TALK ABOUT RACING AT DARLINGTON AND YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT LAST YEAR’S WIN AND WHAT IT IS GOING TO TAKE TO GET THE VICTORY THIS WEEKEND:
“I think it goes without saying that every team and driver is excited to be in Darlington. We know and understand the impact and the meaning of this race track and what it has done for our sport, the early years and everything in between. I’m very happy to be here. I love driving this race track. After winning last year’s race and winning our 200th for Hendrick Motorsports it took it to a whole new level. Happy to be back and not sure what to expect with the grip level on the track. It’s aging and hopefully we get back to that real porous race track that wears out tires and puts on a great show. The track is so narrow it’s tough for us to race at times. Especially on new tires, you can’t run side-by-side around here, but once we get some laps in and get the tire wear going there is some good passing that takes place. I would assume that strategy is going to be a big part of why the winner ends up in Victory Lane. It’s tough to pass and I think we will get a good idea of tire wear, but strategy in two or four (tires) and really probably having enough fuel, the first one to have enough fuel to go the distance will be a key point in the race too. All that said it’s a track that has in my opinion, the highest sensation of speed out of anywhere we go. This track is narrower than any track and we are at 200 and something miles an hour down the back stretch going into (turn) three. It gets your attention.”
TALK ABOUT YOUR DOMINANT START TO THE SEASON AND BEING THE SOUTHERN 500 CHAMPION FROM LAST YEAR AND YOUR EXPECTATIONS FOR THIS WEEKEND:
“It really has been a good start for the team. Clearly the point’s show that, but I look through it two wins, how prepared out team was for all types of racing. I would say our worst race was, based on performance, was in Fontana. We still managed to get a 12th due to a lot of cautions at the end. We kept pitting and putting tires on and was able to move our way back up through the field. Only one major issue at Bristol, when I blew the right-front (tire) and had a poor finish there, a great start. I think the great start reflects the hard work that was done during the off season by everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. Right not it’s a moving target. To stay on top of the point’s lead is going to be tough. We are still learning the Gen-6 car and each week there is something new that we discover about the car and try to use to make our vehicles faster. We are chasing a moving target right now, but off to a great start and happy about that. Happy to come back to a track that we have won at, that always helps the team walk in the gates and start that first practice session with a lot of confidence.”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHERE YOU SEE JEFF GORDON’S LEGACY RIGHT NOW AS HE HITS A MILESTONE OF 700 STARTS?
“It’s amazing that the number is that big. He got such an early start. He is not all that much older than I am, but clearly a lot more starts. I remember watching him all the way back to the Thursday night thunder days when he was running a midget and being a fan. Buying his diecast car from Toys ‘R’ Us because I was a Gordon fan, it went on my dresser at home. When I got the call to drive for him, it was a very surreal moment. To have the friendship and the years go by and working together, being a teammate, I’m happy for him. I am very thankful for the opportunity for starters, but very happy that he has had such an amazing career. It was tough to be a Gordon fan for a period of time there. People were all against him. I was proudly cheering him on and still today. Very happy for him and his 700th start.”
I UNDERSTAND YOU WILL BE COMPETING IN A TRIATHLON IN KING’S MOUNTAIN THE MORNING OF THE ALL-STAR RACE. WHAT IS IT THAT ATTRACTS YOU LATELY TO RUNNING TRIATHLON’S AND DOES IT GIVE YOU ANY PAUSE DOING ALL THAT IN ONE DAY RACING THE ALL-STAR RACE AND THE TRIATHLON?
“Well, things just changed. I will not be competing in that event. Unfortunately, Evie (daughter) has a dance recital on Saturday. It’s a 9 o’clock and the triathlon starts at 8 o’clock. That is going to be a little tough to pull off. I even tried to see if we could move the show to later in the day and it’s not going to work. I have four months of training invested, but it’s all good. I really do enjoy pushing myself from a fitness stand point. It’s something that I’ve had my eye on for years. I look back at photos, I can’t believe how out of shape I was before when I thought I was in shape. The experience is great and I feel like the structure and focus required to get ready for a triathlon helps me with my day job. I really enjoy it, enjoy pushing myself, so as I continue to focus on my racing career and how to become better and stronger in my job, this is one of those steps in it. Being fit and preparing for the future there are those physical aspects that everybody can easily understand and then from a mental stand point it does have some great effects for me as well. I’m bummed I’m not going to be able to make that race, because I’m ready and prepared for it. At the same time I will be running a camcorder of sorts filming Evie dancing around. It will be good.”
DOES THIS YEAR FEEL MUCH LIKE THOSE PREVIOUS FIVE YEARS WHEN YOU GUYS WERE ON THAT INCREDIBLE CHAMPIONSHIP RUN?
“Every year has its own feel to it. It’s still so early I can’t draw a conclusion to a year yet. It’s nice to get off to a quick start. I always try to check some boxes, win a race, is a huge one, win a pole, another one. Try to win multiple races now with the seeding process and also the Wild Card for the Chase. We have worked through some of those check marks pretty quick. As the year wears on the focus still is on making the Chase, which we are probably in good position for with our two wins. Don’t want to guarantee anything there and then being ready for the Chase. So we are really just going down the road right now. I can’t draw any big conclusions, but I’m very proud of where we are at. Again, I think it reflects the hard work that was put in during the off season. We need to stay aggressive and keep working hard and see once we get close to September what we have for everybody.”
LAST WEEK RYAN NEWMAN WAS NOT FINED FOR THE COMMENTS HE MADE. DENNY (HAMLIN) WAS FINED FOR THE COMMENTS HE MADE EARLIER IN THE SEASON. DO DRIVERS KNOW WHERE THIS LINE IS TO WHETHER THEY ARE GOING TO DRAW A FINE OR NOT? DO YOU THINK DRIVERS SHOULD HAVE SOME FREE REIN TO SAY WHAT IS ON THEIR MIND WITHOUT FEAR OF GETTING A FINE?
“I think drivers are going to say what they want regardless of the fine. It’s a chance to sound off. Some guys may have the composure to navigate what they say when the camera comes out, when they are good and mad in those moments. I applaud them for that. I would say the majority of us don’t have that filter. There are certainly some that come to mind quickly that don’t have that filter. We do have a format to speak our mind. I think the question at the end of the day really is in the responsibility falls on the drivers shoulders. Is this going to help our sport? Me taking this microphone right now and saying what is one my mind, is it going to help our sport? Some can call it a cop out, they can call it whatever they want, but at the end of the day we need to protect our sport and grow our sport. If there is something that is on the fence that you are going to say, at least in my eyes, I would rather not say it into the microphone and walk into the transporter and speak my mind. That works for some, doesn’t work for others, works on some topics and not other topics. It’s not an easy thing to navigate through, but as a representative of our sport, especially when you become a champion of our sport, you’ve got to think about things. You’ve got understand when the microphone is on, I’m I helping grow our sport. That is the question I ask myself.”
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE RECIPE FOR SUCCESS HERE AT DARLINGTON?
“The track that I remember, I guess and I think that track went back through the years. I think this track has always been an abrasive race track, always a track where you needed to be smart and race the track and not the other competitors. It’s changed some now with the new surface that has been put down. I think the stats show a driver that was smart, a driver that ran his own race, didn’t get caught up in the other issues in racing someone and racing hard. You literally run the tires off the car. It’s changed some now and I think strategy, clearly you have to have a fast car, but track position and strategy that gets you track position has been the priority since the track has been resurfaced. Statistically, I think it shows a patient driver. You can just remember back to Jeff Burton, Ward Burton. I wasn’t around to watch David Pearson, but these guys that just had finesse to their driving style and knew how to preserve the tire and take care of their car. Taught guys like Jeff Gordon and myself to come out here and baby the car and take care of it. Don’t over abuse it at the start, be smart, save some tire for the end and it would lead to victories. That’s the statistic that I think you are probably speaking to.”
HOW DID YOU COME TO KNOW ABOUT DARLINGTON RACEWAY AND TALK ABOUT YOUR OWN HISTORY WITH THE TRACK AND WHAT YOU ATTRIBUTE YOU SUCCESS TO HERE?
“I think the first race I saw from here was an old IROC (International Race of Champions) race. Before I really watched a Cup race and I also remember coming here trying to find a job in the Nationwide Series and watched I think it was Ted Musgrave. I think he won potentially or had a shot at winning. It was a really exciting race. He was in like the No. 16 I believe, so it was a long time ago. I just remember coming here and the track that I watched on television looked exciting. When I came in person to watch and it was so much more than what television could do for it. TV does an awesome job, it is just this track is so narrow and so different. The speeds are so high for such a small racing groove that it left and impression in my mind. Watching cars run through (turns) one and two, I guess it was (turns) three and four back then up on the fence was mind boggling to me. Then when I had a chance to run Salem, Indiana, in the ASA (American Speed Association) series we would run up near the wall in (turns) three and four there. In my mind I’m like ‘if I ever get to Darlington this is what it’s got to be like’. I’m getting experience for Darlington. Came here and didn’t win in the Nationwide Series, but struggled a lot less than other rookies coming here. I think that running at Salem helped and then also my off road background and how abrasive the track was and rough and different. That is one of the things driving on the dirt; you have to adjust all the time. Your car or truck in my case is never perfect. Grip level is always changing and I think that experience helped me come here and get a feel for this place quicker than some others.”
THERE WERE SOME PENALTIES GREATLY REDUCED THIS PAST WEEK. YOU HAD ONE LAST YEAR THAT WAS GREATLY REDUCED. WHAT DO YOU THINK THE MESSAGE IS BEING SENT FROM NASCAR TO THE GARAGE BY THIS?
“I don’t know. You go through the process, I can tell you from living through the process you go through and you don’t expect these outcomes or the reductions. I personally haven’t sat in on an appeal or the top level with (John) Middlebrook that is something drivers just don’t go to. I get phone calls explaining to me what the vibe was like inside the meeting and how things went. They are never optimistic. It’s a tough thing to live through. I know that NASCAR can never hand out a penalty that is less than. We know that it is always going to be more than the previous penalty. They look at past history, intent and a few other things to set their standards. From there and in some senses it’s like the regular justice system. You go in and plead your case and try to do what you can. One it’s not a fun process, two I haven’t thought a lot about the message it sends, but I guess thinking about it means get in there and fight. It’s worth the chance to fight and try to lessen your penalty.”