Racing at Martinsville, and in the NASCAR Cup Series as a whole, seems like a series of sink-or-swim moments. Do you view it that way, too?
“You have to be able to survive in those sink-or-swim moments and figure it out. Even if you’re nervous as all get-out, you have to be able to get in the car and not look nervous and not be worried about the outcome and where things go. You have to be willing to just jump in there and kind of wing it. We’re very organized and very structured and everything is very much planned, but there are those moments when you just have to get in there and drive and you just have to kind of let things work out. But you can still take control and you can still be vocal and you can still know what you want in the racecar. You don’t have to get in there and just agree that the car is OK. If it’s not OK, it’s not OK, and you’ve got to speak up. When it comes to the performance side of things, I’m pretty straightforward and strict, so I’m going to speak up.”
Martinsville is the penultimate race on the 2023 schedule and its outcome determines the Championship 4. What’s it like having such a high-stakes race at such a tight, short track?
“I think every racetrack has high stakes at this particular point in the season. Martinsville is a racetrack that usually has a little bit more drama than most. Hopefully, we can come out on the right side of everything.”
Are you compartmentalizing your emotions as your final season winds down?
“I feel like that’s something that, throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to be pretty good at. You just go and do what you’re supposed to do no matter what the surrounding situation is, whether it’s chaotic, or you’re running good, you’re running bad, you ran into somebody, last year, first year, it’s just been one of those things that I’ve been fortunate to be able to do – just climb in the car, put the window net up, and it’s just what you do. No matter the magnitude of the scenario, it’s just part of the next step to get to where you want to be. Going into the year, obviously we knew that we’d planned out the last season of what we wanted to do and it’s just part of the plan. For me, we’re definitely structured planners, so you just execute that plan and then you go to the next one. I know at the end of the year it’ll obviously look different but, on the flip side, I’ve been very fortunate to be successful at what I do. I’ve basically lived out my childhood dream to do what I wanted to do, and now it’s time to move on. It’s time to do something different after we go to Phoenix and race there for the last time, and for me, that’s exciting.”
How does having your family at the track make you feel, especially with this being your final season?
“Well, Keelan and Piper are both at a great age, but I think with Keelan, he’s obviously paying attention to a lot of things, and unfortunately there’s this thing called YouTube and you have to go back and address a lot of things you’ve done throughout your career. So we’ve had a lot of great conversations, about the type of person and driver you want to be, and the responsibility that comes with that, and just the way things operate, and giving it everything that you have and, a lot of times, doing that by example, whether it’s in the gym or in a meeting or on a sponsorship call or whatever that is, there’s just a lot that goes into it. So being able to take him around to a lot of the things that you currently have going on is something that’s good for him to see and good for him to be around. And doing a lot of those things that Richard Childress did in the very beginning of my career, introducing me to this person and that person, and having relationships, because in today’s world, building a brand is important, and being able to have a jumpstart on being able to build his brand with the relationships we’ve built for 30 years in a sport that is built to be passed down from generation to generation, that’s what we do. When you look at all the different families that have raced throughout the years, and being able to share that with him and Piper, is something that’s really what NASCAR racing is all about. For me, it’s fun to be able to introduce them and share the sport that we love.”
Once you have more time to spend with Keelan and Piper, what will be your approach be in this next stage of your life?
“Well, we’re not going to sit at home. I know that for sure. I think Keelan and Piper are obviously at two different points in their lives. Piper, we’re trying to help figure out exactly what she likes, what she doesn’t like, where she wants to go, what she wants to do over the next several years. Keelan’s 11, and being able to be at the racetrack with him, and being able to help him through those hard moments and push him past his comfort zone is important, and I think it not coming from somebody else is good. Like, I didn’t get to see Piper race her first go-kart race, and now she doesn’t want to race unless I’m there. So to be able to let her race, play baseball, whatever it is, you’re going to be there more than you’re not, instead of not being there trying to find the best people to do the things that you would do and coach through the coach. I still may have to coach through the coach a little bit just because you have to push them hard and make them accountable and responsible for just being good humans. And I think at the point that Keelan is at, at least for the foreseeable future, it’s important to be around and help him navigate the world as it goes around. For me, being able to be at more of those events is something I think they want and I definitely want.”
In your 23-year NASCAR Cup Series career, you’ve made quite an impact on many of your driving peers. When you’re no longer behind the wheel next year, do you feel you can still have an impact inside the garage and with its personalities?
“Somebody’s going to have to step into being that active driver leader. I’m still going to be pro-driver more than anything because I want them all to be rockstars, and in my new job at FOX, if they’re all rockstars, then it makes my job a lot easier. I want them to make more money, I want them to be more known, and I want them to be the best athletes that they can be. But my big thing is, I don’t want to overextend myself to where I become so busy that I can’t go do the things that I retired to do with my family.”