As I was getting in my car for the Gatorade Duels, I said to myself, “Okay, Herman. You can do this. You’ve done it before.” Except I knew there was more on the line than just making it into the 50th 500. This was a chance for me to prove myself for once and all on the biggest stage in auto racing. This team was giving me an opportunity to show my ability. As the race went on, it wasn’t looking very good. They dropped the green flag and the ignition went out. We had to pit and restart last. The whole race was like a dream. I was so focused inside the racecar on what I had to do; the drafting, all my moves.
When I made the race, I think the first thing I did was I started laughing. It felt so good as we went past the checkered flag and I went all the way around the racetrack and I got into turn 4 and all of a sudden I just started laughing. It wasn’t a crazy laugh; I didn’t laugh like I usually laugh. I was just laughing out of relief. It was just funny that it was all over after such an incredible buildup and so many circumstances that were on the line. It was the 50th 500, I want to prove to everybody that this team now has Hendrick motors, and that was one of the problems all along. I know this sounds kind of conceited, and I said this in the media room, that this is the first time in my career that it was all about me and nobody else. I think every racecar driver dreams of saying something like that! When I said that in the media room, that this was all about me, nobody laughed, they all understood exactly what I meant. It was just an incredible relief to make the race.
The Nationwide team is just something that came out of the clear blue. The Shark Energy Drink team is so new. We started putting this team together two weeks before Daytona. There were times when we thought we weren’t even going to make it to Daytona. I called Roger Penske myself and was able to borrow the car for Daytona, but that’s how close it was.
The car we ran at California and Las Vegas was a 3-year-old car that that we found in Florida. Penske Racing had sold it to somebody in Florida, and we found them and that team sold them to us because they couldn’t find a sponsor. The whole thing was just all about getting going, getting in the Top 30 in points. When we get about two months into this year, we’ll be able to start racing our own cars. We had to give the fabrication room time to build cars.
I promised my teammate Mike Bliss and his crew chief Paul Wolfe that I would in no way jeopardize how well that team runs. I didn’t want to take any cars from Mike’s team because they worked so hard to get their team running as good as they have. I’m proud of the fact that I haven’t had to use any of Mike’s cars while he continues to run up front. We’ll be able to start sharing a lot more information in a month and a half or two months. I can’t share any information with him because we don’t have the same cars.
It was very difficult getting started. It’s still very, very difficult because I look at my car and my car is about 80%, and then I look at Mike’s car – I tested his cars at Vegas – and I really liked them. It’s all aerodynamics; we have to get the right bodies on the cars.
I mean this from the bottom of my heart – I am so thankful to my crew chief Rick Gay for taking on a very trying situation. The relationship between me and Rick goes all the way back to the days when I drove the No. 48 Goulds Pumps car for George DeBidart. I was his very first driver as a crew chief. So we have a relationship where we ran really well together – we won at Rockingham in 2001. I have a lot of respect for Rick and he has a lot of respect for me. He never doubts my ability and that makes it so that we can talk about the racecar. I’m really thankful that he came into a really different situation. We don’t have the money we need, we don’t have the racecars, but Rick was able to gather a lot of his friends to come to the team. I’m not going to lie; we are on a shoestring budget right now and we’re making chicken salad out of chicken poop.
We know we’re not running real well. We know our California race was probably our best race, and at Vegas we got lucky. We cannot put ourselves in any jeopardizing situation because the Top 30 in points is everything. For me to get in the racecar and go after the pole, I’ve got to be able to have the backup to really go for it. Look at Sam Hornish Jr. at Las Vegas; he was going after a really good qualifying run and he hit the wall and didn’t make the race. Part of qualifying real good is knowing that if I spin out or get in the corner too hard that I’m in the Top 30 in points so I’m still in the race. It’s been pretty brutal.
From a personal standpoint, my winter went really good. My daughter Brooke turned 21. We continued to have a great family life all through the winter. It was the most brutal winter I’ve ever had professionally, though. I spent my time as a racecar driver on the computer and on the phone trying to find sponsorship. I’ll never forget the winter of 2007 as long as I live. All of December and January, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I found myself not being able to sleep at night. I’d be up at four or five in the morning emailing people.
What made matters worse was the sponsor that we were talking to last fall – I was going to have a really good sponsor. We had the opportunity to speak with the CEO about it, and then NASCAR told us that Nationwide was coming in to sponsor the series and that my sponsor was outlawed under that agreement. It made it really hard knowing we had a sponsor and couldn’t use them.
The team decided to wait a little bit and see what was going to happen. Then during the winter Baker-Curb Racing called me and said, “we’re not going to offer you a ride, but will you come test Daytona?” That was horribly hard going to Daytona not being named the driver and putting the effort into the car all for naught. Two weeks before Daytona, I had no ride. None.
It looks like things are starting to get a little better. I see that the No. 10 Cup team is getting ready to announce a new sponsor. Jason Keller has a little bit on his Nationwide car now. We’re also working with some associate sponsors and creating a lot of things with Shark, but money is still very tight. We have got to sell the product that the sponsor is based on. If we don’t sell product, then we don’t have any money. This is not a sponsor where they just gave us all the money need. If we don’t get Shark Energy Drink or any of their products in distribution, we don’t have money, because we get a portion of that money.
I think that was one reason why making the Daytona 500 meant so much to me was I accomplished so much after such a brutal winter. I don’t think many people could have gone through what I did and accomplished what I accomplished. I think I have a sense of happiness about me that gave me a positive mental attitude that helped me through the wintertime. I think a lot of people would have folded their tent.