Underdog Pressley Wants More

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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- So far this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, the surprise story has been Robert Pressley’s third-place qualifying effort for Sunday’s Dura-Lube 500.

Currently holding down the 25th position in the NASCAR Winston Cup point standings, Pressley enters Sunday’s race playing the role of underdog. But for Pressley, it is unfortunately a role he has become all too accustomed to. He hasn’t won a race and has only one top-five finish this year.

But at least, he says, things are heading in the right direction.

"I think it’s been a good year, a lot better than last year or the year before," said Pressley, who recently inked a contract to remain with the No. 77 Jasper team for the 2001 season. "Even though we’ve improved, we didn’t have a whole lot of room to not improve after last year. I’m disappointed that we haven’t finished as well as we could have in a lot of the races, but I’ve made some mistakes and got into accidents, plus we’ve had some other problems that have taken us out of races.

"The thing that I’m most excited about is we’ve kept on improving throughout the whole year and never stalled. The momentum has been good, and now we’re going into the final three races at three pretty good tracks for us. Things are looking good. I know Atlanta will be good for us, and I love that track. I also grew up racing on the flat tracks like Phoenix and Homestead, so maybe that will give me a little advantage at those two tracks. But the thing I am most proud of is we’ve made progress at every track from last year. So when you’re making progress that’s all you can ask for."

Pressley’s crew chief, Ryan Pemberton, agrees that things are indeed becoming a bit better in his first full season with the team.

"We’re definitely headed in the right direction," Pemberton said. "We are getting progressively better every week even though it looks like some days we take two steps forward then one step back. But from the beginning of the season to where we are now, the strength of this race team is getting a lot better.

"But we still want to strengthen things up over the winter so when we go to Daytona for the first race, we’ll be that much better than we were the year before. And I think we’re on schedule to do all that, and I see no reason why we can’t finish in the top 15 next year. I think improving 10 positions in the standings is very realistic."

When asked what has been the difference this year, improving 15 positions from the prior season, Pressley points his finger in the direction of stability within the race team and cohesiveness through bad times, as well as the off-season addition of Pemberton.

"I guess the biggest confidence-booster is not that I have a ride for next year, it’s that I have a top-caliber ride," Pressley said. "Coming into this year, I had no idea of what to expect. We had just finished the year 40th in the points, and you can't get much worse than that.

"When Ryan Pemberton came on as crew chief, I’d never met him. I knew absolutely nothing about him so I had no idea what was going to happen. But in Daytona at the beginning of the year, I got the chance to see what this guy is capable of. And he impresses me more and more every week with what he has in mind. The only thing I’ve worried about this year was somebody else would take over his job."

Pemberton says he is glad to see Pressley worrying about the car, and not going from hauler to hauler talking to different owners about a possible job.

"There’s got to be a lot to that subconsciously," Pemberton said. "So you don’t have to look over your shoulder and wonder what's going to happen next. No matter what, everything is going to be okay. A situation where a driver is worried about what is going to happen is not good for him or the team. We’re going into next year without having to worry about that. So when we start the season off, we’re going to have a lot more confidence in one another -- a lot more than what we had going into this year. So the confidence level of this race team is going up and up.

"Like now, when we have bad runs, I can see the disappointment on everybody’s face, and that’s important to me because I know everybody wants to do better."

Pressley knows the feeling that when things are not going as planned for a race team, more often than not it is the driver who takes the blame and is left without a ride.

"It’s nice to be able to have a job somewhere,” Pressley said. "Everybody here has bad and good days. The thing I want to do is have consistent days. I don’t want to be fifth one week and 35th the next week. I’d rather be 15th two weeks straight and work off of that to become better for the next race. The bottom line is if you don’t run well, the heat goes to the driver. There is only one guy holding the steering wheel of that car."

Pressley says that as the relationship between he and Pemberton continues to get better, and so, too, will the team’s finishes.

"I started seeing the light at Daytona," Pressley said. "And that’s because we had been in the dark for so long. We qualified third here this weekend and that is good, but the team is capable of a whole lot more. The finishes we’ve had this year -- we’re 25th in the points and should be 15th -- have been pretty strong for a single-car team on a budget. But no one person is taking all the credit, even though Ryan is the one that has turned this deal around. I’ve not done anything different this year than I did last year."

Pressley admits that it is nice not to have to worry about landing a ride for next season.

"Everything we’ve got going in 2001 I’m excited about," Pressley said. "Ryan understands me and my language a lot better. I’m different because I was raised in the South so we have different languages, I guess you could say. And with me, he is point-blank on everything and doesn’t beat around the bush. If you’ve got an idea and he doesn’t like it, he will let you know."

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