As I mentioned in my last entry, I've just started a new team with Mike Canney called "Horsepower Ranch." Our first time out on the track was early in January during the Daytona Test Days. This is an officially sanctioned Grand-Am test session for the KONI Sports Car Challenge teams. We were fast right out of the box, placing as one of the top cars in each practice session.
The test session was a very good opportunity for us, and we were able to shake out the cars before the race weekend later in the month. I drove a backup car of Mike's, as my brand-new No. 61 ROUSH/Valvoline Mustang wasn't quite completed in the shop yet. We found some issues with the shifter and the differential that could have been serious problems in the race. So, although it was nice to re-familiarize myself with the racetrack, finding those two issues alone made the test worthwhile.
But it's not all about racing in my life. In the short interim between the test session and the race, my son Jack was born. As you can imagine, this time was a blur, not only with fighting to get in all of the things needed for my day job at ROUSH Performance, but also to take care of my wife and children during this time. Just a week after he was born, I was on a plane headed down to Daytona for the race. And as the first grandson in the family, Grandpa Jack is very proud!
The first day of the Daytona "race weekend" (which was really a Thursday and Friday due to the Rolex 24 Hours) had two practice sessions and then qualifying. During practice, our car felt great. However, I wanted to pick up my speed a bit to get at the top of the queue for the beginning of the race. To get me there, I received great coaching help from Hugh Plumb, my co-driver this year. We were relentless in going over data and driving lines between each session.
In general, one of my idiosyncrasies as a driver is that I tend to do better under the pressure of qualifying and racing. During practice, I tend to be very analytical, thinking about what I'm doing and trying to look at each piece of it. For qualifying and the race, you can't analyze anymore. There's no time to think. By then, you better have your information digested.
Another element of my style is that I tend to be a rhythm driver. While some guys have their best times on their second or third lap, I tend to do my best right at the end of qualifying, building on the rhythm of each preceding lap. Races seem to be the same way for me--I tend to get faster the longer I'm in the car. And that's the way it went at Daytona. I qualified fourth, with my fast lap being the last one that I did.
The Daytona race this year was intense. They call our KONI Sports Car Challenge event "The Roar Before The 24," but I think that calling it a "War" would be more appropriate. At one point I remember looking at all of the cars left around the track and thinking that it was like seeing bodies lying in a battlefield. Essentially, that's what it was.
The carnage began in Turn 1 of the first lap. Almost immediately at the drop of the green flag several cars were taken out, with one of them being my teammate Mike Canney in the No. 60 Sunset Hills Vineyard Mustang. He was hit by two drivers trying to dive bomb him from different angles. It's unfortunate. Mike had a great car, qualified in sixth near the front of the field, and both he and his co-driver Matt Plumb were very fast. The crash wasn't his fault, but that doesn't matter. He was taken out for several laps while the team tried to fix the damage. With just three hours of racing time, when you go laps down there simply isn't any way to make them back up like during the 24 Hour race.
Being on the outside line, I lost two spots on the first lap at the same corner. I had a hard fight to make it back up, but was able to claw my way out. At one point in my stint I was in second, just behind my old co-driver, Dean Martin in the same car I had been running the past couple of years. It was a little odd to be racing Dean and my old car, but I quickly shook that off and went back to the task at hand--passing him for the lead.
In the following laps, Dean and I had a good battle. Neither of us did anything dirty, like hitting the car ahead going into a corner. It was an honor to race with a great driver like Dean. Eventually, I got around him, taking the draft and the inside line into Turn 1 and was able to hold the lead until I pitted and turned the car over to Hugh to finish the race.
Hugh had a war of his own during his run. While leading the race, he was hit from behind as he was turning. It's unclear whether or not this was intentional, but it really doesn't matter. The hit punted Hugh from first to third. Eventually, he had the opportunity to make a choice on the oval, either draft with the car that was in first, shutting out the guy in second, or draft with the car that was in second and do the same to the leader. Hugh made a split-second decision and decided to draft with the car in second.
Just a half of a lap later, the yellow flag dropped and the race ended under caution as the officials couldn't clean up a wreck before the time limit ran out. Hugh would have likely regained the lead by the end of the race, but there was simply no time to race for the win. We finished second. It matched my career-best finish in the KONI Sports Car Challenge.
Of course, we wanted to get first place, but given all that had happened, I don't think that it was possible to do any better. Leaving Daytona, I'm very happy with our performance, both as drivers and as a team overall. The pit stops were flawless, as were our calls on strategy. Right out of the box, the Horsepower Ranch team gave a glimpse of its potential. My only disappointment of the weekend was that Mike and Matt didn't have the chance do to what they might have.
The next race isn't for a few more weeks until March 13-15 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That will give us a chance to catch our breath, regroup and get ready. We've got one more step on the podium to climb. I'm looking forward to that, but we haven't raced there since 2006 so the first few practice laps will be especially interesting as I re-learn the racetrack.
But now, I have to go and feed baby Jack. I get the late night shift as "punishment" from the wife for leaving her with a week-old baby to go racing.