You’re one spot out of the playoffs, but you’re coming to a track where you know very well and you scored three top-five finishes here in your five career NASCAR Cup Series starts. It bodes well for a good day tomorrow doesn’t it, to move up into the playoff standings..
“Yeah, I feel pretty confident coming here. Watkins Glen (International) has treated me very well in the past, and I think that this weekend, it won’t be an exception. I think it will be even better, especially with the kind of performance that we had last weekend. I’m very happy to be here. I’m glad that after Indianapolis (Motor Speedway Road Course), we have another shot at a road course because if we were racing an oval, I feel like I would have something stuck in my heart a little bit. But I feel like we have an opportunity for redemption a little bit and have some fun.”
What is the feeling like on the team right now? Are you guys kind of at this high, hitting on all the cylinders? Is there just that extra something, maybe because of the situation you’re in and racing into it?
“Well everyone is different, right? Like the way I personally perform, I love being in these kind of scenarios. I feel like as a race car driver and as an athlete, you really live for moments like this. You don’t get to experience moments like this all the time. And when you do experience these moments, I feel like that’s really when you get to show what you’re built of. I feel like as a team, I will say that most of my team is the same way. We had long meetings, long conversations, this week about Indianapolis (Motor Speedway Road Course). I think that even though it’s not great that it happened, I feel like we learned a lot from that mistake because there are a lot of people that could have done something different; something better to avoid that problem, including myself. So I feel like as a team, we grew a lot in the last few days and I’m excited for this weekend’s challenge.”
Your track record here is pretty good. Assuming you don’t win here, you’re going to most likely pick up some points. Going into Daytona (International Speedway) next weekend with whatever points you have to makeup, how will you tackle that race knowing that anything can happen and has in the past?
“In reality, I have to control what I can control. I can only control one race car and that’s the No. 99. And the race of the other guys, I’m not the kind of driver that wishes something bad to happen. So I’m going to control what I can control and do the best I can. This weekend, as you mentioned, the goal is to win the race. I’m with the mentality that I need to win the race. With that being said, I don’t need to. I think if I have a weekend like I had in Indianapolis (Motor Speedway Road Course) and we get a bunch of points like we did at Indy, we can go to Daytona (International Speedway) and we can be fine. But I would love to take care of my destiny – to win and be done with it because I know at Daytona, anything can happen. Somebody else can make a mistake in front of me and that’s it. So those are things that, unfortunately, I cannot control. But there are a lot of things that I can control this weekend and I will try my best to put ourselves in a very good spot.”
Coming into the close of the regular season, how would you grade your performance, your team and how everything is working this year?
“You know, that’s a difficult question because I feel like it’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster for the No. 99 team. In the beginning of the season, we had a lot of speed, but we were not executing right. Either I was making a mistake, or we were having wrong lights on the dash, or you name it.. there were a lot of things happening and we were just not executing right. And then later in the year, the middle part of the year - we started executing better, but then we didn’t have the speed. The speed was just OK.. it wasn’t winning speed anymore like it was at the beginning of the year.
I think there is a lot of room for improvement. I’m very harsh on myself. I’m always trying to find perfection. But I also think in the last few weeks, we’ve been on the right track again. So it’s hard for me to put a number or a rate for this year, but I think it’s been inconsistent. I think we still have some work to do. My plan for this 2023 season was to be able to just be more consistent than what we were and in a stronger fashion. And we’ve been there, but not all of the time. So we have some work to do. I believe that I say this and we can win the next couple of weeks and then we turn the whole thing around. But I feel like we still have to continue to work.. continue to not feel like that we’ve settled and continue to move forward.”
With as well as you guys ran at Indianapolis, what has this last week been like leading into Watkins Glen? Do you feel like that confidence would still be as high heading into this weekend if not for how you guys ran last weekend with just how different the road courses are?
“Yeah, I think so. My confidence going into Indianapolis (Motor Speedway Road Course), we put a lot of work into it and I knew we were going to be strong, and I was hoping that we were going to be that strong for what I thought was a winning car. But yeah, the confidence is just as high. I think that – honestly every time that we go to a road course, I feel like you guys kind of count out the No. 99 team. We’re a strong team in road course racing. And at ovals, as well.. it’s just that we’re a little more hit or miss once in a while. But in road course stuff, for the most part, we’re pretty sporty.
I’m excited to be here at Watkins Glen (International). Like I said, this is a place that’s been good to me. We have good momentum and we’re hungry after what happened last week. We have to make sure that we take that to our advantage because if we’re not smart, that can affect us, too. If we go all or nothing, that can affect us. So we have to be smart about it; go out there and do our thing.”
Obviously you guys scored a ton of points and got a third-place finish last weekend. Was it difficult in any way to try and separate the disappointment of not winning and the excitement of what you guys did end up accomplishing?
“Oh, definitely. It was very difficult to divide the two. In my Cup career, I would say that was the worst third-place I’ve ever had.. by a lot. Like I left the race track disappointed and I left the race track thinking that we didn’t do our job.. we didn’t execute right, in different areas, honestly. You guys only saw the pit road issue, but before that, there were a couple of adjustments that I didn’t like on the car. There were a couple of little things that led us into running third. That car was capable of leading all the laps and we just didn’t execute the way that we should have. There are a few things, like I said, that we learned and we just have to continue to be better.
But yeah, the positive of that weekend is the speed that we had. The car had a lot of potential. We just have to be smarter and execute in a better fashion.”
When a mistake like that happens on pit road, how do you pick up your guys and just move onto the next week?
“Well first of all, there is absolutely nothing anyone can do about the past.. nothing. So what happened on that pit stop, I left pit road – yeah, I was mad, but then what? What am I going to do about it? There’s nothing I can do. The only thing I could have done was drive the crap out of that car, which I did. We cut the deficit of 10.5-seconds to five, and wait for caution, which didn’t happen. It was one of those things that you just have to move on. You have to have the capacity of moving on and knowing that you still have an entire stage to go and anything can happen. In my mind, we can still win the race… 10.5-seconds behind, we can still win the race. A caution comes, anything can happen and we can still win the race. I never give up on the race until the white flag. And after the race, like I said, probably the longest meeting I’ve ever had with a pit crew. We had a lot of conversations, a lot of reviews of film and we worked together for a couple hours, at least. Just watching film - reviewing what I could have done different.. what they could have done different. There were so many different things that could have gone a different way and that 23-second stop was going to be 15, and if it was a 15-second stop, we could have won the race. So you know, we just learned a lot. We failed at Indianapolis (Motor Speedway Road Course), but success comes from failure. We learned a lot and that’s the good part of it. I can tell you that my pit crew, they’re hungry. I’m hungry. My engineers are hungry. So right now, I feel like we’re in a very, very good place to continue to fight.”
What makes Watkins Glen unique compared to the other road courses we visit?
“I think Watkins Glen (International) is a very fast track. The bus stop is very tricky – you can be extremely bad in the bus stop, perfect everywhere else and you won’t be good here. So it’s a very tricky race track, but that’s what makes it so cool – that it’s difficult and it’s tricky. I’m excited to be here. Like I said, I feel like we have a great opportunity ahead of us and I think the No. 99 team is ready for battle.”
You’ve qualified in the top-10 at all of the road courses this year, but I’m curious just the feeling about what it’s been like leaving those road courses? For somebody that talks about ‘lookout for the No. 99 at road courses’, how do you look back at what’s happened and how many points have been left on the table, or do you just put all that stuff away?
“Yeah, you’re right. You almost made me cry (laughs). Yeah, I mean I think that the only road course this year that we haven’t been capable of winning the race – it’s actually funny, but it was Sonoma (Raceway) and we know why. We know what went wrong. There was something significantly wrong, besides the shifting. So yeah, I think part of that is execution. Part of that is just being smarter.. thinking outside the box. I felt like in Chicago (Street Race), we just didn’t evolve good enough. We took for granted how much heat the brakes were going to get and then I ran out of brakes in the rear of my car.
I feel like we’re a fast team, but we have to be smarter. We want to win a championship. We want to be upfront on a consistent basis. We have to be smarter. I say ‘we’ because I’m including myself, too. I feel like in Chicago, I was running fifth, fourth or something like that, and I started having issues with the brakes. I kept pushing the same and eventually I had contact, and then another contact. So even with the issues with the brakes, I could have finished top-10. And I kept pushing because I’m a very aggressive driver and I made a mistake, so I ended up finishing 25th or 27th, something like that. So those are the kind of scenarios where we have to be smarter.
Also, we could have done a better job picking and choosing our brake package. Yeah, we’re the best in braking in Sonoma.. that doesn’t mean that the same package is going to work in Chicago. We have to really be smarter on our decisions. So as a group, we just have to continue to evolve and continue to be better to be able to make the No. 99 team go to the next level. In my opinion, the next level is winning several races like the No. 24 team. Right now, the No. 24 team is not thinking about getting to the playoffs. They are thinking about how to win a championship. They have several wins. They’re thinking about playoff points. That’s what I want for the No. 99 team and that’s my target, and we’re working very hard for that.”
In a pit stop, there’s so many elements over the wall and even behind the wall, that are important things. But you talk about even things you could have done differently.. I just don’t understand, what could you have done differently on that Indy stop because once you stop, it’s out of your hands or was there anything differently you could have done in that case?
“So there are so many different things that went wrong. The first one was the throw of the hose was too short. The second one was I was a couple of feet too long, and that made the short hose even shorter. The third one was I knew that he was stuck, so I could have put it in reverse. But then the right-rear, he already took the nut out, so I couldn’t put it in reverse because I didn’t have a wheel on the right-rear. So if he knew the left-front is stuck, why are you going to take the right-rear nut, you know? You don’t have to be that far ahead. The carrier and the changer – they’re seeing the hose underneath with a loop because the hose had like a weird loop.. that never happens, but it had like a loop. They saw it but they didn’t move it. So there are like seven different people on our team, including myself, that could have done something to avoid it. And then on top of this, we were going to wait for fuel. We didn’t need a nine-second stop.. we just needed an OK stop because we were going to wait for fuel. It’s one of those things that we just have to be smarter. We just have to be smarter in the situation. There are a lot of different things that could have been communicated to me, also. On my first stop, I was actually a little bit deep on the box and it was communicated to me to stop a little bit shorter too late when I was already pretty much stopping in my box. So there are so many different people that could have done something different to avoid that and to make the stop better, and we didn’t execute the right way. Like I said, we learned a lot from that and I can guarantee you that it won’t happen again. But maybe something else is going to happen.. everything is about how you react in those situations and unfortunately, in that particular mistake, nobody was able to react properly within the group.”
“So the first stop, it was actually just as long as the second one. So at least I was consistent.. like it was exactly the same. But the hose was short. The first stop, we were tracking about probably two feet away from the hose getting stuck in there. So we could have communicated – hey, this is a red flag.. maybe put more hose, or maybe the driver make an adjustment or something.. communicate more about it. But you know, we were in the front, we were in the lead at the time. We were thinking that maybe we were invincible and we’re not. So it’s one of those things that we just have to be smarter.. that’s it. That’s the bottom line – be smarter and communicate better.”