Of frogs, friends and familyWednesday, April 30, 2014

Aside from racing, I’ve had a chance recently to get in some golf. I participated in the B.R.A.K.E.S. golf tournament the Thursday morning before the 4-Wide event. My team shot 59, but we couldn’t pull out the win. I’ve been working on my game a bit; I had a chance to take a lesson from a friend right before Charlotte. I’m aiming to get my game back where it was, and get that handicap down. It’s still too high!

After Charlotte, Pam and I chilled in our Florida home in Sanibel, where we spent the better part of a week right before Easter. Of course we flew back home to Greeneville to celebrate Easter Sunday with our families, both my side and Pam’s. We had the whole family at my mom and dad’s, about 30 people, so mom had her hands full in the kitchen. Gosh, the best thing she makes is mashed potatoes and homemade yeast rolls. She makes them from scratch and they rise in the fridge all night — oh man, they’re good! Then we do the same thing with Pam’s family at her grandmother’s place, eat a lot of awesome food and visit with loved ones.

Between Charlotte and Houston we didn’t do any testing, just golfed and relaxed a bit. Thankfully the Tennessee weather has been how spring weather should be, nice and and beautiful, and we were able to recharge the batteries before heading out to Houston. It seemed to pay off.

I think we had a really great weekend, taking the No. 1 spot in our Magneti Marelli Offered by Mopar Dodge Dart and finishing runner-up in a tough final round against Erica. Our cars were the best on track all weekend, so it was fitting we met her in the final. I got the best of her at Gainesville, and she paid me back at Houston. Aside from my teammate Jeg, there’s no one I would rather race in a final round than Erica. We’re great friends, and it’s not hard to keep our racing rivalry separate from our personal relationship. We’re both adults, and away from the drag strip it never even comes up. Now, at the drag strip, I want to tear her eyes out — just like she does me. It’s actually not a hard thing at all to separate. I hope she’s the driver who earns the 100th win for a female — just as long as it doesn’t come at my expense.

We can’t exactly pinpoint the difference in our Dart from Charlotte, where we exited early, to Houston. I know we never got the right balance in the Dart at Charlotte. You have that starting area there that drops — we call it the “ski slope” — and we never quite got the balance for going over the slope. At Houston, we made great runs down low, which equated into great numbers. We’re still a little perplexed about Jeggy’s Dodge Dart. We had to make some radical changes to get him up to snuff on Sunday, and we don’t really understand why. We’re planning to test in Atlanta next week before the race, and we’ll probably run some of his stuff through my car to see if we can get him back on track.

It was busy off-track as well at Houston. I made an appearance at the Helfman Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram open house on Thursday night — man, what a dealership. That place is like a Taj Mahal. Some of the big boys from the Mopar brand, like Pat Dougherty, were in attendance, which tells you how much they think of that dealership. The Helfman folks did a lot of advertising and we had a great crowd, with a lot of car enthusiasts out to meet Matt Hagan and me.

One of my best friends from high school who used to race motocross  with me lives in Houston, so he and his girlfriend took Pam and I into Houston’s Chinatown district for dinner one night — and that sure was an experience. When we walked in the front door, there was a tank filled with big ole live frogs. My friend said, “We’re going to have one of them,” and I said, “Like heck we are,” but I may have used a different word besides heck. I ate a big piece of squid, and I did end up breaking down and tried some frog — it was pretty good. It wasn’t frog legs, like we eat back in Tennessee. This was the whole a frog! It tasted great, a bit like fish.

On Friday we surprised Pam with a little birthday party in Erica and Richie’s motorhome and pits, and I treated her to a little shopping spree as well. Saturday was April 26, or 4/26, which marks HEMI Day, in reference to the famed Mopar 426 HEMI engine that is still dominant in drag racing. I really think Mopar is doing a great job of getting the word out about the 50th anniversary and about having some fun with HEMI Day. We even did a video wishing fans a Happy HEMI Day (you can see it at http://youtu.be/NcSanOT5OHI ). The racetrack announced it a bunch, and a lot fans came up to me in the pits and the first thing they would say was “Happy HEMI Day,” so that was cool.

We’re heading to Atlanta next, and not to jinx myself, but the Mopar/J&J Racing team and I are on quite a streak. We haven’t had a DNQ since 2009 at Richmond, and even that one was a freak deal. From Friday to Saturday that year at Richmond the weather changed dramatically — we were running like 6.70s on Friday, and then on Saturday the weather cooled down 30 degrees and Pro Stock was running in the 6.50s. I was No. 1 on Friday, and then ended up getting booted out on Saturday at No. 17, because I broke a lifter in the burnout and didn’t even get to make a run.

For this current streak, I think the biggest thing it speaks to is the consistency of the J&J Racing team. My crew chief Mark Ingersoll, my dad and engine builder Roy Johnson, our Mopar HEMI engines, all have been a huge help in keeping me away from those dreaded DNQs, so hats off to them. We’ll try to make it more than 100 races without a DNQ in a few weekends at Atlanta.

On a regular race track, I think we’ve got the balance of our Magneti Marelli/Mopar Dodge Dart set up real good. We won in Gainesville with it, we had a freak deal happen at Vegas, sucking up that piece of trash while making a run, and then at Charlotte we never did get the balance right going over the “ski slope.” In Houston we were back on a regular track, and it performed well.

So I’m feeling real good about the Dodge Dart heading to Atlanta. The track should be hot and humid, just like Houston, so it will be right up our alley. Atlanta was our home track for a long time before Bristol came back into being, so it’s not far from our Greeneville race shop. We’ll have a lot of friends and family in attendance cheering us on, and hopefully we can make ‘em proud.