DENNY HAMLIN IS THE BEST ACTIVE DRIVER HERE, IF YOU LOOK AT THE STATS. YOU ARE THE MOST RECENT WINNER HERE; HE DID NOT DO WELL IN THE SPRING. WHO HAS THE ADVANTAGE?
“I don’t know.. you tell me. I feel like we’ll know when we get done today a little bit; and then we’ll know more halfway through the race tomorrow. Martinsville (Speedway) has been a good track for us for the last two, two and a half years. Really my rookie year was probably my biggest struggle; and then after that, it pretty much clicked. I like this place. It’s where I grew up watching races, so I feel like I have a good idea of what to look for and how the track changes. When you enjoy coming to a place, you seem to have some success there.”
WHAT HAS THIS PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE BEEN LIKE FOR YOU, AS OPPOSED TO THE LAST ONE?
“It’s been enjoyable. I think there has been little check marks along the way. I think in a lot of ways, we had a little bit of a better performance throughout the entire year last year, and then we got to the playoffs and we kind of stumbled. But I feel like this year, we put a lot of emphasis on getting a couple wins early. We spent the summer trying to learn, and then we showed up to playoffs with good speed. We won the first stage of the playoffs at Darlington (Raceway) and we’ve scored a lot of points. I feel good about our playoffs. I think there’s been a couple of missed opportunities here and there that we could do a little bit better at executing the entire race, but we’ve had speed every week, so now is the time to show that.”
DO YOU ENJOY THE PLAYOFF ATMOSPHERE AND THE DIFFERENT THINGS THAT COME WITH IT?
“I do. I enjoy the competition. I don’t enjoy some of the other things that come outside of it, but I enjoy the competition. I was driving up here last night thinking that there’s no other feeling like this. You don’t get this feeling at the beginning of the year; you don’t get it in the middle of the year. You get this feeling now. So, I think that’s the cool thing; the thought process and the feelings you get knowing that you’re doing something important.”
YOU’VE TALKED MANY TIMES ABOUT HOW JIMMIE JOHNSON WAS ONE OF YOUR FAVORITES. IS THERE ANYTHING FROM YEARS OF BEING A KID, WATCHING HIM, THAT YOU’RE USING THIS WEEK AND POTENTIALLY NEXT WEEK?
“Yeah, that’s a good point. I haven’t really thought of it. But yeah, certainly some of those things are engrained in my memory of how he and Chad (Knaus) did things on that No. 48 team and how Jimmie executed races here for wins. A lot of that stuff is way back in my head somewhere, but it probably factors in a little bit to my instincts.”
I SAW CHAD (KNAUS) HERE THIS MORNING. WHAT’S IT LIKE TO HAVE HIM AROUND? THAT’S THE GUY WHO’S BEHIND ALL OF THAT SUCCESS AND NOW HE’S THERE BEING A MENTOR TO YOU. THAT HAS TO BE A BIG ASSET TO HAVE.
“Yeah, it is. Chad (Knaus) and I were on the phone this week talking – not anything about racing, at first – but we were talking about where he wants to get Kipling into school. We started talking about this weekend a little bit. I asked him a couple of questions for advice. It’s really cool to have that.. to have him in our corner and have someone that’s been there, done that; and been in these exact situations and has an idea of how to handle it. I thought it was really cool trying to pick his brain a little bit and get an idea of what it’s like.”
YOU DON’T SEEM NERVOUS AT ALL.. EMBRACING THIS OPPORTUNITY AND LOOKING FORWARD TO IT, RATHER THAN BEING ANXIOUS ABOUT IT. WHAT’S THAT EVOLUTION BEEN LIKE FOR YOU? THREE OR FOUR YEARS AGO, WOULD YOU HAVE BEEN THIS CALM?
“Number one, I feel like I’ve been in this position a couple of times. I just know how it was for me at the start of my career when I was nervous for every practice session. Nervous for every qualifying session and dreading the race, not knowing what’s going to happen. I think I’ve just matured, like you said, and learned how to approach it. I’ve learned what’s worked for me and I think that’s what’s led to this mindset. It’s like self-growth. I don’t think it’s taken any certain thing to happen from the outside to grow that, but I think it’s been the experiences that I’ve had at a young age that I’ve learned what works for me. I’ve learned what I want to feel before I get in the race car and what I want to feel in these moments.
Also, this is a situation that is an opportunity. I’ve never been in this position and I hope to be in it many times. But it’s something I look at as an opportunity that I want to make the most of.”
DOES THE FACT THAT YOU CAME HERE EARLIER IN THE YEAR AND WON.. DOES THAT GIVE YOU ANY EXTRA CONFIDENCE COMING INTO THIS WEEKEND; OR HAS TOO MUCH CHANGED SINCE THEN?
“Yeah, certainly. I think I was more nervous for Homestead. I didn’t feel like we had a great test down there, but I was pleasantly surprised by the speed that we brought to the race. I think I was more nervous last week, not knowing what the performance was going to be like.
Yeah, there’s a little bit of confidence going into this race since we had a good race in the spring. But at the same time, we had a test here, and you don’t know who’s going to be good or not, based on that test.
It’s kind of up in the air. I feel good about this race track, but you just don’t know until you get out there. That’s honestly my mentality.. just try to get in the car and not think too much.”
DOES WHERE YOU QUALIFY DETERMINE HOW YOU’RE GOING TO RACE; OR DO YOU AND RUDY (FUGLE) KIND OF ALREADY HAVE A PLAN GOING IN?
“Yeah, it’s going to definitely factor into how you approach that first stage. So I think a good qualifying effort, it’s good for pit selection. We’ve all talked about that stuff. But I think you just have to roll with the punches. If it doesn’t go well in qualifying for some reason, we still start the race with the same amount of points above the cutline. We will still have an opportunity in the first stage to go get them, it’s just going to make it a little bit more difficult. We pride ourselves on good qualifying efforts in the fall so far, so hopefully we can do that again.”
THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF CRITICISM AS TO HOW THE RACING WAS HERE IN THE SPRING. BUT FROM YOUR VIEW, I WOULD IMAGINE IT WAS PRETTY GOOD. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THAT, WHEN YOU HEAR PEOPLE CRITICIZE RACES WHERE YOU KIND OF STUNK UP THE SHOW?
“Yeah, I liked it. I thought our car was really good and we got to show that. The race certainly could have been better. I think we’ve seen at the road courses and the short tracks, it’s hard to pass. I want it to be better, for the sake if I’m having a bad day, that I can improve it. If we get the car a little bit better, we can make passes. But selfishly, in the spring, it was a great race.”
HAVE YOU TALKED TO JIMMIE JOHNSON AT ALL IN THE LAST MONTH OR TWO? IF SO, WHAT ADVICE HAS HE GIVEN YOU ABOUT NAVIGATING THESE PLAYOFFS?
“We haven’t talked. I think I’m just trying to experience it all for the first time. I don’t know what questions I have, yet. I think maybe the second go around, when I get through this year and experience what I’ve experienced, then I will have an idea. But luckily, I have some good people in my corner – within my team and outside of my team – so I just try to stay focused on the task at hand and not overthink it too much.”