Countdown to WinternationalsMonday, January 27, 2014

Two weeks till Pomona — I can’t believe the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello season is almost here and we’re gettin’ ready to go west! I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off this pre-season, as usual, trying to get everything with my business squared away before we go racing, and also of course testing and preparing our Mopar Dodge for the year.

We had a great Christmas, spending it with our families — we enjoyed our traditional huge country breakfast (thanks mom) at my parents’ house. During the holidays we were able to visit with Pam’s father, Tony, who is doing a whole lot better and is out of rehab after suffering a massive stroke around Thanksgiving. He’s gained a lot of function back in his legs and in his arms, and with the help of Pam and her mom, who really take care of him, he’s been improving a bunch, so that’s a real blessing and our best Christmas gift.

A week before Christmas my teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. and I were at work, squeezing in some important test sessions at Bradenton, putting 14 runs on each Mopar-powered Dodge. We tested some chassis package setups our crew chief Mark Ingersoll had been working on during the off-season, and gathered some critical info that I think will help us throughout 2014.

A bit after Christmas, Pam and I were able to get in our last bit of R&R before the season at our home in Sanibel Island, Fla. The Humphreys, Walter and Virginia and Justin and Gina and their kids, were able to come along the whole time, and we spent a few days fishing, going out for dinner, cooking out and kicking back with good friends. The weather was awesome, but we headed back home to Tennessee just in time to experience the polar vortex. When we left Sanibel it was 80 degrees, and when we got to our house in Greeneville it was 18 degrees! Needless to say, we put away the shorts and put on the winter coats.

After that break I was home from a few days, and then Jeg and I headed right back down to Bradenton for some more testing, over three days. We recorded some mid-6.40 second numbers and made a bunch of runs during good conditions, which helped us fine-tune our set ups for when the air and weather is good.

Coming up soon, I’m going to be involved with a B.R.A.K.E.S. safe driving event here in Greeneville, just as we did a year or so ago. There will be a classroom talk on January 31 and then on February 1-2 students can participate in four on-course driving sessions at Bristol Motor Speedway. I’m very proud to be able to help bring B.R.A.K.E.S back to Greeneville with donations from our J&J Racing team and my personal business, Greeneville Oil & Petroleum. We expect about 200 students over two days to take part in the sessions at Bristol Motor Speedway. The classroom session will be held at a local auditorium, with about 700 sophomores from six area high schools in attendance. Doug Herbert and his folks will put on a seminar about safe driving for teens, and I’ll say a few words. It’s a great cause that Doug’s involved with, and I’m glad I could play a part in teens from my area learning more about the importance of safe driving.

We’re going to be testing before we head into Pomona. We usually test in Vegas, but it’s always cold. Because it has a new surface and because it’s warmer, we’re going to attempt to test in Phoenix on the Monday and Tuesday before the race, and then head on over to Pomona. Of course, it was great to see Peyton Manning, a Tennessee alumnus, punch his ticket to the Super Bowl. I’ll be pulling for him, and I’m going to make sure we get to Phoenix in time to watch the big game. I’m predicting the Broncos are going to take it to ‘em: 40-28.

I’ve been preparing for Pomona all off-season, working daily on my practice tree and keeping focused on that. I workout daily to keep the body in shape for when it’s time to get behind the wheel, and I also take time to relax a bit and give my mind a break. You know, your performance is a package deal, and the mental aspect is a big part of it, so pre-season relaxation helps.

Of course, there are always changes from year to year, and our team has had a few. We’re going to field a two-car team in 2014, focused on my Mopar Dodge and the Dodge. Jim Yates has moved on, and we wish him well and all the best in the world. He did a great job for us over the last few years, and we’ve parted as friends and on great terms.

I’m itching to get behind the wheel. With Jeg and I, you’ve got back-to-back Pro Stock champs together on the same team, so of course for 2014 I’m very optimistic. The J&J Racing team has that drive and hunger to make it three in a row for the Mopar camp. It’s also a big year for Mopar with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 426 race HEMI in 2014, so any victories and championships we bring home this year will be icing on their cake.

It’s not going to by easy — I feel like this year will be ultra-competitive with the consolidation of the Cagnazzi and Gray squads, the KB team is always tough, and with Chris McGaha purchasing Mike Edwards’ team, he is going to be a threat. Each race is going to have the slimmest margin of error, but the J&J Racing team has some of the best power out there — Mopar HEMI power — and some of the best decision makers, so we’re looking forward to going head-to-head with them.