You started driving in a car at age 14, several years after a lot of other competitors. As more and more kids are racing at an earlier age, do you think that somebody could be in your position a decade later by not competing until the age 14 on the track? Is there still that path that you were able to do through iRacing?
“I mean, I think you can still do it that way, just because I feel like it’s more of a maturity thing. I don’t think that me starting younger would have yielded the same results. I just feel like me starting when I did, I felt like I understood things. I watched racing for a long time and I had a little bit better idea of what I was looking to do. I feel like starting really young is fine, if that’s what you choose to do. But it’s easy to get burnt out, too. So you don’t want to be burnt out at 14 years old - have raced for so many years, so many weekends, that you don’t have much of a life outside of that. I feel like I’ve learned a lot of things by starting when I did and kind of going from there, and still having the desire and the drive now to do it every weekend.”
Can maturity still overcome laps run?
“Yeah, I think it’s quality of laps. I don’t think just any laps are good. I think I’ve spent plenty of time at go-cart tracks and going to race different things, and I can’t say that all of those laps were valuable to what I do on Sunday’s. I think some of them were. It’s more quality than quantity, I think, and getting yourself in competitive environments where it’s very difficult to compete and win. I think that’s really important because having that false sense of confidence that you’re going to win every race is not real. So you have to put your kid in different situations that he’s going to be challenged – see how they perform and see if they enjoy it. If they enjoy that challenge, that’s usually what it takes. When you get to this level, you’re only going to win maybe 10 to 20 percent of the time. So it’s very difficult – you go a lot of weeks losing.”
The temperature Sunday is supposed to be around 100 degrees. Is there a point where it’s too hot to compete and what precautions are you taking?
“Yeah, I mean it’s certainly going to be really hot. Last year was around 96 degrees.. I was looking at that, for reference. But I do think it’s going to be tough. These cars are really hot. We take a lot of measures to help cooling on our side, with the cool shirts and all those things. So hopefully all of that stuff works well and we can have a smooth day. It’s nice that it’s 100 miles shorter. It’s a bigger race track, so there’s a little bit more airflow and less work in the corners. I feel like if you were at Bristol (Motor Speedway) and it was 100 degrees, you’d have guys really falling out. But here, I think it will be a little bit easier.”
I assume you watched last year’s race – what’s it like to watch and see all those tires blow, and you had your deal with (Denny) Hamlin that created drama for a couple of weeks. What are those feelings when you’re watching it – you’re trying to learn, but there was all this stuff going on?
“Yeah, there was a lot of chaos last year. I think what I looked at is how fast our car was. What inspired me was how good we were last year – how we could pass through the field. We missed out on a couple of stage points here and there, I thought, during the race. Stage Two, just the way that it went at the end there, we probably missed out on two. And then Stage One, as well. I feel like we could have had even more points that day. So that’s kind of what I look at – how do we maximize that day a little bit better if we have the same speed this year, or hopefully a little bit better. I like this race track and I feel like I was able to navigate through traffic. I’m hopeful that tires aren’t an issue this year. They did a tire test here, so I’m trusting all of that stuff. And for us, just hopefully bring similar speed.”
It's been a great season for your team to this point. Looking back on what you’ve accomplished so far, personally, how does that make you feel to say – I’ve had a dominate season to this point?
“Yeah, I haven’t really reflected on that too much. I thought about that over the last couple of weeks, or really the last week, in general, as we start the next round – trying to enjoy what we’ve accomplished if this doesn’t work for me. I haven’t thought about how good of a season it’s been or anything like that, so definitely not where my mind is. Maybe in November, I might look back and reflect and say it was a great year, but there’s still a lot to accomplish and I feel like we’re just starting to get into the meat of the season. This is an important time of the year and it’s hard to just reflect and look back.”
Getting through this race and looking forward to Talladega Superspeedway and the ROVAL, being the two wild card races, so to speak for the next couple of races – that momentum, those points, are going to help you. But how do you tackle those two races to move onto the next round?
“Yeah, I mean Talladega (Superspeedway) has been hit-or-miss for us in the last couple of years. We’ve had solid finishes. We’ve been good at avoiding crashes with my spotter and we’ve been good at managing our way to the front. I think we can get a little bit better at getting some stage points here and there. So I look at that – try to make better decisions. Definitely a lot of studying that’s going to go into this week to figure out what we need to do a little bit better for Talladega, based on Daytona (International Speedway) and Talladega in the spring. I’m a little nervous about that one.
The (Charlotte) ROVAL, I’m confident in it. I think we’ve always been fast there. It’s always been a good track for me, and just winning Watkins Glen (International), I think we’ve got a good road course feel. We just have to get through Talladega, really.”
With how difficult it is to pass here, typically, what is the importance of getting a good qualifying lap in and the importance of strategy?
“Yeah, it is important, for sure. But last year, I saw a lot of passing. As crazy as that was to see, I thought there was a lot of passing throughout the field last year. I think this Next Gen car yields itself to have some of that. With it being hot out, I think you’re going to move around the track some within those two grooves that we have here. You’re going to be off the throttle and able to pass people. Not a huge deal to start in the teens, I would say, but you definitely don’t want to start in the 20s. And it is a short first stage, so you have to get a lot done quickly. So hopefully we start in the top-10 like we have been and hopefully on the front-row. But if not, your day’s not done.”
I know you said you don’t really want to reflect on some of the accomplishments that you’ve had so far this year, however, you’ve improved every season, statistically. Do you feel like this year is the year that you legitimately can go for the championship? Do you have the expectation and confidence to possibly be able to do that?
“I mean, I definitely think it’s my best chance that I’ve had, so far. I look at being 25 years old – I feel like I have a lot of opportunities at this, so this is a learning experience to see what the pressure is like getting to Phoenix (Raceway). So hopefully we make it past Martinsville (Speedway) this year. We were close last year and hopefully we just get a little bit closer. I feel like each year has been that steady progression, steady learning curve, so I just want to keep that going and try to make that next step.
Yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity. I think our team is probably as good as it’s ever been, so we’re definitely really capable.”
You do have the most wins on the season and it’s your best year, so far. Is there one thing you can point to that’s made the difference between this year and years past?
“I don’t know – I think we just came out of the off-season with a lot of hunger and a lot of drive to be better, and I think we prepared like that throughout the off-season. Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) was working on Christmas Eve, so I think it really never stopped, and I think that started with him and then trickled throughout the team. Myself, I never really took a break. I was racing throughout the off-season, so I think a lot of things were different. We didn’t really settle for what we did last year – having a couple of wins and getting close. I think we went at it full-steam and tried to get better, and it showed once we showed up at Las Vegas (Motor Speedway) for the third race of the year and we were really strong. I think it just continued throughout the year and we just have to keep improving.”