Much is made about the Coca-Cola 600 being the series’ longest race. Because the race is so long, can it be a good thing where if you’re not where you want to be, you have time to make things right? Or is the other side of the coin being that it’s too long of a race to not be good?
“There’s just not a lot of room for error because somebody’s going to be good and you’ve got to put yourself in a position to stay on the lead lap. There are so many different areas of transition that you go through in that race because of the fact that the sun goes down after it starts hot and slick. Then as you transition into the night, you have to have something completely different in your car compared to what you had at the beginning of the race. So there’s a sacrifice you have to make at the beginning of the race to just basically try to keep yourself in a good position. Don’t make any mistakes, stay on the lead lap, and try and put yourself in a good position for the night because that’s when it really counts.”
The Coca-Cola 600 used to be about pushing drivers and their cars to the limit, as attrition was once a key factor. But today, drivers are fitter than ever and cars seem to be built better than ever before. Is that extra 100 miles noticeable anymore, be it from your perspective behind the wheel or from your team’s when it comes to building your racecar?
“I don’t think from a physical standpoint it’s noticeable anymore. I think the biggest thing about the Coke 600 is your mental state. When they tell you halfway, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s only halfway?’ That’s 200 laps, and it feels like you’ve run a whole race and you have the other half of the race still to run. So I think from a mental standpoint, it’s hard to wrap your arms around the lap count and all the things that come with a race being that long.”
The Coca-Cola 600 is considered one of NASCAR’s crown jewels because it is the only 600-mile race on the schedule. But in this short-attention span era, is a 600-mile race still needed?
“You can debate it. Looking at the 600, it’s a pretty historic race and, listening to people who’ve watched the race, they think it’s too long. But I think from the sport’s standpoint, you have to have different tests, and I think 600 miles still represents a test that you can relate to the past, and it just adds a different level of preparation.”
You’re a two-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 (2011 and 2013). Forget the folks who say a four-plus hour race is too long. Do you take special satisfaction in each of those wins because it is a big deal to not only run 600 miles at Charlotte, but do it better than anyone else – twice?
“I don’t that that one sticks out any more than any of the rest of them as far as the marquee, crown-jewel races go, just because of the fact that those four races (Coca-Cola 600, Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400) are pretty unique, and having the opportunity to win any of those is pretty special. And I think winning at Charlotte, no matter what it is, whether it’s the 600 or at the end of the year, whatever it is – the All-Star Race used to be there – it’s definitely different because of all the people you have from the shop, and family and friends, and anything you can win at Charlotte is just special.”
You’ve got to be passionate to race at a high level. What made you want to race at this level, and what drives you to stay competitive at this level?
“I didn’t really know that I wanted to race at this level until I was probably 17 or 18 years old. In fact, I don’t think you’re actually qualified to know what you really want because of the fact that you don’t even really know how to live prior to that point. So for me, it’s the competitive side of it and being able to work with the guys that I have on my team in order to achieve something, and try and make our car faster than anybody else’s. To work as a group to do that is something I enjoy. I enjoy that as much as I do anything. I think being able to drive the car and do the things that you do inside it is just kind of a part of what you do anymore. But I enjoy that satisfaction of working with a group of guys toward a common goal.”
What does it mean to honor and remember a military member on your No. 4 Mobil 1 Ford this Memorial Day weekend?
“There isn’t any sport that honors the military any better than NASCAR. I know a lot of sports do a lot of things for our military, but when you roll into this particular weekend with the Coke 600 and you’re a part of the celebration and remembrance for all the things that have happened with our military, to see the support that NASCAR and everybody in our garage gives the military, especially on this particular weekend, is something that gives you goosebumps.”