Obviously the high line here is talked about every time we come here. Why is it so important to be able to run the wall well here?
“I don’t know, for me it is.. it’s important. It seems to be how I’ve figured out how to go fast here. You have to be comfortable against the wall and I know there’s a lot of drivers that aren’t that comfortable against it. So that gives guys like myself and (Tyler) Reddick an advantage when we come here.
Yeah, I don’t know. It just seems like the Next Gen car is a little bit easier to run up against the wall. It was a big advantage last year on the long run and hopefully we’ve gotten our car better on the short run, but still really good on the long run like we were last year.”
“Well I don’t know. It’s obviously a longer way around, but you can get to the gas so early. As long as you’ve entered high enough, you can get to the gas early and just build that momentum and the lap times just compounds from there. I know last year, there were points of the race on the long runs where we’d be like three-quarters of a second faster. Just being able to enter with a lot of speed and then carry a lot of speed on exit.”
What is it like being a driver coming into a race where, you want to win obviously, but you’re already set for Phoenix. What is the mindset for you guys and how does that feel when everyone else you’re competing against has all this pressure?
“I don’t know. Obviously the pressure is a lot less than what other drivers are feeling, but I feel like I want to win just as bad as everybody else does, too. I’m not treating this weekend, or these next two weekends, like they don’t matter. I think they matter just as much to me as everybody else, but it’s nice not having to think about the points or feel the pressure all week. Yeah, as the rounds go on, you definitely feel more pressure. I’ve only been in the Round of Eight three times, and two of them, I won the first race. So I don’t really remember, honestly, what the pressure is like. But I know what it’s like in the other rounds and I know what I felt like at the ROVAL, so I can only imagine that as each race moves on, you feel more pressure and that’s not a fun feeling.”
How much of this week was spent on Homestead and how much was spent on Phoenix?
“For me, zero on Phoenix (Raceway).. all Homestead (Miami Speedway). Yeah, I mean obviously your mind thinks about Phoenix a little bit, but I haven’t watched any film. I haven’t looked at any data or anything like that. I love this weekend. I love Homestead and just trying to watch as much video of this place as I could to get my mind ready to run the wall.”
What do you remember that you did well a couple of years ago at Phoenix to win the title that you hope to repeat?
“Well we started the weekend off by getting the pole.. that was huge to get the number one pit stall. And then in the race, at different points, we had a good car. And then in other points, we weren’t. I felt like at certain points of the race, all four of us had the best car. Not that we had the best car at the end of the race, but our pit crew did a really good job and that number one pit stall paid off. So yeah, going back, obviously I know how important that pit stall is, so you put a big emphasis on qualifying. We had a weekend similar to 2021 earlier this year in the spring – getting the pole and then just didn’t execute the last restart right. Looking at those sort of little mistakes that we had in the spring, and then also just try to execute like we did in 2021, I think is where my mind is at on what we need to do to win the championship. And two, you need a fast car, which I know we will and we’ll have a good weekend.”
Normally on your schedule, you’re a busy dude. You’re going from this race, to that race – from what I understand, correct me if I’m wrong, you’ve kind curtailed that now that the championship is getting closer. Is it more pressure not to be doing all that stuff because you get in a groove, or is there a sense of FOMO or anything?
“I mean I’d be racing if there were races to run. It’s not that I cut it back because I want to focus on this. It’s more that there’s no more mid-week racing left. I’m not going to race in Texas last night and then come to Homestead and be in the media center at 8 a.m. the next day (laughs).
Yeah, I just can’t race. It’s been a busy week. I tested the late model on Monday. And then we’ve been in Oklahoma Wednesday and Thursday, and then flew here yesterday. Owen was there racing. I think next week is fairly calm for me, and then it’s Phoenix and my racing picks back up after that.
Yeah, it’s not that I’m cutting back because I need to. I’m cutting back because I don’t have the opportunity to go race.”
In the Next Gen era – of all the ovals, is this the track where the driver can do the most or control the most with the ability to run the high line, or are there other tracks where the driver can make that much of a difference?
“Yeah, I mean I don’t know – that’s a good question. I won this race last year, so I want to say it’s all driver, but I don’t know. I think for whatever reason, it didn’t seem like you could run the wall quite as good as I could last year, so we were able to have a big advantage on the long run. But yeah, I don’t know – I still think it’s a little harder to pass, probably, than what the old car would have been potentially. I don’t know – I spent most of the race in the lead last year, but when I caught traffic and stuff, it looked like there were like big groups of people like it was tough to pass.
Yeah, I don’t know – hopefully our car is good again and we can be upfront the whole race; have good pit stops, restarts, stuff like that. But yeah, I think regardless, I do think Homestead is probably a track where the driver probably means a little bit more than somewhere else.”
Can you refresh my memory how you figured out that the high line was going to work so well for you here?
“Well I remember when I ran the truck race here in 2012, that was my first time here. We had a really good race and led some of it. I got to battle with Kyle Busch for a while. I was running fairly high and then he passed me and stuck his hand out the window and told me to get higher, so I just started running as high as I could. There were points in the corner where I’d get really close to the wall and once you do that a few times, you can feel the effect that the right-side of the car has against the wall. So then over time, you start pushing it – entering higher and you start getting to the wall at an earlier point in the corner and eventually you just end up running up next to the wall the whole lap. I watched a little bit of my first Xfinity race I ran here in 2013 last night and just seeing the difference of how I ran back then – even back then, I cheated the entry some and would slide up to the wall. I think just as years go on, like I said, you just get more comfortable entering higher. Obviously they’re reading lap times off to you and you can feel it, too. But when you read a lap time off that’s two-tenths better than the lap before, you know that it was faster so you just keep pushing it. Obviously I’ve hit the wall here a lot, but to get comfortable, you have to make those mistakes.”
“(Laughs) No, he wasn’t flipping me off, I know that. Maybe he wasn’t saying that back then, but he did that again somewhere this year. He passed me and like stuck his hand out. I asked him later, I was like – what were you telling me.. I was already running the top. And he said – no, that was me telling you that I was going to run the bottom and I’m going to leave you a lane up top for some fresh air. So maybe that’s what he was telling me back then, but I took it as I needed to run higher. Like I was this young rookie – I mean it was only my fourth-ever truck race at the time, so I took it as I needed to get higher, so I just started running higher and passed him back a few laps later and we’ve been really good here ever since.”
You seem to have an ability at the extreme lane that not everybody has. Tyler Reddick is kind of the same way. Does that relate, at all, to all the years the two of you spent banging cushions in sprint cars and midgets over the years?
“Yeah, I mean I definitely think coming from the background that we have, it definitely helps. I think Homestead, to me, it reminds me a lot of Eldora (Speedway) – the way both ends are.. the way you kind of cup into turn one. Three and four seems a little flatter and all that, but you still run against the wall. It just feels similar to me. And then, also the feel that you get of packing the air against the wall, kind of feels like running a soft cushion at a dirt track.
Yeah, I think that’s why dirt guys kind of excel here. I can’t think of any pavement-background driver that is really comfortable against the wall. Maybe (Martin) Truex Jr., he’s really good. Denny (Hamlin) is good on occasion running the wall. But yeah, Reddick and myself, we seem to be really good at running the wall here.”
Somes drivers say you can actually hear the sound – do you go off the sound.. are you able to do that when you’re running the wall if you can’t see as well? Have you been in that situation? I don’t think for Cup here, that the sun will be a problem..
“Yeah, I think you use all your senses. You use sight, sound, feel.. all that. The sound gets really loud as you touch the wall, so you don’t really want it to change too much. But yeah, the sun is really bad in (turn) one, so I’m guessing that’s where he (Cole Custer) was talking about it being difficult. As it gets later into the day, it’s kind of right in your eyes on the high line into turn one, and it needs to get behind the suites and stuff there in one to be able to see well enough again.
But yeah, I think I just more go off the feel of the air pushing against your car and the wall. That’s kind of where I get most of my feel from I think, but I’m sure sound, as well.”
How often in your mind are you completely sure that you’re there at that line and not going over it, and how many times would you take the chance when you’re running the wall to get so much closer?
“You still get into the wall – like last year, I ran up next to the wall the whole race basically. You scuff it a little bit here and there. It’s less of a penalty now to scrap the wall now as it was with the old car because the bodies are so tough. So that allows you to be a little bit more aggressive with how close you get to the wall, I feel like.
But yeah, I don’t know – you race these cars every weekend so you get a good feel for the proximity of yourself to the wall and others. So yeah, that helps. And two, like I said, you can just feel it – you can feel the air really easily, so that is a good gauge, for sure.”
You finished second at Martinsville Speedway. Do you have any recollection of what was going on behind you with Ross Chastain?
“Yeah, I was in second, but I remember – like they didn’t say anything on the radio or anything like that, but I came off turn four. You look in the mirror to see kind of how close the guy is behind you, and I remember just seeing something kind of going on… like coming off turn four, there was a new car in my mirror, so that’s all I really remember from that. And then you see the replay and all that. Yeah, that was crazy, for sure, and I’m sure we’ll see the highlight of it a million more times as we lead into Martinsville. But yeah, that was definitely wild.”
As Owen gets older, does he have a little bit more of an understanding and appreciation of what dad is doing going for a championship?
“I don’t know – that would be a good question, I think, for him. He would get nervous if you were asking him a question, I’m sure.
I don’t know – I think he understands what we did last week and what that means for a few weeks from now. But I don’t know if he thinks it’s like cool.. I don’t know what he thinks about it (laughs). I know he knows that we get to race for a championship and all that. Even Audrey, she was three years old – she sees the pictures of her sitting in the trophy and all that, and she understands what that races means a little bit. Maybe not to the magnitude that all of us think that race is and what a championship really means to somebody. But yeah, I think as he gets older and all my children get older, they’ll understand a little bit more. I think when a kid is that young, dad’s not really that cool yet (laughs), so I think as they get older, they’ll really appreciate it even more.”
You were talking earlier about things you learned at Phoenix. Are there things, even with the success of 2021, that you’ll look to go back and change this time around?
“No, I mean I feel like that whole week was a great experience last time. It’s your first opportunity at a championship, so there’s a lot of friends and family coming and all that. That was really special to me, and basically the same group of people are already planning on coming this trip. So yeah, hang out with them – grab dinner and all that. Try and treat it as a fairly normal week and not try to distance myself from my friends and family. So yeah, I plan on doing basically the same stuff I did last time.
I’m curious how media week will be different. Stuff like that will probably be a little bit different.. where that location is and stuff like that. But yeah, my friends and family are really important to me, so it was awesome they were there last time and we got to celebrate afterwards. I’m happy that they’re coming back and hopefully we’ll get to celebrate again later that night.”
Looking back on the championship race in 2021 – I think four of the five pit crew members on your team today were pitting your car back then. To see them be able to continue to be an elite crew despite the change from the five lugs to the single lug – how important has that been to the success of the No. 5 team, and is there any kind of bond you have with those guys since they’ve been on your car for so long?
“Yeah, I mean they’ve been in the sport for a long time, even before I got into the sport. So I’m not sure how many championships a few of them have, but it’s got to be a lot because they were on Jimmie’s (Johnson) team, as well. But yeah, this year for sure, they’ve done a great, great job. In 2021, they were the best pit crew all season. This year, they’ve been in the top two or three all season. A big improvement from where they were at last year.. I think there was a lot to be learned with the new style of pit stops last year, and it just took them a little bit of time. But all season, they’ve been really strong. All of Hendrick Motorsports, really, has been really strong on pit road.
Yes, they’ve been important to every one of our wins this year. To win a Cup Series race, it just takes your whole team, for sure. Like last week, we gained two spots on pit road – got control of the race for the last run and that was it. Richmond, Darlington.. they’re a part of every win in a big way.
Yes, I hope we can continue that. I think what I like the most about them is that they’re the best when it matters at the end of the race. That’s really important to win these races.”
Do you have a favorite Kevin Harvick story on the track?
“I’ve just really enjoyed racing with him. He’s such a tough racer. I feel like he can do a lot more with his race car than most drivers can. I’ve had some great battles with him. I think he’s only been mad at me like one time, so that’s pretty good, I feel like. He probably doesn’t even remember when he was mad.”
What was he mad about?
“It was Phoenix.. I don’t know, a long time ago. He was battling to make it into the Championship Four. There was a restart – I think Joey (Logano) ended up winning the race, but he was second row and I was third row, inside. I didn’t even like get in there, but I just kind of showed my nose and he was mad about that. He came down afterwards – I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I explained to myself that he wasn’t going to win anyways and he was fine with it afterwards. That went smoother than I thought it was going to. He was walking over and I was kind of scared (laughs). He’s just an intense guy.”
What about off the track?
“Off the track, I just really appreciate, notice and pay attention to how great of a father he is. How dedicated he is to Keelan, for sure, but even his daughter Piper. You can tell she’s a daddy’s girl, and Audrey is a daddy’s girl, as well. So yeah, watching him balance all of that. I feel like his kids are very well behaved and very mature for their ages. So yeah, just try to pay attention to how he parents and put a little bit of that into my parenting, as well.”