Your first Cup Series race is in the books. Was there anything that surprised you, or have your expectations shifted after spending some time on track with the guys you’ll race against every week?
“It was eye-opening, to say the least. I wish I could’ve been up in the pack more and really taken advantage of my first time on track. When I was up in the mix, it was definitely a different ballgame, though. Daytona is unique, but even when you take that out of the equation, the intensity level is still so much higher. That was the biggest difference for me. Everyone is so good at balancing being aggressive at times and still being there at the end and timing things just right. It’s such a mind game. The mental game on the Cup side is way more complex than I ever expected. I learned a ton and I’m getting a better idea of how to drive races with this group and think through things as we go.”
Even with the challenges during the Daytona 500, we got a good look at the team’s ability to persevere. We know you want to go out and knock off top-10 finishes, but is fighting through the challenges the top priority early in the season?
“Absolutely. The 14 team did such a good job of continuing to fight until the end. With everything we dealt with, to finish 19th was still a little sickening because I felt like we could’ve definitely finished in the top-10. But overall, we could’ve easily given up. We have to continue to make small gains and learn as much as possible. I’m a rookie. I’m learning more with each lap and, at the end of the day, the whole team did a good job supporting me through that. Johnny (Klausmeier, crew chief) did a great job calling the race and trying to get us back into it. Things just didn’t fall our way. I have things to learn and they’re still learning how I work. It’ll take some time, but we don’t give up and that’s what is most important. We have plenty of races to find success and I want to perform well for myself and for them, but we need to be smart about it.”
You’ve had some road-course success in the past. Do you expect that you’ll be able to pull from that experience and potentially run up front this weekend, or is this more of a learning experience for later in the year?
“The Cup car is still quite a bit of an unknown for me, as far as how it drives compared to what I’ve raced in the past, and that’s really what I’m most anxious about. I’ve had success on road courses, and I’ve become more comfortable with that style of driving, but just because I did well in the Xfinity Series doesn’t mean it’s going to follow in Cup. I’m very curious to see how I compare. The Daytona road course is one I’m very comfortable with as far as getting around it, but the car is going to drive differently from anything I’ve driven before. It’s going to take time and I wish I could have run the Busch Clash and had that extra time so I would feel like it’s more of an even playing field. We’ll try to do the best we can. It’ll be a long race, longer than any race I’ve run on a road course. I’ll try to learn the most I can with each stage and be there at the end. That’s the approach for these first few races – run the whole race, learn as much as I can, and be there at the end. I feel like this is a great opportunity for us to have a good race if we can put all the pieces together.”
Typically, the second race of the season is when teams get a good idea of what they need to work on for a majority of the races on the schedule. Does that still stand with the second race now being a road course?
“It changes a little, but I feel like the second race is still where you kind of shift gears to the next phase of learning for the season. We used to be able to look at Daytona as its own thing and then the second race would come around and you go from the mindset of survival and taking advantage of track position to really see what you had for a 1.5-mile track, or something like that. With that being said, this is a great opportunity for us to build some early momentum and confidence. These guys have run this car on the Daytona road course, but they still don’t have a ton of extra experience, so I don’t feel too far behind. It’s a great thing for us. We know we’ll be competitive if you look back at how Clint (Bowyer) ran these road courses. He was always pretty good, balance-wise, so we know that we’ll have a good starting point. It’ll just be a matter of me figuring out what I need to do to be better. More road-course races later in the season, even on different tracks, makes this a good chance for us to learn something that I can use to maximize our opportunity to get big finishes. I have done well on road courses and I enjoy running them, but I still have a lot to learn, and having more road courses means that this second race is just as important as it’s always been, as far as seeing what you’ll need to work on down the road.”
Your teammates ran the Busch Clash last Tuesday night. Have you had a chance to talk with them about what they learned during the race?
“I talked with all three after the Busch Clash. It was a great practice for them, and we talked about setups and what we need to adjust and plan for as a team. They definitely have more insight for this race since they’ve run this particular track in the same car. I will for sure keep talking with them up until race day so that I can take in as much information as possible before we get our Ford Performance Racing School Mustang on track.”