Is this like riding a horse and getting back on it?
“We’re going to find out! There are nerves. I know how much effort our group has put into my car and all three cars and the effort. So I feel really good about that. So there is some level of anxiety due to the fact that you don’t get a practice lap. I hope it starts! Just the basic stuff that can haunt you with a racecar, I just hope all of that is in order. Todd Gordon has done a great job of leading. The help from Dave Elenz (Erik Jones’ crew chief) and Luke Lambert (Noah Gragson’s crew chief) and their groups to put three really strong cars out there is so appreciated. I hope we have a strong qualifying effort tonight to make tomorrow much more stress-free.”
What do you notice about the car?
“Driving it at Phoenix, there is a much different experience driving the car in the way you create speed, the way the car rides at the bump stops, the ride quality of the vehicle. The sim session that I had getting ready for here – although it’s silly to do a sim for Daytona running by yourself – I did notice that the content in the track due to how the cars ride on bump stops is really rough. That was not the case my last time here. Mentally I’m going to be ready for that getting-up-to-speed lap, how close I get to the wall, how much the car will be on the stops bouncing around and what that might be like. I’ve been advised many times to remember that it’s a sequential box and that I keep pulling gears, and third gear is actually back here – it’s not forward. I think some guys made that mistake last year and downshifted and blew engines. So just trying to stay disciplined on that. The last thing I have to be aware of and remember is that there are five gears and not four. In the simulator, I made that mistake and ran around in fourth gear for one of my qualifying laps.”
Will it all come back in one lap?
“Single-car is such a different element than the draft. Sure, a rep will help just to understand things. The steering system is much different in the car I drove, and I noticed that at Phoenix and also in the sim. So sure, there will be some take-aways, but anything to carry-over to the race I won’t get much out from that.”
Are you having fun on the ownership side or is it a challenge?
“It’s been a blast. I really have enjoyed it. There is pressure and stress and anxiety with anything you do in life, and there certainly is plenty of that. But I feel like the excitement of building something, the support that I have in the partnership with Maury (Gallagher), the competition department, the people in the front office, the people building cars… We’re a small group and the excitement that we’re building something for the future and all that’s in and around that has been fun. There have been long days and long hours. I wish we had a few more months to get ready for the 500 but we just don’t. Everything happened so late last year that our most precious commodity is time. I know every race team says that, but we’re even in less supply of it than others. But it’s been a great journey. I’m excited to go racing and really keep building this thing.”
Erik Jones talked awhile ago that you were asking him and Noah for advice. How different is that going to younger guys?
“It’s probably awkward for them, but for me I genuinely need some help. I just don’t know this car. I felt things at Phoenix that I didn’t expect to feel with the car and the way it drives on bump stops and the sequential gearbox and trying to find the most efficient and quickest way shift, how and when you downshift. The steering system was much more sensitive and different than I thought. The yaw window in sliding the car was way different than I anticipated. I always liked to drive a loose car and I spent a career of driving loose cars. You can’t drive this one sideways. It just doesn’t happen the way it creates downforce. So I’ve been doing a lot more learning from them, and I hope I haven’t freaked them out.”
What’s the best thing they’ve told you so far?
“The first thing that comes to mind is Noah wants a six-pack. I know that has nothing to do with racing but if I see his stomach again for his progress report on his diet and his fitness plan, I’m going to lose my stuff! He’s been so much fun. Both are super-talented but absolutely go about their days differently. I’ve really enjoyed working with both of them.”
How is Erik Jones’ workout coming? The first workout, he thought the warmup was the workout…
“(Laughing) He’s fully committed. That’s the one thing that I see both through Erik and Noah. Their personalities are different and the way they go about things are different. But their desire to be the best they can is very much the same between the two of them. I feel like Josh Wise and the program he offers is not only great for these guys physically and from a driving perspective but also some big lessons in mental health, being able to create a sustainable lifestyle, being healthy and just all the other aspects that come to it that someone in their 40s can share, and he’s able to share that with a large group of young drivers coming up through. As I tried to help Erik buy into the program, I went and spent some time with Josh and got a much better understanding of the program he has. Hats off to Josh and Chevrolet with what they’ve created there. I think Erik is pretty good now.”
You’ve never had to worry about time and personnel at Hendrick. How do you balance your time now?
“I don’t think I’ve figured it out, but now I know why Chad (Knaus) always looked tired and now I know why his fuse was so short! He’d always tell me to get out of his office because he had (stuff) to do. Now I get it! I just do on such a deeper level. The Hendrick organization and the pros that are in there make it look easy, and it’s not. I have such a better appreciation and understanding of what it takes to be a manager in this world or an owner or whatever my title might exactly be. There’s a lot going on, and credit to everyone who makes it look easy.”
What was your takeaway from the last two years (in IndyCar)?
“I don’t know where to start. I think I could probably answer it better in a year or two when I have a little experience with this new role. The last two years have been a growing opportunity for me that’s led to this opportunity. When I left NASCAR, there was no chance I was ever going to come back as an owner. It was never in the cards for me. I thought in the back of my mind that I’d come back and drive. The experience I had working with Chip and Chip Ganassi Racing and how my office found and maintained the Carvana relationship and other partnerships on the car, there was a big growth period in there for me that has walked into this relationship I have with Maury.”
In talking about compartmentalization, have you spoken to Richard Petty about that?
“I haven’t on that topic, but you bring up a great point. He’s been doing this for so long and wearing so many hats at different times. I didn’t have a chance to race against him but I’ve watched him compartmentalize so well in different settings that I should lean on him for that. I’ve been surprised by how much he still works, how active he is at the shop, how frequently he’s been at the shop, I’ve been really impressed. One thing I can say that’s never wavered since I’ve been engaged with him at this level is his reminders that we need to win races. It’s at least four times per conversation. How much that man wants to win and loves to win is amazing.”
“I think on paper it’s similar. There’s a lot at stake here for me. Personally between my two ears, I’m sitting here with seven championships and 83 wins. Yes, it would absolutely suck to not make the race. But the pressure I had on myself in 2002, life would have seemed like it would have ended if I hadn’t made that race. I am in a different place although this is the first step for me as an owner and being a part owner of this car that I’m running in. We qualified on pole in ’02. I don’t think that’s in the cards for us today but who knows? Maybe lightning will strike twice.”
On Kevin Harvick’s contributions to NASCAR entering his last season.
“I think Kevin has offered so much in so many ways. He’s not only a fierce competitor but is someone who grew up in the sport and grew up in it and cares for it. He’s always taken the time to understand the point he wants to make and is confident in the point that he makes. He’s looked through the ownership lens, as we all know and certainly the driver lens. He’s been with multiple organizations and different leaders. He’s a very well-rounded, intelligent driver/businessman. I have a ton of respect for what’s accomplished inside and out of the car.”
On the 75th anniversary season of NASCAR.
“I can say that I recall watching the 50th celebration and how much it meant to everyone in the sport. I was watching as a fan, and there was a feeling I had watching of a NASCAR family and how special the 50th celebration was. I say that with anticipation of what 75 is going to be like, and I’m proud to be part of it. I’m so happy to be back in a car to experience it first-hand. On another layer is taking what we do here and going to France in June and driving a NASCAR-style vehicle and talk about the 75th year to the broader auto racing fanbase. I’m really excited to be back and be a part of it.”
Your part in that history is pretty significant.
“In my 19 years, a lot of crazy things happened. I could never have predicted any of it. I’m fortunate, blessed and all of it. I still look back and I can’t believe we had five (championships) in a row. In the moment, it happened so quick and we’re so focused on the next thing that some of it doesn’t feel like it happened. I look back on it and shake my head.”
Do you feel like a rookie again, having to make races and learn the car?
“Here, yes the car is different and yes it will draft differently, but the fundamentals of the draft are still very similar. Plate racing is the wild card. It’s intentional for me to come be part of the Daytona 500 and the most impactful race. I think I really have a shot to win. If I survive and get through the first two stages, there’s really a shot that I have to win this race. To go to Fontana with the same expectations would be ridiculous. It’s a different car. I haven’t been in these cars for two years. It’s a whole different environment, and it’s going to take time to catch up to where the drivers are now with the sense, the feel, understanding the balance, the understanding of the 20-minute practice, qualifying, the balance you look for to apply for the race, the pit stops… that whole thing just takes reps. I’m only a year removed from the new car but that’s still a lot. The other races I run, I’m going to have to adjust to that.”
Why do you feel that there’s a little more opportunity to win here?
“Sure, there’s a lot of change with the car. But the race itself is maybe 25 percent different than it was before. If you go to a non-plate track, it’s 100 percent different. The fundamentals of the draft outweigh the mechanical differences in the vehicle. Working the draft and working the lanes, that whole aspect is always going to be there regardless of the car.”
Do you think you have to show your competitors anything or prove that you still have it?
“That’s a great question. I don’t think there’s a ton to that. … In the draft you’re really playing the numbers game and which lane has energy and momentum in it and if it’s going. You kind of lose sight of who you’re around. Come the end of stages and the end of the race, that dynamic changes. I’ll probably get used up in those situations, so I guess I should be aware of that. If you’re showing progress, you don’t give people a choice but to follow you. That was the philosophy I had when I was a regular. I didn’t care who it was. If they were going forward, I’m going to jump behind them and go.”
There are a number of new faces that you haven’t raced against before. How much do you have to learn there?
“There’s always a learning process. I haven’t made it to that part yet, largely because we haven’t had drafting practice. I’m most focused on how different the car is going to drive… the bump stop package, the way you run the cars, the attitude. There’s a much different ride quality perspective there. I’m more worried about keeping my car straight than the others right now.”
Are you more focused on speed as that’s an easier way to get in? What’s it do for you in terms of the Duels and how does that compromise the handling, or is it not as big a penalty?
“The box is tighter for sure. We’re definitely focused on getting the work done tonight.”
How strange will it be racing against the 48?
“From watching TV and seeing the 48, in my head it’s Alex (Bowman)’s ride. It’s Alex. Someone brought up a point that I haven’t stopped on a different stop sign even though I left for two years. It was still an IMSA car with a 48 stop sign and an IndyCar with a 48 stop sign. I’m going to remind my spotter to remind me. We’re going to know where the 48 car is, and he’s going to have to talk me by that.”
What did you take away from the Garage 56 test here?
“It was the first time we had Jenson (Button) in the car and also Jordan Taylor’s participation and being in the car. Jordan brings so much from all the GT experience he has. He spotted some stuff that maybe we hadn’t focused on yet from either driving or balance characteristics or creature comforts inside the car. It was great watching Jenson climbing out of the car after the first time. He was speechless for awhile and his eyes were so big. He asked how it can have so much power and so little grip! I was like, ‘Well, welcome to NASCAR!’ It’s a fun group to be around. We leave here Sunday and we’re doing a 24-hour test at Sebring, so all four of us will be there. The whole operation will be there. We did a 12-hour simulation here, and we’re doing a 24-hour simulation on Monday and Tuesday.”
Is it odd seeing how the four different drivers can take away something different each time in the car?
“It is wild. Everyone is super-sensitive about what they sense and feel, and what their minds focus on. To watch Jenson evolve because he’s never driven a vehicle like this before. They’ve always been formula cars. By the end, he had a great sense of the car’s potential and ability. As he pulled it back, he was still two steps over what the car was capable of. Once we got him back in the window, he was like, ‘OK… here’s where the grip is.’”
What is it that keeps you in racing?
“It’s what I know and what I love. I really wanted to experience other cars and other tracks before that door closed for me. I feel like I’m in a sport, fortunately where if you want, you can extend that run. The grind of having 19 years in Cup took its toll on me and I just wanted to drive other cars and try other things. Some thought it was crazy and some thought it was maybe foolish or wild that I would try and do IndyCar. But that was for me. That’s what the last two years have been and really what I intended this year to be was just to fill that fun bucket and experience bucket. It’s taken on a serious note with the ownership side and certainly an opportunity I didn’t anticipate having in front of me. But it’s one I’m really excited about.”
On the Chicago street race.
“I just think road and street course races are amazing. After the two years in IndyCar and growing up in San Diego and going to Long Beach, I love street races. I want to be in the NASCAR street race.”