IS IT WEIRD WHEN PEOPLE LIST YOU AS THE FAVORITE WHEN YOU’VE NOT MADE THE FINAL FOUR?
“Yeah, I don’t want to think about that until we get to that point. I feel like we have to work our way through the rounds and do the best job we can at all the opening tracks. It’s nice to have good bonus points and it’s nice to have that in our back pocket. But I’ve seen how the playoffs have played out over the last few years, and you can’t get ahead of yourself. We have to do a good job in each round and take it one race at a time.”
IS THIS WHERE YOU THOUGHT YOU COULD BE AT THE START OF THE SEASON?
“Starting the season, we didn’t expect to win five races to be honest. Winning three races was kind of the goal. As we transitioned throughout the year, the expectations got higher. There was a little slump that came with that because we started to expect to run top-three or top-five every week. It’s just not possible with this car especially. You’ve got way too many challenges. I feel like we got into a good place before the playoffs start to where we feel like we’re comfortable and have a good mindset. Watkins Glen just felt really good. It felt like we had the right approach.”
DO YOU FEEL STRONGER THAN AN 18-1 SHOT TO WIN?
“I don’t really look at the odds, to be honest. I think I was like fourth or something. I don’t really pay attention to that stuff. For me, I look at the stats and how we’re performing. There are a couple of tracks where we could be better. Talladega comes to mind. The short tracks at the end of the year come to mind. We’ve got two-and-a-half months to work toward the short tracks getting better, and we’ve got a month or so to work on Talladega. I feel like the tracks coming up suit us well. I’m not too nervous for the first few tracks, at least.”
HOW DO THESE POINTS HELP CARRY YOU THROUGH THE ROUNDS?
“It’s a little bit of a safety net, I guess. But it can all go away pretty quick. We can’t really just lean on that all the time. We have to perform well. We have to average 30 points a race in this first round, I think, and continue to work our way toward the second round… just take it one race a time and a three-race stretch at a time. I feel like it’s pretty simple. It’s just to try and go to Darlington, have a solid race and hopefully unload with good speed. We found a couple of tenths in the simulator this week. I felt like we had a good sim session. The car drove well. Hopefully it drives as good as it did in the simulator. We kind of backed it up with what we did in the spring. Honestly on our setup, we haven’t changed a lot at that place in awhile. We have to focus on Darlington and then Kansas, we’ll focus on that Tuesday and get a good baseline for there. We had a good race there in the spring as well, finished third and qualified on the pole. I look at the first two tracks as good places for us.”
HOW DO YOU SIZE UP DENNY HAMLIN?
“It’s a Gibbs-Hendrick kind of battle. RFK is getting in there. Penske always shows up in the playoffs. The 4 car could show up strong. They’re really consistent. There’s not really a weak link in the playoffs that I look at. Front Row has a good road-course package and a good super-speedway package. It’s anybody’s game right now. To your question about the 11, I think they’re one of the strongest teams. I anticipate him being really good at Darlington, I anticipate (Kyle) Larson being really good at Darlington, (Brad) Keselowski could be good. There are a lot of guys that pop up at a lot of these tracks.”
DO YOU HAVE TO STEP UP YOUR GAME AFTER FIVE WINS FOR THE PLAYOFFS? IS THERE A NEED TO CHANGE ANYTHING?
“I don’t think we change a thing. The intensity of the moment already elevates your performance a little bit. I know we’re good enough, I know we’re capable. I know my best is good enough. I feel like for me, it’s more the same… It's trying to approach each track individually and not look too far ahead. That’s really the thing I’ve learned, not to get ahead of ourselves. We can’t be thinking about the Round of 12, we can’t be thinking about the Round of Eight. We’ve got to be focused on Darlington right now. Then when Monday comes we’ll focus on Kansas, and maybe we’ll do a little bit of prep work for Bristol to make sure we’re ready. It’s just one step at a time. We can’t think too far ahead.”
HOW DID THAT IMPACT YOU IN PREVIOUS PLAYOFFS?
“It’s always nice to think that, ‘Yeah, this track suits us well.’ There’s no guarantees with that approach. You can show up and not be as fast as you think you’re going to be. Last year was our best playoffs that we’ve had, and that gives me a lot of confidence that we have that kind of basis and foundation for finishing well consistently, getting points and being fast at the right times. I think I could have managed last year a little bit better. I’m going to try and use this year’s playoffs as a learning experience. I’m confident we’ll be here for another eight to 10 years. We just have to learn from what we’re doing this year to hopefully make us better.”
WITH KYLE BUSCH IN A CHEVROLET FOR THE FIRST TIME, DO YOU HAVE MORE COMMUNICATION WITH HIM NOW THAT HE’S IN THE SAME MANUFACTURER CAMP?
“It’s changed a lot in the last two to three years. All our teams share information on setups, so we know exactly what’s in the 8 car and they know exactly what’s in the 24. We have a meeting throughout the week to talk to those guys, and I get along really well with Kyle from our days at KBM. I feel like we work well together. The goal for us is that hopefully a high tide raises all ships. I feel like if the two of us work well together and the two teams, it can help everyone. I feel like that’s what we’ve tried to apply this year, just to work together as good as we can. It helps when you have a good previous relationship with someone like that.”
ON HAVING FIVE WINS AT FIVE TRACKS THAT ARE IN THE PLAYOFFS.
“That’s good to know. I didn’t know that stat. It’s nice to know that a lot of the tracks line up well for us. It’s a comforting thing to know. Like I said, I don’t want to think too far ahead and get too excited about Vegas or Phoenix because we’re not there yet. We have to get there first. Hopefully this first round goes smooth and we don’t have too many headaches at night and can get through it.”
WHY WILL THESE PLAYOFFS BE DIFFERENT TO GET YOU TO PHOENIX?
“I think it’s going to be a steady improvement from what we did last year. Last year, we had the second-best average finish in the playoffs. We finished sixth in the points. Basically we were one race shy of making it to Phoenix with a bad qualifying effort at Martinsville. If we can build on what we did last year and improve some of the mistakes from the Round of Eight and improve some of the qualifying errors that we had at Martinsville, I think we’d already be ahead. It’s one step at a time, but if we learn from what we did last year then we can be better yet.”
WITH KYLE LARSON ONE OF YOUR STRONGEST COMPETITOR, HOW DO YOU ENTER THAT AND HOW OPEN-BOOK ARE YOU IF YOU BOTH GO ALL THE WAY TO PHOENIX?
“He’s really good and really fast. I feel like when he came to Hendrick Motorsports, I admired his talent and his simplicity in how he described the car. He just really knew exactly what the car was going but he didn’t make it too complicated. I’ve tried to take that approach, and I feel like the two of our teams work really well together. You’ll see a lot of times he and I being close together on pace because we drive similarly. We search for kind of the same things in terms of balance of the car. I think that helps our teams progress. Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) knows that he can look at their stuff and give me something similar, and it usually works. I don’t know why it’s worked that way. We have totally different backgrounds but seem to drive a stock car somewhat similarly.”
DO YOU HAVE A LOT OF CONFIDENCE GOING INTO DARLINGTON BASED ON WHAT HAPPENED IN THE SPRING?
“Yes and no. A lot has changed since then, so I feel like we have to keep up with the times and keep up with what’s new and what’s going on. I do think we can be really good at Darlington. It’s just a matter of how good. We want to be solid and have a good top-10 qualifying and a good top-10 race. For us, it’s pretty simple. It’s always been a good track for me, all the way back to Xfinity days. I love the challenge of it. The challenge of that track brings out a good side of my driving style. I enjoy places that are really tough and challenging, and that’s definitely one of them. It’s high-speed, it’s close to the wall, it’s everything I enjoy as a driver.”
IS THERE ANY SENSE OF URGENCY IN GETTING THIS DONE?
“I don’t think so. I’m 25. I feel like I have years left to keep driving. I feel like this is an opportunity that’s a great one, but it’s one that I’m going to relish and enjoy. I’m going to enjoy that we’re in this position. It’s fun and exciting. I’m looking forward to having more of those down the road. Maybe not next year. Like you said, it’s cyclical and maybe next year we’re not as strong. But I know we’ve built a foundation that can sustain itself. I’ve been racing for 11 years, and half of those have been in the Cup Series. It’s been a steep learning curve, but I feel really comfortable now.”
HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH RUDY PROGRESSED AS YOU’VE GONE THROUGH PLAYOFFS AND HIGH-PRESSURE SITUATIONS?
“He has a different approach than I do in terms of how he manages the pressure. It works for us. We’re a little bit opposite in some of our approaches. But when we talk about racecars, we’re very similar in our approach. We work well together because we do have differences, but at the same time we communicate well.”