You are heading to Nashville this weekend for the third-ever Cup Series race there. What do you remember about last year and what are you expectations this time around?
“Nashville is really interesting. We had a really strong car last year. Led a bunch and won both Stage 1 and Stage 2 and was in really good shape. The rain delay came, the track cooled off and changed a lot and we went from us and the 11 (Denny Hamlin) as the two cars to beat to all of a sudden five or more guys right there with us. I don’t remember exactly how we got shuffled out of the lead but I know it had something to do with the pit cycle and pit stops. Once you lose the lead, you lose the advantage, and some other guys got faster as it cooled off when it was so much later at night and we just couldn’t get back to the front. I feel like we’ve been bringing some really good cars to the track and would expect us to be strong at Nashville this weekend. Looking forward to getting back there with our Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry TRD and hope to be able to have a stronger end to the race than we did last year.”
Is there one thing you can point to as to why you are more successful this season?
“I think just better cars, in general. Better cars, better understanding of what we need on the racetracks. Last year was a big learning curve. We were trying to figure out what direction we needed to go in at races with this car and, having 15-minute practices where you opt in on what you show up with, there is really no time to recover if you show up with some bad ideas or things that didn’t work. You have to wait till you go back to that track again. Just all of that learning process and figuring things out has been a big factor for us. I think our cars are better this year, as well. Toyota did some work in the offseason, and everybody at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) worked hard to try to put the pieces together so I think, overall, we just have a better platform to work with and a better understanding of what we need.”
Do you think having the two wins already this year has helped get the pressure off your back?
“It is definitely easier when you’ve won a race, especially in today’s format with getting locked into the playoffs. You don’t have to worry about that. You can kind of relax, go race and do your thing. I wouldn’t say it hurt anything, by any means, but at the same time, having better racecars and showing up ready to go on these weekends without a lot of guessing is a big deal. The pit crew has been coming around here, lately. We have still had a few hiccups here and there. It’s so important to execute in the race these days with how close the field is and how hard it is to pass at certain tracks. You have to do everything right. You have to all of the little things right. We’ve been able to do that pretty well the last month or so, but really feel good about what we’ve done all year as far as the speed of our cars, and how we’ve able to race. I feel like we’ve had winning cars three or four races this year already. It was nice to get one of them, but we would like to have more, so we will keep working on it.”
How important was the win at the Clash to start the season in terms of momentum and confidence for you and your team?
“I talked about it right after that, that it was a big deal for us just to understand that we were making the right decisions. Short tracks were a struggle for us last year. To go to the Clash and do that, it was like, OK, we’re going down the right road here with the things that we’re thinking that we did last year, the things we’re working on, the direction we’re heading for short tracks. That was a good confidence booster. Confidence is a huge part of this. I said it a lot. It’s not so much for the driver, I don’t think. It’s more for the engineers, the crew chief, the guys who are making the big decisions on the car. So many things they have to decide on before we come to the track about what they’re going to put in the car with the simulation, all the things that they have to do. There are a lot of assumptions and guesswork involved. You have to be confident in yourself that your intuition is part of that. It’s not just computers telling you how to set the car up. Confidence for those guys is a big thing. When you’re going down a direction that’s working for you, you can make small tweaks, it’s easier than being way out in left field and trying to figure it out, changing everything at once. It’s just a work in progress and our Bass Pro Shops guys have been up to the task.”