Busch Beer is going to pay for one lucky fan to be a member of your team. When you were starting out in racing, what were some of your first jobs on a race team?
“When I went to work for Wayne and Connie Spears on their Truck Series team, I went there just as a mechanic. I was just a very general mechanic that would basically pull things together and take engines in and out. And then when I drove for Wayne and Connie, I had the luxury of working in the engine shop, where I spent most of my time underneath the bench sleeping during the day, and I had a great colleague, Bill, who allowed me to sleep. So I don’t know if I was very much help in the engine shop, but I was very much a general mechanic who swept the floor.”
You start the season on a road course via the Busch Clash. Considering that there are now seven road courses on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, with the first point-paying one coming on the Daytona road course a week after the 500, how helpful is to have that knowledge and experience from the Busch Clash so early in the season?
“We ran poorly there last year, so it’s definitely been on our radar to get to the Busch Clash just because we have a number of things we want to incorporate into our car. To be able to have those reps and kind of do a quality control check on where you’re at with your racecar gives you a lot going into week two of the season to make sure you’re competitive and where you need to be.”
You’re coming off a career-best nine win season in 2020. With a year like that, how much are you able to carry over into this season? Or do you come into this year with a clean slate, not only because everyone starts with the same amount of points, but also because of how quickly technology advances?
“You’ve got to start over just because of the fact you just never know how things are going to shake out, how your cars are going to run, and the decisions you’re going to make. You just have to start over and forget everything that you’ve done, and I think that’s one thing we do really well as a team. Whether it’s a really good week or a really bad week, or a good season or a bad season, we’re really good at just forgetting about whatever it is that happened and making sure that we’re focused on the things we need to be focused on for that particular week.”
Even without a championship, was last year’s nine-win season comparable to your five-win championship season in 2014?
“As a group, we want to win. I would rather win races than win a championship at this point. In order to keep the attitude and enthusiasm where it needs to be, we need to be competitive week in and week out. If it works out in a championship at the end of the year, ultimately that’s the goal, but the immediate goal when you start the season is how competitive are we from week one to week 36, and how do we put ourselves in a position to win as many races as possible. If you do that, you’re going to have a chance to win races, and not only win, you’re going to have a chance to make the playoffs, progress through the playoffs, and win the championship. With the playoff format, it really just is what it is. You go, you race, and you see where it falls. For us as a team, it’s more important for us to be competitive week in and week out. Win as many races as we can and see where that takes us in the end.”
You’re often asked about your strategy in a superspeedway race. But what strategy is there for the entire week of Daytona, where you want to show speed, but also keep a clean car through practice, qualifying, the Duel and then, finally, the Daytona 500?
“I think as you go through the week, it’s that evolution of the enthusiasm ramping up as you get closer to the Daytona 500. You have to maintain a pretty even-keeled approach to things just because of the fact that you don’t want to be so jacked up and make a stupid move and tear up your car before you even get to the Daytona 500. But you also want to get everything that you can because you want to get the best starting position you can and the best pit selection that you can for the 500. It’s a different mentality than any other week because you race and practice and race and practice and race again. But it’s not just a race. It’s the Daytona 500. So, it’s a different type of enthusiasm headed for the green flag for the 500.”
You won nine races as a 44-year-old. Now you’re ready for another season at age 45. When everyone seems to be talking about who’s next, you’re constantly reminding people that, “Hey, I’m still here,” by knocking down wins. What do you credit it to? Certainly there’s innate ability, but how have you been able to sustain it at such a high level for so long?
“I think a lot of that is evolving with the times, having an open mind to be able to change. The biggest piece of the equation is having fast racecars and keeping those guys motivated to work on every last detail on that racecar – that matters as much as anything that you do. I think the evolution of the driver and keeping yourself fit and keeping that circle of life balance in order to be able to keep everything good at home, do the things you have to do outside the racecar, do the things you need to do inside the racecar, and also evolve with the times and put your butt in the simulator and get something out of it. Do the things it takes to evolve with all those progressions of technology and racecars and all the things that come with that. You have to be open-minded, and I think that’s something we do well in making sure we’re not stuck in our ways and getting left behind.”
Your eight-year-old son, Keelan, is just starting his racing career. With almost four decades of racing under your belt, what kind of guidance do you give him, both in terms of racing and preparing to race?
“My expectations of him are exactly the same expectations I have of myself leading up to a race. But while you’re there on a race weekend, some people think that’s a little bit overboard, including Mom, but for me that’s just the way you’re going to have to be. And I always ask him, ‘Do you want to be good, or do you want to be great? We can teach you how to be either. One’s considerably easier than the other, but not nearly as rewarding.’ So he has learned that what you put in is rewarded by what you get out of it in the results. The faster you can put that effort in and understand that everything matters in the preparation and the things you do leading up to that will ultimately give you better results.”