It was a very different experience for me to actually be watching a race in person than to be following along on the computer. For one thing, I had no clue what position AJ was in the entire time. Obviously I could see where he was on the track in comparison to the leader, but I couldn’t tell who was on the lead lap and who wasn’t.
In some ways it was disconcerting for me not to have that information at my fingertips. I like to know how his lap times compare to the other drivers throughout a tire run, which I can see on my Pit Command. And I like to know who is on the same lap as him and how close they are, especially when he is trying to fight for the lucky dog spot.
However, there were many perks to actually being at the track and getting to watch. The biggest of which was that I could actually see the #43 Valvoline car going around the track each and every lap instead of a little computer simulation of it. Getting to hear the noise of the engines and see all the hustle and bustle in the pits during the race was very cool, too. Not to mention hearing the interaction of the fans as they cheered and jeered the drivers.
The one thing that I can’t live without on race day is my scanner audio though, and thankfully I borrowed one that I could bring with me and listen in to the 43 team’s communication throughout the weekend. The cars were so loud that I couldn’t hear what was being said sometimes, but I still caught the gist of what the handling of the car was like.
Unfortunately, the handling wasn’t good. Alternating between tight and loose all weekend, the hot and sunny weather conditions on Sunday left AJ with a wickedly loose race car. So wicked in fact that he lost it off of turn 4 not long into the race and just caught the infield grass before saving it and getting back on track. (Something that I somehow missed and didn’t know until I watched the race replay on TV.)
The grass that AJ mowed up in his little excursion clogged up the grill though, and he soon found the engine temperature rising. With no other choice but to pit and get it cleaned off, crew chief Mike Shiplett called him in and took two tires and an adjustment to try and help the handling. The unscheduled stop left AJ 2 laps down to the race leader and things looked pretty bleak.
A caution just a little while later helped turn things in AJ’s favor though, as he took the wave around and got one of his laps back. Then another quick caution was a godsend as AJ didn’t have to pit out of sequence with the other cars who had pitted while he stayed out. Plus he was able to come into the pits and get four tires and another adjustment to try and help the drivability of his car.
Now fighting for the lucky dog, AJ drove his tail off and eventually managed to capitalize and get back on the lead lap. At this point I was optimistic that he would still have a shot at a top 10 finish. Even though the car wasn’t handling great, they were working on it and he was now on the same lap as the leaders.
At this point, the race turned into a total bore with a really long green flag stretch. Not only that, but the car still wasn’t good. While everyone else seemed to get better throughout the race, Mike just couldn’t seem to come up with an adjustment that would help AJ out with the conditions he was facing. It was very frustrating, but still amazing to watch him zip around the track each lap.
By the final stretch of the race, a top 10 wasn’t even in question and a top 20 was looking like a long shot. After having such good runs at the end of last season, I was really hoping for a more promising start to this year. Even though AJ improved his finishing position over this same race last year, I still have to say that the result was a big disappointment.
Bringing it home in 25th place with a teammate in the top 10 is disheartening. I’ve been giving Mike the benefit of the doubt, and I know that Vegas is a tough track that AJ doesn’t have a lot of laps on. But the fact that the car was bad off the truck, blew a motor, got better in practice, and then was crap for the race is baffling. I don’t doubt for a second Mike’s passion and commitment to the team, but something needs to change really quickly. More communication with the other crew chiefs, the engineers, trying more aggressive adjustments … something.
Whatever it is that needs to happen, the results need to pick up soon. Yes, it is only 3 races into the season and the team was in worse shape than this last year. But the rest of the field isn’t going to sit around and wait for RPM to figure it out. While they’re scratching their heads, everyone else is picking it up. 27th in points is not where I want my driver to be. He is better than that, and he deserves better than that.