You’re locked into the playoffs with your win here in February, so you don’t have to race for your season like other guys do. It would be hard to not have a sense of confidence after that win, so with all that in mind, how hard do you plan on pushing it tomorrow night to try to do the Daytona sweep?
“Yeah, I mean that’s what we’re here for is to be back in victory lane; get my second Summer race win here. For us, we’re looking at the playoff points that we could take to the playoffs – either by stage wins or obviously another five points winning the race. Those are the benefits that we can take out of Daytona and the things that we’re looking for. How we do that? I’m not sure yet. On one hand, this race generally is kind of crazy. Obviously last year was a little bit different with kind of one incident taking everybody out of the race, but not really anybody’s fault.
I don’t know.. I know the cars that have to win, have to make it to the end of the race, right? So they don’t really care about stage points. I mean there’s a couple that care about stage points, so hopefully that leaves us racing the ones that are already locked-in for maybe some stage wins or something. Just going to see how it plays out and kind of adjust our race lap-by-lap, stage-by-stage, and see where we shake out.”
You won your two Xfinity Series Championships the old-school, season-long way. You’ve also been in a couple of these elimination-style format years. Now that we’ve done this for a decade or so, how do you kind of weigh the pros and cons of the way we used to do it versus the way we do it now?
“Yeah, I don’t know. It’s exciting. I think it keeps the fans engaged the way we have it. But with that being said, it’d still be a great points battle right now going in with 11 races left. I think it would still be a really good championship battle. I’m watching the tour championship right now and looking at the way they eliminate guys and set themselves up for a golf tournament at the end of the season – it’s handicapped, but they have four guys that go for a championship at the end of the year.
I think every sport has done something to make it exciting.. make their playoffs a little more intense over the years. I enjoyed the Nationwide Series Championships. I loved that it was a season-long deal. But at the point I’m in now, I’m looking forward to the playoffs and the opportunity to race for a championship that way.
Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve not been leading going into the playoffs to really have a strong feeling one way or the other, I guess.”
Five playoff points to win the race.. maybe two more for the two stage wins. Do you view this race as binary for you – it’s either put ourselves in the position to win the race and get the five points, or because people are trying to survive, it’s a chance to get the two points?
“Yeah, we talked about that in our meeting this week at the shop. You look at the cautions in this race and you look at how many finish this race, and it’s not near as many as other speedway races, it seems like. But again, kind of like I said earlier, I feel like there’s a lot of guys that know that they have to make it to the end of the race to have an opportunity to make the playoffs. I’m hoping that gives us a way to kind of get some track position – stay upfront, battle for those stage wins. Seven points would go a long ways for us in the Round of 16 and so on.
For me, that’s really what we’re focused on and I hope that’s how it plays out – that it won’t be so chaotic at the end of those stages and we’re battling for those stage wins and ultimately the win at the end of the day.”
You’re looking at the first two rounds and you’re saying – ‘I can definitely win at Bristol. I can definitely win at Talladega.’ And if the stars align, you move onto the Round of Eight. Do you think those are your two best shots?
“Yeah, I think going into the first round, I really like all of the racetracks. I love Darlington, Kansas and Bristol. I still feel like we’ve been so close at Bristol, so many times, and I would love to get my first win there this year and then obviously move on.
For me, I’m focused on the first round. I did not know Talladega was in the second round, honestly. I have no idea what’s in the second round (laughs). But for us, just really kind of honed in on Darlington right now. I feel good about where our car is for Daytona. My guys have been kind of looking at Darlington this week and trying to prepare for that. We were good at Darlington earlier in the year. We had kind of a misfortune with a flat left-rear tire that we lost time under green pitting. I feel really good about where we are as a team. I don’t think we have to win in the first round to make it through by any means, so we’ll go do our jobs each and every week – try to be perfect and let others make mistakes to move on through that round.”
Where do you feel like your team is now? Your team got your win so early in the season and now, all these months later and the playoffs starting, where do you feel like you guys are?
“It’s going to be real in a week, right? Or I should say after tomorrow, it’s real. I feel like we’ve grown a lot as a team. We’ve gotten better in certain areas of our race team throughout the year and really things have stuck out where we need to be better, and I feel like we’ve corrected some of that. I still feel like we have some issues that we’re still working on and trying to clean up. Some of that is me as a racecar driver – getting to pit road, things on pit road, some race strategy calls that we’ve probably been a little bit off on. And then car speed.. we’ve struggled on that at some racetracks.
I like the information that we have and the things that we’ve learned lately, and I feel like that’ll put us in a good spot going forward. But I like where we are. It’s real now. We’ve made the playoffs. We have one more kind of relaxed, kind of freebee race, and then it’s gametime.”
You’ve talked about having that relaxed attitude and this is really the last race for that. Have you guys started to kind of pivot and get ready to have that different kind of attitude and get that more serious, or is that going to be when you get to Darlington?
“We’re serious every week. It’s just the reality is that next week is everything matters. Like when we have a bad Saturday, it matters. We’ve had some bad Saturday’s, as far as qualifying goes, and it set us back. It hasn’t been super detrimental. I think a bad Saturday in the playoffs is difficult to overcome. So I think for us, it’s we know there’s no mulligans once we start next week. We’re done with the driving range.. done goofing off (laughs). We’ll step-up on the first tee next week and make sure that we’re ready to go.”
Obviously you want to go all the way, but realistically, how deep would you be satisfied to go or is that off the table – it’s all or nothing?
“No, it’s not ‘all or nothing’. I think for me - say we were eliminated in the first round, we could still finish fifth in points, right? So there’s a ton left to race for, no matter what happens in the first round. I think for us, in 2017, we finished 11th in points. We had a really good shot at finishing ninth in points after getting eliminated in the third round, I believe. So for us, there’s a lot to race for no matter what happens in that first round.”
This is the first time since February when you won the Daytona 500 that you’re coming back to Daytona. What are the emotions like? You’re back in the media center for the first time since that winning press conference?
“It was a lot more fun coming back in here after that (laughs).
But yeah, it’s been special. Our pilot let us fly over the track – we did a circle around the track before we landed, so that was pretty cool. Going over to the museum and seeing the car in there, checking all the things out in there, was special. And then unveiling our Walk of Fame there out in front of the museum. This race is so big when you win the Daytona 500, and you do a lot of things throughout the season based off of winning this and it’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed every second of it – being able to promote our team, promote our win, promote the sport. For me, it doesn’t get old.
It’s been nice to come in here and kind of take it all in – look around, walk through the garage. It was so chaotic after the race. You’re trying to celebrate. You’re trying to somewhat get some sleep knowing you have to get up the next morning early. So it’s been nice to kind of come in here, know that you’ve accomplished something great as a race team. Now that that’s over, we can try to get another one.”
Obviously you have incentive to win this race and win the stages. You have points on the line, and also a rare sweep, which hasn’t been done all that many times. But can you allow yourself awareness of what’s going on around you and try not to effect who gets in the playoffs and who doesn’t?
“Definitely something that you think about. You don’t want to be the reason somebody gets in over somebody else, right? Points-wise and other cars, you will definitely – or at least I will – be a little more cautious around some of those cars that are right there on the cutoff line for points. Some Chevy guys are racing for a win. You have buddies that are trying to make the playoffs and things like that. So you try to be respectful of those guys, but know that we still have a job to do and try to take some points away from other people, as well.”
How did it feel putting your hands and feet in the concrete, and what does it mean to you, personally, to be part of that Walk of Fame at Daytona?
“It was cool. Yeah, I mean I’ve never at any construction sites, I’ve never put my hands or feet in the concrete. I don’t think I’ve done that as a kid (laughs). But no, that was really cool. And then I’d say it gets more real every time something happens or you go into the museum and see your face on the wall there with all of the other winners of the Daytona 500 and knowing that’s going to stay there. Just like the Walk of Fame out there – to know that’s going to be there, I guess until they decide to tear it up (laughs), is really special. I feel like that’s what the Daytona 500 is, right? It’s something that sticks with you in your career for the longevity of it, and I think no other race does that, except for winning a championship in the sport. So that was one that we’re super proud of, but that’s also what makes it so important and so special to everybody. For me, I’m glad that we accomplished that already, and now coming back to Daytona, we’re more relaxed, but also more confident. That’s something nice to go along with it, as well.”