Drew Blickensderfer couldn't have dreamed up a better start in 2009.
The promising crew chief burst onto NASCAR's highest stage that year with back-to-back victories in the coveted Daytona 500 and Auto Club 500 in California and was hailed as Mr. Perfect on driver Matt Kenseth's team.
Blickensderfer, who graduated out of Mount Zion and Millikin, was on cloud nine, but he wasn't aware how fleeting Victory Lane can be – a harsh reality that came crashing down on him afterwards.
It eluded him until 2011 in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona and he hasn't returned since.
“I thought this winning thing is coming pretty easy and I can keep doing it,” Blickensderfer said. “Then all of a sudden, it flip-flops and you don't win for awhile. So you better keep working hard and you better keep doing the best that you can because just like in any other sport, you can be on the outside looking in pretty quickly.”
He's had his chances since his last Cup victory, including a couple of races at Watkins Glen in 2013 and 2014 with driver Marcos Ambrose. Except both times, a bad break dashed his hopes – a flat tire in one and an unfavorable caution flag in another.
Most people just don't understand the degree of difficulty in what is now called the Monster Energy Cup Series, he says.
When you make the jump from the Xfinity Series, it's not like going from Triple-A to the big leagues. Blickensderfer said it's a long step above that.
“Those guys are tough and it takes a ton of effort to be successful at the Cup level,” he said.
All throughout the struggle, Blickensderfer sometimes forgets just how special his job is.
For starters, he has been part of Richard Petty Motorsports since 2013 and has become well-acquainted with The King, who's no different off the camera than as he is on.
“You see him on the camera and he'll stop for every fan who asks for his autograph or wants to shake his hand or take a picture,” Blickensderfer said. “He does the same thing in the shop. There's a lot of guys who don't get interaction with him regularly in the shop like I do and he stops to talk to all of them and he walks through the shop and he's very in-tune to what we have going on and for 80 years old, it's amazing how hard he runs through sponsor appearances, through fan appearances, through anything they have him doing to help the race team and get out there and share his image.
“He runs extremely hard for an 80-year-old man, that's for sure.”
It's neat. But at the end of the day, Blickensderfer has a hankering for victories.
“You want to get back to Victory Lane pretty bad,” Blickensderfer said. “It's something that drives you and it's something when I get back, I'll definitely cherish it a little more than previous times when I went because I thought they would come a little more easily than they have been.”
His second year with Aric Almirola has not been any easier.
The No. 43 team shot up to the fringe of the Chase in the standings before running into perhaps the most challenging roadblocks of his career.
It all took a sudden turn for the worst in less than a week.
Almirola vaulted to fourth place in the Geico 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, May 7. NASCAR officials, though, rained on their parade.
They suspended Blickensderfer for three races and fined the crew chief $65,000 while also docking Almirola 35 driver points – bumping the team down from 17th place to a tie at 21st – for failing the rear-wheel inspection by the slightest of margins.
Blickensderfer violated the threshold by 0.01 of an inch. That's a dollar bill folded in half.
“Most pieces of print paper are almost as thick as what I was over the tolerance,” Blickensderfer said.
It created a stir within NASCAR. After it was announced the following Wednesday, Brad Keselowski tweeted, “The penalty could be compared to a week in jail for a 3mph speeding ticket.”
Blickensderfer, though, didn't want to appeal it.
“They have a number you have to meet and I was ten-thousandth over it, so I accepted it and moved on,” he said. “It's one of those things, it wasn't where I was pushing the rules so much that I was getting an unfair advantage or being ridiculous. They are black and white and you have to be within them.”
He doesn't blame himself for it either.
“You've got to be on the edge the entire time,” he said. “That's why you see people get penalties more regularly now. You have to be on the edge of every rule in the rulebook or you get left behind. You still have to be aggressive. You can't go on prevent defense, that's for sure.”
That was nothing compared to Almirola's fiery accident.
Just a few short days later on Saturday, May 13, Almirola smashed into Joey Logano and fractured his vertebra at Kansas Speedway.
He missed seven races and returned on July 16 in New Hampshire.
“The chemistry we were gaining through the season unfortunately kind of came to a halt when he got hurt, and NASCAR and racing just like any other sport is built on momentum,” Blickensderfer said. “It's going to take a few weeks for us to start getting our momentum that we had when he broke his back.”
Almirola had never missed a race for any reason prior to that.
“It threw some cold water on our season for sure,” Almirola said. “All in all, it's still been a better year than last year was and we've certainly have made a lot of improvement and we've been getting better and better.”
Three different drivers filled in for Almirola during the stretch, including Bubba Wallace, Jr. who made some history by becoming the first black driver in the Cup series since 2006.
That itself was an illuminating experience for Blickensderfer.
“I showed up at Pocono as his crew chief and realized it was much more than him just being a race car driver,” Blickensderfer said. “He was 1) driving the 43 and 2) African-American who drew a lot of attention. He had to deal with a lot of things that most race car drivers don't have to deal with. He had a lot of people pulling him in different directions just because of how special it was. I kind of opened my eyes to that and thought, 'This is more than him making his first start. He's getting pulled in a lot of directions and he's handling it great.'
“It was neat to be a part of and hopefully someday we will get to be a part of Bubba's Cup experience again because he showed tons of talent.”
Getting Almirola back was a step in the right direction. He showed promise in his second race since his injury by taking 13th place in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and despite another accident this past weekend at Pocono on Lap 1, he was cleared and will be ready to race again at Watkins Glen this upcoming Sunday – a track that both Blickensderfer and Almirola favor.
Even if fortune has not smiled on this team lately, these veterans have coalesced into a stronger team.
“I always looked at him in the garage and always thought about how his approach and everything he did – his cars were so fast,” Almirola said of Blickensderfer. “When I got to work with him at Richard Petty Motorsports, I got a better understanding of why that was because he's so good with the cars. Not only just working on them and and setting them up, but Drew is a detailed guy and he really pays attention to all of the little details. That's what it takes to be successful at this level.
“When you get to the highest level of motorsports in the country, you can't leave any stone unturned and that's what Drew is so good at. On top of that, he's just a really likeable guy. He's really personable and has a great personality and he gets along with everybody, so he's a great fit for our team and our organization.”
Almirola said his crew chief's ability to communicate stands out – whether in the garage or on the racetrack. In the Brickyard 400, Almirola credited Blickensderfer for positioning the car for a potential top 5 finish that was unfortunately thwarted by a series of wrecks in the final laps.
“I tell you what, he's really good at, and I've always known this about him ever since I've watched him run in the Xfinity as a crew chief, he is really good at calling the race,” Almirola said. “His strategy and the way he looks at the race and looks at the opportunities to get track position or do things on pit stops to advance the position of the race car, he's really good at that. I think of all of the things that he does that he's good at, I think that's his strongest point is that he calls a really good race. He always puts whatever car he's working on in a better position to finish the race than it may have had otherwise.”
It comes from the experience he's accumulated over the years. He's been a crew chief for about 10 different drivers since 2006.
It's required a great deal of sacrifice. He works virtually everyday from sunrise to sundown and rarely has the time to visit friends and family.
His father, Jack, tries to visit a couple of times during the course of the season, but not too often.
“It's the guy's job,” said Jack, a former boys basketball coach in the area. “It's like I'm on the bench coaching a basketball game and you're family is sitting right on the bench. People don't quite understand that. It's a different dynamic. I love it and I like doing it, but then I don't want to interfere.”
It's tough on Drew, too.
Despite the drawback, it doesn't diminish his love for NASCAR.
“I like working on race cars,” Blickensderfer said. “I like being competitive and being a leader and a coach. That's kind of what you get to do in this role. I show up every day and everything's different. It's not monotonous or the same thing over and over again. I have a different challenge every day, let alone every week.”