Las Vegas marks a reunion with Rheem, who you ushered into the sport in spectacular fashion by winning their first race – the 2007 Daytona 500. What’s it like to be back with Rheem 15 years later?
“It’s been 15 years since we first started working with Rheem and it’s great to be back with them. The NASCAR fan is their customer, and we’ve worked really hard to understand that relationship to ensure Rheem gets a good return on its investment. This year kind of throws it back to how it all began with Rheem being a primary sponsor on one of my racecars. I’m proud to carry their colors again in 2022.”
This is your 22nd year in the NASCAR Cup Series. How valuable is that kind of experience in this sport?
“Today’s sport is so engineering-minded that the simple, everyday things sometimes get forgotten. It’s very important to do all the little things right, and you have to execute the simple things right, too. Don’t overcomplicate it, because sometimes overcomplicating results in a worse result than just say, ‘OK, today we finished fifth and next week we’re going to try to do two or three things to finish first, not 20 or 30 things and finish 30th.’ Keeping the simplicity of our process in the middle of our engineering-minded process is very important. It used to be trial and error when you tested. Nowadays, it’s try it and, prove it or debunk it, so that it’s either right or wrong. But there are going to be a lot of decisions that we’re going to have to make this year that are just going to be simple-minded, common-sense decisions in order to just get the best out of what you have.”
How helpful is that experience in adapting and developing this NextGen car?
“I think that simplicity also goes with helping guide us down this path that we’re going down with the NextGen car. You have to say, when you’re two steps into the process, ‘This isn’t right, I made a bad decision and we need to go back two steps,’ before you get 20 steps down the road and have to backtrack so far that it takes you weeks upon weeks to figure out how far back you need to go. So, one step forward is good, two steps forward and taking two steps back is OK, and being able to understand that, admit that, talk with the team like that, and taking two steps back is way better than getting half a season down the road and saying, ‘Man, this just isn’t working because we’ve piled everything into something that doesn’t work.’”
It used to be that the West Coast swing was a good barometer to see where teams stacked up against one another. Is that still the case?
“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, and the unique thing about this car is that word travels fast as to what the fast guys are doing. The suspension settings only have so many points that they will go to, so if you’re off and the guy next to you is six feet away, it’s not hard to look over and see where his upper A-arms are bolted in, or his lower A-arm, or whatever the case is. So, those gaps should be filled pretty quickly.”
Will your top-10 performance last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, give you an indication as to how you’ll run this Sunday at Las Vegas?
“I don’t think so. I think there’s just such a wide range of where it could be that you don’t really know. Is it a team thing? There’s still a very big possibility it could be a manufacturer thing, like we could be the manufacturer that’s head-over-heels better than the other manufacturers. Or it could be the other way around, so there are just so many things that nobody knows about that will unfold because these racetracks are drastically different. You’re going to racetracks that really don’t have a lot in common other than you’re racing the same car.”
Can you at least take what you learned at Fontana and apply it to Las Vegas and even the races thereafter?
“Of course, and we’re learning how to work on the car efficiently, at the track and at the shop, and that’s what I like about where we are as a group. Our group is filled with hardcore racers, and this first six weeks of racing is going to be really hardcore.”
Practice and qualifying are back, albeit in a different form from what we knew two years ago. How valuable is that track time as you figure out the NextGen car?
“Fontana was our second race of the year, and that’s a very unique racetrack – from a surface and tire wear standpoint and bumps down the back straightaway. It’s not a racetrack that’s common with anywhere that we’ve tested. And for us, our only track time came in real time during the race. So, that warmup – I don’t even know that you can call it practice – before qualifying is going to be very interesting because, if you’re not close right out of the box, there’s only so much that you can do in order to get it close to being competitive. It’s going to be more important to make laps and know the tire wear and know the cambers and be in a good rhythm with your car from a driving standpoint. You want to maximize the session and say, ‘OK, we need to go a long way on this change, or we need to go just a little bit on this change, based on how our speed is relative to the fastest cars.’ If you’re the fastest car, the slowest car, whatever it is, there’s just a lot that you have to unbox there in a pretty short amount of time. So, I think the important part of the process is going to be when you go from qualifying to the race and the changes that we make to our Rheem Ford Mustang in order to be where we want to be to start the race.”
How important is that time between qualifying and the race to understand what you’ll have for 400 miles?
“I’ve always felt like being able to manage the car and adjust your driving style to whatever the situation is, is as effective as almost anything that they can change with the car. If you can figure out what you need to do from a driving standpoint and be comfortable in getting that last tenth-and-a-half out of the racecar, I think that’s as important as anything they can do to the car in a short amount of time on Saturday.”
You’ve won at Las Vegas twice and have finished among the top-10 five times in your last six races at the track. What do you need to be quick there?
“Las Vegas has a lot of tire fall off, so it’s important to have a good-handling racecar. It’s also a track where you’re constantly moving around trying to find the right grip.”