When you go to COTA, you will have practice. How much do you anticipate that practice will be devoted to not just getting ready for the race weekend, but working on things as a team and a track atmosphere that you don’t get to do at other tracks that don’t have practice?
“I think it’s going to be hard. The thing is, I don’t think you can necessarily try stuff that’s going to work at other places with it being a road course, but I will say that it’s probably going to be a challenge to be back in a practice environment. Normally, doing a shock change or doing whatever is so second nature and they can do it so quickly to really maximize that practice time. We haven’t done that a lot in the last year and a half, so I think the team guys might be a little rusty when it comes to that. The other thing at COTA is, as far as I know, there’s only a 50-minute practice and, by the time you do an out lap and an in lap, and do however many laps you’re doing, you’re probably not going to get but maybe eight to nine total laps of practice at the most. It’s going to be really hard to make changes and figure out what kind of works because you’re probably only going to get two or three changes at the absolute most. So, you’re still going to have to unload very quick from a speed standpoint and a balance standpoint, so it’s going to be hard. I’m glad we’re going to have some practice just, for me, to get back in the rhythm of road-course racing to see what I need. I felt like, at the Daytona road course at the very end of the race, we were pretty good. It just took us three or four adjustments to get to that point, so hopefully at COTA we can kind of start where we ended Daytona and have some good speed.”
Outside of not having practice each week to get acclimated to the Cup Series car and some of the newer tracks, has there been any other major hurdle that you’ve found difficult to clear?
“I think all of it. It’s all tougher. In the Xfinity Series, I felt like on a bad day we would still run seventh or eighth, where now if you have a bad day you run 25th to 30th. The competition is a lot tougher. As a rookie, I feel like I get raced a little bit differently than some guys. You’ve got to earn your respect again. You do that in one series and you’re starting over in a sense, so I think, for me, just the competitive side has been the biggest eye-opener. There have been a lot of things that I’ve had to learn to get better at – green-flag pit stops are obviously a crucial, crucial part of the Cup Series and I didn’t have a lot of experience with that in the Xfinity Series. And then now, with no practice, I just show up and in the middle of the race, that’s my first chance to try it and figure out when I need to start braking, and pit road is a lot busier. If you go back to Kansas, I wasn’t hitting my pit sign hardly at all. I was always a couple feet short or a foot long or whatever, and our pit stops suffered, so I went to pit practice and really tried to focus on that. And then, at Darlington, I made sure I hit my pit sign every time and I think we were the seventh-or-something-best pit crew on pit road. It’s just all of the little details, and when you’re where we are right now and you’re racing in that 15th-place range, speed-wise, those little details are what make the difference in being in the back half of the top-10 or running 20th. The biggest hurdle is just trying to do all the little things right because, you do a couple of those little things wrong, it really adds up quickly.”
When you have those bad days, or off days, how do you keep your confidence and composure?
“It’s certainly tough. I mean, I went from 33 races in the Xfinity Series last year when I went to the racetrack every weekend thinking that I was going to be the guy to beat, and not that you don’t also have that in the Cup Series, but I think you have to have realistic expectations in the beginning. I knew coming into the Cup Series I wasn’t going to win nine races this year. I knew it was going to be a huge learning process for me just trying to continue to get better week in and week out and, for me, I know that I’m not a worse racecar driver than I was last year. If anything, I’m better now than I’ve ever been just because of the experience I’ve been getting, so I know I’m still capable of running up front, and I just try to judge myself off of my teammates. They’re obviously the closest thing I have to what I’m racing each week and fairly consistently I feel like we’ve been able to be the second-best car, so that’s been the biggest thing for me, just try to be the second-best car week in and week out. Obviously, we want to be the best car, but we’ve got a long way to go to be where (Kevin) Harvick is right now and we know that. Truthfully, I don’t think there are expectations for me to be outrunning Harvick right now, so if I can just be the second-best car every week, I feel like I’m doing my job right now. I think the results will come as I continue to get experience. It just takes some time. I feel like from where I was week one to where I’m at right now, I’m a significantly different racecar driver from an experience standpoint, and even a confidence standpoint. That’s where a couple of 11th-place runs as a rookie helps. You know, at Darlington we ran for a while there seventh or eighth place. As I continue to run up there, I gain confidence. All of those things are just going to continue to add up and, once we slowly start putting it all together, I feel confident that we’ll be able to battle for wins, but we’ve got to start battling for top-10s first and battle for top-fives, and then eventually we’ll get to the wins.”