TALK ABOUT COMING TO MICHIGAN AND HOW PRACTICE HAS GONE FOR YOU
“I’ve always loved this race track. I was anxious to get here and see how the pavement has changed since last year. I’m anxious to see how this car dives on this track for the first time being here (with the new Chevy SS). I can’t say that I was overly disappointed with anything today. I feel like the car drove pretty good, but we are just lacking some speed. We want to make a couple of race runs. We basically got one race run in and I didn’t think it was too bad, just a little bit on the tight side. And then we switched over to qualifying trim. The last run, we had an issue where it just got too tight and got up the race track, so I aborted the lap. We didn’t put up the lap time that I think we are capable of doing. We’re going to have our work cut out for us going out first, but I think we’re a lot better than what we showed. But it’s fast and I’m looking forward to the weekend.”
YOU ARE RUNNING OVER 200 MPH HERE. IS IT A COMFORTABLE 200 MPH?
“Yeah, I think you have to ask Kasey Kahne. He went over 200 mph. I didn’t go over 200 mph, not on the average lap. There is some edginess on sticker tires, so the first couple of laps on cold sticker tires, I can’t say it’s the most comfortable. But I feel like it’s better than the last time we were here. When we were here the last time, it was very edgy for the first couple of laps. I feel like everything was pretty comfortable out there. You don’t go that fast at a track like this without the car sticking pretty well. So, I think that what’s going to be interesting to see is how does it change when the track sits and we go to qualifying. What I saw a lot of in practice today was people scuffing tires and making fast runs on tires that had a little bit of heat and temperature in them, so when those tires are ice cold and everything else is cold and you out to try to make that fast of a lap, it seems like that’s when we start feeling the edginess of the grip level. But the car, I thought, stuck really good. So, from everything I felt in practice, it was pretty comfortable.”
IN THE AFTERMATH OF JASON LEFFLER, YOU GREW UP ON A LOT OF SHORT TRACKS AND RACED ON THOSE. HAVE YOU SEEN IMPROVEMENTS ON THOSE TRACKS LIKE WE’VE SEEN ON THE NASCAR TRACK, SAFETY-WISE?
“The problem is that those cars have such different uniqueness when it comes to crashes and how to handle those kinds of impacts. They just can’t contain their heads, and I don’t know and I haven’t seen all the results where that really caused Jason’s death. Obviously we know it was a tremendous crash and you could see it in the aftermath of the car. I heard about him having a Hans-type of device on there, which I was happy to hear. But even a couple of weeks ago I saw a highlight of the Chili Bowl where there was a car that broke an axel and flipped outside of the track and I just remember thinking to myself how violent the head movement was in that car when it was going through those flips. To me, they’ve done a great job. They’ve done a lot.
“But it’s just so hard to contain when a car is flipping and moving different directions like that. Our cars, we’re usually more predictable as to what impacts are going to happen. I’m not saying you can predict them all, but you don’t have cars flying through the air and flipping and doing some of the different movements that those cars go through. It just seems to me like it is more difficult to prevent some of the angles and impacts that those drivers go through in those cars.”
AT WHAT AGE DO YOU START REALIZING THAT THOSE TUMBLES COULD HAVE AN ADVERSE AFFECT?
“Well, we’re race car drivers. If we thought that way, then we wouldn’t be race car drivers. I’m sure at certain stages of your life you might start thinking that way, but when you’re young, you just want to get the opportunity to get in the next race car. And if you’re good, you’re going to push the limits in everything you get into and you’re going to hit the wall and you’re going to get back out there moments later or the next day and go just as fast or faster. That’s what it takes. It’s a dangerous sport and so are a lot of other sports. And you have to try to do all you can to make sure that the equipment you’re in is as safe as possible. The number one thing is making sure things don’t fail. That’s the number one thing. The number two thing is making sure that everything around you is as safe as it can possibly be.”
JASON LEFFLER HAD TWO SHOTS AT RACING NASCAR CUP AND IT DIDN’T WORK OUT EITHER TIME. HOW DOES A RACER JUST DECIDE TO STOP RACING? WHEN YOU’RE DONE WITH CUP, WILL YOU JUST NOT RACE AGAIN AND NOT FEEL THAT DRIVE AGAIN?
“I kind of look at everything as risk versus reward. What’s the risk level and what’s the reward of being out there on a full-time basis? Are you competitive enough to compete at that level? If you are, then you have sponsors and the car owner puts you in and then that’s what you’re going to do. If you get to that point where you’re either not as competitive or things didn’t work out the way that you wanted, you start thinking about your career decisions.
“Again, it’s risk versus reward. If you can step down a couple tiers and get a good ride and go out there and be competitive and enjoy what you are doing and go out there and at least have a shot at winning races, then you adjust. You adjust your lifestyle. I think that if you decide to step away from the sport; if a professional baseball player or a football player thought he could step away from the sport but come in and play a game or two and still be competitive, and they let them do that, I think he’d do it. I think it’s the fact that nobody really allows that to happen.
“But in our sport, they do. I think Mark Martin is a perfect example of, here’s a guy that still has tremendous talent and can bring a lot to a team and help them maybe get to that next level or find something in their car that they need, or just bring a team together like he did for the No. 5 car.
“That car and that team needed some things to get their team to that next level. And they wanted to make sure that the driver wasn’t a question mark. They put Mark Martin in there and look what happened. The team stepped up. I think if you’ve had a good enough career and you’ve fulfilled all your dreams, then I think you can find that day when you just step away from it altogether. I like to never say never, so I think that guys would like to step away and not necessarily say, ‘I’m never going to drive another race car ever again’, because what is there was something on their bucket list that they wanted to do? Would it be the Baja 500 or the Baja 1000 or driving a Rally Car or, I don’t know; or riding a motorcycle? I don’t know. If you feel like you can do it, it’s your prerogative to go out there and do that.
“I think that the way I would be approaching it is when that day comes for me, I would be closing off full-time running for the championship. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ll never go back out there and run at Martinsville. I know that there would probably be some that I wouldn’t do (laughs). But like Sonoma, I think. I think there would be some where I’d feel like hey, I can still be competitive at this track regardless of what the rules and the cars are and what’s happening within the sport, and do out there and still be competitive even though I’m not racing week-in and week-out.”
DO YOU THINK DALE EARNHARDT JR. AND HIS TEAM IS IN THAT WINDOW WHERE HE NEEDS TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF RUNNING FOR A CHAMPIONSHIP, OR THERE MIGHT NOT BE ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY?
“Well, gosh. I don’t know how you can say when a team is necessarily in that window of opportunity and how long that’s going to last. You can’t predict that. I wouldn’t have predicted Tony Stewart was going to win at Dover, and they did. And they ran good at Pocono and he was running good today before he had the issue (hitting the wall during practice and going to back-up car) and will probably still run good this week.
“So, I think there are certain teams that are capable of getting behind or being off and climbing their way back up. I think there are certain teams that are just right on the brink of making things really, really good. I thought Junior had a very impressive run last week. He was very competitive and it was great timing for them because this is a track that I know he likes and does well at; he did well last year. So, if this is a window of opportunity for him, it’s opening.”
YOU’VE HAD SEVEN RACES WHERE YOU’VE FINISHED OUTSIDE THE TOP 10, INCLUDING POCONO. YOU CURRENTLY SIT 11TH IN THE POINT STANDINGS. HOW DO YOU BREAK INTO THE TOP 10 MORE OFTEN? DO YOU FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOUR CHANCES THIS WEEKEND AT MIS?
“Well, we didn’t have a great day, today. So, I’m optimistic, but it’s hard to be optimistic. We’ve got to qualify better, and today it’s going to be tough to qualify where I feel like we need to, to be competitive on the race track. I think our cars are competitive. Our team is competitive. But track position is going to be very important. I feel very fortunate to be 11th in points, to be honest with you, with all the DNF’s that we’ve had. And I feel like we’ve had some good runs and we’ve had some lackluster runs that were non-impressive. I’m still sitting here pretty shocked that we’re 11th. I think we have so much more potential than what we’ve shown. We’ve got to step it up. We know that. But I also know we’re very capable of that. I feel like we are on the brink of an opportunity to get ourselves more Top 5’s and Top 10’s and getting ourselves solidly in the Top 10. I’m just thankful for that opportunity to be as close as we are right now.”
IN OTHER SPORTS WHEN A PLAYER RETIRES, THEY’LL COACH. WHY DON’T WE SEE DRIVERS RETIRE AND BECOME CREW CHIEFS?
“That’s funny (laughs). Let’s see. Where do I begin? One is race car drivers don’t work hard enough to be crew chiefs (laughs). We don’t get up early enough to be crew chiefs. I definitely think there are some drivers out there that could be crew chiefs. I do. I wouldn’t say it’s any of the top drivers though (laughs). I think that there are certain students of the game when you look at other sports. Most coaches were players. I think it’s kind of opposite in our sport. The best the best crew chiefs were drivers and I think they understand the car and what’s going on out there. And then they understand the engineering. I think that would be my biggest thing. If you’re an engineer and you have an engineering background or a very good understanding of engineering, then you could be a crew chief.
“But there are very few drivers that I know that have that kind of understanding that it takes to sit in a room with other engineers and aero guys and all these computers that are giving you a lot of information. There are very few drivers that I know at the highest level that could pull that off. I think the hardest job there is in this sport is being a crew chief. They have a tremendous amount of pressure on them. Their hours are ungodly. These guys never stop. They rarely sleep. They work themselves to the bone; the good ones certainly do, and they have such a great understanding and appreciation of everything that goes into these cars that I don’t think most people can truly appreciate. Not to mention dealing with all the different personalities and have to travel all the time. That’s a tough job. I’d like to see that happen.
“But, not for me. No, no, I won’t be doing that.”
HOW WILL THE NEW GEN-6 CARS ALTER WHAT WE ARE USED TO SEEING ON THE ROAD COURSES?
“To me, double-file restarts are what made the road courses so intense and exciting. We tested a road course the other day and I didn’t think there was a significant change. It felt good. It stuck good. The lap times were good. So, I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of big changes there. We should still see a pretty wild and intense and crazy race on those road courses.”
DESCRIBE MICHIGAN INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY IN ONE WORD. COMPARE THAT TO DAYTONA AND TALLADEGA
“Well, first of all, you know I can’t do one-word answers (laughter). That just does not exist. In my vocabulary, every word goes with another word. Usually it’s a sentence or a paragraph. But I could just say ‘fast’ because it is very fast. As far as the race, it’s a totally different type of feeling in comfort level than you have at Daytona. At Daytona, that is a track that we are capable of running 230 mph on. If you took the restrictor plates off of us, who knows how fast we would go; but just saying, in throwing a number out there. And at Daytona, we’re going close to 200 mph. So we’re under what the track is capable of. Here, we’re pushing the limits of what the track is capable of. So 185 mph would probably be pretty comfortable. But at 200 mph, you’re there on the edge. And the cars around you change things dramatically.
“What I’m anxious to see this weekend, one of the things I love about this track so much, is how the groove is. You have a bottom, a middle and a top. And it will get there eventually. But because it’s new and the tire is pretty hard and the cars have a lot of downforce, we’re pretty much finding about a one-and-a-half or two-lane groove at the time, right now, until we get in the race. That definitely means that the car up front is going to be a lot more comfortable than the car behind. Until that widens out; that’s why I’m focusing on qualifying and thinking about how good I want to qualify because that I know, no matter what, that if it’s tenth or farther back, there’s no way the car is going to drive the way that I want it to drive. It’s going to be a little uncomfortable at those speeds. But it also give me motivation to try to get up front.”