First off, I hope everyone had a happy and safe Fourth of July weekend.
Since we didn’t make the Daytona 500 in February, I was anxious to redeem myself. We got off to a pretty good start on Thursday by qualifying 26th, our best starting position so far this season. Not only was I pumped about putting together a good qualifying run, but I was finally getting my chance to race with the big boys at Daytona!
Friday’s two practice sessions went really well, too. We were in the top-16 on the speed charts and the Harrah’s Dodge was really handling well. It was especially strong along the bottom of the turns. However, disaster almost struck during the end of the last practice session when Jimmie Johnson spun in front of me coming off turn four. Luckily, he didn’t hit anybody, or anything, and I think there was a collective sigh of relief from the Harrah’s team.
Daytona is one of two restrictor plate tracks on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit and it makes for some wild and exciting racing because the cars are so close together. It’s also known for huge, multi-car, accidents – a.k.a. ‘the big one.” In restrictor plate racing, cars are constantly being shuffled forwards and backwards in the draft, which can be pretty frustrating at times. We held our own and got up to 23rd at one point before we came into pit on lap 31.
When I attempted to stop in our pit box, I slid through because I wasn’t used to the highly sensitive superspeedway brakes. They try to lock up as soon as you touch the brake pedal and it’s really tough to get used to. We regrouped and got four tires and gas, but lost valuable seconds in the process, not to mention the lead draft.
Fortunately, I was able to team up with some other cars that pitted later on and we managed to stay on the lead lap when the first caution came out. We were 36th on the restart and I started to make my way through the field when the dreaded ‘big one’ occurred.
Kurt Bush cut a tire coming off turn two and spun in front of the majority of the field. All I saw was smoke and, since we were running in the back of the pack at the time, I just put on the brakes. We managed to escape with just a cut tire, but it could have been a lot worse.
As the laps ticked by it became evident that fuel mileage was going to be a deciding factor in the race. We didn’t have quite enough to make it to the end, so we pitted, along with several other cars, with seven laps remaining. Unfortunately, I just barely overshot the pitstall, resulting in a one lap penalty. It didn’t really matter much anyway because when I rejoined the race the engine blew with three laps to go.
We finished 34th, which wasn’t what we were expecting, but was still pretty good considering everything we went through. I was really surprised when Kyle Petty sought me out after the race to tell me how well we ran and how impressed he was. That kind of a compliment really means a lot coming from one of the most respected drivers in the garage.
This week is going to be quite busy for the Harrah’s team. We’re racing at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend and then testing for two day at Indianapolis. We’ve struggled this year on the intermediate tracks, but hopefully we can turn that around this weekend!