With eight races to go in your final season, fans are rallying behind you, wanting you to win. Do you feel that support?
“It’s definitely something that you recognize, feel and try to appreciate, just because that’s what our goal was this year? You want to go out and do everything right, as you walk out the door and have everybody’s respect and like the things you’ve done throughout your career. Really, your first impression is kind of like your last impression, right? As you walk out, you try to do as many things right as possible, and one of our main goals this year was to be competitive and be in contention, and try to have a chance to win races… race for the championship and walk out that way. Obviously, being in position to win the Southern 500, and having all those people root for you and want that to happen is exactly what we want. There’s no way to force that stuff. You can’t control so many things that happen, but I can definitely sense the support and it’s really been that way since we started this season. The fan support and the industry support has been over the top. I told somebody, ‘You almost can’t screw this up.’ But, it would be spectacular if you could win, and do those things that so many people are coming to the racetrack hoping that they get to witness in person, no matter what market it is. But, it’s a brutal sport – you win one week, and the next week you’ll be wrecked-out and finish last. It’s been that way for as long as I’ve been around it, but I think it is different this year just because it’s the last year with the fans, the people and everything they have going on. They want you to achieve that moment.”
With this being your final season, do you view the playoffs as more work or is it actually fun?
“It’s always work, and I’m fortunate to have this ability to kind of separate the two, because when you plug yourself into that car and turn the rest of it off, it’s just work. That’s my job, that’s what I do, that’s what we do together as a team. This year is a little bit different because of all the things that are happening around the last season that you can enjoy, but I’ve never really had a problem turning it on or off.”
Does being a part of the playoffs in your final year mean more because it is your last season and there are only eight races left?
“The expectation is really no different. I think the biggest difference this particular year is you’ve got a lot of things going on outside the car with it being the last year, and to be able to celebrate all the things that we’ve done in the past and making sure that we’re still competitive. Really, this all started at the end of last year in laying out a good plan, and I think everybody’s done a good job in executing that plan and allowing us to execute that plan. Executing that plan has allowed us to be competitive in the car and do the things that we need to do on the racetrack because of everything being structured and organized. The expectation is always to be competitive and be in this position to have a chance to at least go for a championship, and it all starts by qualifying for the playoffs. For us, that’s been the expectation since I came to SHR and we’ve been fortunate to succeed at that through the years.”
Bristol at night has a different vibe, as if there’s more adrenaline flowing. Do you feel that way too?
“Bristol, the night race, especially, is a place that just has a special feel. Being in the playoffs now and being a part of that event for a long time just gets you jacked up as a driver. It’s just a very intense place to race. It’s an intense place to just make laps, honestly. As you get into that race and understand the magnitude of the situation, especially with Bristol being in the playoffs, it’s something that I just think is very challenging and exciting to be a part of.”
Is Bristol about survival, or is it more involved than that?
“I think the thing that people kind of lose track of in these playoffs, and especially in this particular instance with Bristol, is that a lot of your strategy is dictated off of what happened the first two weeks. Last year for us, going into Bristol we needed to win because of what happened at Darlington when the car caught on fire and then you were behind right off the bat. The ‘just survive’ strategy at Bristol is great as long as you’re up in the points or in the middle of the pack in the points. But if you’re in the bottom third of those points, you’ve got to make some stuff happen and try to get points in the stages and try to win the race.”
How do you stay out of trouble at Bristol?
“As Bristol goes, you can wind up in somebody else’s mess. You can create your own mess too, but it’s usually something that’ll jump out and bite you in a hurry. As soon as you let your guard down, something happens, and the next thing you know, your hood’s up over your windshield because they’ve spun out and wrecked, or you’ve been hit in the back, whatever the case may be. It just happens really quickly there. Bristol is a high-speed racetrack, but it’s also a racetrack where you can’t see the exit of the corner until you round the center part of the corner. Sometimes you come up on the wrecks before you even see them, and you can hit stuff really hard there.”