Of the series-best nine races you won last year, which one resonated with you the most?
“I would say the first race back at Darlington, just to be able to have that something back in your life that was somewhat normal after you literally just had the rug yanked out from underneath you. It was, OK, you can’t race anymore, and you don’t know when you’re going to race again. Being able to go back to the racetrack and go back to victory lane and get back to work was pretty much a relief. I think that was true for pretty much everybody. It showed the world that you could put on an event and it really kind of set the tone for a ton of sports as they moved forward.”
You touched on it a little bit – how important was it to be able to come back to a racetrack and put on a show and provide some entertainment and enjoyment for people who desperately needed it?
“When you look at that particular race, everybody wanted to see what was happening. Everybody from Joe Girardi (former manager of the New York Yankees and current manager of the Philadelphia Phillies) – he was one of the people who texted me afterward, and he was really excited after the race and said that Major League Baseball was looking forward to seeing what happened and the process that went into it. They had some hope about getting back on the field. I know that a lot of folks at the White House were looking on and sent notes after the race saying, ‘You don’t know what that meant for our country and the sports world. To have something that wasn’t a Michael Jordan rerun or documentary that we could watch on TV that had something to do with sports that wasn’t a rerun from 1987 or this game from 1995.’ It was an actual live sports event that everybody could tune into and watch. It meant a lot, not only to the sports world, but to people who had been sitting at home for a long time that actually had something else to watch. It was an opportunity to showcase who we really are as a sport to people who may have never watched before.”
You had a strong start to last season. Four top-10s in the season’s first four races. You finished second in the fourth race at Phoenix and then COVID-19 shut the sport down for 10 weeks. How were you able to pick up right where you left off?
“There’s a lot to be learned from that break, right? I think as you went to approach things, there were two ways to approach it. You could go, ‘Man, this sucks’ or ‘Man, I could get better.’ I think once we got through the first couple of weeks, the mentality of the whole situation was, ‘How could we get better?’ and I felt like when I got back in the racecar, I was better than I was when I got out of it originally in week four. So, I think our team and our company at Stewart-Haas Racing kind of took that same approach and it took a couple of weeks, but it was OK. We knew we were going to have a race season. It was a matter of how are we going to capitalize on this to be better than everyone else because of the situation? I think 2020 forever changed the sport and it definitely changed the way that I approach things, the way that I think about things, the way that our company thinks about things, the way the schedule looks, how many days we go to the racetrack. I mean, there’s just an endless amount of things that had to be done and that we had to try within our industry that will forever cement themselves in some way, shape or form in how we go forward.”
You have three wins at Darlington and 782 laps led in 26 career starts. How satisfying it to have that kind of success at a track that’s so notoriously difficult its nickname is “The Track Too Tough To Tame”?
“It’s been a lot of fun to have been able to win there a few times now. As you look at the last race there, winning the Southern 500 and being able to go back to victory lane and celebrate in front of some fans was different from the first time of dead silence. Darlington is one of those historic racetracks that everybody loves going to because of the fact that it’s forever tied to the guys that used to race there with the same shape of the racetrack. It may be a different surface, but it’s the same racetrack that they raced on in the 1950s. It’s a unique place to go race and a place that has so much history in our sport.”
Is there a particular key to your success at Darlington?
“Yeah, don’t hit the wall!”