DO YOU FEEL THERE ARE MORE DRIVERS THAT CAN CONTEND ON ROAD COURSES NOW THAN THERE USED TO BE WHEN YOU STARTED DRIVING IN NASCAR?
“I still think there are a handful of guys that are the real big threats, the guys like Juan (Pablo Montoya) and Marcos (Ambrose), but there’s a bunch of other guys that are holding their own and putting up good laps, qualifying well and maintaining pace during the race, which makes it just more challenging than it’s ever been. The cars are as competitive against one another as they’ve ever been as well. It’s evolved and changed a lot over the years, but still love coming here. It’s so much fun, fast race track, challenging race track and looking forward to enjoying our final road course of the year.”
DO YOU FEEL ENERGY BUILDING TO BE IN YOUR BEST POSITION IN SEVERAL YEARS FOR THE CHASE?
“Wow, how things change in one week. Last week it was, do you have a shot at making the Chase? I think that right now, what love about the Chase is that it offers just that, what you’re talking about. You can be off the pace or not having things go your way early in the season and you can get it turned around and get that momentum and find the speed and do the things that you need to do as a team to get yourself geared up and if you make it in that Chase then you really could be a threat at winning it. I think that this point, I don’t think that we’re considering ourselves the contender for the championship, but I think we’re a real serious contender in the wild card and that ninth and 10th position. I’ve always been a big believer that you have to walk before you can run. These next five or six weeks will decide whether we’re going to solidify that and if we can become a real threat for the championship. We’ve got a little work to do yet. More runs like last week and I will say yes.”
HOW WILD IS IT TO NOW HAVE TONY STEWART IN THE FIELD THIS WEEKEND?
“Yeah, I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet. I was in Knoxville (Iowa) this week with our ‘Kick it for Kids Cancer’ program there and they’re doing the kickball tournament today, which it’s been such a great relationship to be on Shane Stewart’s car at Knoxville, but to go there and be in that environment of sprint car racing and around the people that are feeling the impact of that and now here I come this weekend to this race where the impact is being felt here as well. Tony (Stewart) is such an influential person in motorsports as a driver and just as a supporter of racing that it’s tough. I was looking all over those cars trying to understand what happened and you’re there and you’re in awe of these awesome beasts of race cars. 930 horsepower, 1400 pound cars, tons of downforce. They just fly and they impress you and it makes me want to get behind the wheel of one so I totally understand the appeal and then you look at Tony and his talents and to go out there and want to be as competitive as he is. He has a shot at winning these races, which is unbelievable. He’s racing against guys that do this every single weekend. They are somewhat, compared to the space cowboys of the NASA program several years ago where they’re sitting on top of a rocket and without a lot of protection. I hope that this can actually be a great benefit and influence on the sprint car community to make these cars safer. There are some areas that could be improved. These cars are lightweight and they’re fast and they’re cool and awesome, but we’ve seen a lot in seat technology in that series, but I think that we’re seeing this type of injury that’s happening from time to time with that torque tube and driveshaft being so exposed and the lightweight components. I hope to see something like this advance that. Yeah, we’re missing Tony and haven’t had a chance to speak to him yet, but can’t wait for him to get back as soon as possible.”
HOW HAS ROAD COURSE RACING CHANGED SINCE YOU STARTED BEING REALLY GOOD AT IT?
“Again, I go back to that I feel like we put a good amount of effort into our road course package, improving the brakes and the cooling and dialing in the transmission gearing and just like the cars on the ovals where you used to be able to do more things to the cars to have an edge over the competition because how they inspected the cars, there was just more gray area. We would also take advantage of that on the road courses. I think that not everybody looked at the road courses, they kind of looked at road courses as throw away races in some cases. That’s just not the case now. Everybody takes these races very serious, the cars can’t be manipulated as much, everybody has good brakes and everybody has all the equipment that you need to go be competitive so then it just comes down to the driver pushing the limits of the car and the team engineering finding the right package to go fast at those tracks.”
WHAT IS MAKING YOU BETTER THESE LAST SIX RACES?
“We haven’t been on pit road when the caution came out or getting ready to make our pit stop when the caution came out. We had the ability to get much better results earlier in the year that we didn’t and the frustration was kicking in. I think that right now we’re seeing an improvement in performance as well as things going our way a little bit better. Sometimes those things kind of happen together. If your cars are fast and you’re getting yourself in good position then it allows you to make a little different choices and decisions that sometimes just put you in a more solid position to get good results. I think there were times where I think we were pulling at straws and just swinging for the fences and that was putting ourselves into some risky positions that cost us those good results. I’m hoping that will continue and we’re certainly on a good streak. You just feel the energy in the team and that confidence in crucial. This is a people business more than just cars. The cars are obviously important, but if the people around you don’t believe in you or you don’t believe in them then there is no confidence in what you’re doing and you’re telling them that you need this to go faster and they’re questioning it. You don’t want people to question, you want absolute yes, that’s what we need to do to make the car go faster. Yes, that’s what our driver needs to do to get the speed out of it. It just starts building on one another. It can build for the good or it can build for the bad.”
DO YOU FEEL THE CRITICISM OF TONY STEWART RACING SPRINT CARS IS UNWARRANTED?
“I absolutely agree with that. When the conversation is on the flip side about who is a real racer in this garage area, who’s got the most talent, who’s out there doing the most for motorsports then Tony Stewart rises to the top of that list of the great things that he’s doing. Then as soon as he gets injured then you say, ‘Oh boy, maybe he shouldn’t have been doing that.’ It’s certainly up for debate and it’s been talked about and bringing a lot of interest on the subject. For me, I say yes that’s Tony and I tell him all the time when he goes and runs the sprint car races and wins or is competitive, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s awesome and that’s unbelievable.’ That’s because I couldn’t do that and I don’t choose to do that because of just different things that are happening in my life and the choice that I make, but I applaud him and definitely support him in that effort. It’s just unfortunate that this has happened.”
WOULD YOU LIKE TO DRIVE IN THE BOOT SECTION OF THE RACE TRACK?
“Absolutely. For years I always said put more turns in and I think we’ll have a better chance at better results. I think for our fans watching at home as well as watching here, I think that the course we run is probably a little bit better and more laps, more suited to our cars. I don’t know what would creep up if we went that direction. Would we have brake issues? I don’t know all the ins and outs because I’ve never driven it. I like road courses and I like challenges so I at least would like to give it a shot one time.”
HOW DID THE GO KART RACE COME ABOUT WITH TONY STEWART?
“Through our ‘Kick it’ program and that sponsorship, Tony (Stewart) has been a great supporter of the kickball tournaments and obviously with his involvement with sprint car racing and that whole community has been so supportive and we always said this was a grassroots program, what better way to get it going and have some fun than a grassroots racing program and dirt tracks racers and the fans and the competitors. Today we’re having a kickball tournament and it is on the fairgrounds property in Knoxville (Iowa) and there’s drivers that are on teams, wives and girlfriends that are on teams, fans that are on teams — it’s pretty cool. Tony is a giving guy and has a big heart so he’s been involved in that as well as somehow this came along as far as doing a go-kart event and so I worked out my schedule so I could go there earlier to be a part of that. He obviously really was a big influence on the whole thing coming together with sponsors and getting fans out there. There is this really cool place called Slideways, it’s a sprint car slick track, go-kart track oval that’s out there and it’s a blast. He had a pretty good feeling in Kyle Larson who would end up winning the event or finishing second. It was a blast. We raised, this small little go-kart event ended up raising like $25,000. Hopefully it’s something we can build on and do more of and obviously would love to have Tony back at it again next year. It was tough because he wasn’t there, but we also understand how big of an impact he played in that event happening and being a part of it. I was excited about it, especially racing with him and we made the best out of it that we could.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT HOW QUICKLY CLINT BOWYER HAS BECOME A ROAD COURSE RACER?
“I would say (Brad) Keselowski as well; he was real strong here last year. Kurt Busch is fast on the road courses. I separate Sonoma from here so people that were quick in Sonoma doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be quick here. I think Clint (Bowyer), yeah he’s another one of those guys that is just a solid race car driver everywhere you go and I think his diversity with his dirt track experience and different types of cars shows his talents and he’s a very talented race car driver. It also shows by Martin’s (Truex Jr.) victory out in Sonoma and Clint’s strong finish here last year that their road course program is improving as well. You take talented drivers, good race cars and an effort towards road course racing and you’re going to see results. I look for them to be strong again this weekend.”
DID YOU GET THE FEELING WHEN YOU WERE IN KNOXVILLE THAT SOME SAFETY CHANGES MIGHT BE CONSIDERED OR DO THEY FEEL THEY ARE JUST IN A BAD STRETCH?
“I would like to have talked to, I never really talked to World of Outlaw officials and the people are the big influencers on making those decisions so I really don’t have a good answer for that one. I talked to the guys on the teams earlier and they were like, ‘This is what we have and this is what we do and here’s what we’re doing, just go along business as usual and it happens.’ Nobody wants to give up an advantage in performance and these guys, like I said, I compare them to space cowboys, that’s what makes them awesome and that’s what makes the cars incredible, that’s what makes their fan base as loyal as it is, they understand that these cars are rocket ships and that there’s danger involved. Me as a competitor and seeing what has happened in our sport and what has influenced change for the good in safety, I’m hoping that those with World of Outlaws and those that are the influencers, maybe the chassis builders. I don’t know where it really begins that they would be willing to step it up. They’ve made slight changes and improvements in this area and I don’t know all the details in Tony’s (Stewart) cars, I heard that there were things on this car that were maybe different from some of the rest that are intended to be safer. Obviously, it’s not enough.”
DO YOU KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT THE NEW ZONE TREAD TIRES FROM GOODYEAR AND IF THEY WILL BE A GOOD IDEA MOVING FORWARD?
“I have heard about it, understand the concept and it sounds really interesting and that it has great potential. I did see Kasey (Kahne), but we weren’t talking about any testing at Atlanta, it was all sprint car stuff that we were talking about. I am interested. I know they made a lot of laps so I’m interested to find out more about it. I’m hoping that’s something that works for us to give a shot at the next Atlanta race and I think that’s a step towards finding ways — I’m a big believer that it’s not a tire thing, it’s the weight distribution of the car, total weight in general, downforce, our cars are very difficult on tires. It’s not just, ‘Hey Goodyear, you have to build a better tire.’ It’s everybody has to work together to allow them the ability to make tires that have some fall off and that can wear and don’t just build a lot of heat and blister. Maybe this is a nice compromise for that.”
IS THERE ANY FEELING OF NOW NOT HAVING TO WORRY ABOUT TONY STEWART IN THE CHASE OR IN MAKING THE CHASE?
“That’s certainly not our initial thoughts. Anytime one of our competitors is injured, we’re going to think about them and their health first, but there is no doubt that Tony (Stewart) plays a huge influence in the Chase and in the championship. We saw him squeak into the Chase just a couple years ago and win the championship. You never count them out. Their cars are running really good right now and so I looked to him to being one of the biggest threats for the position that we’re in.”
HOW DOES HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS SHAKE OFF THE JUNE RACE AT MICHIGAN TO RETURN NEXT WEEKEND?
“I don’t think there is any organization out there better than Hendrick to analyze a situation, that race, take everything, all the information we could gather from each of the cars and find ways to improve that and make sure those things don’t happen in the future. For me, it was qualifying as poorly as I did, being in that position to get caught up in a wreck. It wasn’t, I don’t look at that as just bad luck. We shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with and we’ve got to improve the qualifying effort at Michigan. I like the things that we’ve learned lately that I think can really help our performance qualifying as well as in the race. I think we’re going to be pretty good in the race, I was pretty happy when they dropped the green with what my car felt like. As far as some of the other things, there’s only so much that is in my control and in my hands. I know when it comes to engines, there is nobody better than the Hendrick engine group at making sure we have good power and reliability going back. I’m not sure on the tire issues, but we’re certainly, we’ve gathered all that information and I’ve got complete faith in Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and the team to make the right calls to when it comes to what’s going to allow us to have the best speed, but also reliability when it comes to the setup and the tires as well.”
WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO PUT AN END TO MARCOS AMBROSE’S REIGN AT WATKINS GLEN? “What makes him so good, not to mention his road racing experience over the years is his aggressiveness. He’s just so aggressive. While I think sometimes that holds him back on the ovals, it pays off big time here. That’s going to be tough to beat. I think it was interesting because we were at Sonoma and he doesn’t do as well at Sonoma as he does here because this track, it loves aggressiveness. Sonoma does not like aggressiveness. I think you’re going to see him be extremely fast this weekend. He was fast at Sonoma, but just the fall off was pretty big there where here that’s not the case. I think he’s going to be very, very difficult to beat. I’m definitely hungry, but again you have to walk before you can run and we have not been as strong here the last couple years. I know that if we hit on something that we’re going to be very strong and hopefully we can go compete with those guys. We had a shot to finish eighth or ninth here last time we were here and I think we need to be shooting for that or better. I think that we had a slow start to the weekend last time we were here because we just didn’t get on top of it soon enough, but halfway through the race we really did and we just try to learn from that and apply that earlier in the weekend. Hopefully we get some laps today that would help.”
WHY HAS THERE NOT BEEN A DROP IN ATTENDANCE AT WATKINS GLEN?
“There’s just something about the atmosphere of this place. You go into the campground and there’s just people that love being here and love being a part of the event. They’re having a good time and it’s not just about coming and watching a race, it’s a lot more than that and I think that’s just part of the appeal. There’s a lot of very avid fans around this area too that don’t maybe get a chance to get to NASCAR races or they are just a little more road racing enthusiasts, hard to say. We love it and we love coming here and the crowd that we get here is an avid one and fun to hear them having a lot of fun here in the infield all weekend long and see how excited they get on race day.”