It took about a week, but Brandon Whitt no longer greets the notion of having won the most recent Craftsman Truck race at Memphis with disbelief. "When I woke up the next morning and my alarm clock was going off, I had to check the Internet and...
It took about a week, but Brandon Whitt no longer greets the notion of having won the most recent Craftsman Truck race at Memphis with disbelief. "When I woke up the next morning and my alarm clock was going off, I had to check the Internet and make sure it was all true. It didn't feel real at the time, but now that it's set in, all the guys are on a high note right now, so it's just a really good feeling."
That honest joy stems from a career day at the O'Reilly 200 on July 22, where the sophomore driver and his McMillin Homes Toyota Tundra started from the pole for the first time and led the opening 46 laps. He later took advantage of an uncharacteristic error by Ron Hornaday, nudging him aside in the final corner to conclude a dramatic green-white-checker showdown.
"Not only does he have 27 career wins, he's got the best restarts on the circuit," Whitt says of his overtime rival, knowing he stood little chance against Hornaday unless something bizarre happened. "Everybody knows about his restarts and how good he is. Having him in front of me was pretty nerve-wracking, but I knew we had a good truck and if I could stay close enough to him on the restart, we could make a move.
"I fell back a little bit farther back than I wanted on that restart, but we were able to make it up when we came out of turn two and there was smoke; my spotter (team co-owner Marty Gaunt) was telling me all about it. As we went down in there, he just kept checking up and checking up; we finally got close enough to go around him."
When Jimmy Spencer spun in turn four, Hornaday found himself blindsided by the resultant smokescreen and slowed, thinking he might otherwise T-bone a hidden truck. Whitt took evasive action but made the slightest contact with Hornaday's bumper, turning Ron around as he hustled to the finish line. Hornaday, who subsequently cruised home backwards in 21st place, claimed neither he nor his spotter had any time to react.
In contrast, Whitt acknowledges, "I knew coming out of turn two that there was going to be smoke down there and that the track was clear, so I knew I could drive through it, no problem. I just didn't realize there was going to be that much smoke. So when we went down there, I figured here was maybe my last chance. When he bobbled like that, we took advantage of it, and it was the greatest thing ever."
As for the contact with Hornaday, "I didn't even feel it inside the truck, to be honest with you."
Even if he had remained second at night's end, the day still would have exceeded all expectations for someone whose previous best result -- starting and finishing sixth -- came at the most recent round in Kentucky. The trio of Whitt, Hornaday and David Reutimann dominated all night, and Whitt himself seldom ventured out of the top three (only dropping back to 19th around quarter distance due to pitting early). "We were so equal, and it boiled down to just one mistake -- when we were running third and Reutimann missed a shift (on a mid-race restart), then we were running second before that deal with Hornaday. It just proved true that you couldn't make a mistake, because it would cost you the race."
Making his performance all the more impressive: the oppressive heat which caused minor burns on his backside. "When we started the race, the heat index was still somewhere around 110. It was a hot night, and my rear end got a little blistered, but I wasn't thinking about it when I was that close to winning with 30 laps to go, knowing I had a shot at it. That was kind of the last thing on my mind at the time -- the pain I was in. Once it was over and we were in Victory Lane, I didn't feel a thing until I sat down on the plane!"
Thanks to a new training regimen, Whitt avoided the dehydration problems which befell several fellow competitors and led to NASCAR throwing a discretionary red flag in the waning laps so officials could bring bottled water to the grateful drivers. "We could've made it to the end without the red flag, but to get a nice, cold drink of fresh water and get some ice given to you definitely helped. But as soon as we went back to racing, we were kind of right in the same boat 20 laps later, and it was hot again. Luckily, it was close enough to the end that it didn't really affect us."
Those conditions made a tough day at Memphis Motorsports Park even tougher, aggravating the compressed event schedule endured by the 36 starters. "Everything was all in one day, so when you have races like that, not only is it physically draining, but it's also mentally draining, because you have to practice early in the morning, qualify in the afternoon and race at night. You get to the track at 7:00 in the morning and have to race at 8:00 that night -- by the end, you're ready to sleep because you've been working your butt off all day."
That situation afforded little time for Whitt and his Red Horse Racing crew to relish their first pole position. "I only had a couple of hours, but you know, I actually think that was almost better. Then I didn't have to go home that night and sleep on it and wonder about what if -- 'what am I going to do here? What am I going to do there? What if this happens?' I was just able to enjoy it for a couple of hours and get right back to business."
After a season and a half and 40 races under the auspices of Clean Line Motorsports, parents Dan and Karen Whitt sold their operation to team manager Gaunt, Tom DeLoach and veteran crew chief turned TV commentator Jeff Hammond. In the half dozen races since, the rebadged squad has brought the team to unprecedented heights results-wise, but having not scored a single top ten beforehand amounted to pure dumb luck. May's two stops proved particularly unkind; at Mansfield Whitt ran second behind eventual winner Bobby Hamilton until the right front wheel collapsed with about 20 laps remaining, then the following week at Charlotte a likely sixth place result disintegrated when a blown right rear tire pitched him into the wall with five laps to go.
"If you look at the results sheet, you're right, it looks like we haven't done much," Whitt admits. "But we've been running good just haven't been able to put the finishes together. Now that we're starting to finish where we're running, it's getting a lot better, and we ended up in Victory Lane. And right now we're kind of in a ditch in the points; we're still there, but we're coming out. We gained four spots last week and gained a few the week before. We just want to keep gaining points every week. That's our main goal -- to move forward every week, not fall backwards, and get as many top 10's, top 5's and wins as we can get for the rest of the season."
Despite Hammond missing most races due to his Speed Channel TV commitments, the new team co-owner plays a decidedly hands-on role, and Whitt credits much of the recent upswing in fortunes to the expertise brought forth by the three partners. "They definitely have had a big impact in it, with just the knowledge that they bring to the table, the stuff they've done and the places they've been. The knowledge base can't be beat; all the experience they've had from the Nextel Cup circuit is amazing."
While Memphis -- his first victory since the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series late model event at Las Vegas in 2001 -- netted Whitt over $54,000 in prize money, the $18,000 Craftsman bonus for winning from the pole on top of that, and the inaugural Elvis figural trophy, he has not slacked off in the interim. Amid a flurry of increased media requests for the series' newest winner, the team spent one and a half days last week testing at Nashville and hope they can continue this momentum into Friday's marquee race at Indianapolis Raceway Park (utilizing the Memphis-winning chassis). "The truck series is so tough, and Dennis Setzer has the most wins right now with three, so just to get a win in the series is a great accomplishment. Of course I'd love to make it back-to-back wins, but we just want to run in the top 10, put ourselves in a position to win at the end of the race and go from there."