You’re making your NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Daytona 500. How does that feel?
“I think it will be different than what other guys have experienced in the past just because it’s not the sold-out grandstands we’re used to, and prerace will probably be toned down a little. It probably won’t hit me as hard, but I’m also a pretty emotional guy. The Daytona 500 is such a prestigious event and a smaller group of fans isn’t going to change that. It means a lot to think that I get to do this. My family gets to sit in the stands and watch me race in the biggest race in NASCAR. I got emotional my first time running at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I’ll probably tear up at the Daytona 500, as well, just knowing that I’m about to run that race. No matter how different it looks, it’s going to be special. It’s something that I never thought I would get to do. Hopefully, I get to do many, many more, but just getting to savor that moment of racing in one Daytona 500 is going to be special. Whether it’s full capacity or a third of the people there, it’s still the Daytona 500 and it’s still crazy to think I’m going to be running that race.”
What is your goal for the Daytona 500?
“I’m going there to win, for sure, but I would love to just finish all 500 miles. In order to win any race, you have to do that. I just want to try to get as much experience as I can. If I go out there and wreck 100 miles into the race, that’s 400 miles I didn’t get of driving this new Cup car and getting to be around these guys, earning their trust and just learning how they race. I want to finish, above anything else, and I feel like if you finish you have a really good shot at winning the race. It seems the past couple of years there’s only 10 to 15 cars even out there at the end of this deal because so many guys get torn up and wrecked. Finishing is the first part, all 500 miles, but truthfully I’m going there to win that race. That’s what Stewart-Haas Racing hired me to do and that’s why HighPoint.com supports me. I’m a rookie, but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of winning the race. I’m going to go there and try to win. I’m going to put my best effort forward and to win the race. So the first goal is to finish all 500 miles and then hopefully I’ll be there at the end and in position to try to make a move to win the Daytona 500.”
It has been just over seven years since you packed up and moved from Indiana to North Carolina to pursue your dream of becoming a NASCAR driver, and we are now a little more than a week out from your NASCAR Cup Series debut. Which memories stand out the most from this journey?
“There were a lot of emotions that kind of hit when I saw the reminder that it had been seven years. It was seven years ago, but it feels like yesterday. I remember the day I left Indiana. I was so excited to start a new journey, but also so nervous and really didn’t know what I was getting into. I was fresh out of high school and, right before I left, my mom was trying to teach me how to do the laundry because she had always done it for me. I was green to everything. I never had a credit card or a debit card and left with $150 in cash, just pretty much thrown into the world and trying to figure it out. I knew two people in North Carolina when I started to walk into different shops and offer my time as a volunteer, and every shop I went to I tried to make it obvious that I wanted to eventually drive. I didn’t necessarily have a timeline on when I would go back home if I hadn’t gotten anything, and then it got to the point I had been here for two years and didn’t have anything. The day I decided to go back home, I had been on the road for a few hours when I got the call from Cunningham Motorsports about going to a test session. That’s what started everything. There were a lot of ups and downs through the years with a lot of moments that were breakthroughs for the next step in my career. The most recent was being three days away from not having anything lined up for the 2020 season and HighPoint.com deciding to come onboard. That was the beginning of January 2020 and now we’re sitting here less than two weeks away from the 2021 Daytona 500, my first Cup race, and HighPoint.com is going to be on the car.
“There have been so many doors that were so close to closing and so many doors that probably shouldn’t have been opened to begin with. I just think of all the people who were willing to give me an opportunity when I didn’t have a resume and certainly didn’t have any money to bring to the table. Now I’m getting ready to drive in the Daytona 500 for the team I’ve always dreamed of racing for and, even more specifically, the car I cheered for growing up. It has been a crazy ride for sure and it is still a bit unbelievable that I get to do this.”
How do you prepare for a season where you’ll be doing a lot of learning compared to last year when you were a threat to win every week?
“I just have to try to keep it in perspective. I know I’m going to be humbled, without a doubt. I know that there are going to be a lot of times where it will to be a learning day and that’s something I’m really excited to experience. I’ll get to see where I need to get better after racing against 25 to 30 guys who can win week in and week out. They have so much more experience than me and have been in so many of these scenarios and situations that I’ve never been in, so being around them and just learning from what they do is going to be huge. There are a couple of variables that I know I’ll have to work on – the length of the races, pit road is going to be way busier than anything I’ve ever experienced, and there will be more green-flag pit stops. In the Xfinity Series, I didn’t make a lot of green-flag pit stops, whereas in the Cup Series I’m going to be doing a couple every race. Those are the things I’m the most concerned about trying to learn. Taking care of the car with the steel body will be important. You can’t touch the wall at all or your day is done, but in the Xfinity car you could bang off of the wall a couple of times and it would still be OK. How the car drives will be another big difference from what I’m used to. Once the season begins, we’ll really see where I stack up. You never know if you’re going to be a 25th-place guy, a 15th-place guy, a fifth-place guy, but I’m excited to see how I compare and where I need to try and get better.”
How instrumental have guys like Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola been in getting you ready?
“They’ve been very helpful. All three of those guys have such a great amount of experience. All three come from different racing backgrounds and have different driving styles, so I’ve really tried to pick their brains about what to do in certain situations. They know how these tracks transition through a 400- or 500-mile race and that’s something that I don’t necessarily know. I’m also relying a lot on Cole (Custer) to get an idea of how exactly to transition from Xfinity to Cup. I’m trying to be as prepared as I can be and I have three really good teammates and an owner who have done it and understand what will help the most, so I’m trying to use those guys to my advantage. They’ve been great about helping to prepare me the best they can because the better I run, the better the whole company is going to run. Everybody has an interest in each other’s success, and they’ve all done a really good job of making me feel welcome as one of the guys.”