A lot to talk about!Thursday, July 25, 2013

The weekend before the Bristol race, back in mid-June, my high school buddies and I flew down to Sanibel Island on my plane, for some golf, some fishing and relaxing at my house down there. I caught about a 150-pound tarpon— it took me 22 minutes to get it in close to the boat. Right at the end my arms were completely worn out and I handed the pole to one of my buddies and told him he had to finish it off. It was right there at the boat, but then about a 500-pound. bull shark up and attacked the tarpon right beside our boat! We cut the line and let the tarpon go — the shark kept coming back to our boat looking for the fish.

The trip was a nice break before Bristol, our home race. You’ve got everybody coming to that race — friends, family, employees.  You want to show them all the respect and hospitality you can, because they do it for me all year, allowing me to race. There’s a lot of prep for that event, and then when you get there, a lot of expectation. It’s just a big week. We qualified well at No. 2, but couldn’t get past Greg Anderson in the second round. We’ll just have to wait till next year to once again try to mark a Pro Stock win at Bristol off the to-do list.

Bristol was the first of a string of four consecutive races — I didn’t have time to do much, but I did have time to visit ESPN headquarters at another Bristol, this time in Connecticut. We took the Mopar rig and the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Avenger out to the ESPN compound. That’s a big place, with a lot to see. I met music star Darius Rucker, who was doing a little concert there — it just so happened he was also doing a concert later that week in my hometown. (More on that later).

We headed to the inaugural New Hampshire race after our ESPN stop. We were really impressed with the entire area. The facility did great for their first year, and the New Hampshire fans were just awesome. There were a lot of Mopar fans there, too, in the area. It was crowded, crowded, crowded! We gave them a lot to cheer about — our J&J Racing teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr.  took the pole and I was once again No. 2. We used two big holeshot wins over Mike Edwards and Shane Gray to earn the third win of the year in our Mopar Dodge. I think I like New Hampshire!

After we won the race I flew back home on Sunday, where I was invited to the after party for the Niswonger Children’s Hospital Golf Classic, held in Johnson City near my home in Greeneville. It was crazy — after just meeting Darius Rucker during our ESPN visit, I got to meet him again four days later, as he was performing in a concert to support the event! I also rubbed elbows with a bunch of other celebs who were in town to support the charity – NFL stars Dan Marino, Emmett Smith and Bruce Smith, and Bruce Pearl, a former coach at my favorite university — Tennessee. It was a big week!

After New Hampshire, the Mopar rig went straight to Chicago — it was on the road for all four events, and didn’t go back to the shop once. It seemed like Jeggy’s Dodge was out front for most of the race at Chicago. I had to race him in the semis, and he went on to win the event. That was a cool deal, getting two wins back-to-back for the J&J Racing team. Norwalk was up next. The Bader family does an awesome job up there. It was a good race for me and Jeggy — I was able to lock down the No. 1 spot, and I should have won the race. I had five hundredths on Mike (Edwards) off the starting line, and then I shook the tires. You win some, you lose some.

But we were coming into our stride during that stretch — I love all those races. After Norwalk I took all my grandsons out to my house on Douglas Lake in Tennessee. We fished, waterskied and I pulled them along on tubes, then my wife Pam came down and joined me on the weekend — all told I spent four days at our house relaxing before the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals.

I left for Denver early last week before the event — we had a media tour on Wednesday, July 17, then a golf tournament, press conference and the Mopar Block Party on Thursday. Thursday was a busy day. At the Block Party in Golden, you just see so many Mopar fans, with their classic cars. I’m telling you — they’re stacked on top of one another. Mopar does an awesome job with that event.

It was nice seeing Gary Scelzi, the Grand Marshal at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, out at the Block Party. I told him I remember him being only half as ugly as he looked. We compared championship rings — he said that mine looked like his on steroids! All joking aside, it was awesome to visit with Gary — he’s a four-time champ, a great guy and definitely a fan favorite. I hope he makes it out to more races.

Then it was Friday, and time to go racing. For Mopar’s big weekend, which was the 25th anniversary of their sponsorship of the event, we captured our fourth consecutive pole, seventh straight final-round appearance and fifth win in seven years at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals. I would say I love everything about visiting Thunder Mountain — it’s not just one thing. I love the Bandimere family, I love the surface, I love Mopar’s sponsorship, I love the altitude. It just fits us to a tee — we’ve been so successful there I can’t wait to go back. I want to go back right now!

I had a bye run in the Mopar Mile-Highs first round — it’s only the second time in 18 years I’ve had a bye run. The team was actually really smart during that bye run. We had lane choice for the bye run, of course, and we had just watched Mike (Edwards) make his run. We knew since he had made a really good run, there was a chance we might not have lane choice next round. We made the decision to take the right lane for our bye run and get some data from that lane, thinking Mike would take the left lane if he had lane choice against us next round. It proved to be very beneficial, because we did lose lane choice but had data on the right lane, and we went out there and beat Mike the next round. That was big, to take down the points leader, and then we beat Rickie Jones and another Mopar driver, V. Gaines, in the final to close out the win.

My grandson Drew had a special weekend in Denver as well — with my win in Pro Stock and his dad Shawn Gann’s win in Pro Stock Motorcycle, his father and grandpa both won an NHRA National event on the same day. I don’t think there are many kids who can say that! It was cool having him there — he had to hustle to take winner’s circle pictures with both of us.

Coming home from Denver we got invited to watch the Greeneville Astros, a minor league affiliate of MLB’s Houston Astros, just this past Tuesday. They have an awesome facility here for a minor league team, and the owner of the big league Astros comes in quite often from Houston. The team invited Pam and I out — with us not knowing what they had in mind.

They came into the suite before the game and told me, “You need to come with us.” I’m like, “What’s up?” and the guy said I was scheduled to do the national anthem! I said, “Are you crazy??” He led me on for a little before he said, “You better warm that arm up — you’re going to throw out the first pitch.” I did okay — it was close to being a strike.

We’re back to work this weekend at the drag strip. I think the Mopar Express Lane/J&J Racing Dodge Avenger team is starting to come into its own. With the remaining two segments of the Western Swing up next, at Sonoma and Seattle, I’m really not thinking about the sweep. Our team’s approach is to go to every race and go No. 1 and win the race, and it’ll be no different at Sonoma.