The 2004 season has started off like a rollercoaster ride, as things have been up and down for the No. 24 DuPont team throughout the first nine races. There have been a couple of undesirable situations in our eyes that have transpired on the track so far this year. We have had similar incidents in the past, and there’s nothing that we cannot overcome in the long run as the season unfolds. As of now, we are sitting third in championship points, only 106 points behind the leader and we’re fresh of our first victory of the year last Sunday in Talladega. The important thing to note about our season so far is that the chemistry of the team, both at the track and in the shop, is rock solid. The group dynamic is the major driving force behind us in our desire to win, and ultimately plays a huge role in how successful we will be on the track. Looking back to the beginning of the year, the No. 24 DuPont team definitely got off to a rough start. Daytona, to say the least, was pretty much a war from the first day of Speedweeks. In qualifying we did not fair so well and had trouble with the rear end of the car. The situation seemed to hold us back and we never had a great amount of speed in the DuPont Chevy when we got on the track to qualify. We wound up subsequently having to take a provisional and started the “500” from the 39th spot. When race day came around things began to improve. Jeff made his way up through the field and the DuPont Chevrolet managed to pretty much run in the top five all day. After the final pit stop of the day we ran into some trouble with drafting. The location of our pit stall and the timing of things resulted in Jeff loosing the draft, and if you know anything about Daytona you know how important being in the draft is. All in all, we walked away from the track with an eighth-place finish. That is pretty incredible seeing that we made it to the front of the field from the 39th spot, and didn’t get caught up in “the big one.” Then it was on to Rockingham, where we improved over last November’s 16th-place start with a qualifying run that landed us fifth on the grid. In terms of the actual race, Jeff and the DuPont Chevy led the field for 39 laps in the beginning. While the DuPont Chevy was running up front, we thought we had a car that was competitive and rather strong. However, in the long run, the car was too loose, but we snagged a top-10 finish anyway. In Vegas, the car was fantastic in practice -- we were running third-fastest and I believed we had a great shot at the pole. Everyone on the “24” team was very pleased with how well the day was going. The car we ran this year was in fact the same car we used the previous year to sit on the outside pole and the same one we went to Victory Lane with in 2001. Vegas was really looking great for us, but, when Jeff got in the car for qualifying on Friday, the DuPont Chevy was just a little too loose. It jumped out from underneath him and hit the wall, resulting in a great deal of speed being knocked out of the lap. In hindsight, after qualifying we really should have gone with the back-up car. We did not change because we wanted to keep our starting position and not have to start from the end of the field. The next thing you know, the engine blew in practice on Saturday and we wound up starting from the rear of the field anyway. During the Vegas race, we battled all day to try and make the car competitive. The team made adjustments and things eventually began to turn around about three quarters of the way into the race. The DuPont team and I still felt as if the car was off, and that we’d been behind the eight ball since qualifying. This became apparent toward the end of the race as the car began to fade due to handling. We came home with a 15th-place finish, which is not where we wanted or needed to be. Then it was onto Atlanta Motor Speedway -- the fastest track on the circuit and the site of our final victory last season in October. The DuPont team had a scheduled test at Atlanta the week prior to the race, but unfortunately the test was cancelled due to bad weather. When we got finally got to the track, both Jeff and I were feeling under the weather. The guys on the team, on the other hand, were right on. They managed to pull out a fourth-place qualifying effort at a track where the No. 24 car is not known for qualifying well. Hats off to everyone on the DuPont team for that -- it was one of the best showings in Atlanta qualifying that we’ve had in a long, long time. We started out strong in the actual race and Jeff led for quite a few laps. Then, however the No. 24 DuPont Chevy began to get loose. We made adjustments to the track bar, and air pressure, removed the right spring rubber, and then later put the spring rubber back in as we attempted to make the car more competitive. The team kept making changes but it was frustrating because we still continued to be just slightly off. The next thing you know, on Lap 200 Jeff brushed the wall with the car and lost a few positions. This didn’t stop us and we battled back into the top of the running order toward the end of the 325-lap race. We grabbed a 10th-place finish and were sitting in the top five in championship points at the end of a very long day. Our next stop was Darlington Raceway, where over the past decade Hendrick cars including the DuPont Chevy, have achieved incredible results. Last August, Hendrick drivers Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch ran 1-2 in the Busch Series event and Terry Labonte won the Cup race. The “24” team felt strongly that we could help continue the legacy of Hendrick success at the legendary South Carolina track. Our expectations were high, as over the past 10 years Jeff and the No. 24 team have amassed six wins at the track they say is “Too Tough To Tame.” However, this time things for the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet at Darlington Raceway didn’t go as we had hoped or expected. On Friday in practice, we never really challenged the car and it was a little on the loose side. Jeff subsequently had a hard time handling the car in qualifying and brushed the wall to give the DuPont Chevrolet a “Darlington Stripe” on its right side. Miraculously, we still managed to land a top-10 starting spot for the race on Sunday. The event for us ended way too early -- on Lap 27 to be exact. Driver Andy Hillenburg spun in the No. 80 and Jeff had nowhere to take the DuPont Chevy except straight into Andy’s driver’s-side door. The result was the No. 24 car sustaining extensive damage to the front clip and the engine. We took the car into the garage, but there was nothing the team could do to get our machine back on the track. At that point, we were done for the day. Our race car, much like our expectations, had been completely totaled. The crash seemed like the end of the world for us that Sunday, but in racing you have to remember that crashes happen, especially at Darlington. Looking on the bright side of the incident, Jeff managed to make it out of one of the hardest hits of his racing career unscathed. Our Hendrick teammates from the No. 48 Lowe’s team faired quite a bit better that we did that Sunday at “The Lady in Black.” Driver Jimmie Johnson took the “48” team to Victory Lane, giving Hendrick Motorsports its first Cup win of 2004 and 118th overall. Off to Bristol, where time after time the DuPont team has always managed to run well. The DuPont Chevy was flying around the “World’s Fastest Half-mile” in the first practice session and I honestly believed we had a legitimate shot at the pole. When qualifying was all said and done, we got nipped by Ryan Newman’s team and Jeff started the race from the outside pole. With the exception of a mishap on pit road that lost us a few positions, the DuPont Chevy ran in the top 10 throughout the 500-lap race. It was a hard battle, Bristol always is, and at the end of the day, Jeff finished in the ninth spot. For the next stop on our journey, we rolled into Texas. In the past Jeff hasn’t really looked forward to going to Texas for one reason or another, but things have begun to turn around and the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet has landed in the top five a few times during the past couple of years. Jeff started the race from the ninth spot on the grid and was running in the top 10 for the first 260 or so laps. On Lap 261, the leaders broke off to pit, while the DuPont Chevy stayed on track as a caution came out for a crash on the backstretch. Jeff inherited the lead due to the caution and held it until Lap 308 when a problem began to arise with the battery. The DuPont Chevy started to lose the lead. By Lap 319 we were back fighting but could not make up the ground we had lost. We ended the day in Texas in third place, our best finish so far this year. The strong showing in Fort Worth really raised the DuPont team’s spirits and gave us something to think about as we headed into the off-weekend. A solid third-place effort is definitely what we needed at that point in time and it gave us plenty of momentum to take into Martinsville. Martinsville -- the car was awesome to say the least. The DuPont team brought the same car that we used to win both races from the pole with in 2003 and it was flying around the track in practice. We won the pole again, and it was our fifth pole at Martinsville in the past four years. During the race, the car and Jeff were perfect and it looked like the No. 24 Chevy might be headed for a three-peat. Unfortunately, the team hit a snag at Lap 291 -- a large piece of concrete that had come up from the track’s surface and hit our car. NASCAR red- flagged the race and there was over an hour delay as they tried to fix the track. The DuPont Chevy was in the wrong place at the wrong time and the chunk of concrete did quite a bit of damage to the right front of the car. On the bright side due to the long delay we did have over an hour to figure out how we were going to fix the car. When the race finally got started again, Jeff brought the No. 24 car down pit road twice for repairs. We fixed the car as best we could and managed to stay on the lead lap, fortunately for us aerodynamics don’t play as big of a role at Martinsville as they do at other tracks. When the race went green the No. 24 DuPont Chevy was in the 21st spot, but within 30 laps Jeff had already picked up 10 spots. The fact that the car and Jeff were able to move up through the field that fast truly shows how strong both our car and driver were that day. At the end of the day when all was said and done the DuPont team snatched a sixth-place finish which is truly incredible if you think about what we had to go through to get there. In Talladega, the car was handling well in practice, Jeff worked quite a bit with his teammate Jimmie Johnson on drafting and the DuPont/Pepsi Chevy started the 500-miler on Sunday from the 11th spot in the field. During the race, the “24” team ran in the top 10 most of the day, although there was a point around Lap 48 when we did have to hang back in 23rd for a while to let the engine cool off after the water temperature reached 260 degrees. Once the engine cooled, Jeff began to work his way back to the front and managed to avoid any multi-car pileups or wrecks. After a caution for Tony Stewart’s spin ended on Lap 179, Jeff commenced battling his way to the front of the field. With nine laps to go, the green flag came out and the DuPont/Pepsi Chevy was seventh in line. Jeff had an excellent restart and made his way up to fifth on the outside of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was then running fourth. The No. 24 car and No.8 car made their way to the front of the pack, racing neck and neck into Turn 3 for the lead. Jeff, who was running on the low side, then passed Earnhardt to take over the top position. With six laps to the checkered flag, the DuPont/Pepsi Chevy was leading the field as the 11th caution of the day came out when our Hendrick teammate Brian Vickers spun. NASCAR froze the field at the point when the caution came out and the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet was declared the winner. The win felt so good and it was awesome to be back in Victory Lane! Jeff’s victory at Talladega was his third at the track and his 65th win with the “24” team. I am so proud of the effort put in by everyone -- from the guys at the track to everyone back at the shop. The win is even sweeter because we ended DEI’s winning streak at Talladega. To beat the No. 8 and No. 15 cars at a restrictor plate track is tough to do, but Jeff and the guys battled hard all day and we came out on top. Looking back at how things are going so far in terms of our season, I believe that the No. 24 DuPont team is incredibly strong. We have come across a few bumps in the road -- literally-- but that is something that every race team faces. We have made a few changes here and there, such as adding a new front-tire changer to the pit crew. The team has also been working extremely hard on the aerodynamic downforce part of our car bodies. As for the new tire and aero combinations that everyone has been talking about this year, we have just begun to get a handle on those through further testing. Led by Randy Dorton, our engine program continues to be rock-solid. I have always had great confidence in the engines produced by Hendrick Motorsports. Our engine department has one of the best reputations in all of NASCAR competition, and I feel that as the season progresses the horsepower will continue to come. One area the DuPont team needs to work on is our consistency. We have had spurts throughout races where the No. 24 car has been incredibly competitive and we have looked like a contender, and yet we falter down the stretch. As the season rolls on we are looking forward to the upcoming races, especially the short track events at Richmond, Bristol and Martinsville, which are some of Jeff’s favorite places. The team may have had a turbulent start to the 2004 season, but it’s nothing that we cannot overcome as the “24” team chases a fifth Cup Series championship.