You’re often asked about your strategy in a superspeedway race. But what strategy is there for the entire week of Daytona, where you want to show speed, but also keep a clean car through practice, qualifying, the Duel and then, finally, the Daytona 500?
“As you go through the week, it’s that evolution of the enthusiasm ramping up as you get closer to the Daytona 500. You have to maintain a pretty even-keeled approach to things just because of the fact that you don’t want to be so jacked up and make a stupid move and tear up your car before you even get to the Daytona 500. But you also want to get everything that you can because you want to get the best starting position you can and the best pit selection that you can for the 500. It’s a different mentality than any other week because you practice and race and practice and race again. But it’s not just a race. It’s the Daytona 500. So, it’s a different type of enthusiasm headed for the green flag.”
You ran your first Daytona 500 20 years ago. What was that experience like?
“For me and my career, a lot of things happened backward, probably the opposite of the way they should have. My first season in Cup (2001), I ran every race but the Daytona 500 because of Dale Earnhardt’s death and replacing him in the car. Coming back to the Daytona 500 in 2002 was probably one of the bigger moments in my career just because of all the hype and anticipation from 2001 that led into the Daytona 500. I think I wound up at the front of a 23-car pileup, so it was definitely one of those moments where you wish you could’ve done it a little bit differently and had the outcome be a little bit better. But the Daytona 500 can get your emotions and twist them upside down and make you just crazy and want to do things that you know you shouldn’t do and take risks that you know you shouldn’t take and aren’t going to work, but you’ll do them anyway just because of it being the Daytona 500. Controlling those emotions and controlling those expectations – controlling the week, really – is important. It used to be 12, 14 days of the buildup to the event – we still have the buildup, it’s a much shorter amount of time – but the plot goes everywhere. You have a good qualifying race, bad qualifying race. You used to have the Clash at Daytona – good Clash, bad Clash. PR day, PR stories, whatever, there’s just a lot of hype and buildup that goes into the race and you can’t get caught up in it.”
You and Kurt Busch are the only two drivers in this year’s Daytona 500 who competed in the 2002 Daytona 500, and now you’ll be racing against three sons of drivers you competed with that day – Chase Elliott (son of Bill), Harrison Burton (son of Jeff) and Ryan Blaney (son of Dave). What’s your reaction to that?
“I look at it as being fortunate to be a part of the sport for that long. I’m hoping that it’s just because Bill Elliott, Jeff Burton and Dave Blaney were older as they came into the event and I was just really young, but that isn’t necessarily the case. I guess I’m in their dads’ position now – being in their shoes at the twilight of my career. It’s fun to see the generations of racers come through. Obviously, I’ve been around all those guys for a while now and have seen them all grow up, so it’s been interesting to watch.”
You won the Daytona 500 in 2007. What does it mean to be a Daytona 500 champion?
“After you experience what everybody talks about with the Daytona 500 – that it’s not like any other race, and it’s not – you understand the difference between winning any other race and the Daytona 500. It starts with the week. It starts with the anticipation and the buildup to the green flag. When you look at the winner’s list of the Daytona 500, it’s the who’s who of our sport. You celebrate it differently and you have to do different things than you would for any other race. The Daytona 500 is the pinnacle of winning a race in our sport, and forever you get to hear that Daytona 500 champion in front of your name. It was definitely a great day and obviously a pretty close finish. It definitely makes you want to go back for more.”
What does it take to win the Daytona 500?
“The superspeedways, in general, are difficult to have everything line up to get a win out of the weekend. For the Daytona 500, it’s our biggest race of the year, but it’s also the one race a year that you have months to prepare for. Every team in the garage has their most prepared car that shows up at the Daytona 500. On top of that, you have the most aggression and enthusiasm to try to take risks and do things that you normally wouldn’t do to win races because the Daytona 500 only comes once a year, and it can make a year and it can also make a career out of winning that race. I think as you look at the Daytona 500, it’s just different than any other race and it becomes difficult to win because of all the risk-taking that you don’t see on a weekly basis.”
What’s a Daytona 500 memory that stands out the most for you?
“Obviously, winning the 500 in ’07 is the one that sticks out. I think last year, having a chance to win there and everybody crashing and everything that happened toward the end of the race, you’d hoped the outcome was a little bit different. Having driven into victory lane at the Daytona 500 makes you want to drive back into it just because of the fact that you understand how much comes with winning the Daytona 500 and what it means to a season. It makes your whole year all in one moment. But I think winning the 500 was the proudest moment.”
Describe what happened in last year’s Daytona 500.
“Last year’s race was one where if things go right, you wind up having a chance to win there at the end. Everything kind of got shook up at the end of the race and we came up just a little bit short and wound up finishing fourth. It was a good week for us, as a company and as a team. That’s definitely the way you want to get the season started.”
What are your expectations for this season?
“I feel good, and I think there are really no expectations. As you look at the season, you just have to be ready for a change in direction at the drop of a hat because of where we are with the new car and all the unknowns of what you’re looking for. So, my expectation going into the year is to be ready to adapt. Whether it’s a practice session, qualifying session, the race, it’s all going to be drastically different. You just have to be open-minded to be able to adapt to your surroundings and your situation and not get too wound up about anything because of the fact that next week, it might be different. You just never know, but it’s been the oddest year I’ve ever gone into just because of all the unknowns and all the differences with the car. I think you just have to be somewhat relaxed about it and just know that’s the expectation.”
Do you have a specific goal this year?
“Our goals never change. It’s to try and put yourself in position to win races and be competitive all year and, hopefully by the end of the year, you’re somewhere in a position to race for a championship.”
There is a new car this year – the NextGen car. What feedback did you get from when teams tested at Daytona in mid-January?
“The feedback was that the cars were very comfortable to drive, very stable. It sounds like there may be some tandem racing that comes back into play. And, reading the reports, it sounds like the cars are still very affected by the side draft and that they push well, so it sounds like the speedway racing will be affected the least amount by the new car. It’s everything else that’s going to be drastically different.”