It’s Mustang Week. What does that mean to you?
“I’ve been very fortunate to drive Mustangs my entire career, really. We were in the F-150 there for a couple years in the Truck Series but, for me, when I think of Mustang, I just think about the commitment Ford has made to me, truthfully. Without them, there’s no way I’m sitting here talking to you right now. For them to believe in me from day one – I know it’s not necessarily a Mustang story on the street or something you would be expecting, but – when I think of Mustang I think of Ford, and without Ford taking a chance on me, there’s no way I would get to do what I love to do for a living. So, when I think of Mustang or F-150 or any of those, it all comes back to Ford and the commitment they’ve made to me. I’ll forever be grateful for that commitment. There have definitely been plenty of times I felt like they could have dropped me and they stuck behind me and continued to believe in me. Mark Rushbrook and Pat DiMarco and everybody over there from day one has believed in me. Probably even sometimes when I didn’t believe in myself, they continued to, so that’s what I think of when I think Mustang. Not to mention the heritage that the name Mustang carries. The cool thing about being with Ford is it’s all racers. That’s where the whole company started and, to continue to have that racing heritage and obviously with Mustang, it’s special for me to have Global Mustang Week on the car and carry that heritage for so many fans that come along with the Mustang brand. It’ll be cool to carry them all along.”
You seem to get better as the races goes on. Do you feel that’s the case?
“Yeah, for sure. I think that just goes back to the no practice thing. The first 150 to 200 laps of the race, I’m just trying to figure out what I’m doing and kind of what I need. You only have one or two adjustments up to that and I’ve probably steered them the wrong direction a time or two and then it takes us toward the last quarter of the race to get to where we want to be. Once we got to the three-quarter mark in every race this year, with the exception of Atlanta, we’ve been a top-10 speed car every week, and I think with no practice it’s hard to expect to start off there with a rookie. If we could obviously start at that point, the race would go totally better, but at that three-quarter mark in the race when we have that top-10 speed, we’re mired back the 20th to 25th area and then it’s just hard to rally. Last week, we were able to drive up to eighth or ninth that one run, and then we had a loose wheel and end up blowing a tire, so we haven’t been able to put the whole thing together or even maximize at the end of the race when we have speed and are trying to recover. We’ve done a good job of making our cars better every week and driving better and getting more speed out of them, we just haven’t been able to capitalize necessarily on that speed. I could point back to every race this year where we could have finished way better than what we did and we just kind of have a mess-up at the end. Phoenix is another one. I think we drove up to eighth or ninth and we had a 25-second green-flag pit stop with 60 (laps) to go and you just can’t have that in the Cup Series, it’s just so tight and so competitive. So I think, as the year goes on, hopefully that three-quarter mark will move back to halfway into the race and then a quarter of the way into the race, and then from there you can fight and recover from things a lot easier and just have speed a lot earlier in the race.”
Tony Stewart said there’s no playbook when somebody comes to the Cup Series level. How have you worked through all of the adversity you’ve faced on and off the track during this time?
“I think Tony definitely hit the nail on the head when he said there is no playbook, and just the change in everything. Whether it’s on the racetrack or off the racetrack, on the Cup side, I’ve been busier now than I’ve ever been in my entire career combined. So, there are a lot of things that are very new, and you add COVID on top of that and I feel like it’s even harder. I feel like the mental side is so big in the racecar, but it’s important off the racetrack, as well. I just feel like confidence goes such a long way. If you’re not confident in your abilities and what you’re doing, you start second guessing and, whenever there are split-second decisions to be made, you can’t second-guess. And normally if you second-guess, nine times out of 10 you choose wrong, you end up in the wreck or you make the wrong move and all those things. I’ve really tried to lean on (Kevin) Harvick a lot this year and just talk to him, and even (earlier this week) I talked to him about communication. I feel like my entire career I’ve never really been vocal on the radio. I’m a pretty even-keeled guy. I don’t get worked up. I don’t yell. I don’t get frustrated. I’m pretty normal all the time and just kind of relaxed all the time, and I probably need to get a little more worked up in the racecar and let my team know what I need. Not get angry or mad, not yell and scream, but be more adamant. I talked to Kevin about how to express my frustrations, how to kind of explain those things that I’m feeling inside the racecar, just so we can make our whole team better. I’m trying to lean on guys who have experience and have been there, and obviously Kevin is one of the best to talk to, whether it’s on-track stuff or off-track stuff and just trying to use him as much as I can to try to get as close to a playbook as I can get.”
Is there anything you take away from Martinsville to Richmond?
“I know from a setup standpoint that one run at Martinsville where we drove up through the field, we felt like we were really, really strong and that was an adjustment we made, so we’re just trying to get the car as similar to that as we can. Richmond is probably my worst racetrack by quite a bit, so just trying to look at that and kind of see what from Martinsville correlates over. I think we feel like (the No. 14 Mustang) will be a little bit better than what it was last year at Richmond, just from a drive standpoint – forward drive and grip. I know they’ve talked about how my tolerance for freeness is a lot bigger than what they were used to with Clint (Bowyer), and I’m really loose, but I don’t feel loose. For the team, setup-wise, it’s way looser than what they’re typically used to running, so we’re trying to figure out those differences between Clint and I so they can really try to build a setup more molded to me.”