Are you tired yet with a full-season coming up?
“I’m already tired! I forgot about all this media stuff… I thought we just showed up and drove! No, I’m just ready to start. Everybody at the shop, you work – obviously you had the Coliseum race – but you get here and get the process going to find out where we stand. It’s so different than the last time I was here. No practice before we qualify and no practice before the Duels. We just try to get a feel of what this car feels like on a superspeedway, but yeah I’m ready to go.”
Some of the best drivers ever in the sport have never won this race. What’s behind that?
“This race, there is a lot of luck that goes into it. The way superspeedway racing is now with a pack of cars, you have to put yourself in the right position. Even if you do, at times you don’t get rewarded for that. It’s just a tough race to win because there is a lot of skill but also a lot of luck that goes with it. It’s just one of those things. I felt like in the ‘80s, ‘90s and even early 2000s, if you had a strong car… there packs of cars that separated themselves from each other and we just don’t have that now. It’s just hope and pray sometimes and hope you’re in the right spot at the right time.”
When you were in the Xfinity Series, you put yourself in position to win at Daytona and you won Talladega last fall. Where are you as a speedway racer compared to where you were the last time you were in the Daytona 500?
“I’ve always had an idea of how to superspeedway race. The difference at Kaulig Racing compared to the Cup Series back in the day when I would run it, particularly in the last four or five years, we didn’t have strong enough superspeedway cars to consistently run up front. I kind of had to wait in the back, and pick and choose the right time to get up front and have a shot to win the race. At Kaulig Racing, it took me a while even in the Xfinity Series to learn how to run up front and dictate the lead line and the pack and stuff like that. So we’ll see. Last year, the superspeedway cars at Kaulig Racing were really fast. Daniel (Hemric) and Justin (Haley) were up front a lot. (This is) a new year. We’ll see what kind of speed we have and kind of go from there.”
What did you learn from the Xfinity Series that you can apply coming back up to the Cup Series?
“It’s not really what I learned. It’s more what we’ve accomplished allows me to be more comfortable in my own skin. I know that’s kind of weird to say sometimes because sometimes I’m outgoing when it comes to things like that. There are a lot of times where at home, you’re just down because of the way things are going and question things. I’m always super-hard on myself. Those are things that push me everyday but sometimes can be a hindrance. With what we’ve accomplished over the last four years, it’s made me a lot more confident and comfortable. Even if it’s going bad to rely on, ‘This is what we did.’ That’s not even in the Xfinity Series; the Cup races we had, we ran up front a lot at different types of racetracks. So things like that. I’m still not going to change on how hard I am on myself and how much I want it. It’s probably worse now than it’s ever been because I’ve had that success. But I also know how allow it to roll off my back a little bit easier and be ready for next week.”
Is there a point where you feel like, ‘Ah ha… I’m back in the groove’?
“Unfortunately I don’t know if I ever have that ‘ah ha’ moment. Every offseason I feel like I have to question myself like, ‘Maybe you’ve forgotten how to drive this year.’ You can have a good race and go to the next one and say, ‘It doesn’t matter until you do it at this race.’ I’m still the same way. It can be stressful sometimes in my inner turmoil in my head with it. But I’ve done this for over 20 years professionally now. I’m not going to change. It’s what pushes me every day. That’s why I love this race team because Matt (Kaulig) and Chris (Rice) know how much I care… not just myself winning and winning for our team, but the success of our race team in general when it comes to the organization. There’s always those questions in my head but that’s what pushes me every day.”
You’re a rare person in that you’ve won in IndyCar, you’ve won in Cup, you’ve won the Rolex 24. There aren’t a lot of those guys around.
“Once it’s over, I kind of probably allow myself to enjoy it. I feel fortunate and I don’t take it for granted the opportunities I’ve had and been able to win in a lot of different backgrounds. In the moment, it’s always like ‘OK that doesn’t matter because you have to go be at your best the next weekend.’ I do this quite honestly because I’m trying to prove it to myself every weekend. That’s why I do this and it’s part of the reason why I stepped back up to Cup. Why do I want to put myself through this again? I’m like, ‘Because I’m naïve or I’m confident or stupidity or all the above.’ I want to challenge myself to say, ‘Hey, you can go run with the best of the best every weekend.’ Our race team, I think when we show at our best, we can do that. There’s definitely lulls as a young team that you’ll have, but it’s all about for me trying to prove it to myself every weekend.”
In wanting the success of this team to keep rising, Chandler Smith is trying to get into the Daytona 500. How can you help him prepare with such limited track time?
“I don’t know how much help I can bring at this time with what he has to go through. It’s weird with the schedule of no practice until after the Duels. I haven’t run this car on a superspeedway so I can’t even give him an idea of what he’s going to need in the draft. That’s going to be a lot on Justin, really. He’s good everywhere but he’s spectacular and special at these superspeedway tracks. We’ll lean on him a little bit and after we get through the Duels, hopefully we have three cars in the Daytona 500 and we can go from there and start talking about it. It’s a tough schedule for a rookie to go through. Hopefully it’s easy. Hopefully we have a really fast car and he qualifies straight in and doesn’t have to worry about the Duel tomorrow.”
If you are in the same Duel, will you try to find each other and work together?
“If it lines up like that, you’re definitely going to try to do that. It’s an odd situation because although it isn’t a lot of points, the Duels still pay points. For me, I want to get as much experience trying to run up front and see how these cars are in the draft. We’ll definitely talk about that. We’ll see how today goes in qualifying and then we’ll make the next steps after that going into tomorrow.”
You were talking a moment ago about how competitive you guys were running a part-time Cup schedule, especially on the road courses. Do you circle those as great paths to get into the Playoffs?
“I know when we get to the road courses, we’re going to be really fast. But as we’ve seen in the Cup Series, there are about 30 guys that are really fast. It’s not just five or eight guys that you have to worry about and the rest you don’t have to. There are 25-30 guys that show up and potentially can go win at any road course. I don’t try to circle those racetracks. I definitely put a little more added pressure on myself when we get there. But I feel we showed at other races – Homestead, Bristol and even the ones where we didn’t contend but were in the top-10 – that we can run up front at a lot of racetracks. We definitely have our weaknesses. Our short-track program was off last year so that’s something we have to focus on and be better at. I go with the mindset that on any given Saturday or Sunday, we can win at any racetrack. We know there are racetracks that we like as drivers and a team more than others. But that doesn’t mean we can’t go and win those ones we don’t like.”
What are you looking at for what the Duels mean for you? You have experience and know what’s going on but this is a different car.
“The Duels are very important. We have practice after, but I feel like the Duels are where you are going to feel out most about what this car is going to do and how it’s going to react and how it drafts. You can watch all the in-car video and the race back, and I’ve done all that. But you don’t know until you feel it. Hopefully we’re fast enough and we’re inside the lead pack to get a general feel of it so I can go back to my crew chief Matt (Swiderski) and say this is what I feel and this is where I need to be better. It’s going to be so limited so you have to take every opportunity you can get. So the Duels are quite important for me, especially.”
You raced last year alongside Noah Gragson last year with Kaulig Racing in Xfinity. How do you think he’ll transition to his new team?
“I think he’s going to be great, honestly. He’s got so much talent. Over the last couple of years, he’s really matured in the sense of how he races. Don’t get me wrong, we all have our insane moments where you get mad and you go do something, but that’s the nature of the beast. With the team he drives for now, having Erik (Jones) over there and definitely having Jimmie (Johnson), he’s going to have a lot of experience and maturity around him. It’s different. When you’re in Xfinity and you’re a young guy, you’re trying to make your name. There’s no guarantee you’re going to Cup. Every lap on the racetrack, you’re trying to prove, ‘I belong in Cup. I need a team to take a chance on me.’ Once you get to Cup, yeah there’s that same pressure that you need to stay there. But you can race in the sense that you’re already there. I think Noah knows that. But he’s still a rookie. But he’s going to be fast and will be up front a lot.”