You started your second full season in the Cup Series with your first top-five after finishing third in the Daytona 500. Does that finish make up for some of what you faced during your rookie season?
“I think I’m still just taking it all in. You dream of racing in the Daytona 500. Last year was tough. It was my first Cup race and our practice time was so limited I really came in with no experience. Coming back this year with a new car – a fresh slate for everyone, really – and a sold-out crowd, I felt like this was the Daytona 500 experience I would remember. Then you add what happened during the race and it all kind of played out in the best way. We were so close to the win and would have loved to get one to start the season, but to come out of it third and be in a good points position first race out is great. I don’t know that it makes up for a tough rookie year, we had some successes that were great for what we were facing, but with how we ran up front in L.A., and the Daytona finish, we can’t really ask for a better start to the year.”
Now you head to Auto Club Speedway, a completely different setup than what you experienced in the first two events of the year. What are your expectations for the first leg of the West Coast swing??
“I love going to Auto Club. I’ve only raced there twice and never in Cup, but having the new car now really helps me in that area. I think we’re all still learning a lot about what we can do with the NextGen, so I don’t feel like I’m behind so much. It’s so slick and worn out and, with these cars being so on edge, I think it’s going to be really easy for some guys to get a little too close to that line that takes you too far over the edge and ruins your day. I’ve always said this kind of track works well with a dirt guy’s background. There are so many changes throughout the race and Auto Club is a track where you have to have the most throttle control out of anywhere we go. But you never know, it may end up being something completely different than what we’re expecting. That’s what these practice sessions are for, and we’ve got to do our best to use that time to our advantage.”
There was some work done to smooth out the bumpy surface of Fontana that has caused trouble for drivers in the past. Do you think that will have any impact on how the track races?
“I don’t expect it to. I’m sure there will be a difference in how smooth those areas are, and it may help a little, but the ride quality with these new cars is so much rougher, so I don’t know that we’ll be able to tell. It’s definitely something we’ll be paying attention to in practice.”