Speed finding things easier in 2010
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Scott Speed was enjoying a rare moment in the passenger seat Monday when he sent a tweet to the driver of the vehicle ahead of him -- one which Speed's wife struggled to keep pace with.
"Kyle Busch, we are not on the track dude!" Speed wrote as he tooled down the Interstate between Fontana, Calif., and Las Vegas. "Amanda can barely keep up and I really don't wanna drive!"
Twelve hours earlier, after finishing 11th in the Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, Speed wanted the entire world to know he could drive -- or still drive, as his message said.
It was as if a year and a half of frustration had been lifted, as if he had proven the faith Red Bull Racing put in him to make the transition from Formula One to stock cars was justified.
"Great for my confidence," the message continued. "Last year was harder than anyone will really know."
To understand Speed, one has to look beyond those silly-looking knit caps and funky T-shirts he wears. One has to look beyond the outrageous comments he makes, such as two weeks ago at Daytona when he tweeted, "According to the media not only is Danica [Patrick] the most amazing racing driver since Dale [Earnhardt] Sr., but she also is related to Jesus."
One has to dig into his inner soul and what makes him tick.
Speed. Not as in his last name, but as in going fast.
Since he climbed into a go-kart at the age of 10, whether it was karts or Formula One or ARCA, Speed has been practically unstoppable in things with four wheels.
Then he stepped into a Cup car toward the end of the 2008 season. He finished 30th or worse in his first four starts. It was more of the same in 2009 as he finished his first full season 35th in points, failing to qualify for three races and failing to finish eight others.
His ego took a beating.
"When you go from one of the best people in the nation at what you did to just trying not to look stupid that's a fairly big change," Speed said. "It's a totally different animal where you have to swallow a lot of ego, a lot of pride."
In defense of Speed, he was thrust into the ride a year earlier than planned when management had to decide between him and AJ Allmendinger. The learning curve that already was steep became mountainous.
"Last year was, for the lack of another word, a mulligan of a season," Red Bull Racing general manager Jay Frye said.
But when you're an athlete used to competing at a high level, there really is no such thing as a free shot. You expect to be good even when the odds are stacked against you.
Others expected it as well, which made putting his ego aside even tougher. Speed tried to explain it to 19-year-old Joey Logano during driver introductions prior to Sunday's race.
"I was, 'Dude, you have no idea what this is like for me,'" Speed said. "He was, 'Yeah, sure, I'm a rookie.' I'm like, 'No, dude, you're good at this. We're trying to get good at this.' "
The one thing Speed had going for him last year was the same thing that caught the eye of former Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan when he headed the Red Bull Driver Search program.
Speed's average starting position of 23.7 wasn't that bad. He sat on the outside of the front row at Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami, and was top-10 five other times.
What Speed had to learn was how to race in traffic, something he seldom did in open-wheel racing.
"He was always quicker than most of the people around him," Sullivan said. "He had a little bit of a cocky attitude and was a little bit different, but he always, always was fast. That made us stand up and take notice."
Unfortunately for Speed, that cocky attitude occasionally put him in conflict with management. It got to the point that in 2007 he was released from his F1 contract with Scuderia Toro Rosso.
That led him to NASCAR, where Red Bull put him on the fast track to Cup.
"Scott is one of the more talented guys when it comes to raw talent," Sullivan said. "But he needs to be in a happy environment and one where he's enjoying himself. If he does that, he'll get good results."
Speed is happy, maybe the happiest he's been in his racing career. While he enjoyed the unique F1 lifestyle in Europe, his circle of friends was small, and he always felt the locals got an unfair advantage.
"In NASCAR it would be the equivalent of being Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. where you get a little more breaks than anybody else," Speed said with a chuckle.
In a way, Speed's relationship with NASCAR is based on the same philosophy as his friendship with Busch and marriage with Amanda.
"My wife is just about as different as they come. She is pure, 100 percent redneck," Speed said with a laugh.
You were warned he will say just about anything for shock value.
Speed always looked at NASCAR as beneath him growing up -- "kind of a joke," he said. Now he loves the family atmosphere he feels from the fans and especially fellow competitors. The motor-coach lot has become the home away from home he's longed for.
Busch and his fiancée, Samantha Sarcinella, have become like family, to the point Speed and his wife helped Busch pick out a ring and plan his proposal to Sarcinella.
Again, opposites attract, on and off the track.
"In general, my personality, aggressiveness, doesn't apply to my racing," Speed said. "I haven't been a banzai, Kyle Busch-style of racer. I've always been more passive-aggressive like Mark Martin. I'm much more conservative and try to think about risk over reward a little bit more than average."
Off the track it's all about risk for Speed. He says things that make reporters' keyboards seemingly sing by themselves.
"Is it always right?" Sullivan said. "No. But that's Scott. He likes to do things his own way. He's not afraid to say something and throw it out there just for fun."
As Michael Waltrip said after Speed helped him secure a spot in the Daytona 500 by racing his way into the field, "Scott is special for sure."
"People don't think I'm that bright at times and I couldn't care less," Waltrip said at the time. "People think he's kind of weird, too, and he don't care either. That's how we formed our relationship. Two people that are comfortable with who they are and don't really care a whole bunch about what other people think about that."
OK, there's been at least once recent incident in which Speed wasn't totally comfortable. It happened last week when he was giving out sex advice with Dr. Drew Pinsky on "Loveline."
"I thought it would be a little more funny, but when you have 14-year-old girls calling and saying they want to be pregnant and you can tell they're serious, it kind of got a little less fun," Speed said. "I'm like, 'Man, Dr. Drew, take this over.'"
Despite his idiosyncrasies, Speed has endeared himself to competitors. Drivers such as Martin and Busch, as well as teammate Brian Vickers, have gone out of their way to help.
Two races into the season the help, sacrifice and even struggles seemingly have paid off. Speed is 15th in the standings, having accumulated more points (246) than he did in the first five races a year ago. He's led 15 laps, only six less than he did in his first 40 Cup races.
"Obviously, he's come a long way, but he's got a long ways to go," Frye said. "This past weekend was really good. It was a complete weekend, qualifying, practice and race. That's basically a template of what we need to do to succeed."
Most will tell you they threw away the template when Speed was born, but you get the picture. The guy hasn't forgotten how to drive.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.