ALGER - It's not that Daryn Pittman has been running all that bad. In fact, he's been running pretty respectable.
Over the past 21 World of Outlaws races since July 4, he has three wins, 12 top-5 finishes and has finished outside the top 10 only five times.
But during that time, Pittman has watched his once comfortable lead in the series standings shrink from 130 points to 41 over hard-charging Donny Schatz entering the second night of racing on Saturday, Aug. 31, at Skagit Speedway.
"Truthfully, the past couple of weeks or the last month have been kind of frustrating for us," Pittman said before placing fifth at Skagit on Friday, Aug. 30. "We haven't been bad, but just watching how good Schatz has been and giving up a lot of our point lead that we worked hard to get this year, it's been tough. ... We're not struggling, by any means. We just need to get a little better and start winning some races again."
If anybody knows something about winning races and running well during the dog days of summer, it's Schatz.
Before finishing 11th on Friday at Skagit, all Schatz had done since back-to-back finishes in the teens leading up to Independence Day was finish in the top three in 16 of 20 races, winning 10 of them.
And just in case Pittman didn't feel Schatz breathing down his neck, he certainly got the picture on Aug. 24 in Edmonton, Alberta, when Schatz wrecked hard during hot laps, only to pull out a backup car and grab his 17th feature win of the season.
Pittman is not the first driver Schatz has attempted to chase down during dog days of summer, as the native of Fargo, N.D., has been crowned series champion in five of the past seven years, including in 2012, and has made a habit out of running down title hopefuls during the second half of the season.
But that doesn't make it any easier for Pittman to palate.
"It's frustrating to watch in one respect, but on the other, it's not like we're really bad and he's just so-so," Pittman said. "He's been phenomenal. It's a lot easier to watch something you've worked so hard for slip away when you know that somebody else has been spectacular. It's not necessarily our undoing ? it's that they have been really good."
The fact that Pittman is in the lead at all is pretty remarkable.
Last year, the native of Owasso, Okla., who turned 35 on Thursday, Aug. 29, ran only a partial schedule while spending most of his time running tracks in Pennsylvania.
But in January he was signed to drive the full season for Kasey Kahne Racing, earning his first full-time ride on the sprint-car racing's premiere circuit in four years.
It didn't take long for driver and crew to mesh, as Pittman won the season opener at Barberville, Fla., and he's won seven times since (second in the series to Schatz's 17 victories), finished in the top five a series-high 36 times and in the top 10 another 10 times.
"Anytime you take a new job or join a new team, you always go in with the best optimism and hope that things are going to work, but you don't know until you actually get there," Pittman said. "I'm sure Kasey thought a long time about who he was going to hire and who he thought was going to fit in the best, but you just don't know until you get in that situation. Luckily, it's been really good."
Pittman is quick to give credit to his team for finding something with the tires and the shocks to make him fast early this season.
"It's just been a team effort, and not just the guys who go with me on the road, but the guys in the shop have all been a big part of all of KKR's success," Pittman said. "I've just been lucky enough to step in at the right time with the right team. I came in feeling like I had something to prove, and the team felt it had some-thing to prove too."
Pittman certainly has enjoyed helping them prove it, especially with a boss who knows first-hand the pressures and struggles of drivers.
But that doesn't mean it's easy driving for Kahne, a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver from Enumclaw who cut his teeth at Skagit Speedway.
"At the end of the day, he's another boss that wants his car to be successful," Pittman said of Kahne. "He understands, obviously he's done this so long. You can have conversations with him about setups and how things are going, and he understands what you're saying. But he's not any more sympathetic than any other owner I've ever driven for. He wants his cars to succeed. He spends a lot of money and a lot of effort on it. He expects the same out of us.
"It's been really good to work with a lot of the really good people he's put on this team. I'm only as good as the people around me, and I know there are a lot of really good people on this team."
That's exactly what Pittman and his team would like to start showing again.
And the best way to do that is with some strong finishes and wins, which in turn give them a shot to hold off Schatz for the season championship.
Pittman is looking in the mirror first and foremost to make the necessary changes to turn things around.
"My feedback has been not too great with the car," Pittman said. "Like I said, we're not bad, we just need to get a little better. Truthfully, we're going to need to have them (Schatz) get a little worse if possible. I think I need to do a little better job. I think all of us are looking at what we do and I think we all need to do a better job. I don't think it's one thing."
But he knows now is the time things need to start to turn around.
The two races at Skagit Speedway kicked off the series' 10-day, nine-race, seven-city tour through Washing-ton, Oregon and California.
"I'm looking forward to this," Pittman said. "I'm focused on this week, because I think it's going to be important. These next (seven) nights, they may not win you a championship, but they can certainly lose it for you. I'm excited to get going and see what we got."
Pittman came out strong on Friday night, setting a Skagit Speedway track record in qualifying ? a record Kahne previously held for six years until having it surpassed in 2009 ? while picking up another top-five finish and 17 points on Schatz. Pretty impressive, considering Pittman hadn't stepped on the track in four years.
He said he's really looking forward to heading to Elma on Monday, Sept. 2, because he's run well there since the reconfiguration, and at Cottage Grove, Ore., on Wednesday, Sept. 4, as he hopes to kick start a run for the title.
"It's not even close to over," Pittman said. "We're not going to roll over on them and just let it go away, but we know we know we need to get a little better and start winning some races."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
The World of Outlaws event on Saturday, Aug. 31, at Skagit Speedway was not complete at deadline. Please look for full race details online at thebellinghamherald.com/sports or in Monday's edition of The Bellingham Herald.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.