Last year your average at restrictor plate tracks was a 2.0 finish. How will your success at plate tracks in 2013 change now that you’re with a different team?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, that was a pretty gawdy number, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to do that again. It’s the same approach, you show up at the track, you go through to lead laps, put yourself in position to win.
Last year, we had really fast cars at the super speedways and this year at Daytona we did as well. I think when we had our mechanical problems, we had JGR car first second and third and led some laps there and had ourselves in a good spot.
So hopefully going back to Talladega, our cars will have some speed in them again and we’ll be able to make it 500 miles and hopefully be up front and be in that mix.
Q. You won three races two years ago and I think you won three races last year. We’re still early in the season, and you already have two wins. Do you feel like you’ve got a more competitive team around you now than you have had in recent years?
MATT KENSETH: Well, you know, one thing, I have been not doing is looking back or really comparing anything that I had going on in the past. I’ve really been working on the present and really trying to look forward.
I can tell you that I have a ton of confidence in my race team. These guys are really, really good and we’ve had – our performance has been nothing short of spectacular all year.
Although we don’t have all the finishes to show for it, I’m real thankful to have two wins. We had a couple races where everything worked out all right. I feel really good with where we are at today, still obviously trying to move forward, get the cars faster, me do a better job on track, all that stuff.
I certainly feel good about where we are from a performance standpoint only being here nine races into the year, and you know, hopefully we can keep that moving forward.
Q. When you look at what you guys have done, do you see areas where you guys can be even better?
MATT KENSETH: Well, absolutely. I think you never stop trying to improve and get better, no matter how you’re running, whether you’re running bad or you’re running great.
I think you always have to keep trying to get better. The sport never stops. Every team is out there trying to figure out every day, every week, every race, how to get better and how to beat their competition.
So you can never rest, that’s for sure. You’ve got to keep working on it. We are constantly trying to figure out how we can improve and how to get better.
Q. After winning Talladega last year, what carries over coming into the race?
MATT KENSETH: You know, obviously everything is really different, and this season, too, if you’re ever going to make a change, this is probably a good year to do it with the Generation 6 car coming online, so that was and still is a learning curve I think for each and every team, whether you’re with the same group, different group, different team, same team, all that stuff. It’s still a learning curve.
So you know, I like the things that we have done so far, like where we are at from as a performance perspective. But I won’t say anything really carried over from last year and where it was before or any of that kind of stuff. More just started off testing this winter and working on these cars and we just continue to try to do that.
Q. You had a strong finish last week after what happened in the aftermath of Kansas, just coming back to a track where you won here last time what would it mean to the team just to get a win after what’s happened?
MATT KENSETH: That was great, going to Richmond. It was pretty awesome to sit on a pole that felt really good and obviously really you want to win every week.
Obviously I think we all here at Joe Gibbs Racing, we wanted to try to win that race. Unfortunately we didn’t make that happen. Had a good car most of the night, strong car most of the race, pretty decent at the end, too. Just caught up in that outside with all the varying pit strategies and just got boxed behind the cars and then didn’t quite get the finish there that we hoped for, but we did have a good, strong, solid night. Looking forward to going to Talladega.
Like I said, Daytona was really good for us and I thought it was a really good speed week. Learned a lot throughout Speedweeks, and I felt like we kept getting better and stronger. And by the 500 I felt like as an organization, we had all three cars where we needed them to be before we had our problems. So hopefully we can take that momentum and go to Talladega and carry that on.
Q. Looking over stats about your super speedway racing last year, can you discuss your comfort and the evolution of your confidence in super speedway racing over the years? You’ve been doing it for quite a while now, and I assume you feel a lot better about it maybe now than you did before, but was it an evolution or was there some sort of “Aha moment” where you felt like you caught on, or how has that gone?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I think it’s really a moving target. I mean, last year and the first race this year, we had really fast cars.
I think when they changed the rules package to start 2012, with the lower spoiler and got rid of the tandem drafting and all that kind of stuff, that really seemed to help me. I didn’t feel like I was really that great at that tandem drafting and wasn’t really necessarily in your comfort zone or something you felt like you were really good at. There was just a lot going on there and it wasn’t necessarily my favorite kind of racing.
So when they changed the rules, it seemed to be good for our cars and it kind of seemed to be good for maybe my style. You had a little more control over your own destiny than having to depend on somebody the whole race and having them depend on you.
So I think that was part of it, and certainly circumstances, as well. We didn’t have a lot of problems in the four races last year. Didn’t get caught up any accident or brake parts or have flat tires or any of that kind of stuff. So that’s always important at the super speedways to not get in trouble, because there’s so many people that get crashed out and it’s so easy to get yourself knocked out of one of those races.
Q. Along the same lines, how much does the experience of being through a variety of rules packages and basically three different styles of cars, how did that knowledge, how did that help?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I mean, you’d like to think that experience is very important and valuable and you can play off that experience to be successful now, and in the future. Some days you feel like there’s a lot of things you learn and that’s really helping you; and other days, maybe there’s a lot of changes and it feels like you’re starting over.
So I don’t know, plate racing, I almost felt like for years and years and years was a weakness of mine, and there’s a lot of days I feel like it is. But then last year, we had just awesome cars. We really had a shot to win all four of the plate races, which is just crazy.
So, I don’t know, I think it just works in cycles. I just got real fortunate last year and really Daytona, this year, as well, how fast our car was and having equipment to be able to get up there. Because you can think you are or be the best plate racer in the world and have slow cars and you’re not going to do anything with it. It’s very car-dependent and you know, being with the right cars and being in the right place at the right time type of racing.
Q. This race last fall at Talladega where there was the last-lap crash and Dale Junior missed a couple races because of a concussion, and that’s the first time a driver has missed races in Cup because of an injury in five years, and of course Denny’s been out for several races this year. Just wondering, with things like that happen, is that a reminder to you, like, wow, this is how safe the cars are now; that it’s a big story if somebody is injured, or is it a reminder that at any time things like that can happen regardless of how safe the cars may seem?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, I think probably more the second, a reminder that everybody is human. Things can happen. We are going really, really fast in these cars, we are setting track records everywhere.
Certainly it’s just human nature. You know, we went through a really dark period where a lot of people got hurt, a lot of bad things were happening, and it was on everybody’s mind more than normal. And then we went through a real long period where you’ve seen some just horrendous wrecks and watch people walk away from them and everybody’s okay.
You know, I think you always have to take safety seriously and keep working on your cars and the tracks and you know, pit road, everything to keep the environment as safe as you can for everybody.
But certainly when you go through a period where people don’t get hurt, it’s not on your mind nearly as much so I think that when you do see people get hurt and have to miss time and all that, it’s certainly a reminder that things can happen.
Q. And just following up on that, when you come back to a track like Talladega and the last memory pretty much everybody has is of that crazy 25-car wreck last October; is that in the back of your mind any more at a track like this when you guys race there this weekend?
MATT KENSETH: Well, that’s not the last memory in my mind from Talladega. Different for me. I was the only one who wasn’t in it, I think.
You know, I think whenever you go to Daytona and Talladega and go to a restrictor plate race, certainly being in a wreck is more on your mind than any other racetrack; you’re going faster, big packs.
Ever since I started racing, or even really started watching NASCAR racing, that’s the way it’s been. The first thing you think of when you think of Talladega – and you want to be honest, you think of a wreck, as a fan or driver or whatever, that’s usually what comes to your mind is big packs of cars and big wrecks.
So certainly I think it’s on your mind a little bit more. I don’t know, I think the racing is a little different than what it was last year with this particular car. I think it’s going to be a little bit of a learning experience for everybody. I really don’t know, you know, what the race is going to be like yet but certainly the potential for a major wreck like we had there last year is always there.
Q. Do you anticipate the same style of race at Talladega as was the Daytona 500 or because of the slightly different track, will that encourage guys maybe taking more chances early?
MATT KENSETH: Well, two things. I would expect the racing to be similar to Daytona. Now, I dropped out of Daytona in the last 50 laps, but up until that point, but I would expect the racing to be similar because there were no rule changes. The tracks are a little bit different. There’s more room at Talladega. I don’t think handling will be a huge issue – although it actually kind of was for some cars. I expect it to be the same.
But I will say that in Daytona, it’s not that people don’t want to take chances. It’s not like you don’t want to pass. If everybody could go up there, have a shot at leading, they will go do that. It’s just circumstances and the way the car was and the way the draft worked; it just made the racing different. You had to be much more patient than you had to be last year. You had to be much more calculating with your move. And it’s kind of like the old days, if you made that move and you didn’t have a big enough run to get it done or a car to get help, you could easily get hung out and lose, ten, 15 or more spots before you can get back in line. I think it’s just a little bit different style of racing.
Q. And considering that you had those engine issues at Daytona, will you approach practice any differently than other teams or will you have to run more laps just to make sure that everything is good, or do you expect just to like most days, try to run a very limited number in practice and then go race?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, I would expect us to run a very limited amount of laps. I don’t think that handling is going to be a big deal. I don’t think we have a lot of stuff to work through. I think that you have your basic Daytona package, being an impound race, there’s not really anything to work out, much to work on on qualifying other than how much taping you put on the grill.
So I think that Talladega, especially being impound, is one of those rare races, you can almost do the thing in a day; you could tack everybody, qualify them, line them up and race them. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of cars out there doing a whole lot of practice. I think most of your practice is actually during that 500 miles, figuring out where you can pass, where you can, trying to figure out your moves so you have it for the end of the race. Nobody has told me any different, but I wouldn’t anticipate a whole bunch of laps in practice.
Q. You spoke to driver safety a few minutes ago, just wanted to ask you, do you feel like NASCAR and maybe the tracks, specifically Daytona and Talladega namely, have done enough to protect the fans? People remember Carl Edwards and of course the wreck at Daytona earlier this year, and of course the prime seats that the fans want are right there by the fence that you guys are coming around. Do you feel like that there’s been enough done there to protect the fans in general?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I mean, you know, that’s a little bit of a tricky question because I don’t think you ever stop working. I don’t think NASCAR’s stop working or the teams have stopped working or the teams. I don’t think anybody has stopped working to make the cars, the fans in the stands, pit road, the whole experience, the whole environment as safe as possible.
I think that’s constantly trying to improve, constantly trying to get better. I know they work really hard at that. I know every time there’s an accident where somebody gets hurt or cars hit the wall somewhere where you don’t think or something gets into the stands, that’s certainly taken very seriously and looked at and we try to make those adjustments and get everything safer. You always learn from things going wrong to try to make it safer in the future.
I think that they are constantly trying to make that better, and I certainly think they have come a long way in the last few years.
Q. This year seems to be more controversy or ‘feuds’ between drivers after races, different drivers getting into it over different reasons. Is there anything that you can put your finger on why that’s happening and does it seem that way to you, maybe tempers are a bit more on edge than normal?
MATT KENSETH: Maybe a little bit more than normal. You know, when you’re in a competitive sport and people are going to get upset with other people and the moves they made or didn’t make or things they did or didn’t do, that’s just the way auto racing has kind of always been.
So I think you go through cycles where things maybe feel pretty calm, and I think you go through singles and everything is pretty intense and there’s not a lot of happiness. I think that’s just the way the sport works.
Q. Darrell Waltrip was on the local radio here the other day talking about your penalty from last weekend, saying that you guys ought to take that to Supreme Court it was so ridiculous. Just your take on everything that happened last weekend?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, really, I commented in the media a little bit at Richmond about it, and I just really don’t want to comment about it any more until we get through the whole appeals process and see what happens there, and then we’ll take it as far as we have to in the appeals process and see what they come up with and whatever the penalty is at the end of the day, we’ll have to accept that and move on and talk about it then.
Q. Obviously you have some good memories from Talladega from last fall, I know this is a track some drivers like and some don’t; when you see this track coming up on the schedule, do you designed of dread it or are you excited about coming here?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I used to dread it. Last year I was really excited about going there because we were just running so great at the plate races, and I’m excited to go this weekend. We had a great Daytona 500 until we dropped out of the race, but we had a really competitive car. We were leading the race when we broke.
I’m looking forward to going there. I feel like we learned a lot, got our cars a lot better and feel like we understood the Gen-6 car and what it likes what it doesn’t like and a little bit of drafting, so I’m looking forward to getting there.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Tony Stewart, he’s going through the worst slump of his career. Do you sympathize with what he’s going through and as a veteran driver, what do you do when you have slumps like that? I know you’ve had ups and downs, too. What do you tell yourself and your team and how do you stay focused on getting the most out of the team and getting back to where you were? What’s the process there?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I think everybody is different, and I think – I don’t think that there’s a secret formula. I don’t think there’s a formula that would work for everybody. And everybody’s different.
Certainly, if you’re in the sport long enough, maybe with the exception of Jimmie Johnson, I don’t know if he’s really been through one yet but other than that if you’re in the sport long enough, you’re going to go through a slump, as you called it, and you’re going to have a time where you’re certainly not putting up the numbers you think you should be putting up. You’re not running as good as you think you should be running. You know, all those things.
And I think that’s something that you learn from. I think you’ve got to try to get it fixed as soon as you can, because it’s frustrating to not run as good as what you feel like as a group, what you’re capable of running.
So that’s always a frustrating experience and like I said everybody handles that differently and everybody tries to figure out how to fix it differently. It can be humbling and at the end of the day, a lot of times, it can turn out to be a positive. It just makes you that much better, another side of it.
And also I think after you go through kind of a lump or a time where you don’t win for a while, it certainly makes you appreciate it and enjoy the next win that much more.
Q. To lighten the subject a little bit, you and your wife, Katie have four cats, and one of them you named Lars after Lars Ulrich of your favorite band. Your second cat you named Charlotte after your first Sprint Cup win and now you have Miley and Sully. Can you fill in any information to my curiosity about what their names have to do with anyone or anything?
MATT KENSETH: I don’t know the names have quite as much significance as everybody thinks they have. Katie named those two cats. She just picked them out. I don’t know why. So I don’t really have much of a good storey for you on that one.
Q. Okay. And one other thing, we get from all the crew members that you are one of the guys that does a lot of joking around with everybody, and is there any one thing that stands out in your mind that you say, boy, I should never have done that one because it was too big of a joke on my crew members?
MATT KENSETH: Not off the top of my head right now that I can really think of.
So I try to — I like to kid around with people. I always tell everybody, and people that know me well tell me all the time, too; only I think my jokes are funny. I don’t play a lot of pranks because I don’t like a lot of pranks on me, but I like to joke around with my buddies every now and again.
Q. Not getting you to look too far ahead but you have the Sonoma race coming up in June. How curious are you to see how that general six car handles on a road course for the first time?
MATT KENSETH: You know, I guess a little curious. We are going to do some road course testing, I think most of the teams do, I’m not sure when – you actually caught me off guard then. I have not looked that far forward yet.
We are doing some road course testing here in I think two or three weeks so imagine once we get home from Darlington, probably will start looking into that a little bit more. But I’m looking forward to going there.
There has not been a track so far this year that I feel like we have been really, really weak at or, you know, where we had a real bad week and like we could get beat at a place like that. Sear’s Point’s probably been my biggest struggle or probably one of my worst tracks throughout my career. So I am looking forward to going out and doing some testing and getting out there with one of these race cars and see if I can do better.
Q. Any characteristics of this car that you think could translate well to road racing from the experience so far?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, I mean, they drive better everywhere because they are lighter, and they have got more camber on the rear end and we have more downforce. Just being lighter and having more downforce is going to make them driver better everywhere.
Q. Discussing the ups and downs and momentum, do you believe in all that strongly, and what is your best way to handle the inevitable setbacks that come along in a season?
MATT KENSETH: You know, I believe in momentum to a point. I don’t believe in momentum as far as finishes necessarily. But I certainly do when it comes to performance. I think when you’re running good on a track, when you’re having good pit stops, when you have all the stuff going right that’s kind of all timing and confidence and all that stuff.
I think that – you know, I believe in that to a point. Certainly, I think you can go somewhere one week and finish last and win the next week; I mean, it happens, or the other way around. I don’t know, for me like I said, everybody’s different.
For me it’s good – when things are going bad, I try not to get too low and when things are going too high, I try not to get too high. Try to keep it right in the middle and that seems like the easiest way to deal with the good surprises and the disappointments.
Q. Following up about Denny Hamlin coming back from an injury, a lot of times in the past, drivers just seem to, when they are injured, even if they are sick or whatever, they get in the car and sometimes they seem to do better. Do you kind of expect that from him? Or have you had any experience like that?
MATT KENSETH: Well, certainly, I think Mark and Brian, as well v done a really good job filling in for Denny. With that being said, I am also looking forward to Denny getting back.
I’m new here this year and with Kyle and Denny working together this winter and talking about things, we got the season going and the three of us really getting to, I think kind of understand each other, our approach what we like, what we don’t like, all that kind of stuff. And then he got hurt and he’s been gone.
So I think with his time — I hate to call it time off, it was his recovery time. He’s been at the shop a lot; he’s been at the racetrack every weekend. He’s been in the pit boxes listening to different crew chiefs seeing how they call races and watching us coming out of the pits. So I think he’s actually been learning a lot. I would be shocked if he doesn’t come back and is ready to win races right away.
Denny is really, really good. I know he’s ready to get back in the race car and I think we are all ready for him to get back in the race car, too, and try to get some continuity going again and get some momentum going.
Q. How has the Gen-6 car impacted racing this year and how do you think it might impact racing specifically here at Talladega?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, I think the racing has been better than probably anybody expected with the introduction of a brand new car. So I think the racing has been, you know, incredibly competitive. It’s been incredibly intense. There’s been a lot of story lines all year on and off the track. You know, I think the racing has been great.
Talladega I think is going to be a lot like Daytona and plate racing, the fun thing with restrictor plate racing, especially the last three years, it’s changed a lot every year and it almost feels to me like now kind of like it was maybe ten years ago where you can get hung out of line really easy in loose spots and you’ve really got to calculate and think about your move before you make it, or you can get hung out kind of like you used to in the older days.
It’s definitely different and I think it’s going to be a great race. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a race at Talladega that wasn’t a great, entertaining, edge of your seat race, so I don’t see why that would be any different.
Q. You can’t help going to Talladega and not think of the wrecks. I don’t know how much tape you’ve watched, but do you not watch them if you’re in them? Are you skittish about watching them?
MATT KENSETH: Now that it’s over, it’s like watching a movie where you know the ending. You’re not worried about watching it then.
I think everybody does a little something different. If I think there’s something to be learned or looked at, I’ll watch tape. Other times, maybe you don’t, but no, it’s not bad watching it. I think a lot of times you learn something from watching it, maybe what caused it or what you could have done different or what somebody else could have done different or what have you. I think there’s always something to learn.