What’s it like for you as a young many coming up through the sport and doing very well, to now being what I keep hearing over and over again as really the championship favorite? How’s that been for you and are you approaching things any differently?
“It’s been nice. We’ve put a lot of work into getting to this point. I feel like it’s just been a slow evolution and process to get to this spot. I don’t reflect a whole lot, but I am proud of the work that we’ve put in and the fact that we’ve got our race team to where it is. Now is a good chance to show all that we’ve done to this point. I’m excited for it. I still have a lot of years ahead of me. I feel like I’m really young in this sport and it’s just starting to really click, so that’s nice.”
There’s two 1.5-mile tracks in the Round of Eight. You’ve got the two wins and four top-fives on top of that. What’s been the difference maker for you at these styles of tracks?
“I feel like our simulation is good for these tracks. We’ve been able to lean pretty heavily on Chevy for advice and information on these tracks and I think that’s helped us. I feel like that’s probably where it started early in the year – back in January and February when we started working on Vegas. And then we just started to develop a consistent package for all of these tracks. I’d say we lost our way a little bit in the summer on some of the faster tracks, but I feel like after that, we kind of went right back into what we know, improved it slightly and here we are. You never know what to expect. Just kind of intrigued to see how we unload and how that balance is, and then we just have to fine tune from there. With this car, luckily you’re never really too far off, so you just have to fine tune those little details to get better.”
Do you feel like a championship favorite?
“I don’t know yet.. that’s for you guys to decide. I just go out there and drive. For me, it’s one step at a time, it really is. So for me, it’s all about practice here today. I don’t know what we’re going to unload with. I feel confident in how we’ve prepared and what it feels like. It feels great in the virtual world and hopefully that applies. It felt great here last time, so we just have to wait and see. Take it one step at a time in each race of this round. I’m not looking too far ahead, honestly.”
We’re going next weekend to Homestead-Miami Speedway and then to Martinsville Speedway. Talk about tackling Homestead – it’s a track that some drivers like to run really high at. I don’t know if that’s really your style, but your thoughts on going to Homestead.
“Yeah, I mean I’ve done it before, but I don’t think in the Cup car. It’s not maybe as comfortable for me, but I do feel like I’m capable of running well at Homestead. I’ve won a Cup race there and last year we qualified on the pole. It’s a place that is within our wheelhouse, it’s just a matter of how good we can be there. I think we can realistically have a chance to compete and fight for a win there, but we just have to kind of focus on that next week and see where we’re at after Vegas. I don’t know yet, but I feel like we can be pretty solid at Homestead, for sure.”
We’re in a stretch now where you’ve won at each of the next four tracks. What’s the confidence like for you personally? I know you’re not looking too far ahead, but does that help boost the hope to get the championship and where maybe a championship is kind of the only acceptable outcome for this No. 24 team?
“Yeah, I mean I think the blue print is there for success. But the thing I always caution is that things change and evolve, and teams and drivers improve. So we have to kind of take that next step at all of these race tracks coming up.
But yeah, it’s nice to have a blue print of – hey, we’ve been here before.. we’ve been fast. We kind of know what balance is achievable and what we want to have in our car, but getting there is definitely a different challenge. Yeah, I don’t maybe look at it that much, but it is nice to know and have that comfort that I know how to get around these tracks.”
Last year, obviously with the first year of the Next Gen car, the setups were changing so fast. Do you have any idea of the pace of how things are changing this year, setup-wise? If you guys brought back your winning setup from the spring race, would it still do OK here?
“Yeah, things have evolved, for sure. I don’t think it’s at the rate that it was last year by any means, but I think that it’s still definitely different. For us, we’re not bringing a similar car. I’m sure there are characteristics in the car that are similar or the same, but I’m sure there’s also a lot of things that are kind of different in their own right. So it’s probably more so little details and last year, it was more big things - kind of learning the aero balance of the car and all those things. But I think this year, it will be quite a bit different than the spring race because of the weather, too. It’s 86 degrees tomorrow and in the spring, I think it was around 65, so it’s going to be different.”
You won here in the spring, so are you basically starting from a blank slate this weekend?
“Yes and no. Obviously I know how to get around the race track and that’s nice. I know where I want to hit my marks and how I want the car to feel, but the grip in the track is probably going to be different. It’s probably going to be less and the bumps might be worse. All those things might factor in. It’s going to take something a little bit different. The groove might move up or move around. In the spring, it was middle in (turns) one and two, and bottom in three and four, mostly. So it could be different.. it could be bottom in one and two or top in three and four. So you just have to figure out what those lines are and what your car is going to need to have.”
With the bonus points and being the number one seed coming into the playoffs, the first two rounds obviously went really well for you guys. Were you 100 percent those two rounds, or because you had the bonus points, were you maybe 80 to 90 percent – not needing to hit homeruns, we just need to not shoot ourselves in the foot? How did you guys approach those two rounds?
“The first round, we were kind of finding our way a little bit with the setups and our car. I thought we definitely had potential and we were OK with that. I think we were OK with running seventh, eighth, ninth and getting a top-five here and there and just advancing. In the second round, we knew we needed to take it another step up and we did. I think this next round is the same thing. It’s going to take another step to be better. We’re going to have to be faster. We’re going to have to execute better races. It’s just going to take one more step of what we’ve already done. Although the last round was amazing, we can’t look back at that and say – oh we just need to do exactly like that. We probably need to do that and maybe a little bit better.”
Now with this round being make or break to make it into the championship race, does this round have to be 100 percent or 110 percent from here on out.. it has to be everything?
“Yeah, I mean it’s just all the details, right. I don’t push the car any harder. I don’t drive any differently, but it’s all the details that makeup the car in the race. Yeah, I mean we don’t want to show up today and over push or do anything that would make a mistake. But we just know that the details are that much more important.”