The Right Approach
One of the biggest changes we made last year was to improve our communication on and off the track. It used to be a big huddle where we'd all talk in the garage--everyone all at once. Everyone had their opinions, most of them were good, but it would cause us to lose focus.
Now, I talk directly with Tony Jr. about the car during practice and on the radio during the races. He and I talk about what the car is or isn't doing, and then he goes to his dad and the guys on the team to work on making the car better. We also decided that Tony Jr. would give up his spot as the front tire changer on the pit stops. He likes to brag about how fast he was as an over-the-wall guy, but now he can sit on that comfortable seat on top of the pit wagon, and he can concentrate on talking with me and making the correct changes to the car during the race. It means he no longer has five different jobs on race day, and he's been making much better decisions ever since.
Am I happy with our season so far? Yes. Am I satisfied? No.
No matter how the season ends, there are always going to be "what if..." moments. At this point in the year, the Daytona 500 is still something that bothers me and bothers the team. We felt like we had that race in the palm of our hand, and for something as simple as an alternator to fail, it still gnaws at us. I am so happy for Michael and his team--it was great that a DEI car won the Daytona 500, but I still believe we would have come back and won that race if it hadn't ended early. That one stands out--and there will be more through the season, I'm sure. I've made some mistakes, and the team has made some mistakes on pit lane, but the difference is that we've stuck together, we've never given up, and we have been able to recover.
The best example of how we have grown as a team might be the race at Martinsville. We had been fast all day, and we were up front on a late restart. A lapped car had a problem and almost ran me into the wall. There was some colorful language on the radio, but Tony Jr. kept telling all of us to think of the big picture. We all kind of calmed each other down, and we recovered enough to finish third. It wasn't the win we thought we deserved, but it was a strong day in the points for us. In the past, I might have bit through the steering wheel trying to fight back to the front, and I drove my butt off to get back to third place, but it was a successful day in the end.
On second thought, maybe an even better example is the win at Talladega. We were at the back of the field when the big crash happened, and I managed to avoid most of it, but I smashed the nose of the car somewhere among the smoke and mayhem. We made 17 pit stops that day to fix and repair that nose--and we ended up winning the race. Now, that's the attitude we take into every race. Whatever it takes, we'll do it. I know a lot of people still bitch about the yellow-line thing--but even if we would have been penalized, I would have still been proud of my team, my driving, and how we overcame some serious problems early on to have a shot at winning it at the end.
My View so far
The season has been fun for me for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is because I have become a team owner in the Busch Series. I love being behind the wheel--and winning two Busch Series races so far as a driver for my own team was pretty cool--but I have really enjoyed being on the pit box while someone else drives that Chance2 car. I used to tease Tony Jr. that when something bad happened in the race, I had to go back out there in that hot car and fight back, while he got to relax with a cold drink in the pits.
Now I know how far that is from the truth. It has helped me understand things as a driver to see a race from the point of view of the crew. I think it will continue to be fun for me to learn about the business of running a team, but mostly I think it will help me become a better driver in the long run.
While this is being written, I'm in second place in Winston Cup points behind Matt Kenseth. I get asked a lot about racing with Matt, and it is always a blast to race against him. Matt has a knack of getting as much as possible out of what his car can provide that day. He has a great crew, so that means he is almost always in the Top 5 or Top 10 when the day is done. He and I have been friends since our Busch Series days, and it seems like even though we're rivals right now for the No. 1 position, we've become closer than we have been in years past. Our careers have been kind of parallel since 1998, and it's almost like old times now. We talk quite a bit because we are going through the same things. "What's your car doing?" or "How do you handle this or that?" seem to be what we're always asking each other.
I would say Matt is unquestionably one of the top three drivers--if not the best driver--out there right now. But don't ask me to rank the rest of them above or below that. I mean, everyone at this level is at the top of the sport, but to race week after week with guys like Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte--guys that I respect, like, and admire--is pretty cool. Tony Stewart? Man, he can get up on that wheel. But then, so can the rest of the Top 10, or 15, or even 20. Jimmie Johnson? Wow--he keeps getting better. Ryan Newman? Kurt Busch? They're all tough, tough, tough--and it seems like it's going to be a lot of years of having to beat those guys to get anywhere near the top.
It's not the end of the world if we don't win the championship this year, but it damn sure may feel like it! I think we can continue to improve in all areas of our team, and we still need to overcome some weaknesses--like Rocking-ham and the road courses--but that list gets shorter every year. When we get those mastered, then look out!
Win or lose, I'm very proud of what I've accomplished in racing. I never expected to make it this far, and each week at the track is another chance to appreciate how far I have come.
To be able to say, "I am a winning driver in the Winston Cup Series," well, sometimes that's overwhelming. And I can't imagine the feeling of being called "The Champ." It may soon be a reality. This is our best shot.