Last night, you had the chance to take in some Friday night lights. Tell us a little bit about that and do you enjoy having a few Friday’s a season that you get do something that probably feels like a little bit of a throwback to your high school days.
“Yeah, for sure. I appreciate you guys letting us have some time at home on Friday’s. Jeff Gordon invited me out there to the game. I grew up in that area – I didn’t go to that school, but grew up in that area and that game was pretty cool to watch. Their team is really good and it was on ESPNU. It was a fun game and just nice to kind of get away and do something a little different. I just love this weekend, in general. It’s so nice to have time at home and be able to drive down here. It’s one of my favorite racetracks – I always say this place and maybe Charlotte (Motor Speedway). But yeah, this is a really fun place to come race.”
Your playoffs have begun. Obviously you have a little bit of momentum. When you think of the rare times that you’re not in the playoffs, can you compare what it’s like to live inside the bubble as opposed to living outside the playoff bubble, when it comes to this time of year?
“Yeah, the only year I didn’t make the playoffs was my rookie year. But yeah, my rookie year, it was a lot of learning and I felt like the last 10 races were just a chance to get better and not have some spotlight and some pressure on me. Every year since then, I’ve been in the playoffs and made it through the rounds, to some extent. So I just want to get through the rounds – just take it one step at a time. I was listening to some of the other guys this week – it’s very true that this is a long season in itself, so I feel like 10 races is a long time and you just have to be peaking at the right times and that really starts this weekend. And then just executing throughout the races.”
Do you come in here with good memories of the race you won, or bad memories of the race you didn’t?
“Yeah, unfortunately TV was showing when I crashed here, or blew a tire, in 2021. So that was a tough memory in the playoffs, but we were able to overcome it and advance at Bristol (Motor Speedway). But yeah, I think a little bit about the race here in the spring. But to me, so much has changed and we’ve developed a little bit different setup – still the same kind of general foundation that we had, but it’s changed.
I feel like, for us, I don’t think too much about the spring. I think really about last fall – the notes, looking at who was fast and what the track did as it changed. So that’s kind of what I look at going into this weekend, more so than what we did in the spring.”
Have you seen Ryan Preece today, and if so, have you had a chance to talk to him? We had a chance to talk to him and he showed us his bloodshot and bruised eyes.
“Yeah, definitely a different sight than we’ve seen in a while. I will say, the sprint car wrecks and some of the midget wrecks – I see guys that have had that happen.. not very often, but sometimes when they have flips. So a different sight, definitely, for a NASCAR driver to go through.
Yeah, hopefully we can continue to make it better. I think Ryan Blaney’s wreck and Ryan Preece’s – it was great to see those guys be OK. We’ve made a lot of progress, but I still feel like there’s some elements of that crash that could be a little bit better, like we talked about on Thursday – just the interaction with the grass and all those things. Hopefully just keep making it better.”
When it comes to the playoffs, do you adjust your schedule or anything to kind of get more streamlined and focused on racing, or is it just business-as-normal, Monday through Friday?
“Yeah, it’s a little bit different. During the summertime over the last two years, I’ve done a lot of extra-curricular racing. I’ve raced around 12 times the last two year, in total, throughout the year. Most of those are over the summer, so I’m home quite a bit more in the playoffs and I feel like my schedule is more committed to the Cup team, going to the simulator and being at all the meetings. So yeah, I try to manage what I’m doing throughout the week a lot more in the playoffs because it does take more effort and time with your team to prepare for each race to make sure you’re as good as you can be.”
The spring race at Darlington (Raceway) is during the day and this race is primarily going to be at night. Is there much difference between the track, the conditions and everything?
“Yeah, I think the day races here are very slick. There’s not a lot of grip available. I think the track improves a little bit as the race goes on. But this place definitely gains a lot of grip at night, so I think this place changes quite a bit as you get deeper into the race. And that’s what I think we could improve on as a team. I’ve had a lot of good runs here - a lot of them are in the daytime, in the early parts of the race, if it’s a night race. Just have to improve on what we need for balance as we go.”
How difficult is it to learn to race the racetrack? That’s the one thing drivers always say to us – you have to race the racetrack.
“Yeah, I think it’s just not getting over your skis. It’s really easy to hit the wall and rush the throttle or drive in a car-length, or so, too deep. So it’s a challenge, but I feel like that’s always the priority here – feeling your race car and feeling what it’s doing. You can’t really control what’s around you that much, but air is definitely tough here. It’s hard to find clean air, so that’s a disadvantage. But I think it’s just trying to manage the risk. As the race goes on, you have to run against the wall more and more because there’s more clean asphalt up there. It’s just a matter of kind of being patient.”
Would you rather discuss the safety implementations from NASCAR and the crash studies when the season is over so it’s not in your head when you’re tackling these 10 races?
“Yeah, for me – selfishly I think in the playoffs, I’m not really worried about my safety. I’m going to put it all out there and see what happens. And that was even true last year when there were some questions about concussions and things like that. I think this year, my commitment level is high and I’m not worried about it, even if the car was dangerous. I don’t believe it is. I think it’s in a lot better place than it was last year. But yeah, I’ll probably listen in on some of those meetings, but my care level right now is not super high with that stuff.”
Obviously Chase (Elliott) isn’t in the driver’s playoffs, but he’s in the owner’s championship. Has he or anyone at Hendrick Motorsports given you an indication of how important that is to him and the No. 9 team?
“I haven’t heard from him how important it is, but I do know that it’s important to the team as a whole. Yeah, those guys always do a good job executing races. I think they’ll put a lot of effort into the last 10 races and try to help us out when we can. I don’t expect their effort level to be any different.”
You have 20 minutes of practice coming up before qualifying. How do you approach this practice session?
“It’s a challenging one, for sure, because the tires go through such a transition here in 20 minutes. 20 minutes is about 30 laps, plus or minus a few, so we’ll try to go out right away. There’s a little bit of rubber on the racetrack and it’s probably gotten cleaned off after the cars went out for qualifying. For us in Group A, there’s a slight advantage, maybe, in qualifying to being faster in the second round. So goal number is to have a good practice. And number two, get through in the top-five of qualifying and make the necessary adjustments, if any, for the second round.
For us, it’s just one step at a time. But I think trying to get a good read on the car. Try not to blister the tires off the car in the first eight or nine laps and have a good feel. Really, I would like to see a lot of pace from lap 15 to 25. That’s what I’m focused on today.”