The Lowe's Chevrolet team has often been called the "bad luck" team and we really lived up to that reputation last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. The only really positive thing that came out of that weekend is Mike Skinner was not hurt any worse than he was.
Mike had surgery Wednesday morning in Daytona Beach, Fla., to repair a fractured left ankle he suffered on lap 23 of the Tropicana 400. Mike was running fourth when the Lowe's Chevrolet ran over debris on the track and cut the right-front tire, slamming Mike into the wall. Mike is going to be out for a couple of weeks while he recovers and Robby Gordon is going to fill in for him.
And we thought things were going so well for us at Chicagoland last weekend ...
We went to the track Thursday for a "pre-test" because Chicagoland is a brand-spanking new track. Our teammate, the No. 30 America Online Chevrolet and Jeff Green, tested at Chicagoland and brought back a lot of useful information. The Lowe's team took all that and applied it to our race trim package and went out for practice Thursday. Mike was really happy with the car so we made some changes and put it in qualifying trim. We ended up about eighth-fastest team in race trim and were even better than that in qualifying trim.
Mike pulled double-duty last weekend at Chicagoland and drove the No. 21 Rockwell Automation/Brant Motorsports Chevy in the Busch race. The Busch teams practiced Thursday, as well, so Mike had double the seat time he would have normally had. That extra time on the track really helped our Lowe's team and Mike's Busch team out. Gil Martin, Mike's Busch Series crew chief, jumped over and shared some of their information with us. As a result, both the No. 21 Busch car and the Lowe's Chevrolet were pretty stout in practice.
Friday morning rolled around and we went out for one run, made a few adjustments and went back out on the track. When Mike did, the Lowe's Chevrolet just jumped out from under him. I was standing on top of the Lowe's hauler and could see it happening. All of a sudden, the Lowe's Chevy was just sideways on the track. It looked like Mike ran through fluid on the track due to the manner in which the car jumped sideways.
The wreck didn't look like the typical "loose car" wiggle and didn't have the characteristics of a car getting loose and spinning out. There was a real sudden jump and then it just backed into the wall. That car was damaged so severely we had to unload the backup car from atop the hauler. But we always go to the track prepared and that backup car was just as good as the primary car. Our backup car at Chicagoland was the same car we raced at Michigan.
We changed all four shocks and springs and the front sway bar when we pulled the backup car out. Everything we did to get the Lowe's Chevy ready took us only 50 minutes from the time Mike hit the wall. We were able to get him back out on the track to complete the practice because everyone pitched in to help us. We had guys from the No. 29 Goodwrench Service Plus team, the No. 21 Rockwell Automation team, the No. 2 ACDelco crew and the No. 30 America Online Chevrolet teams helping us out. It was a true Richard Childress Racing team effort that afternoon and we got the Lowe's Chevy back out on the track.
That backup car was very good in that practice. We made another run and were within a tenth of a second of what we ran in the primary car. Mike was pretty happy with the new car and we made a couple of small adjustments. Mike made another run and still liked the way the Lowe's Chevy handled. Practice ended and we swapped out the motor and put a qualifying motor in. Mike stepped up to the plate really well and qualified seventh, which was a good indication of how strong our team is and how much teamwork we have at RCR.
We went into Saturday morning's Happy Hour session with the same race setup we had the primary car in. Once again, Lowe's Racing had an awesome car and we knew we had a good shot at a top-five finish, at the least. We tweaked a few things and were comfortable enough with the car we didn't even finish the Happy Hour session but let Mike prepare to run the Busch race that afternoon.
When the race began Sunday, Mike immediately passed three cars and took the fourth position. He was still running there when 'pow,' the right-front tire went down on the Lowe's Chevy and slammed him into the wall between Turns 1 and 2. It looked just like when he crashed at Texas in 1998 due to a blown tire.
Sunday was a pretty scary sight, but Mike got out of the car on his own and was taken to the local hospital for evaluation. Doctors found he had a fracture in his left ankle and they sent him back to a specialist near his home in Daytona Beach, Fla.
When we got back to the shop Monday, we had the big task of finding a replacement for Mike while he mends. Richard Childress and the team decided to have Gordon fill in for Mike until he's ready to get back behind the wheel. This won't be my first time working with Robby. I had the privilege of working with him at Roush Racing in the IMSA-GTO Series in 1991.
At the time, I was working on Max Jones's Trans-Am car, and on the weekends we didn't have a race, I worked on the GTO team with Robby and traveled with that team to 12 races. The GTO division featured a sedan-style car -- we raced the Mustangs. We ran the Cougars in the 24-hour races and the Mustangs in the shorter races.
Robby and I were both a lot younger back then. He was a pretty aggressive driver then and still is a pretty gutsy guy. I think he and I have both matured quite a bit since then and I think we'll work well together. I think Robby will do a heckuva job for this team. We're really going to miss Mike the next couple of weeks and we wish him a speedy recovery.
This weekend's race at New Hampshire International Speedway will be our first race with Robby. Loudon, N.H., has some unique characteristics. Handling is really important and it's difficult to grasp hold of the track while in qualifying setup. The first couple of cars in the qualifying order always seem to struggle at Loudon. The later a team draws for qualifying order, the better. Teams always seem to run their better laps later in the day.
The Lowe's Chevrolet definitely has to rotate in the center of the corners and not be tight off of the corners. But you can't be too loose in the corners, either, because the corners are so very long and sweeping for a one-mile track. If the car is too tight coming out of the turns, then Robby will have to get out of the gas in the late exit and he will loose speed. But if the Lowe's Chevrolet is too loose, then he can't use the gas pedal as much as he needs to in order to get down the straightaway well.
We have a lot of confidence Robby can put all of that together and adjust quickly to this team. With Mike healing for a couple of weeks, Robby has some big shoes to fill, but we wouldn't have chosen him if we didn't think he was up to the task.
Royce McGee is the crew chief for Mike Skinner and the No. 31 Lowe's Chevrolet on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He is providing a weekly diary to ESPN.com throughout the season.