“No, I feel like we have a good shot. Our team has been trending in a better direction and our race cars have been fast all year. I think they are even faster now than they were, and now we just have to execute to match the speed in our car. That has been the area where really all teams have struggled this year is the execution. I feel like we have been getting better at that here lately and have been able to contend a little bit more, and in the playoffs I feel like there are a lot of my best tracks. So, definitely confident and look forward to the challenge.”
DO YOU FEEL GOOD ABOUT WHERE YOU GUYS ARE HEADING INTO THE PLAYOFFS BECAUSE YOU HAVEN’T WON AS MANY RACES AS YOU DID LAST YEAR?
“Yeah, I feel good about it and we have contended often, we just haven’t executed well enough to win. There have been plenty of times this year where the guy that won the race, we were faster than them. Their team just did a really good job. I feel like lately. we have been executing our races good and we have been contending a little more. We won at Watkins Glen because we executed a good race. So, I think we are in a good spot. And like I said, there are a lot of good tracks for me, and I think we can contend and go get some wins.”
DO YOU FEEL LIKE A FAVORITE GOING IN THIS YEAR AS THE REIGNING CHAMPION?
“I don’t know. Maybe that is a better question for other people. I don’t know how to compare myself. I feel confident and I’m confident that we can go out there and win another championship. We have a championship team and we proved that last year. So, I don’t see why we couldn’t if we execute right and don’t have any DNFs or things like that.”
REGARDING DARLINGTON, ARE YOU CONFIDENT OF WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH THIS CAR KNOWING HOW YOU LIKE TO RACE?
“I don’t know. We ran at Darlington earlier this year and we blew up, but we had a fast car. Everybody looks at me as a guy that runs the wall, which in most cases is true. But at Darlington, at least in (turns) three and four, I tend to stay away from it.. slightly. I still run the top, but I give myself some room. But, I don’t know, it depends on how you hit the wall I think. You could graze the wall a lot better with the other car I think; but when you hit the wall, the car with the toe links and all are a little flimsy. Honestly, just try and stay out of the wall. That is the best case.”
WHAT DOES IT SAY THAT FOUR ROOKIES ARE IN THE PLAYOFFS?
“I don’t really think too much in it. Even though they are playoff rookies.. yeah (Austin) Cindric might be the only rookie, but playoff rookies, they are all professional drivers and they have all been in championship situations in their career that they have learned from. So, I don’t read too much into it, but I am not going to say they won’t race different or react differently than someone that has had experience in the playoffs.”
IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME SINCE SOMEBODY WON BACK-TO-BACK CHAMPIONSHIPS. DO YOU HAVE THAT AT ALL IN YOUR HEAD?
“I mean, I ultimately want to win the championship and I guess with that, you would be the first back-to-back winner since Jimmie Johnson. But I don’t let that add any more pressure on me. I think that also shows just how difficult this playoff format is to when Jimmie was winning. Him and his team were so good that it seemed like they could just stretch out in points to where now you can’t do that and you have to be.. . it’s like three mini race series. You can’t really stretch yourself out from anyone really.”
FOR HENDRICK, AS YOU APPROACH THE PLAYOFFS, IS IT ALL TOGETHER OR EACH TEAM A LITTLE MORE FOR ITSELF?
“If I am being honest, I feel like everyone works better together in the playoffs. I think because Rick (Hendrick) has four opportunities to win and we want to give him 100% opportunity to win once we get to Phoenix. I feel like we all work together closer, just the way I experienced it last year in the competition meetings and stuff like that. It’s no different, if not, better.”
WHAT WOULD A WIN AT THE SOUTHERN 500 MEAN TO YOU SINCE YOU HAVE BEEN SO CLOSE?
“That one is the next one on my list that I haven’t won. I really want to win and have been close so many times. I have been third at least once, second a couple of times. I’ve had the dominant car in that race a couple of times. I remember we had a great shot to win one year and (Brad) Keselowski beat me off pit road by like two inches and that was it.. that was the race. Lost control of the restart and lost the race. I know our car should be fast there this weekend and hopefully we can just put it all together and get that win we have been fighting for.”