Note: “Jack” is a new member of the Leavine Family Racing team and is sharing his experiences with fans on the team’s Instagram account. In this week’s post-race report for the No. 95 Thrivent Financial team, “Jack” shares his POV on the team’s experiences at the Daytona 500.
The Daytona 500 is unlike any other race on the NASCAR schedule. I knew this right away when our car chief, Kenn Roettger, told me we’d be racing there for eight days. Prior to heading to Daytona, our team had to get the cars ready for Atlanta and Vegas. We only have 14 full time employees and we took 12 to Daytona. So, we had to have those race cars ready before we even left.
Once at Daytona, I could feel the magic. Kicking off the season with the biggest race of the year puts a lot of pressure on the team. We had to race our way into the DAYTONA 500. Our team is growing, but we still run a part-time schedule. So, we don’t have championship points to fall back on to make it into this race.
During qualifying on Sunday, we tried to make it in by time. But our strategy for the qualifying format did not go as planned. Strategy and luck are key factors at superspeedways. On one hand, anyone can win the race. And on the other, you never know when bad luck is coming your way.
It was a really disappointing day. McDowell was only on the track for three laps and we had put in so many hours into getting the car ready for just those few minutes on the track. Our car qualified 35th on time and we had to keep pushing forward.
We had two days off – Monday & Tuesday – and then we were back at the track Wednesday to prepare for the Duel races on Thursday – our only shot to make it into the race.
You could feel the pressure and anxiety all day on Thursday. We were starting the race in 19th position and had to finish in the top-15 to guarantee a spot in the Great American Race. With restrictor plate racing, anything could happen. So we all had to be on our game and have no mistakes.
The race was full of emotions. We went from running in the top-10 to dropping back in the field and when the white flag came out, McDowell was in 20th position and had to fight, along with all the other cars trying to make it in. If he didn’t, we were going to pack it up and head home. LFR would have missed their second Daytona 500 in a row, and our new sponsor, Thrivent Financial, would not be in the biggest race of the NASCAR season. The pressure was on and McDowell drove with a mission.
His last lap was the most exhilarating moment of the week! Our spotter, Steve Barkdoll, was calling the whole thing and getting us amped up. We were all nervous in the pit box and when he crossed the finish line and we were P12, we started celebrating! It was funny, because the #88 team pit box was right next to us and they won the race. Here we were celebrating just as much as they were! But this was a win for us! We had made the DAYTONA 500!!!
Friday and Saturday were pretty calm days. We had to fix up the car from the Duel race. McD drove it so hard to move up the field, that it had nose damage. We changed out the engine and got it all ready for Sunday’s race.
Walking into the track on Sunday morning was very different than all the other mornings. This was it. The biggest race of the season. The excitement and anticipation was in the air all morning. The NASCAR inspection line took up most of the morning and then we had a break before the start of the race.
While making it into the DAYTONA 500 was a win for our team, we are all competitive and also wanted a strong finish in the race – or a win! Like I said before, anything can happen at superspeedways and our team finished 7th in the July 2014 race at this track – so we wanted to beat that finish.
McDowell said the car was really good and really fast. He ran up front during the first part of the race and the FOX television announcers noted that he was the fastest car on the track.
Our race was going well with no major issues, until the last caution where we got some damage on the car. The pit crew had to repair the car during the caution and we got too far behind on the Green, White, Checkered finish to pass any cars. We left with a 31st place finish – not what we wanted.