LAST WEEK WAS YOUR FIRST TOP-10 FINISH SINCE NEW HAMPSHIRE. IT SEEMED LIKE THINGS HAD – NOT TAKEN A NOSE DIVE – BUT KIND OF TAILED OFF IN AUGUST AFTER THE POCONO RACE. WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE GETTING IN THE TOP-10 TO AND HOW DO YOU FEEL THE PACE OF YOUR TEAM IS NOW COMPARED TO WHERE YOU WERE AT THE END OF THE REGULAR SEASON?
“I feel like the pace has not left us. There’s been a lot of mistakes on my part; and then just stuff that’s going to happen in racing, just all kind of piled on for two months in a row there. But the pace never left.. I never questioned that. It was just a matter of me not messing; not speeding on pit road, debris in the drive pin holes at Darlington, or just crashing. It’s just eliminating that.”
YOU CERTAINLY HAD IDEAS IN YOUR HEAD OF WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE TO BE IN THE PLAYOFFS BEFORE YOU GOT INTO THE PLAYOFFS. NOW, YOU’RE TWO RACES DEEP. DOES ANYTHING SURPRISE YOU ABOUT THE INTENSITY, FEELINGS OR DIFFERENT THINGS THAT YOU’VE GONE THROUGH DURING THESE FIRST TWO RACES?
“A lot of surprises.. and I won’t sit up here and tell you that it feels like the rest of the season because it doesn’t. It’s different. I know that small mistakes can lead to ending our chance to run for a championship. So these races – three at a time, three rounds each – do mean more. I’m not immune to that.
But leaving Daytona and the Monday morning before Darlington, I was amazed about how normal it felt. I thought ‘well it’s going to come later in the week’.. and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, all felt so normal. Race day morning, that was tough. I stayed down in Florence at a hotel. The drive over to the track, I just had a lot of nerves. Once I got into the rhythm of coming and doing stuff like this, meeting with sponsors, team meeting, dinner.. then it’s normal. These races are later in the day, so I’m curious to see how tomorrow feels. But the morning of Darlington, all the way until I got in the hauler and started my normal race day routine of meetings and appearances, it felt different. Looking back on it, it’s cool. But in the moment, it doesn’t feel good.”
DID YOU FEEL LIKE GOING INTO THE PLAYOFFS, YOU COULD HANDLE IT LIKE ‘HEY, IT’S JUST ANOTHER RACE’ AND YOU FOUND OUT YOU COULDN’T? DID YOU FEEL LIKE GOING INTO IT, YOU KNEW IT WAS GOING TO BE DIFFERENT?
“I feel like once we got into the rhythm of Darlington and Kansas, we handled it. We did everything that we needed to do. You can look back and see things that could be done better, but we’re all experiencing this for the first time. Myself, my crew chief Phil Surgen and my spotter Brandon McReynolds – even just us three have never been in this position in our current roles. I expected the week leading up to it, the days leading up to the race, to be harder to get through. But they were actually more normal than I anticipated and I kind of calibrated to that. And then race day was like a flood of emotions.
At the end of the day, I’m right where I’ve always wanted to be and realizing that, it’s all kind of hit me on each race day. It’s really cool and I’m trying to experience all of this as much as I can, but it’s also scary at the same time.”
WITH THIS BEING BRISTOL, A SHORT TRACK AND THE FIRST CUT-OFF RACE OF THE PLAYOFFS; I’M WONDERING IF YOU’RE GOING TO ASK YOUR TEAM TO KEEP YOU MORE AWARE OF OTHER DRIVERS AROUND YOU TOMORROW NIGHT IN CASE THERE IS ANY FALLOUT FROM INCIDENTS FROM EARLIER THIS YEAR?
“If there is any fallout, I’ll be the first to know. They aren’t going to be able to tell me before it happens.”
IF YOU HAVE SOMEBODY BEHIND YOU THOUGH, ARE YOU GOING TO WANT TO BE AWARE OF THAT?
“I’m aware of everything going on around the No. 1 car at all times.. especially with these new rearview cameras. I tell Brandon McReynolds all the time; spotter union up there better put a petition to get these things out of here because they’re nice and you can see everything.
Yeah, I’m aware. We’ve went through all of the points situations of finishing positions through each stage. So we re-evaluate through each stage, but it doesn’t even need to be said. I have a good enough working knowledge, I feel like. If a caution comes out for a stage break, we’ll see who got points and I’m going to know a ballpark of how it’s updating. I don’t need a read-out every stage.”
YOU HAVE FIVE STARTS AT BRISTOL WITH ONE TOP-15 FINISH AND AN AVERAGE FINISH OF 26. 800. HOWEVER, WITH THE NEXT GEN CAR, YOU CAN KIND OF THROW SOME OF THE STATS OUT THE WINDOW BECAUSE A LOT OF THE TEAMS DON’T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT HERE. WE MIGHT SEE SOMEBODY WHO WE NEVER EXPECTED TO FINISH WELL, FINISH WELL. DO YOU WIPE THAT OUT OF YOUR MIND? WHAT DO YOU EXPECT OF THE CAR HERE?
“When I look back on my Cup races here.. this is a good example. With Premium Motorsports for most of those races, aside from last year with the No. 42, my goal was to finish a single digit number of laps down. So that’s nine laps down to the leader or less. That was the challenge, that was the goal; to keep it at nine or less. Don’t be double digits. The things I learned through those races are invaluable. I can never learn that in a fast car.. how to get lapped nine times, eight times, whatever. That’s hard to do. I wouldn’t trade those days, but also I’m in a totally different space now. So transitioning that has been hard.. you all have witnessed that first-hand, my transition from slow cars in the Cup Series to fast cars and you’ve seen my mistakes along the way. I take all of those past races, even though the finishes don’t show. There were times where I crashed on lap one because I was too close to the field and I piled into a wreck when someone turned off of (turn) four. And then there’s other times where I did the right thing, stayed back and I finished the race.
Finishes aside, a lot of times 29th was a win. That was our goal.. or 25th. You run 25th in the No. 15 car back then and you’ve done your job. I know a lot of people look at averages and my average now will always be skewed with those early years. Whether at the end of my career I go back to a car like that, I don’t know. But for right now, I’m going to keep upping my average to where it’s supposed to be. But it will always be skewed because of those. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”
HOW LONG DO YOU THINK WILL IT TAKE FOR YOU TO GET THE FEEL OF THE NEXT GEN CAR ON THIS TRACK?
“I hope I can assess it faster than some people can turn off music on their phones (laughs).
Yeah, practice is going to be wild. Looking at what the wheel force cars did; all three manufacturers spun out and all three blew tires separate of each other. Separate of the tire blow outs to the spins, from what I was told.
I’m not going to be upset if we’re not the fastest because we’re probably not on the ragged edge of air pressure and tires blowing. We need solid runs.
And then driving with these shocks and the way they bottom out; you’re just spinning out kind of every practice. I could see that happening here. It’s going to be an experience. We haven’t run here on the concrete configuration in a year, so it really feels like to me – the unknowns of it – feel like the races early in the year when we went to each track for the first time. This is the first time with the new car coming to Bristol. You can’t count the dirt experience; it’s just going to drive so different.”
AT 26-POINTS ABOVE THE CUTLINE, DO YOU PLAY THIS A LITTLE BIT CONSERVATIVE BECAUSE OF THE UNKNOWNS?
“Yeah, I think of course. You never want to crash in practice, especially this year with this car. You don’t want to crash. I think that the simple answer is yes.. but I still want to go fast. I know I say I don’t want to be the fastest in practice, but I do. I want to be the fastest. I want to qualify on the pole and I want to lead 500 laps.
There are going to be certain situations where it’s going to be in my best interest to not insert myself.”
WE OFTEN HEAR THAT THIS IS THE TIME OF THE YEAR WHERE TEAMS STEP IT UP. BUT WHEN A NON-PLAYOFF DRIVER WON AT DARLINGTON, IT DOESN’T SEEM LIKE WE’VE SEEN AS MUCH DOMINANCE FROM THE PLAYOFF TEAMS THAT WE HAVE IN PAST YEARS. WHAT’S YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON THAT?
“It’s different. This car has reset that whole thing. Like you can’t bring different headers here. You can’t bring a new aero-package. You’re trying to maximize everything, but we all have the same parts. You can’t build a new right-front spindle and save it for the playoffs. You can’t bring different brake pads that they’ve found in testing to be better and bring them now. There’s nothing else to bring. We all order the same stuff.
This has been the greatest reset that this sport has ever seen.. ever. From the very first race, you could build a better car. Now, you can only assemble a better car. We all build off the same control arms, chassis, body panels. We all scan them in our hawkeyes. We bring them here and try not to let the sun hit them. We get them through tech and then we race them. They are so equal and it’s been the greatest reset.
Really, there’s geometry and setups. But you’re just moving stuff around on the car, you can’t bring different materials because we all buy the same stuff.”
A LOT OF PEOPLE POINT TO BRISTOL OR MARTINSVILLE WHERE YOU MIGHT SEE PAYBACKS. ESPECIALLY GIVEN THE CURRENT POINTS SITUATION AND ONLY (CHRISTOPHER) BELL HAVING LOCKED INTO THE NEXT ROUND; WILL GUYS BE ON SO MANY DIFFERENT AGENDAS TOMORROW NIGHT THAT IT SORT OF LESSENS THE POTENTIAL FOR GUYS WORRYING ABOUT PAYBACK?
“I can’t speak for what other people are thinking. I just know that I hit the wall nice and hard at Pocono, so I don’t think track or speed matters.”
WHAT WAS YOUR PERSPECTIVE OF THE THING THAT HAPPENED LAST WEEK WITH BUBBA (WALLACE) AND (KEVIN) HARVICK, WHEN HARVICK ENDED UP HITTING THE WALL?
“Yeah, I got tight under Bubba (Wallace). We were super close to each other; didn’t lift in time, didn’t leave him enough room, forced him into the wall. We got off of each other right before he hit the wall, but it was still my fault.
I think on that part, Harvick, no.. I think that’s the air of these cars. I felt bad and I apologized on the radio. But when I watched it, I can’t control the cars behind us. But I feel terrible that happened. He’s one of my heroes.. I don’t want an action in the middle of (turns) three and four to cause a wreck on the exit. I could have given him more room, especially looking back at lap 30-something, for sure.”
WHEN SOMETHING LIKE THAT HAPPENS.. YOU DIDIN’T HAVE ANY CONTACT WITH HARVICK, BUT OF COURSE EVERYBODY DOESN’T GIVE YOU THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT AT THIS POINT, SO YOU GET BLAMED FOR IT ON SOCIAL MEDIA. DO YOU PAY ATTENTION TO THAT?
“I do know. I do hear it and I do get it sent to me. But it does not bother me that a tweet will go out from somebody and it names Harvick and me and leaves Bubba out. It’s like, why.. why does it have to be skewed that way. But it doesn’t bother me. I just see it and I understand how that person views it. And that’s what’s so great about social media.. it’s that everybody’s opinions are instantly out there. Whether somebody has zero followers or 300,000 followers, it does not matter. Their tweet is going to go out and people can take it for how it is. All it takes is a free download of an app and it’s out there.
It doesn’t bother me, it’s just good to know. It’s good to have your head to the ground. As we all co-exist through this sport, it’s good to know where people stand and how they view things. A lot of times social media can tell you a lot about a person. I know a lot of people call it a highlight real. You can tell a lot about somebody with how they talk and the characters they use on there.”
EXPLAIN WHAT FACTORS GO INTO WHETHER YOU SHIFT AT A PLACE LIKE BRISTOL OR NOT; AND IF SO, IS THAT DIFFICULT?
“Super difficult. I tried it this week in the simulator. It’s possible, I think. I don’t think it’s going to be necessary, but I also didn’t think it would be necessary at Martinsville and it was every lap. I didn’t think it would be like it was at the Clash and it was. I don’t know that we slow down quite enough, but we’re not expecting a ton of tire falloff. But if it does slow down enough, I could see late in a run if we still have good forward drive, start trying it. Guys were doing it at Kansas that were really tight. It’s wild.. I never even thought about it at Kansas, but some guys are a little more openminded to that than me. I’m usually a little late to the game. They have to tell me they’re doing it and then I have to work up my confidence.”
DOES SHIFTING HELP WITH SPEED OR HANDLING?
“Yes… (laughs). It’s going to help the handling, which is going to help the speed. I don’t know how exactly, but it does. I don’t understand these transaxles yet enough to know.”
GOING BACK TO BEING CONSERVATIVE; THAT GIVES ME THE SENSE THAT EVEN AT 26-POINTS ABOVE THE CUTLINE, THERE’S NO FEEL OF BEING SAFE OR COMFORTABLE WITH THAT ADVANTAGE.
“No, it’s the Cup Series. These are the best driver and teams in the world. We all know the math and we know the points that need to be acquired. We just have to go race. I can’t ride around; I just have to go race. You can gain and lose points quick, for sure. Stuff happens so fast here that it can change in lap of the 500.”
DARLINGTON AND KANSAS – MULTIPLE PLAYOFF DRIVERS HAD PROBLEMS. IS THERE ANY REASON TO BELIEVE THAT BRISTOL COULD NOT BE JUST AS WILD TOMORROW NIGHT?
“No, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be. It’s on this spot on the schedule for a reason.”