Do you feel your solid effort at the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum is a sign of things to come this year?
“For sure. I think it’s a mindset going into this year. We want to go into this year and hit hard and be able to figure out this car faster than any other team and try to figure out how to get us back to the front where we belong at Stewart-Haas Racing. It was a great way to start off the year, a great confidence-builder. It was kind of an oddball racetrack, but I think you can take a few things to other racetracks like Martinsville and the short tracks and things like that. Everybody went there trying as hard as they could, so it was good to have the pace that we had and have a solid run.”
Having grown up in Southern California, what resonated with you about that event?
“It was cool. I had tons of texts and tons of messages from friends who went to the race and that’s one thing that’s always cool about your home racetracks, that you’re able to see friends and family and just kind of have that atmosphere there. Overall, it was just really cool to be back home and be able to put on a great show that we had. I think NASCAR knocked it out of the park and really had a great racetrack that was racy, and they did a great job promoting it, and I think it was a real home run for everybody.”
How much has the NextGen car evolved since you first tested it in September to now as you head to Daytona?
“From what we had in September to Speedweek, it’s going to be a lot different. They had a more recent test at Daytona in early January, and they changed a lot from the September test to that test. It seemed like they were a lot more racy at the January test and all the drivers were pretty happy with the car and how it drove and how it drafted. So I think they’ve made some huge gains on it since the September test when I went out and tested. I think we’re all looking forward to it. If everything from the test lines up, it should be a really great Daytona 500.”
What are your impressions of the NextGen car so far?
“For me, it was extremely durable, especially when you beat and bang – especially front to rear. If you hit somebody in the back of their car, you wouldn’t cave the nose in like the last car and knock your radiator out, so they’re really durable in that sense. Also, just to feel the tire and how much drive we had and, honestly, how much grip we had at that small of a racetrack was pretty surprising. I think they knocked it out of the park, like I said before. The car performed good. The racetrack was good. The event was good, so I can’t give you any negatives right now.”
Would you like to see more stadium races and, if so, where?
“I could definitely see them doing more because it was such a success. Honestly, I think the drivers liked it, so I think a race like that would be good to keep for like an All-Star Race or a non-points race just because, when points are on the line, it can get a little bit outrageous, I guess you could say. In the future, I don’t know. I think soccer stadiums are cool – even overseas. I think a race overseas would be pretty crazy. Logistically, it would be pretty hard, but it would be pretty cool.”
Do you feel you’ll need to be any more conservative than usual this year as you practice, qualify and race in the Duel in leadup to the Daytona 500?
“That’s one of the things I probably need to ask my crew chief Mike (Shiplett). We only really have one car. I think we will have a backup car ready if something does go wrong, but it’s something we don’t have a lot of parts and pieces right now. Everything is a little bit hard to get right now, so it’s one of those things that I think you’re going to have to go out there and race. You can’t just go out there and ride around because that’s not what we do. I think you have to be smart in certain circumstances. If you know it’s getting crazy coming down to the end and you don’t have a great shot at starting good anyway, you might as well just drop back and make sure you don’t get wrecked. It’s one of those things that, if you find yourself in a bad spot, you’re probably going to have to get out of it because you don’t want to risk wrecking your primary car.”
Any particular concern about running around teams that have to race their way into the 500?
“Yeah, that’s always one of the interesting things about the Duel. We’re all racing hard up front and in the pack, and you also have the guys who are trying to make the race that are racing their guts out, so it’s one of those races where there’s not really a safe spot – at any superspeedway race. You just kind of have to keep an eye on them, know who they are and what they’re racing for and kind of keep that in mind.”
What are the differences between this year’s car and last year’s car that you’re excited about?
“I think one of the coolest things about it is how it relates more to your street car on the road. Before, our old cars were probably based on 1960s technology. Now, we have a car that has independent rear suspension, modern wheels, different steering components. It’s a lot more modern in relation to what you see on the road today and that’s what really is intriguing to me.”
With this NextGen car, how do you set expectations, and what are they for you and your team?
“I think the biggest thing is getting back to what we do best at SHR and that’s just competing up front and going for wins. Last year, for every single one of us, it was not the year that we wanted. We wanted to be able to run up front more and have more competitive races where we got to compete for wins. This year is the perfect year to rebound from that and show people what we can do. We want to get back to multi-win seasons and get to victory lane a lot more. We put a lot of work into this NextGen car, the guys have been working extremely hard trying to figure out every single little piece, and I think we’re going to hit the ground running in trying to get back to victory lane as soon as we can.”
How are you approaching your third season, personally?
“This is definitely the year to turn everything around. With a clean slate, a brand new car, everybody’s pretty much equal. And I think it’s a year that we can definitely go out there and get back to victory lane, where we belong at Stewart-Haas Racing. I’m really looking forward to it. I think we have some really great guys at the shop who are really figuring out this new car, so I’m really looking forward to getting to Daytona and seeing what we’ve got there.”