What was I thinking?
Everyone has had that thought at some point in his or her life. On lap 165 of the Daytona 500 Scott Speed must have had that running through his mind. Crew chief Jimmy Elledge had just told him to stay on the track while everyone in front of him came down pit road.
Speed inherited the lead of the Great American Race while everyone that now lined up next to and behind him had either two or four new tires. He had none, to go along with a slowly emptying fuel tank.
Before the race restarted many expected the Red Bull driver to be swallowed whole, no pun intended in relation to the track surface, by the drivers behind him that had been fast and dominate all race. Even if Speed were somehow able to hold them off, he would still have to pit for fuel while everyone else didn’t.
No matter what it didn't look like it was going to end well for Speed and company. Things were about to get hairy, as the Harley J. Earl trophy was just about 35 laps away from being in one driver’s hands.
As Speed sat behind the wheel of his No. 82 Red Bull Toyota one can only imagine what was going through his mind, other than the fact that he was now leading the biggest race of the year. Time to, as Larry McReynolds always says, pull those belts tight and earn your money.
When the green flag came back out, Speed shocked not only the broadcast team, the fans, and his team, but probably himself. Just like Jimmie Johnson was able to do during the Thursday qualifying races, stay out with no tires and winning the race, Speed hung tough with the front group and led 12 laps (which ties him for his career best in one race) before finally being freight trained at the lap 185 mark.
The No. 82 finally did come down pit road for new fuel and tires and thanks to NASCAR’s new green-white-checkered rules Speed was able to make a comeback from the 30th position he restarted in to finish in the 19th spot.
It’s his best finish at the track to date.
“I tried to stay away from the wreck, and as it turned out we were able to stay up there a little longer than we thought,” Speed said afterward. “Then eventually as laps went on and there was no crash, our tires were just too old.”
Crew chief Jimmy Elledge was the one who made the call to stay out on lap 165 a thought basis on solely about making sure his team and driver were around at the end of the race. “At that point in the race, with the track possibly coming apart, the safest place you can be is in the front,” he said.
“I thought maybe we could get the opportunity to not get caught up in an incident and we weren’t within our fuel window to make it to the end. It was like, ‘So what… try it see what happens.’ It worked out better than I expected.”
Speed’s impressive, and somewhat shocking run does more than just boost the confidence of his young team; it helps them get off on the right foot in terms of points. Last year he wound up 35th in owners points, the last car locked into the field when it comes to qualifying for the first five races of the 2010 season.
After that it turns over to the current point system, where he now sits 18th in driver points heading into California. In 2009 the No. 82 car only qualified for 33 of the 36 scheduled events and only captured one top ten and one top five finish.
Ask any driver that has had to qualify on time and they’ll tell you about the lack of sleep they get the night before and the butterflies and nerves that come while waiting it out to see if you’ll be racing or making the long drive home.
So far so good in 2010 for Speed not to not have to endure that after the five-race mark of Bristol and heading into Martinsville at the end of March.
First though, comes the Auto Club 500 this Sunday, a homecoming of sorts for Speed. The 27-year-old is from Manteca, CA and has to be looking forward to using his great run in the biggest race of the year as momentum to improve on his best career finish at his home track, which occurred the last time the series was out west in the fall.
He started 21st on the grid and finished in the same position. It was one of the many moments were little by little the then rookie improved as the season wound down and the more races he qualified for the stronger the team got. After earning their starting position for five races this year the hard work during the offseason turned to racing and not just qualifying.
Mission accomplished in race one, the Daytona 500 and now it’s time to head to the Golden State and do it all again.
Nothing can beat confidence, momentum, and home cooking heading into this weekend for Scott Speed and his Red Bull team.