When you work for two-plus years to arrive at a certain place in your life, expectations are many times not closely related to how reality unfolds. Now that I have reached my goal of becoming a full-time NASCAR Winston Cup driver, I wondered what the future would hold as I arrived at Daytona International Speedway as an official candidate for the '99 NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.
I could not ask for a more perfect situation in which to go to Winston Cup than with Joe Gibbs as a team owner, The Home Depot as a sponsor, Greg Zipadelli as a crew chief, and Bobby Labonte as a teammate. We have set realistic goals for our season-to qualify for every race, run as many laps as we can, improve with each event, and win the Rookie of the Year title.
But the level of competition in Cup is intense, and the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the season. We just had to take it one step at a time and stick to our game plan. The first thing on the agenda was to get our qualifying setup in place. As we rolled out for practice the first time in our brand-new, bright-orange The Home Depot #20 Pontiac, the reality of where I was and what the task was in front of me kind of hit me between the eyes. It was a little overwhelming but very exciting and exhilarating.
We practiced consistently with how we had tested, and I began to develop a comfort level with the preparations we were making for qualifying. We felt like we were going to have a good enough run to put us in the field, even if we had a problem in the 125 race.
It is hard to describe the emotions I felt as I walked to the car to make my qualifying attempt. I kept telling myself it was just another race and to do what I had always done when I got in the car. Joe and Greg gave me their best advice and offered their support before I buckled in to attempt to make not only my first Winston Cup race, but the biggest race I had ever run in my career.
I felt like the lap was pretty good, but I didn't believe the time my crew guy gave me over the radio as I drove around on my cool-down lap. When I headed into Turn 4, the crowd was on its feet cheering and waving stuff, and I began to wonder if the time they told me was correct. It was. With less than one-third of the cars left to make their qualifying attempts, we were on the pole for the Daytona 500.
We stayed on the pole until Jeff Gordon came out to make his run. He turned a blistering lap and bumped us to the outside of the front row. Still not a bad place to start, especially for a rookie.
All of a sudden, life changed in a big way. While the media had been attentive and good to us prior to that run, the interest in our team and us multiplied 20 times or more. The attitude toward our team changed slightly in the garage. All of a sudden, we went from being just one of the great crop of rookies to the limelight and the object of everyone's curiosity. It went from slightly overwhelming to almost unmanageable in 46.249 seconds.
I was determined not to let the short-term success of our qualifying interfere with the next step in our plan, to race well in the 125, learn the draft, and learn how the car would handle in traffic.
Mike Skinner, Ernie Irvan, Jeff Burton, and, of course, Bobby Labonte offered advice and encouragement as to how to handle the outside pressures at the same time as doing the job.
We raced fairly well in the 125, and I got a lesson from some of the veterans on how the draft works and what happens when you don't have a partner-part of the initiation into Winston Cup by the veterans. It's almost like a rookie orientation class-lessons you can't learn in a book.
To say I wasn't nervous on race day would not be truthful. I just put my mindset in it-is-just-another-race mode and kept focused on the newest task at hand-running 500 miles at Daytona.
Once they said, "Gentlemen, start your engines," it was time to go to work, and everything else faded into the background. Again, I got rookie lessons in drafting from the veterans, but I kept my cool and tried not to make mistakes that would cost us by crashing the car. Then came the engine problems for Bobby and me, and the hopes of a solid finish for me and a win for Bobby went out the window with the wind.
I was, amazingly, not as disappointed as one would think, because so many more positive things happened during my first Winston Cup Speedweeks; I truly felt like we had accomplished all of our goals.
It is also amazing how quickly you put it all behind you and go into next-race mode. Daytona is over, and we are off to Rockingham, North Carolina. But now I am at least a veteran of one thing-I am a veteran of the Daytona 500 and Speedweeks-that is a pretty big accomplishment for our team to be proud of. We did it.
Editors note: This is the first column in a series by rookies of the '99 Winston Cup Series. Circle Track asked each to express his feelings and views on being a rookie in the ranks of Winston Cup racing. We begin this series of reports with Tony Stewart. Other Rookie of the Year candidates will follow in future issues.