Going back to Atlanta last year, and the showings you’ve had in drafting style and superspeedways, to come here with a major sponsor and a big week. Do you feel this the best position you’ve walked in here this week?

“For sure. The bar has been very low, and we keep continuing to creep that bar up each year. I remember sitting here in such a difference in perspective my first Daytona 500 we made in the No. 83 car. Marty Smith asked me a question and I started crying. I said I’d wreck my grandmother to make the Daytona 500. If I didn’t make that one, I promise you I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.               

We continue to understand what we need to do to put ourselves in the right spots. Someone told me this week that I’m second in average finishes here at Daytona behind the guy that just walked out, and that guy is pretty good. We know what to do. We know how to put ourselves in position to be in the hunt to contend for these races. I think we’re going to continue to refine that and do an even better job this year.”

A lot of talk about Spire (Motorsports) this offseason – the moves you’ve made. Do you feel like there’s pressure to perform, and what do you have to do this year to show you can handle this responsibility?

“I’ve always had pressure. Pressure is different than expectations. I think that pressure, as a competitor, to continue to get better and you want to win. I’ve been successful and I’ve won at everything I’ve ever done in my life. Then you get here, you’re really aligned on opportunities and strength of teams, and that’s why that success in black and white on paper in terms of adding trophies to your trophy case, has really slowed down the last five years. The pressure I put on myself to get better is something I wake up with every day. That hasn’t change. Now, it’s just, having more potential to do that. Ryan Sparks has more tools at his disposal. The team has more resources coming in from super recognizable brands on my fire suit right now, like Chili’s. To be able to get our race team to a point where we can represent brands like this and start attracting talent from other race teams to our team, whether it’s on the floor or on a pit box, I take a lot of pride in having a part of that. The pressure is no different than what it was my first Cup race because you want to do good, and you want to be successful and win, but the expectations are what you really want to manage. That’s what really starts bogging a team down, when you try to start to reach and setting unrealistic expectations. The pressure is part of the job. You deal with it.”

Spire has made all these moves. Was there something that jumped out to you saying, ‘Wow. We’ve made this leap?’

“Everything. The purchase of (Kyle Busch Motorsports), that was unbeknownst to me. I was told by Dickerson about a week before it happened. I’m like, “holy cow, man. We’re going to have to have a hell of a bake sale to pay for this building.’ Then you get the Truck team, those guys. I think the biggest thing I talked about in our team kickoff lunch last week was all the empty trophy cases. The guy that was in that shop before, they had trophies in the rafters of that place that had dust on them because they had no other place to put them. With all of Kyle’s (Busch) success, all of the Truck series wins, that place was full of trophies. Now, there are a couple of pictures and my kickball trophy in the trophy case. So that’s part of the expectations. We need to continue to build to a place where we can start filling these trophy cases up with legitimate trophies. I’m super hopeful of getting Ryan Sparks more depth in engineering, whether it’s some help from GM, help from Hendrick with their engines and pit crews. I’m set up for success more than I’ve ever been in the last seven years of my Cup career. Also, on the flip side, you talk and hear how Ryan Blaney approaches the sport and his preparation. You’re also racing against 30 of those guys with very high IQ’s, high level of high caliber teams. To be able to gain five spots, that means you have to outwit five of those teams, or five of those pairings. It doesn’t make my job any easier. It does make everyone’s job a little more equipped, so that’s what we’re going to do heading into the season.”

With expectations lifted some more this year, with a last lap scenario sitting out there, do you take a little more of a chance than you did two or three years ago? Do you go to the edge more or not?

“I think that winning the Daytona 500 can change your life. You will do everything you possibly can to do that. Now, there are moves you can make that are ill-advised and dumb, and I’ve made several of those. On the flip side, I know what I did back to Atlanta, which is a similar drafting track, and it didn’t work out for me there. I figured out how to lose one of these speedway races, so I’m going to figure out how to be on the other side of this come Sunday.”

A Chili’s executive has said that 60% of NASCAR fans have dined at a casual restaurant which is part of the reason why they’ve decided to get into motorsports. Is there an opportunity for this to expand?

“I think there are always opportunities to grow a partner. I think this is that they are jumping into the deep end with the biggest race of the year, the (Daytona) 500. We did about a 14-hour production day with a couple of TV spots that are going to air. You saw the one on social media with me covering up the QR codes, but there is another one coming that’s going to play during the broadcast that’s pretty funny. For them to spend the money and budget and activate, as well as being on our car, I think really sets us up to really be able to start growing that partnership. They’re going to be an associate for four or five races, and I think their NASCAR-span is going to lead all the way up to COTA in March. They’re associate in Vegas, Atlanta, some other places, and then end of the program ends at COTA, but they’ve been pretty excited so far, and we haven’t even hit the racetrack yet. That’s when people really get excited. We’re going to get them on TV, get them in the mix, and try to get us a good starting spot in the Duels and kick off Sunday with a bang.”

You talked earlier about the challenge of gaining five more spots. As the perception of the team changes, how do you change the mindset?

“That’s a great question. I think I may have talked about that on the podcast. It is a big adjustment. When we first started here, the reins were pulled so tight that you don’t engage. Don’t look at the front, don’t even think about going up there. You just need to have this car cross the start, finish line at the end. That sentiment has really changed and adjusted. For me, as a driver, it certainly has changed in how you approach the race, how you prepare, and how you make moves in the race with the intention of a changing goal as we progress the team. As we get more partners, you can afford to stick it up in the mix to try and punch your ticket to the Playoffs, because you can justify it. I think, for (Ryan) Sparks and I, this is our fifth year working together, and our relationship is now like a marriage. The first day you say I do, it’s not going to look the same in five, 10, or 15 years. Our relationship has definitely changed on what we expect out of each other. I’ve had kids since we’ve started working together, and that whole navigating, making the most of what he had, and where we’re starting to build towards a team with some assets to work together with, we’re helping each other grow up in a way. Him coming from (Richard Childress Racing), not working anywhere else, me coming from a lot of bottom-feeding teams to where we build now. As people continue to look toward the No. 7 car to be a contender at a speedway, that’s a big change. But, for me, I’ve always had the go get it, do whatever it takes mindset, that’s never changed for me. So to have that brindle in your mouth, the reins pulled back, that was so counterintuitive in how I’ve been growing up. I’ve started to have the reins loosened up a bit to go and attack the race how I see fit, I think it’ll start to pay dividends.”

The trophy case you’ve mentioned, there’s no escaping it at the Spire shop. It’s built there. How do you keep that as a motivating factor and not something that becomes overwhelming?

“We’re not going to take that step in a day. We haven’t taken that step to where we are currently in a week. It’s taken four years, three-and-a-half years to get to where it is currently. It’s going to take a significant amount of time in the future to go to the racetrack with the expectation to go for a win. Our expectation is still, ‘Alright, let’s run for more top-15’s consistently.’ Last year, we brought cars with top-10 pace probably four or five times. My mindset going there when I realized we had some pace was ‘Okay, if I’m 10th, let me try to go win this thing.’ I probably made mistakes, or we’d call a bit different race then what we generally would have. We’d take a 10th place car and run 18th with it. We’ve got really good at taking a 25th place car and running 18th with it. We need to start making the 10th place cars run 10th first, then start taking advantage of mistakes. If we start taking cars with more pace more often, I think the rest will fall into place as we get settled in. The air is different on that side of the garage. The expectations are different. I think we have the right parts and pieces, especially with Doug Duchardt being the president of Spire Motorsports now. He has seen every aspect of this sport, helped build Hendrick (Motorsports) to what it is today. That guy brings a lot of knowledge, and I guess, culture. Positive culture, positive expectations for what we can build. Having him in addition to (Ryan) Sparks, and Luke (Lambert), and Steve and the drivers we have over there, it’s going to be really good in the future. I go in the back door so I don’t see the trophy cases anyway (laughs). When we start putting some in there… There’s a grandfather clock in there from the Truck win, and some other stuff, but I’m always a back door guy. I don’t walk in the front door. If you need me, I’m probably sliding in the back door.”

Your dad is a hero or yours, and he drove in the Cup series for 15 years including a stint at Hendrick Motorsports. Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, second generation drivers. Among some of those guys, were any of them your heroes growing up?

“I grew up coming to the track a lot. I was a Saturday kid, running around with Coleman Pressley, Austin and Ty Dillon, Ryan Blaney. Those guys would stick around for Sunday because their dads were racing on Sunday. My dad was content being a Saturday guy and got a couple of stints in and out, but never wanted to pursue that. He wanted to be home with us on Sunday. I think there could be a whole story written up as I have this theory on a drivers’ son, some sort of obstacle you have to overcome. Listening to Ryan (Blaney) talk about it, whether it’s Chase (Elliot) or any other second-generation guy, I don’t think you’ll ever be as good as your dad because your dad is your idol and he hung the moon. Driver-son complex was the word I was trying to think of. For me, I’ve raced more Cup races than my dad has. Certainly, my dad has a lot of success in the Xfinity series, but I’ve grown up wanting to be a Cup series driver. I grew up wanting to be a Cup series winner. I’ve continued to work towards that. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point where I feel I can be measured against my dad. I think that Ryan (Blaney) and Chase (Elliott) would say the same thing no matter how successful they are. But it’s so cool, to answer your question about guys I’ve followed, I wasn’t really following those guys so much. Late 80’s, early 80’s, I was a Ricky Rudd, Dale Earnhardt, I had a couple of my favorites. Dale Jr. was when I really started to understand the sport, in the early 2000’s, when I’m 10-14 years old. Especially some North Carolina guys, for sure.”