The first thing I’ll ask you.. were you a big Guns N’ Roses fan?
“Yeah, I was always a fan. I went to a show of theirs, I don’t know, I guess three years ago in Charlotte. I was a fan as a kid growing up, too. I listened to their stuff.
It was cool. A couple of weeks ago, Jimmie (Johnson) showed me the paint scheme and was talking about it coming together. It was neat to get it all done and get it announced last night. But yeah, I’ve always been a fan.”
I feel like you went under the radar at Daytona (International Speedway) and Talladega (Superspeedway) last year. You had some really strong runs at all four of the superspeedway races. Can you talk about what LEGACY MOTOR CLUB has built with their speedway program and how confident are you in the strides you made in the off-season?
“Yeah, we had speed at all of those races. I would say especially at Talladega (Superspeedway); we were good at both of those. Dave Elenz (crew chief) has always been good at the superspeedway stuff with not only the car side, but with the calling the race side and the strategy side of things.
I’ve come to enjoy it. It’s funny – when I first came and did it in Trucks, I was not a fan. I’ve really come to like it and have fun with it as the years have gone by.
I’m excited. Hopefully, for me at least, I think all of those close calls we had last year with being so close to winning a couple of them – I told them after, I said I would trade those any day if we can have a shot to win the (Daytona) 500. So hopefully we’re up front at the end of this one Sunday.”
What are the drivers meetings like right now, with having Jimmie Johnson and a new teammate? What is that dynamic.. is it what you expected it to be?
“Yeah, I mean it’s changing, right. It’s kind of interesting because Jimmie (Johnson) has never driven the Next Gen car. He doesn’t have a ton to add right now and he’s just kind of learning; figuring the cars out and what we need to do. I’m sure as he gets a little bit more experienced here, especially after Sunday and then going forward through the rest of the year with some of the other races he does, he’ll have a lot more to add in. He’s asked me probably more questions, so far, which has been a little weird. But it’s been cool to have him. I’ve known Jimmie for a lot of years and never really had the chance to really work with him like this on anything, so it’s been fun to see how his mind works on some of this stuff.”
Is it kind of surreal for you to be his mentor for at least a little while?
“(laughs) Yeah, for at least a minute. It is odd. We were at the Phoenix (Raceway) test and he was asking me some questions out there. And then he was asking me some questions the other day about coming here. It’s weird.. I didn’t think Jimmie (Johnson) would ever be asking me anything along the way in my career. It’s cool, though. It’s something that – hey, I’ll take it while I can get it.”
You had some great runs at Talladega (Superspeedway) last year. You were in position to win both of those races. Where does that put your confidence? And also, does that make you a better source of knowledge to be able to help a guy like Jimmie (Johnson) and Noah (Gragson), who are limited in their Next Gen experience?
“Yeah, I feel like our superspeedway stuff was good. I feel like I’m a good speedway racer. Man, I feel like we should have more wins than what we have on speedways. But I don’t know, I think I can help those guys a little bit. I think our speed has been good. I hope it’s as good here this weekend as it was last year. It’s a matter of finishing them out. We led a lot of laps last year between Daytona (Superspeedway) and Talladega (Superspeedway), and never capitalized on one of them to get that win. We were within a couple feet in a few of them to get the win. If I could trade those for the (Daytona) 500, I would be fine with that.
Hopefully I can help Noah (Gragson) and Jimmie (Johnson) a bit this week. Noah has done some speedway racing with this car, but obviously he’s in a better car I think than what he had, so he’ll have some more speed to go and work with. They’ll learn a lot in the Duels and hopefully we can get Jimmie in and do some racing on Sunday.”
Are there any internal bets for who gets the first win this season?
“Haven’t talked about it, yet. I hope it’s me, so I can at least have some bragging rights for a minute on something. But no, haven’t went over it yet. I think we all feel good about getting a win, definitely between Noah (Gragson) and I. Hope to get Jimmie (Johnson) to victory lane.. that would be pretty cool. I think winning in a Next Gen car is a pretty big goal for him; coming back and doing it. I think we can. It’s a matter of getting everything right.
But no, nothing.. no kind of hazing or anything like that, yet.”
Would you push him here?
“To the win? Well, if it could get me up there with a shot, I would do it. I don’t think I could bring myself to just push him to the win. If the situation came about where I had to push him, obviously I’m going to do it, but I’m still going to try and beat him if it came down to it.”
Looking ahead into the season – Fontana, last race on the 2-mile configuration there. Your thoughts?
“Yeah, I don’t know, I’m kind of sad about it in a way. I’ve had a lot of fun racing there. Just been fast there, too, which probably makes it harder, right? But I think it’s a really good track. It’s been a really racy intermediate (track) for us.. it’s more of a speedway almost. But it’s been a really racy track for a lot of years, so I’m sad to see it go, but obviously we will be coming back there on a short track. Hopefully we can get the short track program a little better with the Next Gen car and put on a good show there, too.”
What do you think about it being a short track? Do you think that is what it needs?
“Yeah, I don’t know. I thought the last couple of years, we’ve had a good turnout at that race and I thought the racing was phenomenal last year. We had a really good show there, so I think there will be a good crowd out there this year. But I’m sure the short track people are still going to show up, especially at first. If the racing is good, they’re going to come back again. I don’t have anything against it, necessarily. I’m just going to miss what we have there now.”
How was New York City when the announcement was made for LEGACY MOTOR CLUB?
“It was good. Going up there with Jimmie (Johnson), he obviously has a lot of connections around a lot of places, so that was cool going up there with him. And spending some time together – him, Noah (Gragson) and I – and get to know each other a little better through the couple of days that we were there. The announcement was really cool. Jimmie got to go on the Today Show.
It was cool.. the whole thing was neat. Getting to announce it and getting us all there, I thought it was a fun experience.”
How did you get the Guns N’ Roses deal? What song are you going to use for your walkout song?
“Yeah, I don’t know… I’ve always been a Paradise City fan. It is cool. I found out a couple of weeks ago - maybe more than a couple of weeks ago - that we were in talks with them to get them on the race car and do something with them. That was a Jimmie (Johnson) deal, for sure. But he showed me the paint scheme and I was like ‘yeah man, that’s cool. I’m a fan and I’ve been to their show before’. I was excited to get it done; announce it last night and get them on the car. Obviously the car is pretty cool looking, too. It will be fun. That would be a fun one to have a picture with in victory lane, so I would love to do that.”
If you and Jimmie (Johnson) are in the same Duel, what does that plan look like? Do you purposely work together to get that No. 84 car in?
“I don’t know if we intentionally try to get together, but obviously I’m going to help him as much as I can. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. So I’m going to help and push him as much as I can; get him up to the front and get him in position. Obviously you have to be aware of who the other guys are and where they’re at, but definitely going to help him as much as I can. That’s a big goal for us – today and tomorrow – to get that car locked into the (Daytona) 500. I don’t even want to think about him having to go home. That would not be good for us, so we’ll get him locked-in.”
How has your interactions been with your new teammate, Noah Gragson?
“It’s been good. We spent a lot of time together on a lot of different stuff. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the last month and a half. I didn’t know Noah (Gragson) that well before he came over and joined us at LEGACY MOTOR CLUB, so it’s been good to just get to know him a little bit better and get a better outlook on what he’s thinking for this season; how he approaches things and how he kind of does things.
It's been good. I’m excited for him. It’s fun when you get to go and do your rookie season in NASCAR. He’s getting to experience everything that comes with it right now. I think he’s going to help our program, truly elevate us some more and bring in some good stuff.”
How do you think he’s going to fair for his rookie season?
“There will be ups and downs like anybody’s. I look back at mine.. I had some real bright spots, some real dark spots. I think it’s the same for everyone along the way. I’d love to see him be able to get a win. If you can win in your rookie year, that’s a huge moment. Not many guys have been able to do that over the last few years, so would love to get him to victory lane.
I think he’s going to do well. He has the speed and the talent. I think even with the Next Gen car being a learning experience for him, he’s got less of a disadvantage than what he would have had with the old car.”
If you had to pitch the Daytona 500 racing experience to someone who’s never watched a NASCAR race, what would you tell them?
“I mean it’s a spectacle. I tell friends of mine all the time that have never been, that if they want to go, it’s unmatched. Getting the energy you have on pit road here come Sunday with the crowd and the people, it’s crazy. Trying to move around and get to your car is a workout as a driver with all the people. But yeah, there’s no feeling like it. There’s only maybe one other race that I’ve ever done in my life that I’ve had similar feelings as to what I do on Sunday morning. It’s a pretty cool day.”
“Snowball Derby, for me. Super late models is what I did growing up, so I always get the same kind of feelings going down there and racing as I do on Sunday.”
What was your relationship when you first got out here with him (Jimmie Johnson)? He seems to be a mentor to guys and very friendly to everyone.
“Yeah, I mean I’ve known Jimmie (Johnson) probably 10 year.. over 10 years. Before I even got to NASCAR, we worked with the same management group, so I met him early on in my racing career. And then obviously racing him a couple of years at the Cup level.
He did help me out. He was always the guy willing to talk or answer any questions, and I think he was like that for anybody. But he was always super friendly to me. Always an open notebook if I needed it and I’m excited to have that in our group now on our side.”
What was your first reaction when you heard the name LEGACY MOTOR CLUB?
“I didn’t have a lot to do with it obviously. I was kind of there when it happened, but I was a little surprised. It was different than what I thought. I knew we would change the name, but I didn’t think we were going to go on kind of a new path.
Yeah, it was different, but it’s growing on me a lot. And especially when we came out with the scheme and the colors and stuff, it really started to grow on me. It’s definitely a lot different. I had a lot of questions from a lot of friends, asking if that was our name, and I was like ‘yeah, that what we’re going with’.”
75 years of NASCAR.. what does that mean to you? You’re driving the No. 43. I didn’t realize this, but Richard Petty was at the very first NASCAR race, watching his dad.
“Yeah, it’s cool to see it come full circle. I’ve been fortunate to get to know Richard (Petty) pretty well the last few years driving for him. It would be a nice story to get the No. 43 in victory lane Sunday, too. I’m good with that if we can make that work out.
But yeah, it’s awesome. Being a part of this sport has been a privilege for me over the last few years.. 10 years in the sport now since Trucks. We’re having a lot of fun. It was my dream to come and race here and do this, so just fortunate to here and be around. 75 years is a big accomplishment.”
With Jimmie Johnson, you’re like a history magnet over there.
“Yeah, we’ve got a lot of the history of the sport covered, that’s for sure. It’s been pretty cool. I’m a history fan, in general, so it’s cool to have those guys around.”
Did you have to redo your contract when the team rebranded to LEGACY MOTOR CLUB?
“No. There were some wording in there that I guess kind of carries along what you have going on. I’d be lying if I said I knew what that was, but yeah it just kind of carries over.”
What do you think about this season? I don’t think it’s fair to call you underrated, but certainly being at RPM and kind of the struggles they had.. we all saw your progression and there was a reason you were one of the Toyota development drivers. Is this your time now?
“Well, it’s been a weird journey over the last three or four years. But yeah, I think it’s going in the right direction, for sure. I think for us to go out and say we’re going to be some dominant team this year is ambitious. But to say we can go out and win a race at least, if not a couple, and make the playoffs, I don’t see that as overly ambitious. I think we can go out and definitely win a couple of races through the season. Get in the playoffs and how far we go in that, who knows, but we’re going in the right direction. There are still things we need to get better and improve on, but the way we’ve trended the last two years has been way more I think than what I probably expected when I came over.”
How do you see your relationship with Noah (Gragson) developing?
“We’ve actually spent quite a bit of time together over the last couple of months and just getting to know each other more. I didn’t know Noah well before he came over here, so it’s been fun to get to know him. Obviously we’re pretty different, which kind of makes it easier for us to get along I think in a lot ways because I can just kind of laugh at a lot of the stuff he says.
Like a goofy younger brother?
“Yeah, he’s pretty much along those lines (laughs). He’s good entertainment, but he’s talented. At the end of the day, I think some people get really caught up in the personality and the goofiness that he puts on and overlooks what he does in a race car. He won what eight races last year – nine or whatever it was – in Xfinity, so the guy is talented. He can go out and do it, and I think he’ll surprise a lot of people this year in a Cup car.”
Best memory of the Daytona 500?
“I would say 2006.. I came here for my first-ever NASCAR race as a fan. Camped out with my family and watched. It was a great race. Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick, coming down side-by-side for the win. So that’s number one for me. That’s the one I always remember and think of when I think of the Daytona 500.”