So a lot has happened since the last blog, but I’m most pleased to say that we’re standing firm in the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings, with a couple of top-three finishes recently. We could have been better at Chicago, but we’ve had some good runs, and a second place at Indianapolis and third place last weekend at Iowa were really encouraging for everyone working on the No. 12 Alliance Truck Parts Dodge Challenger. We’re still only 34 points off the lead of the championship with 13 races still to go.

The only problem is, the top four or five of us in the Nationwide standings never seem to have really bad finishes! Everyone’s been pretty consistent so it’s really hard to make gains. We’re all pretty disciplined and don’t get caught up in accidents, so we’re all seeing the checkers. Give up five points, and you’ll discover it’s really hard to get it back if we all finish between second and sixth every weekend!

I think it’s great for the NNS that Cup drivers are still involved, even if they can’t score points, because we want to beat the best guys, and in general, the best drivers going back and forth between Cup and Nationwide – the Busch brothers, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne – are really some of the best stock car drivers in the country. So it’s a chance to measure yourself against them. And, let’s be honest, there might not be the same level of sponsorship in the Nationwide Series if those guys weren’t involved.

Of course it would have been nice if my teammate had let me win at Indy (just kidding, Brad!) and it would have been even nicer if I could have held on at the front and not had to worry about it, but we didn’t quite have the car to do that, and so the team compensated by giving me just two tires in one stop to save time and gain me track position and that worked out fine. If we’d taken four we might have been pretty well off, but that might also have put us into the pack and made us vulnerable to getting caught up in someone else’s accident. So we took what we could. And as Brad said, it’s better to finish runner-up behind your winning teammate than it is to beat your teammate but finish 15th and 16th!

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway still has a hold on me, I’ve got to admit. I remember the first time I went there to drive a NASCAR race after all those years driving in IndyCar, and although obviously you’re turning in 40-50mph slower in a Cup or Nationwide car, they feel faster because there’s so much more movement in them. That’s how I used to feel, at least, although as I get more comfortable in the cars, that situation is improving, but it’s taken time to get to that point. First couple of times I turned in, I wondered how the heck anyone was coming out the other end of the turn – and that’s just while you’re driving solo. You get out there for a double-file restart with 42 other cars and some of them are trying to take it three-wide and you’re heading toward Turn 1 at almost 200mph…. Yeah that’s a definite handful and it rivals anything I’ve felt in an Indy car. Ultimately they both make you tense but for totally different reasons.

For example, when Kyle Busch spun in front of me on one of the restarts in the Nationwide race at Indy, he did everything he could to keep it off of me, but I had to make a fairly big correction. If you’re following someone, you’re in the draft and so there’s not much downforce, but then if you turn down underneath them, suddenly you have all this aero on the front of the car that pins the front down, which causes the tail to start to come around. At most of our tracks, you’ve got some banking to help catch you but Indy is so flat compared to other tracks, and so fast too, if you get out of control turning in, it’s going to be pretty hard to get it back.

It was good to get the third place at Iowa, too, but obviously everyone’s results at Pocono (on the Cup side) were overshadowed by the lightning strike that killed a fan. I send my sincere condolences to Mr. Zimmermann’s family, and a “Get Well Soon” to others who got injured.

There’s been less TV work to do on the SPEED Report lately because I’ve been pulling double duty, driving the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Dodge in the Sprint Cup Series. A lot of people would say, “Come on, how much work is it to do a 30-min show and a one-hour show?” but to be informed enough to be able to talk about the races does take a lot of time. I used to watch racing all the time, sure, but I could choose when to watch them: I’d just DVR the IndyCar race, the F1 race, the Cup race, etc. and watch them through the week. Now I have to do it all throughout Saturday and Sunday and take notes, so when I’m asked about them, I’m not just talking out of my backside. I want to be good at it, just like I want to keep improving my racing skills.

In live TV, if you didn’t give the answer you wanted to give or it didn’t come out the way you wanted it to, you have to let it go. Don’t draw attention to it; lots of people won’t catch it. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but it did come as a culture shock at first. When you’re interviewed on TV, you look at the reporter, but if you’re co-presenting a program, you sometimes have to look at your colleague and then you have to look directly into the camera, and you have two earphones in, so the director and the producer can be talking to you at any given time, telling you how much time you have before the next commercial, when you’ve got to hand back to the other guy, and so on. And in the mean time you’ve got to be speaking without missing a beat – and I think I’ve got that down fairly well. Actually, the guy who has a tough go of it a lot of the time is Adam Alexander or whoever is presenting the show, because what you don’t see is that when he’s doing the voice-over to say what’s up next, they’ll be grabbing him by the belt-loop to alter his position in the studio, while talking to him, and he has to be watching the prompter and make sure he’s looking at the right camera when it cuts back to the studio.

And it’s at SPEED’s studios where I discovered I’d have the honor of taking over Penske’s No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Cup car. I certainly didn’t have much warning. I’d done the Nationwide race on the Friday, and so I started off that Saturday having breakfast with the kids, and went out for a boat ride on the lake, usual weekend stuff. I had some lunch and then put the girls down for their nap, and then went down to the SPEED studios, just wearing a t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, because I keep the suit and shoes I need down at the studio.

So we did the show, but they also wanted to tape a little segment for the next day’s show, too. I said yeah, sure, but I need to check my phone because I’d felt it vibrating in my pocket during the recording. At that time, SPEED also got a phone call and the message was “Tell Sam to call Walt [Walter Czarnecki, Vice Chairman of Penske Racing] right now.” So I did that, and he said, “Hey, we need you to come down to Daytona, how soon can you be at the airport?” I said, well, I’m almost there, so is 15 minutes OK?” He said yeah, go there now, I’ll call you back.

So I have to apologize to the SPEED guys who then want to know what’s going on, and at this stage I have no idea what happened but that Penske needs me and I have to rush to the airport. I have a Penske shirt in the closet there at SPEED, but I realize I’ll have to stop at a mall because I don’t think Roger would appreciate me turning up at Daytona wearing flip-flops. So I do that, and rush even harder to the airport, but actually I have plenty of time; I get the follow up phone call and discover that I’ll be driving the No. 22 car instead of A.J. Allmendinger, but I have no idea why, and the plane is going to be there for me in 30 minutes. Well in fact, 45 minutes or an hour went by before I got on the plane and one of the guys from the shop has gone and got all the stuff I needed – seat, shoes, helmet, pedals and everything out of my Nationwide car.

I got my firesuit on in the plane and I fully expected when we popped out of the clouds that I’d be looking down on Daytona and seeing the cars out on track already. I don’t know if it’s something to do with being a racing driver, but I have this recurring dream maybe 10 times a year – and bear in mind this started back when I was in karting – where I’m supposed to be in a racecar and I can’t find my other shoe, or can’t find my helmet, or I can’t find the car, or I’m in the car and the belts don’t fit… Basically, everyone’s started the race without me. So, coming into Daytona, I thought, “Oh well, finally this is the day when my nightmare comes true.”

Luckily that wasn’t the case, but we landed, and there were six cop cars out on the tarmac with their lights going and I’m thinking, this is different to my normal race day. So my car had a police escort to the Speedway, and someone on a golf cart almost wiped out the two motorcycle cops that were leading us. Somehow they swerved around him and my driver then hit the tunnel doing 50mph, and I tell you, if I hadn’t been bracing myself I’d have been up in the headliner of the car!

I hadn’t eaten properly or hydrated properly, so I was definitely not as prepared as normal, even though on Daytona Speedway you don’t work as hard as you would on a normal track. For speedways, the cars have a lot more apertures sealed to make the car fast so it gets really hot inside – and it was very, very hot down at Daytona that weekend. And then the left-rear tire blows out which ruins our race anyway…

But…I’m back in a Cup car, so who’s complaining? It’s interesting to now compare the two cars. The extra 250hp that a Cup car has over a Nationwide car does make a big difference in cars that weigh the same. Then the Cup cars also have a little bit less downforce, a little bit less drag, too, so they slide around a lot more and they’re harder to get slowed down for the corners. But despite those differences, I feel like some of the things I’ve learned in Nationwide this year are going to help me with the Cup program.

So despite the unfortunate circumstances of how I got back into a Cup car, I’m happy to get my arms around driving in both series. Any driving experience is going to improve your skills, and that’s what it’s all about.

Hope you enjoy watching our progress over the next month. Thanks for reading.

Sam

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