Arend's programming interrupts round one
Pomona, Sunday: Jeff Arend has spent much of his career driving for veteran owner/tuner Paul Smith, and by doing so he developed a number of keen senses, all of which made him a valuable and attractive commodity to Team CSK owners Del and Chuck Worsham. Arend clearly had honed his starting line craft, and is consistently one of the best "leavers" in the game. He is very much "in tune" with his race car, and able to sense trouble and avoid it before major calamities occur. He also developed a strict "parts conservation" mentality, running on Smith's less than robust budgets over the years. All of those attributes interested Worsham, and it was only Arend who was being hard on himself after losing a pedaling battle in round one, here in Phoenix.
To get to that point, Arend needed to make yet another stout field, one which left his boss, Worsham, below the cut line, along with the likes of Cruz Pedregon, Kenny Bernstein, and Tony Bartone on the sidelines come Sunday. On his way to getting in the show, Arend posted a pair of early 4.95s, but the two runs couldn't have been much more different. One run nearly made it, but the car insisted upon hunting for the center line, so the "in tune" Arend made the right call and lifted. The other run featured very strong early numbers, but it then torched the heads and quit.
"That's sort of like a guy who makes par on back-to-back par 5s, but on the first one he reaches the green in two and then three-putts. On the next hole, he's in the woods, behind the green, in the trap, and then chips in. Same result, but two very different ways of making it happen. We knew we were on the edge of making it all come together, but we just had to keep working at it and believe it would come around.
"Speaking of believing, I don't think any of us could have envisioned what's happening to Del and the red team, and it's hard to believe how it's gone for them. They're incredibly smart guys, and Del is one of the best who ever strapped into one of these cars, so I know they'll get it straightened out. It's just a matter of time, and no one feels worse about it than they do."
It was the fourth session that represented the "make or break" deal for a lot of teams at this event, including John Force who went into the last lap outside the field for the second consecutive race. Right after seeing his boss improve on his final run, but still miss the field, Arend approached the line from outside the grid, and he knew he'd have to draw on every ounce of his skill to help get the blue Checker, Schuck's, Kragen Chevy in the field.
"That was tough, and I was very nervous," Arend said. "I couldn't believe Del didn't just plow down there and get right in, and then it hit me that we were under the cut line too, so having a CSK car in the CSK Nationals was up to us. The crew chiefs and the crew guys do the work to get the car ready, but the driver is the one who has to do everything right on the lap to make it all work. One dumb move can ruin all that hard work, so as the driver you're just thinking of not letting your guys down.
"I had to fight it a little, and stay ahead of it to keep it going straight, but it ran well and we bumped our way in. As bad as I felt for Del, I at least knew we'd gotten our Checker, Schuck's, Kragen car in the field, and if you're in the field you have a chance."
On Sunday, Arend lined up as the No. 16 qualifier, facing top dog Robert Hight in round one. To this point, he had saved trouble with a couple of extrasensory shut-offs when things were going sour, had expertly gotten his car to the other end when everything was on the line, and against Hight he again showed his starting line prowess by leaving first, by a huge (four-hundredths) margin.
Arend got the jump, Hight caught up, and the two high-powered machines headed down the track in what looked like a tight race. Arend's car, however, began to smoke the tires around the 500-foot mark, while Hight's continued to power away. Drawing on another of his mental programs, the one entitled "When Not To Blow Up The Car For No Good Reason," Arend settled the car and expected to see Hight continue to tear away for an easy win.
Instead, Hight then had problems of his own and Arend immediately got back on the throttle to make a race of it. Both cars spun, sputtered, fishtailed, and labored, and though Arend's CSK Monte Carlo almost closed the gap, Hight took the win light with a pedestrian 5.10 to Arend's 5.50. The weekend was over, in far too quick a fashion, for Team CSK.
"You know, a decade of driving for Paul Smith will plant a lot of smart things in your head, and if the other guy has been outrunning everybody all weekend, and is pulling away, it becomes a bit automatic to let him go," Arend said. "It's easy to blow these cars up when you pedal them, and I sure didn't want to do that. On the other hand, I'm driving for Del and Chuck Worsham now, for Checker, Schuck's, Kragen and Murray's, for Erie Educational Services, Mac Tools, and a long list of other sponsors. I should have hit it again, right away, and who knows, we might have caught him.
"All those years of driving for Paul made me what I am today, and I've used a lot of it to keep from hurting cars needlessly, to leave first most of the time, and all sorts of things that help the team win and perform. In this case, it's on me for being too careful. If I could do it over, I'd have jumped right back on it. I don't know if we would've caught him, and I don't know if it would have just smoked the tires, or blown up, or been perfectly fine, but we would have had a better chance. I'll make this one up to the guys, and I told them that."
In retrospect, Arend also looked back on the weekend as a whole, and put it into better perspective once his day was done.
"In a lot of ways, it was a very bad weekend for our entire team, but it could have been worse," he said. "I think we did a good job getting into the show, and so many cars were smoking the tires in the first round you can say that we were right there with the masses and a little break might have made the difference. For me, it was my first time spending a race with all the CSK people, getting to know them all a lot better, so that was good.
"My little girl, Jenna, celebrated her 7th birthday while I was here, and although I wanted to bring her home a Wally for a present, I still get to go home to her and my wife Windy tomorrow, and that puts everything into perspective. We give up an awful lot to follow this dream, all the weeks on the road missing birthdays and things, but I couldn't do this without my family. The goal now is to regroup, analyze the short comings from every direction, create plan to address those issues, and then head for Gainesville in a couple of weeks. When we get there, our only goal will be to win the race. I think Jenna would take that as a belated present."
All things considered, the "new guy" in the blue car is showing the tools that got him here. Those tools will add up to a win before long.
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