Sorry for the delay. I imagine that if anyone actually reads this blog, this is the week you wanted to see it. It’s been a busy week for me. I just got on the plane flying to Pocono, this is really the first chance I have had to write. I tried on the flight home Sunday night, but I was way too tired to be coherent. So here goes.
What a weekend. I feel like I could use any of the quotes I used to describe the disasters we’ve had this year, and they would work just as well if you read the opposite tone.
The 600 weekend is unique in that we practice and qualify on Thursday. We were pretty good in practice, thought we could qualify top 10, maybe have a shot at the top 5. And the car and driver sort of came alive in the third round of qualifying, and he stuck it on the pole! That was pretty exciting, it’s only our second, though two in a row… We went to a place called Iron Thunder for dinner and a celebratory drink. Don’t ask, it’s not any good, it’s just something of a tradition.
Friday was a day off for us, the track and garage weren’t open, and since we weren’t close to our shop (unlike the NC based teams) there wasn’t much work we could do. So 8 of us went golfing at the course right beside the hotel. It was a good time, nothing too exciting, except I’ve inherited a new sand wedge that I rather like.
Saturday was back to a regular schedule, we practiced twice. And the car was good, we were fastest on average both practices, and had the fastest lap in final practice. This is going to sound weird, but that’s not the first time this year that’s happened, and it wasn’t even something to get excited for (see Texas and Kansas). The best part of Saturday was that since we qualified first, we were able to select pit stall 1, which offers a huge advantage on yellow flag pit stops during the race. And this would prove to be key…
Memorial Day (in the US) Sunday is the international day of motorsports, or something. Before the track opened, I watched the Monaco GP from my hotel room. When we got to the track, the Indy 500 was on every tv screen you could find, so I got to see bits and pieces of it in the background while I worked away on other things. The weather had looked dodgy for Sunday all week, in truth none of us were expecting to race that day. But it was clearer and warmer than expected, and the radar kept drying up. Somewhat miraculously, the race was not interfered with at all by rain. Well not directly, I’ll get to that.
The race started and we rolled as we had hoped. The track changes a lot from a Saturday afternoon practice to a Sunday night race, so there is always a certain amount of educated guessing (which I believe is the definition of engineering). But we were able to stretch it out to a comfortable lead until the competition caution, which they always throw if there has been rain since we last practiced. They want to give us a chance to check tire wear to ensure that we don’t accidentally overwork and blow a tire. And because of our number 1 pit stall, we beat everyone off of pit road. In fact, this was more or less the theme of the night. We were first off of pit road every single time because of that stall.
And in between pit stops, our car was good. We stretched the lead up to about 5 seconds at most, and only once did someone run us down to less than a second. We really struggled with lap traffic all night, I’m not sure but it seems to me like lapped cars race us harder than they do when the 4 or 48 are leading. It’s also possible that they are better at dealing with lapped traffic than we are, I’m not really sure.
I remember a point a little over 200 laps (half way) into the race when I realized that we were going to lead the most laps. This has become kind of a weird feeling for me, I remember last year in Pocono when we crossed that threshold, they said if we didn’t win we would be the first team to ever lead the most laps 4 races in a row and not win any of them. Leading the most laps almost feels like a curse now. But they kept clicking away. There weren’t many cautions, I believe in part due to the threat of rain they weren’t interested in throwing a caution for every tear off and water bottle that they found on the track. I’ve made the comment a few times that if there were ever a race that went green all the way we’d be in good shape. And I’d say this is about as close as we’ve got. The shortest run was 25 laps, and so there was never a question of strategy, it all came down to our car. Which was fast, certainly the best car that night.
And then there were 20 laps to go. And my mind was racing trying to figure out what would go wrong, how would we lose this one. I also started counting down time wise at this point. 20 laps at 31 seconds per lap is a little over 10 minutes, call it 11. So by 10 pm this will be over one way or another. I can survive this until then. Then there were 13 laps. 7 minutes. Still over by 10. I can definitely survive that. Then the 18 hit the wall.
This is where we always get bit. We had the dominant car, so no matter what strategy we call at this point, everyone else is doing the opposite. They have to do something different to beat us, otherwise they won’t. And if enough of them do it, then we don’t have time to make it all back up. But they didn’t throw a caution. I credit this to 2 things. The first, is that watching it live, I thought Kyle Busch drove as fast as he possibly could to the garage. I give him the benefit of the doubt that he was trying to disappear before they could throw the caution. The second is the aforementioned rain. At this point I don’t think it would have mattered, but it seems once they get spooked by potential weather they don’t come off it easily. So the 18 got to the garage, and we kept rolling.
So now how are we going to lose? No one is going to catch us. The last run of the race was quite possibly/probably the best our car was all night. So what’s going to happen? 3 to go, and the 21 blows a tire. He is not a team mate of ours, and in fact one of his team mates is trying to chase us down. The 21 makes a painfully slow on the apron lap into the pits. At this point, my hope is to get to the white flag before he stops on track, and thus there won’t be a restart. But then the 21 has disappeared, no caution. We get the white flag.
This is the first point I thought we actually might win. For about a half second. Then my mind went back to about the third run of the race where we had a bad right front tire (apparently I completely forgot to mention that earlier in this post, sorry). The RF tire could blow in 1 and 2 and we hit the wall. We make it to the back stretch. About half way through 3 and 4 I think that even if the RF blows now, we will still be able to make it back to the line. Off 4, all four tires still in tact.
I should mention that as laps wind down in a race like this, everyone gets quite. There is nothing left we can do strategy or setup wise, so that discussion stops. Initially that leads to small talk to fill in the gap, but that fades too. The last several laps are silent, except for Clayton (the spotter) telling Martin when he is beside someone and when he is clear. I imagine that everyone else on the box is like me, trying to figure out how we are going to manage to lose another one.
Off 4, all four tires still in tact. Clayton is the first one to say anything, which is fitting since he’s the only one who’s been talking. He begins to congratulate Martin as he crosses the line. And we erupt. I’ve never seen Barney so excited. The guys down below jump the wall and celebrate. Those of us up top jump up and high five and hug (I hugged two billionaires that night, kind of cool I guess). I spend 60 seconds trying to get the top of the box torn down as much as possible, before rushing down to celebrate. I run down pit road toward victory lane, where everyone else is headed, while Martins does burnouts and donuts on the track. I was most happy to see Chuck, our truck driver, who wasn’t there for the Pocono win last year. He’d been telling everyone all weekend that it was his last weekend smoking, since we were gonna win Sunday and that meant he was going to quit. He was ecstatic.
This victory lane was quite different from Pocono, there was ten times the number of people and cameras. And hats. It was kind of too bad, it wasn’t nearly as intimate as Pocono was. And there wasn’t any beer, just Coke. We cheered for what seemed like an endless amount of pictures, then headed back to the garage to go through post race inspection, and load the car on the NASCAR hauler to go back to the tech center for additional inspection. It was at this point a cooler of Miller Lite appeared, followed shortly by some Coors Light. Neither were exactly my beer of choice, but I wasn’t going to be picky in that moment.
Once we were all packed up, we headed over to the coach lot for another beer, and to swap stories about what we saw, heard, experienced that day. At this point, Martin and Cole returned from doing interviews in the media center. There are lots of things Martin doesn’t know about, and it’s always fun to fill him in on things he missed. About midnight we headed to the airport, and flew home.
And this is the exact moment where our schedule gets grueling. Many people asked me about how late into the night we celebrated, where we went, what we did. We landed at 3 am MT, I got to bed at 4 am. I was up at work by 8:30, there was some brake data that needed to be generated and sent out immediately. And then we had to get ready for Pocono. So it should be pretty obvious why I didn’t write Monday night, I was exhausted.
Tuesday night we had our first playoff softball game, which unfortunately we lost 14-13 I think. Wednesday was tied up with finalizing my new apartment (moving next week) and then making all the other arrangements that come with moving. The joys…
And so here we are, back on the plane headed to Pocono. We should be pretty good this weekend, this is another track we feel like we have a pretty good handle on. I just hope we didn’t use up all of our good luck last week…