This is part four of my five-part “Letter to Anthony Wayne”. Read part three here and come back tomorrow for the fifth and final installment!
Are we even gonna be competitive this year? Are we ever gonna win another race?
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking those thoughts heading into the 2009 500. No one had gone off and become an owner-driver since Alan Kulwicki, and NASCAR was a very different sport when he did it back in 1987.
To be honest, I didn’t think you were going to come anywhere close to winning the 2009 500. I just wanted to see a decent run. One that said something along the lines of “I’m going to be just as competitive as I was before, you idiots!”
The problem is that the rain came early, and we didn’t really get a good glimpse of what you could do in that lone race.
Nor could I get a good feel for things in the opening few months. For every top-10, there was also a poor finish (26th at Vegas, 17th at Bristol).
Then you hit Martinsville, and the finishes started to click off. Third, fourth, second, second, third (I don’t count Talladega because restrictor plate madness!).
I suppose we all should have believed you when you said you would be in the hunt for wins, because by May, it was apparent that you would be right there for a few!
Now, to be honest, I didn’t expect your watershed moment to be the All-Star Race, of all things. You traditionally hadn’t been good at Charlotte.
But credit to you: you hung around, you kept yourself where you needed to be, and on that final restart… I still to this day don’t know how you got that car to drive up off the bottom like that, but I know I still love watching it!
Truth be told, I wasn’t a believer until you sucked right up to Kenseth’s bumper on that last restart.
Never mind the fact that I was also nervous when you got underneath Kenseth the first time. You got so loose!
And I think that might have flipped a switch in you, and you said something to the effect of “well, next time, I’m just going to power it in there and blast right by him!”
And with two laps to go, you did. The rest was a foregone conclusion by then.
And finally, after all of that doubt, and the generally boring seasons from 2006 onwards (by your standards, at least!), there was some real reason to celebrate. Nobody had won a race driving their own car in almost 20 years!
That is, without question, the loudest I’ve ever cheered following the drop of the checkered flag. The celebration that should have happened after the 2005 Brickyard 400 was the one that actually happened after the All-Star Race. My throat hurt for a week because it was so loud!
The point remains though: that win was everything I needed in terms of validation. That there was nothing that would change your competitiveness, and that your gamble to move would pay off! You brought the one thing that Gene needed, but could never get: credibility.
Because that’s all Gene needed, really. Credibility, so that good people would be willing to come work with good equipment. You showed up and changed everything. I know you can do a good impression of the Chiquita lady, but this act would have done well as a nice impression of Belle from Beauty and the Beast!
Pocono was a pins-and-needles deal too (your specialty, I suppose!). I don’t know if there had ever been a green flag run that felt so long!
But thank goodness that the fuel tank held out. Even my expectations changed that day: it wasn’t just about being competitive like you usually were now, it was about competing for the 2009 series title!
Funny how quickly things change in four months. It felt like a big mental hill for me to climb, much less you. I know for you that it was so much bigger.
That summer was another fun one too, especially the third win in the July Daytona race.
I had the race on in the beach house with the whole family watching. It was fun to have a lot of people who normally wouldn’t care tuning in with me!
Now, not that I should ever advocate wrecking anybody, or anything remotely close, nor should I advocate laughing at such wrecks.
But that’s pretty much exactly what I did! I saw Kyle Busch come across the front bumper of your car, and I started laughing as soon as the gutshot reaction of “oh, s***!” subsided as the wreck behind you unfolded.
I knew exactly what had happened: Busch had turned himself! I explained it pretty quickly to everybody and just went back to laughing at the whole thing.
Which, I suppose, says something about just how good you had been in that particular race: my first reaction wasn’t excitement for your win, but the laughter. I think most people would be ecstatic to win at Daytona, but it was so beyond me at that point (I would have rather had a 500 win anyway).
So. A win at Daytona, a win at Watkins Glen, and then things just started to tail off as the weather cooled. Whatever had made you so good in late Spring and early Summer was gone, and you never were a real factor in the Chase, despite your No. 1 seeding.
I was a little disappointed, but by the time we had hit Homestead, Jimmie was so much better than anyone else that it was much easier to accept that it was just another Jimmie year.