Having recently undergone major renovations, the track surface and facilities at Lime Rock Park were in excellent condition. Friday morning started off with a free practice session which would reveal tire problems that would set the mood for the rest of the weekend.
After the first practice session many of the Jetta TDI Cup drivers suffered blistering and delaminating tires. The Volkswagen team was outstanding and without hesitation in addressing the situation as they used all resources possible to determine what was causing this problem. I was fortunate not to have any tire issues in my practice session, and was very happy when I found out that I had the second fastest time in the session.
After evaluating data from the cars which had experienced tire problems, and having talked with engineers from Michelin, the Volkswagen tech team informed the drivers that the reason some people were experiencing tire problems and others were not was due to aggressive driving.
After reviewing my practice session data with one of the driver coaches, I developed a strategy for qualifying. Shortly before qualifying however, all of the drivers were informed that the session would be stopped after 15 minutes to collect tire data and to determine whether or not it would be safe to continue the session for the remaining 15 minutes. With this in mind I knew that there was the potential that our 30 minute qualifying session could be cut short to 15 minutes.
In my first several qualifying laps I was having a difficult time finding clear track and was getting held up in traffic by other cars. I was also keeping in mind that many drivers had experienced tire problems in the session prior and planned my session around preserving my tires. About ten minutes into the session I came into the pits and was informed that I was currently 12th but was only two tenths of a second off of pole. I knew what I had to do and that the session could be cut short at any minute, so I set back out on the circuit, found some clear track, and was able to put in a good flyer. Just as the session was black flagged to pull all of the Jettas off the track to collect tire data, I crossed start/finish with a time of 59.977, the best qualifying lap to that point. I came into the pits and waited as the technical team determined whether or not it was safe to continue the session.
I was satisfied with the lap I turned, but not entirely. Knowing I had made some errors and that I could have done better, I desperately wanted the session to resume. Shortly later it was determined that it would not be safe to continue and the session was concluded. After learning that I was on the pole I was ecstatic! It was such a great redemption from my poor qualifying performance from the prior race in Portland. Even though I was on pole, tire problems were still looming overhead. Although I had not had any issues thus far, I knew that a problem could surface in the race the next day.
Saturday morning rolled around and after walking into the tech tent and seeing the faces of the mechanics, I knew they had put in some late hours. The mechanics had made chassis adjustments on all 30 of the Jettas in an attempt to alleviate tire wear. Engineers from Michelin were also at the track on Saturday to gather tire data during our ten minute warm-up session. I went out for my warm up session and only completed about two laps to get a feel for the setup before parking it in order to save my tires.
As the race started, I got a good launch off the line and held the lead into turn one. I led for six laps before being passed, falling back into second. Shortly thereafter the full course caution came out. I could feel my tires going away. I was pushing hard in the opening laps to try and create a gap and now I was paying for it. After two laps behind the safety car we went green again. Still in second, I ran wide in turn four and dropped two wheels off the track at the exit. This was enough for the third place car to get beside me and after running two wide through turn five, I was passed in turn six and fell back to third. I could feel my tires coming apart and knew that if I wanted to even finish the race I was going to have to try and conserve them. A few laps later heading down into turn one, a car a pulled beside me in the braking zone. We touched wheels, sending my car bouncing and sliding wide as I lost another position. After this I could feel my alignment was off.
After another safety car period we were back to green. Heading down into turn seven, I knew I was not going to make the turn right after I turned in. I tried to correct but it was not enough to prevent me from running wide, turning my road car into a rally car. Trucking through the dirt, I kept my foot in it and after about a hundred yard run, brought the Jetta back onto the track. Fortunately, this cost me only one position, as I fell back to fifth, where I would finish the race. After inspecting my left front tire, I confirmed that it was severely blistered and had several large pieces of the tread missing.
Although I am disappointed that I missed a podium finish, and a win, I know that I made a huge step in the right direction and learned a tremendous amount from this weekend. Qualifying on pole and having my best finish of the four races thus far has set a positive mood for me going into the last four races. With three back to back weekends concluding the season, everything will happen very quickly. Next up is the September 20th race at Iowa Speedway.