 13th place finish. This year, we're bringing our Daytona truck, and a good stout engine that we feel is a burner. NASCAR was nice enough to give all the teams an "optional" test day on Thursday, giving us an entire day to dial the truck in and get it ready.
I can't predict what'll happen, where I'll start, or where I finish. What I CAN tell you is that we are ready to prove something to the friends and families who will be in the stands, and to the many fans out there who have supported us all season. To each of you I (on behalf of the entire team) would like to thank you for your thoughts, your prayers, and your continued support. Now it's time to go win one.