Catching upThursday, March 21, 2013

We had a busy off-season, so it’s been quite a while since my last blog. I’ll try to catch you all up on what’s been happening in my world. My wife Pam and I spent New Year’s Eve with a few other couples at our winter home in Sanibel, Fla., and had a great time. There was a lot to celebrate and reflect on from 2012 — especially our NHRA Pro Stock championship.

Since our first-ever overall title, it’s been great to hear and see the support from fans and the press. As I’ve mentioned before in past blogs, my hometown of Greeneville, Tenn., has really embraced our Mopar/J&J Racing team and our championship, with parades, awards — just a huge outpouring from our hometown, and also NHRA fans in general. The media has also really embraced us and kept us busy, and the way they look to us to represent Pro Stock and the NHRA is something different, and something that the team and I really enjoy.

On a personal note, one major honor that I received recently was a nomination for the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame. I’m going to be inducted on May 9th, and I’m really flattered by it. The honor is for individuals who have helped young folks achieve their dreams, and it recognizes the help I’ve given local schools here in Greeneville, including many appearances at elementary schools and helping our local high school build a special vehicle as part of the students’ curriculum. I like to give back and reach out to kids both through my racing and my business, Greeneville Oil & Petroleum. I’m probably a unique inductee — not really a straight suit-and-tie person. It’s an honor I’m really excited about.

Shortly after the start of the year, we were already back at it, testing at Bradenton in early January. We took all three Dodge Avenger race cars — mine, Jeg Coughlin’s and Vincent Nobile’s — to test for the first time. It was a bit of a madhouse, with all three of us trying to jell and get used to the routines of each other. We tried to figure out what we lacked and what we needed, and it really went well during our three days out there.

Our new partnership with Jeg and his team has been amazing. He’s a class act, and his entire organization is a class act. They really work hard and do whatever it takes. We give Jeg, as well as Vincent, the same equipment and engines that we use. Jeg’s a great driver, and I think he’s enjoying our relationship.

One big bonus: we do get to eat a lot better under our new partnership. Jeg has had a chef at the track for a while, but he was at the point of whether it was worth it or not just for his crew. He approached me in the off-season and asked if we wanted to participate, and I was all for it. It’s put a halt to the fast food lunches the team and I used to settle for — we had steak at a recent race under the new arrangement. Very tasty!

After our Bradenton test in January, the guys on the Mopar Dodge Avenger/J&J Racing team went back to the shop and worked on the engines, just busting their butts to get everything fresh and ready to go out west for the NHRA Winternationals. Jeg and I stopped out in Vegas on the way to Pomona and tested for a couple of days, and put in our race engines for the last few hits.

It was awesome receiving my championship ring at Pomona, in a presentation on stage with all the 2012 champions. It’s definitely something I love wearing. The team got their rings a little later, when I brought them to a test session right before the NHRA Gatornationals. You better believe they were happy! They love ’em, and rightfully so, because they did so much to earn them.

We didn’t start out like we wanted at the Winternationals, only advancing to the quarterfinals. Some things we found during testing just didn’t work under race conditions. We kinda got behind the eight ball after that, and had to be conservative. At the Phoenix event we did a little better, but the second round just bit us again. We were one of the fastest two cars in the first round, but in the second round the setup didn’t work.

We tested again at Bradenton a few days before the Gatornationals, and I think we have got a combination perfected. We made our best start of the season at the Gators, taking the No. 2 spot with a 6.481 run. We also had some fun off the track; we did the Harlem Shake in a little video for the NHRA, and I held a live gator. I’ve seen the videos on YouTube of the Harlem Shake, people just getting crazy and letting loose a bit. The NHRA version included the fans and it was a blast — but I don’t think I’ll be going on “Dancing with the Stars” anytime soon!

I did my job as a driver to reach the final round at Gainesville, with a .007 reaction time to defeat my good friend Erica Enders in the second round, and a .020 mark to take a holeshot win over Jason Line in the semi’s. The final was what we planned, tested and work for all season — me and Jeg lined up in both lanes, an all-Mopar final. I said before Gainesville, if we met in a race, we would just go head-to-head, no-holds-barred, and that’s how it was.

I came out on the winning end against Jeg to score my 17th career win and my first ever at the Gatornationals, which is one of those iconic races on our schedule, one I’ve wanted to win for so long. We also moved to third in the points standings. Our goal for each race is to qualify No. 1 and win the race, and in that regard it played right into our hands. I think we’re one of the premier teams in Pro Stock now, and I think anyone would tell you that. We’ve got a crew that makes great decisions based on scientific methods and data, and we keep improving those decision-making tools. We’ll be right there again (for the championship).

It was also a huge win for the partnership Jeg and I formed. Along with Vincent, who we also supply with Mopar Hemi engines, teams from the J&J Racing camp own the Nos. 2-4 points in the standings. I’ve said all along, everybody asks me why I hired my two assassins, two of the best drivers in the class. I said that they make me better. Last year, at the last six races, I ran Vincent every race and beat him in all six. I beat him because he challenges me and makes me better. That makes me better as a driver overall. Same thing with Jeggie – I knew that I would have to do my ultimate best to beat him. I hope we can all go head-to-head a bunch.