It looks like Jimmie Johnson is showing his influence on this entire operation. How important is that?
“He’s really hands-on and he truly believes in what they’re trying to build over there. It’s exciting to see it go from paper and ideas to being a legit brand now. It’s pretty cool.”
Have you worked with Jimmie directly? What have your interactions been like so far?
“We’ve spent quite a bit of time together, I feel like. I went down with him to the Rolex 24 down here in Daytona. I flew down with him and was just trying to be around him as much as possible and pick his brain and learn from him. He’s been a great mentor throughout my career so far. Now that we’re teammates, I can really learn from a great and successful racecar driver like Jimmie (and it) is a perfect place for where I need to be in my career.”
Can you mentor him as he goes forward this year? Erik (Jones) said he has asked everyone what these cars are like.
“What’s cool is that Jimmie is very humble and is always asking for advice and trying to learn. That’s one thing I’ve gotten from him – that you can always learn no matter what. So he’s asked both Erik and I questions, Erik and I have both asked him questions, Jimmie and I have both asked Erik questions, so it’s kind of like a knowledge triangle where we’re all trying to be better. I’m probably the weakest link in the triangle, but we’re all trying to help each other to be better.”
Who gets the first win this season?
“I don’t know. I hope any one of us. If any one of us three can win, it will be very special.”
Frankie Muniz is making his ARCA debut this weekend, and he mentioned you were one of the drivers who was helping as he transitions to stock car racing. What conversations have you had with him?
“It’s really cool for Frankie to get in. He’s raced some open-wheel stuff in his career years back and has another opportunity and shot at doing this. You can tell he’s all-in and has bought in. He wants to do this. He is getting a little later start, but he has a different perspective on things that he may have had at an earlier age and in his career the first time by. It’s a great group, and I know he’s in good hands. I know when I first came in, I had a lot of things I wanted to know but didn’t know what questions to ask. So to be there for him and not hold his hand but to talk him through everything is important to me. I wish I had someone like that, especially when I first came in. Brandon McReynolds was kind of that guy for me, but to be able to do it with Frankie and hopefully see his success will bring a lot of pride.”
You’ve gone from one NASCAR superstar in Dale Earnhardt Jr., to another in Jimmie Johnson. What are the similarities and differences that you see between them as owners?
“Obviously they’re both very successful but in different ways. They’ve been at the top level of our sport and have won races. You have to listen to both of them and take what they say. I really enjoy Jimmie. I feel like we’re very similar. Dale is a great guy – a really awesome guy. I can’t thank him enough. But we weren’t a lot alike. He was a lot quieter than I was, which was good for me because it kind of shut me up and kept me quiet. Jimmie is also quiet but we have a lot of similar interests, I feel like. So it’s really cool to now work with Jimmie. I enjoy working with both guys, but I’m really excited to work with Jimmie, too.”
As someone who has had to race their way into this race, is there any advice that you can give Jimmie or anyone else trying to make this race, especially with limited track time?
“Jimmie obviously is very experienced, but I don’t think he’s ever had to race his way in. My buddy Zane (Smith) and Riley (Herbst) have hung out a lot this week. Riley is locked in with a charter but Zane is not. So it’s one of those things that no matter what happens, you’re going to have to race hard in the Duels if you don’t make it in on time. But whatever you do, just enjoy the moment that you have on-track with these Cup guys. I remember my first Duel where I didn’t make it. We were in with a really good shot. We had to start last and didn’t get a qualifying time. We had to be the highest-finishing open car and ended up getting in a wreck there at the end. We had a really strong race. One thing I told them is to enjoy it, no matter how it goes. You’ll have plenty more opportunities, so really enjoy it.”
This is the 75th anniversary of NASCAR. What comes to mind for you and knowing you get to be part of that as a full-time rookie this year?
“It just feels like another year to me. But obviously it’s special to be 75 years. … It’s great to see the sport stay alive for 75 years and start racing at the beach here and now we’re racing at Daytona International Speedway to kick the season off. It’s really cool and obviously there is a lot of history. I had a NASCAR book that went through every single year and kind of the ups and downs of every season and the different story points. I read that in high school and kind of learned about the history of NASCAR. So it’s cool but it’s just another year, also.”
You competed against some guys like AJ (Allmendinger) really hard in Xfinity last year. Do you feel some sort of kinship with guys like that going into this race and your first full Cup season?
“I’m really excited to race with AJ. I don’t know if I can say we became good friends but I think we became really good competitors with each other week in and week out. We could share a laugh before the race but also race our tails off and race really hard. I have a lot of respect for him and I’d hope after last year that he gained some respect for me. So I’m really looking forward to making the transition after racing for the last handful of years in the Xfinity Series with AJ up to the Cup Series. I know he’s been there before, but it’ll be great to have someone I’m familiar on-track with and be able to share some common thoughts.”
Is there pressure to perform this year?
“No, I don’t think so. There probably is but I don’t put pressure on myself to perform. I just try to have as much as possible, but I try to be prepared. Being prepared is the most important part. As long as I’m prepared, there shouldn’t be a pressure to perform. You shouldn’t be nervous or anything when you’re prepared. It’s like taking a test, right? If you go into a test and you study for it, you’re not going to be nervous. But if you didn’t study, you’re probably going to be a little nervous and that’s where that pressure comes from. With Josh Wise, Luke Lambert and everyone in the Team Chevy program, we have a really good system that we use to prepare for these races. I feel more confident than ever.”
Did you set any expectations for the season?
“Finish every lap right now. I think that’s all you really can do, realistically. You obviously want to win but I don’t know how realistic that is. We want to take the first third of the year or half the year, complete all the laps and then we can re-evaluate from there.”
Do you feel like a longshot for the Daytona 500? You’ve won here, you’ve won here at Talladega and had a top-five year in August.
“I don’t know. Part of me thinks yes, but then another part of me thinks anyone can win this thing. Last year in the Beard car, we were running sixth in the Daytona 500 and got wrecked with like 10 to go. So it's one of those things where it’s definitely doable. Anyone can win it.”