By Lee Montgomery
UPDATED: 9:10 p.m.
MADISON, Ill. - My day started around 4 a.m. Eastern, when I crawled out of bed to make the flight to Gateway. I'm fortunate enough to make the trek with Joe Gibbs Racing, serving as public relations representative to drivers Brad Coleman and Matt DiBenedetto.
Oh, and by the way, Matt's name isn't that hard to say or spell. I mean, really, "M-A-T-T." How hard could that be?
So for my first race weekend here at SBNation.com, I decided to do a running blog. Hope you have fun reading it.
(All times local. You figure out what time it is where you are!)
5:30 a.m. - Board JGR's Saab for flight to Gateway. We leave out of Concord Regional Airport, and since it's not a commercial airport, there's no TSA to worry about. Thank goodness.
5:45 a.m. - The last passenger boards. I won't mention any names, but he's the MRO chaplain for the Nationwide Series. How can you be mad at the preacher?
6 a.m. - "We're No. 1 for departure." Well, I would hope so, being this dang early.
6:05 a.m. - This plane is a lot like a small commercial commuter airline. Although the leather seats smell better.
6:10 a.m. - Everyone is asleep.
6:48 a.m. - Land in Cahokia, Ill., and the FBO airport. A pretty smooth flight. By the way, Cahokia gets its name from the Cahokia Mounds state historic site.
6:55 a.m. - Pick up luggage from the back of the plane. Boy, baggage service sure is fast here at JGR Airlines.
7 a.m. - A bleary-eyed Brad Coleman asks what time first practice is. Told it's not until 1:30, he says, "I'm going to get some sleep." Wish I could join him. Wait, that came out wrong.
7:45 a.m. - After a tip from a local at a printing company, Steve deSouza and I head for breakfast. Steve runs JGR's Nationwide Series teams, and he's busy on his phone. It never really stops ringing or buzzing. Breakfast is at a corner bar, of which there are plenty. The breakfast special? 2 eggs, 2 bacon, 2 toast, $2.22. Man, that even beats Sizzlin' Steak or Egg in Aberdeen, N.C.
8:45 a.m. - Make it to Gateway. Not much buzz about the "last race at Gateway." Does anyone care?
9:15 a.m. - Track PR director Brandon Mudd is the only person in the media center. Track is getting ready for Danica Patrick press conference later in the day.
10 a.m. - Get a lengthy e-mail from my, uh, well, wife? Technically she still is. What do you call her when you are separated?
10:18 a.m. - Nationwide Series director Joe Balash wanders in the media center, and we debate which photographs I'll take from the walls after the race Saturday. My pick is an old Jamie McMurray picture when he drove trucks for the Mittler Bros. Nice hair, Jamie.
10:47 a.m. - Wander through Nationwide garage, aimlessly. Lots of strange cars here.
11:47 a.m. - Meet Matt DiBendetto's parents, Tony and Sandy. Great people. Some great stories, too. I seriously need to write a book.
12:16 p.m. - Matt D. wanders over with Brandon McReynolds. They're heading to the 12:30 rookie meeting. Whew, one of my duties is done.
12:44 p.m. - Share a few snacks in the 18 hauler with Brandon Coleman, Brad's dad. Another great guy. Could sell Cubs tickets to a Cardinals fan, I bet.
12:59 p.m. - Official lunch in the media center. Rubber chicken and potato salad. Man, they need to shutter this place. Oh, wait.
1:28 p.m. - First Danica Patrick sighting. I missed the press conference.
1:30 p.m. - Nationwide Series practice is underway.
2:02 p.m. - I'm told a place in Pocono Pines has a $2.22 breakfast deal, too. Another reason to visit the Poconos, I suppose. Van Gilder's Jubilee Restaurant.
2:20 p.m. - Uh, oh. Saturday's weather forecast from @nascar_wxman isn't the greatest.
2:32 p.m. - Gotta say, I like the look of Kenny Wallace's No. 28 here. Older brother Rusty is fielding a Toyota for Kenny here.
2:35 p.m. - Since some of the Sprint Cup boys are in Martinsville, Va., enjoying some hot dogs, here are their subs at Gateway: Parker Kligerman for Nationwide points leader Brad Keselowski, Erik Darnell for Carl Edwards, Colin Braun for Paul Menard, Jeff Fuller for Joe Nemechek, Bobby Santos for Michael McDowell.
3 p.m. - Practice over. Justin Allgaier fastest at 133.144, followed by fill-in Braun and Mike Bliss in Kevin Harvick's Chevy.
3:05 p.m. - Coleman and DiBenedetto both talk about the same issue with their cars - and the same issue they had in the summer race here. Matt D. did run a fast lap on old tires and was 15th-fastest in the session.
3:21 p.m. - While, ahem, using the facilities, Kevin Lepage says hello. "I hear there's some changes coming for you," he said, talking about my separation. How did he know that, I wonder. No matter, I appreciate him asking about. "Hang in there. It'll get better," Lepage said. Thanks, man.
3:30 p.m. - Cars on the race track for final practice. Sun shining, upper 70s. Pretty day here in Southern Illinois.
4:23 p.m. - Meant to mention this earlier, but I spotted David Stremme in the garage. He's backing up Brendan Gaughan, whose wife Tatum is slated to deliver the couple's first child any day now.
4:25 p.m. - Caution for Reed Sorenson, perhaps? No other details yet.
4:35 p.m. - Sorenson lost it and smacked the wall: http://twitpic.com/2zw1fn
4:36 p.m. - Nice chat with Jody Jennings, Sorenson's PR rep, about a variety of subjects, from my separation to her engagement to Turner Motorsports. Best wishes Jody!
4:45 p.m. - Another wreck. This time it's much worse, for Stephan McCurley: http://twitpic.com/2zzoqx
5 p.m. - Practice ends with Bliss on top. Fighting for a job?
5:15 p.m. - Coleman and crew chief Jason Ratcliff chat about trying to get the No. 18 better. Coleman was only 23rd in final practice and looks perplexed. He and DiBenedetto talk about lines around the track, and Ratcliff makes sure Coleman understand that if his line changes, Ratcliff needs to know about it.
5:15 p.m. - Autograph session begins, though there appears to be some confusion as to its exact location and other logistics. Yours truly goes in search of some generic Nationwide Series "hero cards," to no avail. Coleman and DiBenedetto go to their haulers to change and grab something to eat.
5:20 p.m. - Needing some Sharpies for the autograph session, I turn to Jody Jennings, who produces two new ones. Yes!
5:25 p.m. - Coleman is in a JGR polo and jeans, and when told there are no hero cards for him to sign, Coleman shrugs and says, "Well, I'll go hang out." We wait with Matt D.'s parents at the 20 hauler. DiBenedetto is in a debrief with crew chief Kevin Kidd. This could take a while.
6:10 p.m. - Matt's mom goes looking for him after Kidd emerges from the hauler. Looks like we're gonna miss the autograph session. Sorry, Gateway. Matt's parents offer to take me to the hotel, since deSouza has already left.
6:50 p.m. - I meet with deSouza to get my luggage out of the car, and he lets me borrow it to go to the Blackhawks-Blues hockey game with some other PR reps.
7 p.m. - The DoubleTree Hotel in Collinsville, Ill., has some nice-smelling rooms. I don my Chicago Cubs jersey for the hockey game. Not that I like the Blackhawks; I just dislike St. Louis.
7:31 p.m. - First period ends while I arrive at Scottrade Center for game, though trying to find parking is like trying to find full sponsorship for a Nationwide team. It ain't happening.
7:40 p.m. - Make a wrong turn in the rental car, dart right, but still hit a curb. Uh, oh. Flat left-front. Crap.
7:41 p.m. - Pull off the road to change the tire. Pray to the Lord my soul to keep. I discover a small spare tire in the trunk and try to remember how to change a tire. It's been years. I find the jack and proceed to raise the car. But I can't find the lug wrench. Why wouldn't there be one?
7:55 p.m. - Finally find the stupid lug wrench. It's attached, hidden, to the piece below the carpet in the trunk. I'm falling many laps down.
8:02 p.m. - Get the lugs loosened fairly easily. Whew. I remember I broke a wheel stud once because a lug was so tight that I tried to jump on the attached lug wrench to loosen it. No problem this time.
8:05 p.m. - Needing to raise the car some more to get the spare on, the car slides backwards. Fell off the jack. I feel like a Kevin Harvick Inc. pit crew member. Make a note: ALWAYS engage emergency brake when changing a tire. Duh.
8:10 p.m. - Security guard wanders by to help, though I'm almost done. He comes in handy, however, holding the spare in place while I put the lugs back on.
8:14 p.m. - Text Tracey Judd of NASCAR to tell her I had a flat and won't be making the game. And, no, I wasn't texting and driving.
8:15 p.m. - Call deSouza to tell him the bad news. No worries, he says. Whew.
8:16 p.m. - Plan a fine dinner of White Castle and Culver's. My sister says I deserve it. Sister Suzie asks if I called AAA, and I told her no self-respecting motorsports journalist/PR person would dare call AAA to change a tire. Man, there's grease under my fingernails.
8:43 p.m. - Flavor of Concrete Mixer at Culver's: Pumpkin Cheesecake. Oh. My. Gosh.
9:10 p.m. - There's a yipping dog in the room next door. Perfect.