YOU’RE 36 POINTS OUT OF THE REGULAR SEASON CHAMPIONSHIP LEAD. HOW MUCH ARE YOU LOOKING AT THAT CURRENTLY WITH SEVEN RACES LEFT?
“I think I was looking at it about race two or three (laughs). I think you always kind of try to keep a pulse on it, and just kind of see what’s going on. Seven weeks ago, we weren’t looking too good. But we’ve made some really good headway in the last seven weeks of being able to work our way back up the points standings and get ourselves closer to that front. I was doing a points study earlier this week – we’re 120 stage points less than William Byron. And if I had half of that, I’d be leading the points by 20, you know what I mean. So we just have to be able to execute better in the stages to be able to get stage points. That’s what it’s going to come down to. We know our weaknesses. Just still trying to figure that out on how to improve that, and make that to where we don’t have weaknesses.”
ON THAT NOTE, DOES THE REGULAR SEASON CHAMPIONSHIP IMPACT YOUR RACE STRATEGY? OBVIOUSLY YOU’RE GOOD WITH THE WINS FOR THE PLAYOFFS, BUT IF IT GETS DOWN TO A POINT WHERE THERE’S A LATE CAUTION AND YOU’RE DECIDING WHETHER TO PIT, HOW DOES THAT IMPACT WHAT YOU GUYS DO?
“Yeah, I mean we’ve had a couple of races where we haven’t scored any stage points in the last couple of weeks. But then we just keep fueling the car and then we come up with the flip strategy where we’re able to stay out when others pit to cycle ourselves to the lead and get up to the front. So we’ve kind of been on the better side of that the last two weeks with the weather and the daylight in Chicago. But you want to be up front all of the time and having that opportunity at Talladega (Superspeedway) from our win at Fontana (Auto Club Speedway) - we were able to again stay out and push the envelope on fuel, try to go for a win and see if we could get it and fortunately we did. We made it, we got it, and so that was definitely a help. That’s five extra bonus points over the second-place guy winning the regular season championship, so that’s a big deal.”
DO YOU FEEL LIKE THERE’S ALREADY AN ESTABLISHED GROUP OF CHAMPIONSHIP FAVORITES, OR DO YOU THINK IT’S STILL REALLY VERY MUCH UP IN THE AIR?
“Yeah, I do. I would say that there’s probably a consensus of probably eight or nine guys that are up there in that top that are championship contenders.. caliber, whatever you want to say. I would say we’re just barely there; you know. We’re not lighting the world on fire, you know like the No. 24 (William Byron) – they’re super good every week, they’re really fast. The No. 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) has been super good and really fast. So I would put those two guys kind of as your frontrunners. But you know, we’re probably around the eighth or ninth spot.”
YOU’VE TALKED ABOUT THE STRUGGLES ON SOME OF THE SHORTER TRACKS THIS YEAR AND TRYING TO GET BETTER THERE. DOES THIS FALL INTO THAT CATEGORY, AND IF SO, WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO GET OUT OF THIS WEEKEND OR BE ABLE TO GET THAT YOU HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE TO GET SO FAR?
“Yeah, this is a weekend where we come here, not planning on, but knowing that this has been our struggle. And so, it’s just the shorter spoiler, the less strakes on the diffuser. The less downforce has kind of just been our Achilles heal this year so far, so we’d love to come out of here and just have a solid run – learn and get better. The previous events – Martinsville (Speedway), we ran 25th all day. At Richmond (Raceway), we ran 16th all day. Phoenix (Raceway), we ran 10th or 11th all day. So we just need to make some gains on that and get ourselves closer to the front with some of our other Chevrolet key partner guys – they’re doing it, so no reason why we shouldn’t do it.”
“I would say that this tire being a little bit different is probably not that big of a deal, just hearing what Christopher Bell’s comments were on it from when they were here doing the tire test. It doesn’t seem like it’s drastically different, so I don’t think that’s going to play a factor as big as maybe it once did in earlier years. But yeah, learning something here, getting better here, just showing progress here, will definitely translate over to Richmond (Raceway). It will give you a good sense of like – OK, we ran more nose weight. We ran more right-rear spring. We ran a softer left-front.. like whatever it is. And so those things, you can then just kind of pick your setup from what you had there in the spring and base some adjustments from what you learned this weekend to there.”
LAST YEAR, YOU SAID YOU TRIED TO PUT THINGS BEHIND YOU DURING A RACE WEEKEND. BUT NOW THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT YOUR FUTURE, WHEN YOU LOOK FROM THIS YEAR TO LAST YEAR, IS IT MUCH DIFFERENT AS FAR AS JUST HOW YOU FEEL AT THE RACE TRACK?
“Yeah, I mean I would say having job security is always a great thing, right? So anytime you’re not sure what’s going on, you’re always thinking about that, as well as thinking about working on how to make yourself be better and your car go faster and everything like that. Only having one of those things to think about or work on gives you double the amount of time to be able to focus on that. It’s nice to just be a little bit more chill.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO NEXT WEEK, YOU’VE WON THREE OF THE LAST EIGHT RACES AT POCONO RACEWAY. WHY DO YOU SEEM TO BE SO TUNED INTO THAT TRACK, AND DO YOU ENJOY THE CHALLENGE OF A TRACK THAT YOU JUST CAN’T BE PERFECT ALL THE WAY AROUND?
“Yeah, well none of us are perfect all the way around. The Pocono (Raceway) thing really started in about 2014. Dave and I finally kind of hit on something that was working for us. And then in 2015 with Adam, it really came together and we were really fast there ever since 2015. That was obviously with the JGR guys and so it will be interesting to see if it translates with me with the RCR group – being able to go to Pocono (Raceway) next week with our Chevrolet and be fast. But the biggest thing to me is – I don’t know, I kind of changed my driving style at the race track just a little bit around that same time frame and I’ve kind of stuck to my guns on that. The track is also just starting to get its age because it got repaved in 2010 or ’11, something like that, so you know it’s really kind of coming into its own now. It’s pretty bumpy again. It’s lost a lot of grip again. So it lends itself to being able to widen out a little bit, which is always nice at those big, high-speed, flat tracks. You want to be able to find your own air and get out of the wake.”
IN GENERAL, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE OR WHAT YOU HAVE THAT WORKS AT POCONO (RACEWAY)?
“You have to be good in turns one, two and three. Not great anywhere.. just good.”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT QUALIFYING TODAY? THIS IS A REALLY TOUGH TRACK TO QUALIFY AT. “Yeah, it’s just tough because the grip level, the air pressures, all that sort of stuff; and it’s just a really flat track. Like you’re going across a very flat track on two inches of 10 inch tread or whatever you know, so the contact patch is very, very low here. There’s not a lot of load to push you down into the race track. So you’re always just trying to kind of control that slide – whether it’s front slide or rear slide. It’s a challenge.. it’s tough. It’s never really easy, but over the years, I’ve had good success of being able to qualify decent here. We’ve had some poles – a lot of top-three, top-five qualifying efforts, as well. It would certainly be awesome to have another one of those here today.”
HOW TOUGH IS IT IF YOU DON’T QUALIFY WELL HERE?
“Yeah, it’s pretty miserable when you don’t qualify good here because then you start deep in the field and it’s hard to pass. Especially this day in age with how close the competition is, it’s even more difficult to pass here. Your best chance of passing somebody is while you’re sitting still on pit road. That’s kind of how this place has been. Pit strategy obviously comes into play a lot – whether you take two (tires) and try to jump guys and hold on or whatever.”
YOU’VE HAD A LOT OF SUCCESS AT THIS TRACK. HOW MUCH DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU CAN TRANSLATE INTO THIS YEAR WITH A NEW TEAM AND MANUFACTURER?
“Yeah, just concepts, ideas, things that I remember and know from the past, and being able to do it over again and try to explain that through to the new group with Randall (Burnett, crew chief) and the guys. But really, they’ve had a good sense of stuff that’s been really good, so we’ve been working off of their stuff, my stuff, all of it, and try to find a good happy medium of where we’re able to make the most effort and make the most speed. All of that has been working really well.”
LAST WEEK’S RACE WAS INTENDED TO BE 400 MILES, BUT IT WENT UNDER 300 MILES. CHICAGO WAS ORIGINALLY A 220 MILE RACE, BUT IT WENT LESS THAN THAT. YOU’VE BEEN IN THIS LONG ENOUGH WHERE IT WAS ALL ABOUT 400 OR 500 MILES AND THE IDEA OF SHORTENING RACES. ARE THERE ANY LEARNINGS OR ANYTHING YOU CAN TAKE FROM WHAT THESE RACES HAVE PROVIDED, AND IS THIS SOMETHING TO MAYBE MAKE AT ATLANTA OR AT TRACK ‘X’ A 300 MILER AS OPPOSED TO A 400 MILER TYPE OF THING?
“Yeah, I’ve kind of noticed that sometimes when the races are over and I’m like – damn, I didn’t have a chance to get back to where I wanted to go. It just takes a while; it takes a lot longer. It’s like a truck race, you know? You go to Pocono (Raceway) next weekend – you run a stage and the stage is 12 laps long or something like that. So shorter races, yeah – it’s fine.. it can be done. I think it can be done successfully. I think you kind of saw maybe a little bit of rain factor last week in the racing at Atlanta (Motor Speedway) where guys were really pushing because they knew the rain was coming so they wanted to be up front, so the aggression was high. But besides that, race distance, race length – I think if you can find a happy spot with a TV window, then just stick to that. If it’s a three hour window and it takes ‘X’ amount of time per lap to do it and you’re going to have eight cautions – add up that time, figure out the distance that you need, and go from there. I think to have one, two, three, maybe four Crown Jewels that have always been long distance races, as long distance races, is cool – Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500, you know what I mean. I would say keep those going the way they are, and maybe some of the other ones can be shortened.”
CAN YOU JUST TALK ABOUT RACING AT LEE USA SPEEDWAY LAST NIGHT AND THE FAN BASE OVER THERE?
“Yeah, ran a late model last night over at Lee Speedway. That was a lot of fun, so really appreciate Tom Keen, Archy and all the guys that were able to put together that car for me to be able to come out, work on it and have some fun. First time I’ve been in a super late model since I think 2019 at Snowball Derby, so it’s been a long time. I got rid of all of my stuff, so I don’t really do that much anymore. But was able to just kind of dip my toes back in. The fan crowd was great – everybody was really tuned in, came out, had some fun and enjoyed the night and I did, as well, too. It was a hot box out there.. it was warm. But made it through it and ready to go for this weekend here at Loudon (New Hampshire Motor Speedway).”