Do you have an extra gear that you grab for the playoffs?
“When the Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus era was in full swing, we had to make some decisions on how we wanted to race. We wanted to race like them, and that was championship mode every week so that you didn’t have to figure out how to do something differently when you got to the playoffs. You couldn’t put on this new face or this new mindset, or decide you’re going to do this differently or that differently. You’ve got to have that figured out before you get there and rely on your abilities and the things that you’ve done in the past. You’ve just got to continue to do that going forward, and hopefully the cars are better and you can rely on that extra speed as you go into the playoffs. We try to do the same things week after week. Rodney (Childers, crew chief) doesn’t have a demeanor change whether the sky is falling, or if it’s cold or hot outside, or the car is fast or slow, he’s pretty much the same guy. That helps us all because he’s so even-keeled about everything that he does.”
Winning at Michigan was the obvious turnaround for your season. What did you see before that win others on the outside of your race team did not?
“We see everything. Since we came back from the off weekend in June and went to Nashville and had a good weekend and were able to be competitive and run in the top-five, really from that point on things have been progressing well and the cars have had some decent speed and we’ve been able to make some changes here and there with things with the team. And I think as we’ve gone along for a month and a half, the cars had speed, we just had no luck to go along with it. But we knew things were headed in the right direction, and it was just a matter of putting ourselves in the right position and continuing to do that and having the scenarios turned around and having a little bit of good luck. That’s all turned around and, hopefully, that wave up is as long as that wave was down.”
After the win at Michigan, you won the very next week at Richmond. How satisfying were those back-to-back victories?
“I think the most gratifying part of it all was the fact that we all worked through it together. As you look at the new car and not really understand a lot that’s going on with it because it’s so drastically different, it made you look at things a lot differently than what you did before. For myself and Rodney, we’ve been around this for a long time, and having to forget all of the stuff that you’ve done, you’re going to the same racetracks, but it’s a different thought process. It’s a different process of how you get to that answer than what it used to be. You had to be somewhat open-minded, and I can be open-minded if it’s something that you want to do.”
Kansas has historically been a very good track for you, but in the series’ prior visit back in May, you finished 15th. What are your expectations for your return to Kansas this weekend?
“Kansas was an OK race for us. I think the tire’s a little bit different, a little less stagger this time, so that’ll change the setups a little bit as we go into Kansas. You have to be good middle to the top of the racetrack in order to make good time at Kansas and be able to survive on the long run and make enough speed. So you’re going to need to be comfortable from the middle of the racetrack up to the top to make good lap times, so that’s what we’ll concentrate on.”
Middle to the top of the racetrack is where you want to run at Kansas, but when do you adjust that line in the event you’re getting beat?
“I’m going to always want my car to be versatile just because if you are married to that top lane and your car won’t work anywhere else, you don’t have a really good chance of making time and passing people. If you get married to that top lane and catch 15th, 16th place in the field and they’re also married to that top lane, it becomes difficult to pass and then your gaps shrink rapidly as you’re trying to make your way through the field. You need to have some versatility. If your car’s decent up top, you can make good lap times up there, regardless, and park yourself in front of the guys who are also wanting to run up the top. But if your car’s a little more versatile than others, you can kind of swing down through the middle, especially in turns three and four.”
Your history at Kansas is impressive. Three wins, five second-place finishes, 11 top-threes, 12 top-fives, 19 top-10s and 949 laps led across 33 career NASCAR Cup Series starts. What makes you so good there?
“I think Kansas has been a great racetrack and, really, from a driver’s standpoint, a fun racetrack because of the fact that it’s worn in so well. You can race at the top of the racetrack, which is the preferred groove as the tires wear out. It’s faster at the bottom of the racetrack on new tires. But as a driver, having options is something that is a lot of fun. With Atlanta having been repaved along with some of the other racetracks, Kansas has become one of the more unique racetracks because of the fact the asphalt and the shape of the racetrack is so driver-friendly, as far as where you can drive on the racetrack. You can literally drive from the wall to the apron all the way around the racetrack. So, it’s a fun racetrack. It’s been good to us and, hopefully, we can continue that trend on Sunday in our Rheem Ford Mustang.”
By being able to move around on the track at Kansas, can you be more aggressive with these cars than you can at other tracks?
“In certain situations. I think from pushing, restarts, things like that, you can be pretty aggressive with them, but you also have to be pretty careful with them in certain spots, because it can get out from underneath you pretty quickly.”
Race strategy, particularly at Kansas, has come into play in recent races. While strategy is more in the realm of your crew chief, Rodney Childers, when it dictates a race outcome instead of sheer performance, do you have to sort of switch your mindset, perhaps by finding some patience even when you want to just go as hard as you can?
“These cars, in certain situations, have worn the tires a lot more than what they’ve done in the past. Kansas can be a high-wear racetrack just because of the way that the surface has aged, which is a great thing. So, I think for a lot of that, you’ll just have to see what the pit windows are and what the tire wear is when we go there. But it’s definitely a racey track. Those guys can see a lot more on the pit box than I can see in the car, so I usually just go with what they tell me and kind of roll from there.”