What are your expectations as you enter the playoffs?
“Well, you have to be in it to win it. Our guys have done a great job of navigating through the year. Obviously, we would’ve loved to win all the races and win as many races as we have in the past, but those things weren’t in the cards this year. Our team has done an absolutely phenomenal job of getting the most out of every weekend, so if you look at that and the guys and everything we’ve had to do, I think the people are on point. Our cars have run well for the last month and a half or so. We’ve had a little bad luck over the last two weeks with some accidents, but as you look at the speed, that’s been there. Now, we just have to go out and race the first few weeks and see where it falls after that.”
Have you had to reset your expectations going into the playoffs compared to previous years?
“I don’t think so. I think you do the exact same things that you’ve done in previous years. You look back at 2014, for us, obviously that was a championship year that didn’t have the year that 2015 or 2019 had and you end up winning the championship. There’s not a recalculation of anything. The expectations are still the same. You might have a different route to get there, but we haven’t even run a race, yet. So, right now the expectations are the same as they always have been.”
You say you’re not going to change your approach, despite not scoring a win yet this season. Is it hard to stick with what got you to the playoffs, or is this where your experience comes into play?
“You can pull something apart a whole lot faster than you can build it. As you look through the years, it’s very easy to sit back and just chime in and jump all over people. That’s really easy. Obviously, there are still times that you need to do that, but the thing I’ve learned is the fact that you’ve got a group of people around that you know can win and do the things that you need to do, but sometimes you’re just off. The problem solving in our world is difficult, and sometimes it’s a whole bunch of small things, and trying to push something – and I’ve done it a couple of times this year on the racetrack – you try to push something a little bit further than it can go and you wind up with the fenders torn off and you make bad worse. There’s no reason to make the problem worse than it needs to be. You have to be part of the process and the solution in order to solve the equation. Obviously, we all want to win and run better and do the things that we need to do, but Saturday night (at Daytona) kind of sums up the way it’s gone this year. You think you’re in a good position and don’t make it through the last corner. That’s just kind of the way that it’s gone. You ride the wave down just like you ride the wave up. You just hope that your wave down is shorter than most people’s and you can ride that wave back up when it’s right.”
Your car owner, Tony Stewart, won his third and final championship after going winless during the regular season. Do you draw any inspiration from his championship run in 2011?
“The only thing I remember about 2011 is that Tony won the championship. I know he won half the races, but I don’t know what happened in the other five because there was still a tie at the end. So I think that explains the extreme ups and downs that come with playoff racing because if he won five races and they were still tied at the end of Homestead, there was some bad side to that, too. Quite a feat, obviously, coming out on top, winning the championship. Doesn’t say how he got there, it just says he won. Hopefully, we can do something like that. There’s nothing that says we can’t right now, so we’ll go with that.”
The playoffs start with one of the toughest races on the schedule. What is your mindset as you kick off the playoffs with 500 miles at Darlington?
“Darlington, from a preparation standpoint with the team and things with the car, those will be business as usual. From a physical and mental preparation standpoint, you just have to be able to put yourself in a good spot because Darlington is a super-long race. It’s a very difficult racetrack to keep yourself out of trouble, and you just have to keep yourself on the lead lap and not bang up against the wall and not miss pit road and get yourself into the pit box with no mistakes. And if you can do that for 400 miles, then you’re probably going to be somewhere toward the front of the field and have a chance. It’s a really long race and it’s a very difficult racetrack, and you have to be prepared for that, mentally.”
Is Darlington a good track to start the playoffs?
“The Southern 500 has always been one of our sport’s best races so I think it’s a great place to kick off the playoffs. There’s no other place that we go to that just screams the history that Darlington does just because of the fact that the track layout is the same, the surface is unique and worn out – obviously turn two is newly repaved, but I think that just adds more character to what Darlington already has. There’s just nowhere else on the schedule where you can go that has the same, unique feel that Darlington does. It’s just a great place to race.”
You have three wins at Darlington and 792 laps led in 27 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 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!”