You’ve been an advocate of shaking up the schedule, and we certainly have that this year with a superspeedway, a road course and an intermediate track hosting the first three races. Now that it’s happening, what are your thoughts?
“It’s about time. As I’ve said for many years, I think mixing up the schedule is something that’s very important to capture people’s attention and to really try something different. Whether that’s different markets, different racetracks, it has to be different from year to year. As we go to these new markets and new styles of racetracks and try new things, we have to constantly evolve and mix it up. You’re going to have your staple markets and events, but you have those five or six events a year, like we’re having this year, that are new, exciting and different than you had last year. As you look at this year’s schedule – going to more road courses and new markets –Bristol being on dirt – there’s just a lot of intrigue to what’s happening, and that was before the season even started. That’s a good thing.”
Last year, Homestead was one of the first races to be postponed by COVID-19 and then NASCAR was able to return to the track in June. COVID-19 changed a lot of things and forced people to adapt, and that ability to adapt remains a constant in 2021. How has it changed what you do as a racecar driver?
“Look, life changed in general. I think COVID has forever changed our sport in the way that we think things through and the way that we go about things. There will be a number of things that will stick with our sport throughout the next several years just because of the things we’ve been able to try and learn. My routine has changed dramatically just because of the fact you’re just not in the car as much on the weekend. Race shape is a lot different than it was because you don’t have all those reps on Friday and Saturday. Really, as you got toward the end of the year, your body was actually fresher than it had been in the past, which allowed me to kind of mix up my workout routine during the week and actually gave me more days at home to do more things with the family. So, it definitely changed the way you prepare and put yourself in the car on Sunday.”
Last year at this time, talk of COVID-19 was just beginning, and no one really had any idea of its future impact. How did COVID-19’s impact unfold from your perspective?
“Racing stopped as we headed to Atlanta. I was actually sitting in an airplane and about halfway there. I got a text to not come to the racetrack. Then it was, maybe we’ll come Sunday, we might not practice, we might qualify, and so many things changed that we wound up just flying home and never even going to the racetrack. A lot of uncertainty, a lot of confusion, and then we sat around for a couple of months trying to figure out what we were going to do. As you look at our sport in general, we’ve all learned about the things we can and can’t do. NASCAR and all the teams did a great job of getting all of our races in in 2020, but I think the way that this sport functions will forever have been changed because of COVID. With the inefficiencies of the past, and newly created efficiencies that we found in 2020, and finding a balance of that going forward in what we can and can’t do or need to do, will be interesting.”
You mentioned more family time as a result of finding those efficiencies in the NASCAR schedule, and that family time has resulted in your son, Keelan, getting more and more involved with karting with you and your wife, DeLana, right there with him. How did it all come to be?
“This would’ve all never started if it wasn’t for COVID. We were really kind of set in our plans of the things that we wanted to do and where we wanted to go and how we wanted to spend time with our kids, and Keelan had really not shown a lot of interest in going to the racetrack. When COVID started, the iRacing stuff started. We were not really in school. Everything was kind of virtual once it started back, and he looked over one day while we were sitting on our iRacing simulators and he said, ‘Why aren’t we racing?’ I’m like, ‘Well, you never asked.’ So, we started going to the racetrack some more and getting prepared for the first club race at GoPro Motorplex (in Mooresville, North Carolina) when they finally opened up and ran the first club race. He qualified on the pole and, really, the rest has kind of been history – not even a year really since that particular point. It’s really the first thing that he’s shown that amount of interest in – that he actually wants to practice, first of all. For the relationship part of it, it’s been really good for us as a family. It’s been really good for Keelan and I. It’s also very challenging to be the teacher and try to basically build a race team. I mean, to race at the level that he’s going to race at, you have to treat it like it’s an actual race team because it is, so I think there’s a number of things that have happened with our personal relationship, that bond getting stronger, that driver/mentor relationship, trying to find that balance as being dad as well was, and still is, challenging. But if it’s something he wants to do, I’m going to push him hard to do the things he wants to do. He still has to have fun, but if you want to be good at it, you have to have your boundaries pushed on a daily basis, and I feel like I do that. It’s also been really good for me to understand and remember why I love racing, and going to the racetrack and seeing all the things and the challenges that come with not only teaching him, but putting the vehicles together – it reminds me a lot of the things that we’ve done in the past and I remember why I like those things because it’s a different way of competing, and I love to compete. From that standpoint, I now remember why I love going into that shop every day and talking to the people and understanding what was going on. From an all-around racing aspect of it, it’s reminded me of why I love so many aspects of this sport, and from a family standpoint and a father-son relationship, it’s made us stronger from both ends.”