With the new aerodynamic package, can you describe what the behavior of the car is like?
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of the ones that got to test this package, or a similar package to what we’re racing this weekend. But from my understanding from what I heard is – yes, it’s a little bit more difficult to drive by itself. It will be a little bit of a looser feeling in the back of the car; less rear downforce, less overall downforce. But it should – we hope – that it will be a little bit better in traffic where you won’t be effected as much by trailing the car in front of you and the wake that the car in front of you puts off.”
How would you assess the effectiveness of the length of the longer restart zone? Do you feel like it gives you any more of an advantage or any more of an ability to dictate the way things go?
“No.. I think all it’s done is cause that wreck at California (Auto Club Speedway). So in my opinion, it’s done nothing different; nothing on the positive end. It’s only added a negative end to it because at California, Joey (Logano) was just maintaining his speed and everyone was gaining, gaining, gaining, gaining and closing up their gaps because they were all trying to lay back and then time the run. So he just waited for everybody to run into everybody and then went at the end of the zone. So the later you make that zone, the more anticipation everyone has and the more of an accordion effect that you’ll get. I knew that going in and I was not a proponent of lengthening that zone, but nobody tends to listen to me a whole lot.”
How relieved are you just the simple fact that Chevrolet just seems to be on top of their game to start this season?
“Yeah, it’s all the KB effect.. everything right here. Got them all tuned into the right pages and we’re rolling (laughs).
But no seriously, I’m going to give a huge props to Eric Warren (Chevrolet’s Director of NASCAR Programs), his group, his team and everybody at the Chevy Tech Center. They have been doing a really good job and a lot of stuff behind the scenes has kind of been happening. I’ve been involved in a little bit of that, especially on the truck side with our guys at KBM, but also some of the Cup stuff. Just trying to work on some of the processes and things that they do. But they’ve come out and done a nice job so far, so that’s positive for our start to the season.”
NASCAR has added a 50-minute practice at COTA. Can you address how helpful that is when you’re starting with a new team like you are?
“Yeah, well we tested there in January, so I was one of the ones that was like ‘we don’t need the practice, we’re good’. I don’t want to give anybody else anymore added track time. We had plenty when we were there. We ran close to 200 laps and I was smoked after that one. So I didn’t need anymore track time.
But we got that I guess, so we’ll work on what we need to work on with the reduced downforce and the changes that they made to the car. We felt like we had a really good test. We have really good notes on what we had there. We tested with last year’s stuff, not this current one, and so it’s going to be a lot different I’m sure. I don’t know – just with the amount of stuff that you can do in sim, I feel like it would be fine for us if we didn’t have practice. But we’ll take the 50 minutes and go.”
As somebody new coming in, even with what you’ve been able to do and accomplish, how did you take going into those team meetings? How forceful – I don’t know if that’s the right word – but in bringing things up and opening ideas? What is the dynamic of those meetings and how is that maybe different from previous experiences?
“Certainly there was a big discussion on that; just on how they’ve (RCR) done things, how I’ve done things. We had a whole roundtable discussion of the key people that we needed. This was early January, so we kind of hammered through a bunch of stuff and I brought up a lot of different topics. I still don’t have all of what I want accomplished yet. Most of that is data-driven and stuff you get after practice or after qualifying and things, so still pushing on much of that. We don’t have all of that how I want it yet.
But everything else, the team meetings have gone well. I feel like they’ve been a little bit productive. Hopefully those that are with us in those meetings feel the same way, so it’s been a good sense. I know Austin (Dillon) and I have really liked the way that it is and how we got it setup, so it’s been useful for us.”
With your homework and studying in essence and all the work you do for each event, have you had to do anything new in learning more about this group or seeing how they do things to be able to kind of bring up ‘hey, I know you did this here, but here is another example of a way to do potentially better’.. how does that impact how you study?
“Yeah, I mean last week, we struggled at Las Vegas (Motor Speedway).. let’s be honest. Last year at Vegas, we were really good with the Toyota bunch and the Toyota bunch showed decent speed there as well too. I wasn’t privy to those setup sheets, so I wasn’t able to just hand that over and say ‘here, this is what we need to do.. this is where we need to go and start from’. But we’ve been working a lot from their stuff that they’ve been accustomed to and what they’ve been running. Obviously Fontana was a huge success for us; that really worked. Vegas, I thought was going to be better than what it was. We’re still working on some of those answers as to what happened there, but here last year, the No. 8 team ran second and third there towards the later stages of the race and had a good run. Austin (Dillon) was in the top-10 before I think the last-lap crash that we was in. So again, you try to rely on what they did last year and improve it as much as you can with the tools that you have right now. But until you go out there and run these races, really that’s the learning.. is what happens in the race. And then being able to go back and really dissect each and every piece of the car, the race, strategy, pit calls, changes you make, all of that stuff. So these meetings last quite a while.”
This package is supposed to put it more in the drivers’ hands and make it more difficult to drive the cars. You have so much experience, so do you feel like that benefits you?
“Yeah, I mean you would say that – yes, you want it to be more in the driver’s hands. Although last year, I think I set a new record for the amount of times you can spin out during the season. I was about backwards in every race, so that was not fun.
I think that just kind of goes to show that some guys, they’ll run on the way up the mountain and then they won’t get over peak and go down peak. Where I feel like when I race, I get up to peak and I try to teeter on the front side and the back side of that before completely losing it. So I’m always just maybe a little bit closer to that edge, so that’s some of my issue of spinning or having issues sometimes. But trying to get the most out of everything you’ve got, so having a little bit something that you have to finesse and feel, it just takes a little bit of learning that. Hopefully we got more grip than all the rest.”
What is your reaction to having two prominent F1 drivers like Kimi Räikkönen and Jenson Button coming to NASCAR?
“Yeah, I mean I hope Kimi (Räikkönen) gets a better opportunity than he had his last time out; going out there and running a full race. But I think it’s fun. I think it’s great that they have that opportunity. Trackhouse won that race last year, so you know they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. The SHR guys I think are doing the No. 15 ride for Jenson (Button). It’s cool to see the diversity of different backgrounds of drivers and where they come from. I’m not excited, but it’s going to be cool to have them out there and be a part of our show. They’re not used to the full contact sport of what NASCAR is. I’m sure Kimi’s eyes were opened quite a bit on how all that went down at Watkins Glen. But he’s more ready and more prepared this time around.”
What about William Byron getting back in a KBM truck?
“Yeah, that’s going to be great for us. Really good to have William (Byron) – a KBM alum – to come back and work with us again and being a part of the Chevy team. Excited that HendrickCars.com, Rick (Hendrick), Jeff (Gordon) and everybody there at HMS partnered with us on this and got William three races. Those were the ones he chose. He stole one of mine actually. I’m still bummed I don’t get to run at North Wilkesboro, but it will be nice to have an experienced driver again that can come over and continue to help evaluate and it not just be me. We’ve got a lot of new people over there. Brian Pattie and that whole group, the majority of that group is new, so it will be nice to get another set of eyes on it, if you will.”
Randall Burnett – three wins last year, so you knew you were getting a good crew chief. What have you learned about him? What are some of the things that you didn’t expect, maybe better than you expected? What are some of the qualities that he brings that you lean on with each other?
“Yeah, I was excited about my chance to work with him (Randall Burnett) last year when all of this kind of started to come up. And then just spending some time with him and getting to know him. My wife and his wife, all four us, go out to dinner every once in a while, so that’s been super helpful to just kind of build that relationship and that friendship. Essentially, a driver and a crew chief is like a marriage. You’re going to have your good days and you’re going to have your bad days. How you go about all of that is how you will best come out on top when it’s all said and done.
Randall has been super fun to work with and very receptive to a lot of my ideas. I’ve been trying to just kind of come into his playbook of how he kind of does stuff, and then just kind of throw in little pieces of what my playbook has kind of looked like for the last 15 years or whatever.
Very similar tendencies. He’s really a go-getter. At Fontana, he asked if I was OK because I was so quite over the radio, and I’m like I’m not one that just spouts off all day on the radio. I have my ‘Kyle Busch top greatest hits moments’, yes.. but besides that, there’s not much said on the radio. That was a little bit for him to get accustomed to, but when you’ve got a good driving car, you don’t really talk a whole lot. You go to work.”
Regarding Räikkönen and Button racing at COTA – last year, I think (Denny) Hamlin used the word ‘novelty’ having Räikkönen at the race. Can those guys compete, as well as Jordan Taylor, and even (Jonathan) Davenport at the Bristol dirt race. Are they going to be competitive?
“Yeah, I mean I would say that there’s opportunity for them to be competitive. I think it all kind of depends on how much work and behind the scenes stuff that they do. Räikkönen last year I thought was respectable. He really didn’t get to show a full race, so we didn’t get a good sense of that. But being with Trackhouse, I would like to think that he’s probably got the best opportunity let’s say.
But these cars are so different than anything that these guys are used to driving. They’re different than what anything I’ve ever been used to driving, so we’re all still trying to feel that out and figure that out. I mean last year, we had 19 different winners and this year, we’re already at three. So it can go the same way again this year. It’s whenever you get the luck of the draw on a pit stop, get out front or whatever it might be. But me jumping in a dirt late model and going to compete against Jonathan Davenport – I failed successfully at that at Bristol last year when I ran the dirt late model, or two years ago. So him coming over and thinking he’s going to jump in and go win a Cup race right out of the gate, I think you have another thing coming. But it’s just a matter of doing the experience, learning from it, having fun with it and getting better at it.”
You said last week that you had texted Chase (Elliott). I’m curious if you were able to have a conversation with him, and if so, how are his spirits and everything?
“I have not.. no.”