I apologize for getting this recap out more than a week after the race. It has taken that long to gather my thoughts and for this win to really sink in, and to fully reflect on what it has taken to get to this point in this new year.
After two years of much success with the TSCO Racing Team, to say it came as a surprise to many that I was going to change things up for 2018 is probably an understatement. There was a lot of talk about my decision, even by my own family members as to why I would walk away from such a successful platform with the TSCO Team and take a leap of faith to do something else. With the TSCO Team, I was able to win three races and finished on the podium 6 out of the 10 races I raced with them. Before I won in the TSCO built truck it hadn’t won a race before, and same with this new Mason truck, they have two other Trophy Trucks out there that hadn’t won a race before. Just like the first time I drove the TSCO truck, when I tested the Mason truck in March of 2017 I knew it had the potential to be a winner.
Needless to say, there was a lot of pressure and unanswered questions going into the first race of the year with a new team and a new truck. Testing went really well, and I was able to put 240 miles on the new-to-me vehicle and after some gearing and suspension adjustments, we headed for Parker, Arizona.
Thursday is qualifying, and with no rain in the last 145 days in Parker qualifying was going to play a critical part of the race. I usually feel like I drive really well at qualifying, but for some reason I’ve only been able to qualify 16th the past 2 years in Parker. I won from the 16th position last year so I didn’t feel I necessarily needed to qualify at the front. With this brand new truck I didn’t know if it would qualify better or worse than my previous truck, so I was especially anxious to find out if I had made the right decision in my new truck or not, which added some nervousness to the Mason guys as well I’m sure. There were a lot of eyes on me in this qualifier, but I live for these moments and never shy away from them. I went out and put down a solid lap. Everyone kept asking me how my run went, and I just said it felt like I always do when I qualify here. I was fast but smooth, maybe a little conservative in some spots, but felt really comfortable in the new truck and we will see where we end up. I felt really good about my qualifying run in 2017 as well, but I ended up 16th so I didn’t know what to think leading up to the results being released.
The results came out later that night, and WE PUT THE BRAND NEW TRUCK ON THE POLE AND QUALIFIED FIRST! It was pretty unexpected to say the least. This is only the third time I’ve ever qualified on the poll; the other times were in 2008 and 2009, so it was quite the dry spell! It was emotional, and almost an overwhelming feeling but a big sigh of relief. I put more pressure on myself to perform than anyone can put on me, and I always hold myself to a very high standard. With this result in the truck, I feel like I was finally able to show that I can lay down a fast lap in qualifying, not just in race conditions. The energy was high and the team was amped! What an amazing start to the new year and a great feeling to start the race season by showing that this truck and this team are no joke, and we are here to compete at a very high level and to win races.
This race was split into a two-race format again with it being three 145 mile loops. The Trophy Trucks and Class 1500 cars, as well as some slower classes with larger vehicles starting behind us in the second race of the day. We started at 1:30pm, and would run the final lap at night. Usually, starting first is an advantage but come to find out on lap 2, not in these loop style races. My first lap was relatively uneventful. I picked a conservative pace, as I was still getting used to the new truck in race conditions. I kept it smooth and clean, and finished the first lap with around a 2-minute lead on the second place vehicle.
I picked it up a bit on the second lap thinking with more clear air I can build a nice cushion so I didn’t have to go too hard on the final lap and just protect my lead. Well this is where it gets interesting as I started catching much slower vehicles. The wind stopped blowing and because I was the first unlimited truck on the course, most of them weren’t expecting me to be coming up on them yet. From about race mile 60 all the way back to main pit I was in constant dust of slower trucks who started behind the unlimited for the second race. One specific truck I followed for 30 straight miles. He had three different helicopters flying over him and buzzing him, but he didn’t get the point that a faster truck from a different class than his was behind and wanted by. I knew my lead was slipping away as I kept following him through a rock garden laden with giant rocks. I was so frustrated, but I didn’t want to chance a flat tire or running off the road, so I stayed behind in the dust. The thought that kept running through my head was “to finish first, you must first finish”. I finally got by the truck and when we came back to the main pit for the start of the last lap I knew I lost a lot of time. I ended up losing 6 minutes on my second lap to my competition who started a little further back in the pack! Ouch, but we have a chance to go for the win on the last lap, and the truck is in excellent condition so let’s go for it!
I started the third lap two and a half minutes behind first (Rob MacCachren) and two minutes behind second place (Brett Sourapas), and I knew if I wanted to win I had to still keep it smart, but push where I could. By mile 26 into the final lap, I had put two minutes back into first and second without knowing it because our radios weren’t transmitting very well. I kept pushing through the dust of slower vehicles, which is even harder now that night fell. I knew I had to be smart and smooth, but keep pushing through slower vehicles where I could because you never know what’s going to happen to the trucks behind you. We came into mile 90, and they told me that at the first two pits on the final lap I had a 30-second lead on second place. I didn’t let it phase me, and kept pushing like I had been. I passed one more slower truck before catching the dust of yet another one, and he was going at too good of a clip that I couldn’t get close enough to pass. I didn’t hear from the pit at mile 90 where second place was because of the radio issue, but I made the decision to put it in cruise control and follow the truck in front of me into the finish, another 35 miles. About 10 miles out of the finish, I heard a broken radio call come over the radio that at mile 90 the next truck thru was 22 minutes behind us, and he was 6 minutes behind us on corrected time. The trucks that were running first and second had issues, and we just needed to keep cruising into the finish line with no issues.
We crossed the finish line and ended up taking the win by fourteen minutes. Not one issue; no flat tires, no off-course excursions, nothing. WOW!!! This is back-to-back Parker wins for me and I can’t even explain the elation that my team and I were feeling at the finish line. It was also the first overall win for a Mason Motorsports built truck, and to be able to give Neal and Robert their first win in the Trophy Truck class was an amazing feeling. We came out swinging in 2018, and given all the questions and pressure, I’m so proud of my guys and the whole team for handling it like professionals and taking it head on. From taking first in qualifying and then following it up with first in the race, the opening race of 2018 couldn’t have gone any better and I’m very excited for the rest of the season.
Our next race will be the San Felipe 250 in April. My wife is pregnant and my son is to be born right about the day of the Mint 400, so for planning and family purposes I made the decision to forego the Mint 400 this year, concentrate and be there for my wife, my family and my son, and come back strong for the San Felipe race. Family is everything to me, and it’s family before racing.
Thank you so much for your support of me and my racing program. It means a lot seeing all of the support from everyone and here’s to a very successful 2018 for everybody!