After a step backwards in Barber from the great start to the season we were having, I was looking to regain some momentum this weekend with strong points finishes to keep us in contention for the championship. Last year as a team we struggled to find a good setup at this track, so we knew there would be some catching up in order to bring home the results we needed.
Our first day on track was a test day on Wednesday, which included two hour-long sessions at 11:30AM and 4:30PM. As expected, the car set up wasn’t quite where it needed to be coming off the trailer, but we had a lot of track time to work on different set ups and try to find something to gain an advantage on the competitors. In the first session we ended up 4th overall, but still 0.5 seconds slower than the fastest car. The gap remained relatively the same for the second session finishing 5th overall. Going into the first official practice day of the race weekend we decided to change the way we ran our practices due to the hotter conditions.
Our first practice was Thursday afternoon, and the track was low grip because it had rained the night before and the temperature was extremely hot. With the hot track temps we struggled to find grip and still found ourselves lacking the pace to challenge up front. Going into the second practice session later that day, we made some big changes to the setup. With bad weather approaching, it was important to get a good lap in while the track was still dry to get a feel for the changed setup. Most cars only got about 5 laps in dry conditions, but for those 5 laps we were quickest in the session. So even though we still were slightly behind the fastest cars, there was more confidence going into qualifying the next day.
Qualifying was longer than usual, so we decided to start on a used set of tires to get a feel for the conditions, and then run 2 sets of sticker tires for the remaining time. On the first set of stickers I had made a mistake on cold tires, so we missed the peak of the tire, but the car felt better than it had all weekend, so I knew there was potential on the last set of tires. When we went to the last set of tires time was expiring and we had to get out by a certain time, so when I was sent out I was put in front of a car on their hot lap. With time expiring and multiple cars behind that car, it would’ve ruined my qualifier if I had pulled aside to let them pass because I would have been stuck behind a car on my fast laps. So I made the decision to push as hard as I could to not interfere with the car behind and hopefully still get my fast laps in. After a couple corners the car behind had backed off and I continued my qualifying. At the end I was 6th, but less than 0.1 seconds off third. I was proud of the progress we had made with setup at this point, so I was excited for the race with a decent starting position.
After the qualifying was over, the race director felt that I had interfered with the car during the qualifying enough to receive a penalty, taking away my fast lap. This put my down to 8th in the first race and 11th in the second race. It was disappointing after being interfered with in qualifying in Barber and not seeing a competitor receive a penalty. But knowing that this track tends to lead to chaos, I was not let down from the adversity.
The first race was at 4:30PM on Friday with hot, humid conditions. Starting 8th, I was focused on getting through the first corner without a crash. At the start of the race I was kept to the outside of the corner and had nowhere to go but the runoff after the corner and return on track down the road. At this point I had fallen back to 13th on the grid, but thanks to some accidents up the field I had moved up to 10th and settled in behind a group of 3 cars. For a while I was waiting for something to happen behind the cars, when finally an opportunity arose around 10 laps to go: the car leading the group was forced to give a spot to the car behind due to a blocking call from race control. Once the car gave the spot over, they were under pressure from the car in front of me. Having the car in front of me attacking put me in a position to get in on the action. Heading into turn 12, I tried to look to the inside for a pass, but the car in front took the defensive line. I backed off when I saw the potential for an accident because the car in front locked up under the brake zone on the inside of the track. The two cars in front of me collided at the apex and I avoided the wreck by going off track, but lost a position to the car behind when I avoided the accident. A yellow flag came out, and I found myself in 9th place with about 6 laps to go. The restart led to some more chaos, and I fought up 2 spots and was sitting 7th with 2 laps to go. A car in 5th made a mistake and went off track with one lap left, so I made a charge to try to catch the car in front of me on the last lap. I got very close, but there wasn’t enough time to make a move. I brought the car home 6th in race 1.
Race 2 was Saturday afternoon, and the conditions could not have been any more different than the day before. It was about 50˚ with an even colder wind chill. During our morning warm up the tires took a long time to get temp,
but once they did the car felt better than it had all weekend. So even though we were starting 11th, I knew I had one of the fastest cars on track thanks to my engineer making some big changes to the set up over night. On the start I made up a few positions taking the inside line, combined with people making contact and mistakes up front, I worked myself up to 4th after the first two laps. From that point it was a matter of being patient and slowly catching the leaders. I began to get closer and closer when the car in second made a mistake moving me into the 3rd position. With about 10 laps left I was trying to pressure the cars in front while maintaining my gap to the cars behind me. The last few laps got very close and exciting, but there was no contact and I managed to bring the car home 3rd for my 4th podium this season.
Considering the lack of pace we’ve had at this track over the years, to walk away with a 6th and a 3rd and remain second in points after some tough starting positions is a huge positive for this weekend. Ending the weekend on a podium finish really feels like the momentum is back on our side heading into the Freedom 100 in a couple weeks. So far we’re 1 for 1 on ovals, so we’ll try to keep the streak alive and bring home a victory on the most historic track ever!