WINNING THE POLE AT DAYTONA IS SORT OF A HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS TRADITION AND EVEN MORE SO FOR CHEVROLET, WHICH I THINK GOES BACK TO 2013 AND DANICA PATRICK’S POLE. IT LOOKED LIKE YOU GUYS HAD REALLY GOOD SINGLE-CAR SPEED YESTERDAY, AS WELL. IS THAT A REALLY IMPORTANT ASPECT OF YOUR TRIP TO DAYTONA - THE EMPHASIS ON THE POLE?
“I would much rather win on Sunday, personally. I think anybody on our team would tell you the same. I feel like we’ve always had fast cars down here. Speedway racing has never been overlooked at HMS; and Alan (Gustafson, Crew Chief) does a really good job of massaging and really paying attention to all the details that I feel like it takes to be good here. I feel like that’s shown over the course of my time with him and even going back before me. There’s been a lot of success there. I do think it’s an area where they put a lot of emphasis and put a lot of work into the cars, but we all want to win on Sunday more than anything.”
TOMORROW NIGHT IS GOING TO BE THE FIRST REAL, HIGH-SPEED COMPETITION FOR THIS CAR. HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW ABOUT IT IN THAT CONTEXT AND WHAT DO YOU EXPECT THAT WE HAVEN’T SEEN YET, IF ANYTHING?
“Yeah to me, that’s probably the question that hasn’t really been answered and until we get into that environment, it probably won’t be. The little bit of drafting that has gone on, there’s just not really been enough – at least of what I’ve been a part of – there hasn’t been enough cars to really create the energy, the things that are real and that you’re going to see on Sunday. I have even often - in my experience - have noticed that in the Duels, there’s really not enough cars in that event and enough sense of urgency in the runs that happen on Thursday night as they do on Sunday. Until we get in that environment, it’s really honestly hard to say.”
I ASKED SOMEBODY EARLIER IF THE NEW CAR – I DON’T WANT TO SAY LEVEL THE FIELD – BUT MAYBE BRINGS THE GAP CLOSER TOGETHER. OR DO YOU SEE THAT IT’S STILL THE GOOD TEAMS ARE STILL GOING TO BE THE GOOD TEAMS AND WILL ALWAYS HAVE AN EDGE.
“That’s my opinion. I think that’s going to be tough to ever debunk that, in my opinion. Hopefully it opens the opportunity for people to come in and get up to speed a little quicker. But I definitely think that the teams that have the experience and have the resources to study, R&D and do all the things that you need to do are likely going to have the edge.”
YOU WON THE RACE AT COTA LAST YEAR. HOW GRATEFUL WERE YOU THAT IT WAS OVER AND YOU HAD WON? JUST TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU HAD TO DO TO SURVIVE THAT RACE.
“Yeah, that was a crazy race. Definitely the hardest rain that I’ve ever raced in. I actually thought it was kind of fun. You couldn’t see much. That back straightaway, it was pretty crazy how little you could see. But I thought it was good. It was different. Why not? I enjoyed it.”
“Obviously, we got fortunate with them calling the race early. We were in a situation where we probably weren’t going to make it on fuel. We had plenty enough pace, I feel like, to compete with those guys. But just the way our strategy worked out; we were probably going to be in trouble. So, kind of just took a gamble at staying out as long as we could. Fortunately, it went in our favor. I can’t complain.”
ANY CLOSE CALLS? ONE OF THE DRIVERS THAT WERE IN HERE EARLIER SAID HE BLEW BY A GUY THAT WAS LITERALLY GETTING OUT OF HIS CAR. HE HAD WRECKED AND NEVER EVEN SAW HIM. DID YOU HAVE ANY SCENARIOS WHERE YOU FLASHED BY SOMETHING AND DIDN’T SEE IT?
“That’s scary. Fortunately, I didn’t have one like that.”
A LOT OF TIMES, QUALIFYING ISN’T A BIG DEAL HERE. WE WERE TALKING TO CHRISTOPHER BELL AND HE SAID A LOT OF THE TIMES, IT DOESN’T MEAN A WHOLE LOT, BUT TEAMS LIKE HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS PUT A LOT OF ATTENTION INTO QUALIFYING. YOU’VE DONE REALLY WELL AT QUALIFYING HERE. WITH THE NEW CAR, IS THERE THE SAME AMOUNT OF ATTENTION ON QUALIFYING? HOW DO YOU LOOK AT QUALIFYING? HOW WILL IT BE DIFFERENT WITH THE NEW CAR?
“I don’t think qualifying will likely be a ton different. And it probably doesn’t matter any more this week than it does typically. I don’t think you have to qualify well to be really good on Sunday or even to have a shot to win. But like I said earlier, HMS has always done a really nice job on putting emphasis on qualifying.”
“I think it’s easy to kind of overlook the speedways, just because there’s so few of them. I think across the garage, that probably does happen some amongst some of the other teams. But I think for us, it’s been a great opportunity to give our sponsors some great exposure and to me, that’s probably the biggest piece of value of qualifying well here. For NAPA, they’ve had the chance twice now to be on the front page of the paper down here and kind of be the headline leading into the Daytona 500, which I think has value and I don’t see how they couldn’t see that as value, too. So our team does a good job of putting themselves in a position where our partners can take advantage of the start of our year.”
DO YOU FEEL LIKE WITH THIS BEING A NEW CAR AND EVERYBODY SO FOCUSED ON THE ATTENTION THAT TAKES, THE PARTS, ETC. – SAME AMOUNT OF ENERY AND EMPHASIS ON QUALIFYING HERE FOR YOU GUYS AT HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS?
“Yeah, I feel like a lot of emphasis has been put into our speedway cars for this race and we want to race the car that we unloaded with on Sunday, too. We’re excited and prepared. I feel like we’ve put as much effort and energy into it as we always have.”
WE’VE HEARD A LOT ABOUT DRIVERS LOOKING OUTSIDE THEIR COMFORT ZONE. WHAT MIGHT BE NEXT ON YOUR ‘WISH LIST’?
“Yeah, I enjoyed all the stuff I did over the winter. I enjoyed the rally cross thing. I enjoyed the Chili Bowl. I know it didn’t go well, but enjoyed the Chili Bowl. I feel like I made gains on that stuff through the winter, which I was excited about. I don’t know what I’m going to do this year just yet. We’ll see how it kind of unfolds, but I don’t really have anything locked down right now to go and run. Just currently focused on this deal - wanting to get into a good place here and try to have a really strong season. We’ll see – I’m certainly not ruling anything out. If something comes along that I like and feel like is a good opportunity, I’ll likely take it.”
JEFF GORDON HAD SOME QUOTES THIS WEEK ABOUT PUSHING YOU TO GET OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN AND WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU?
“I think Jeff (Gordon) wants us to broaden our horizons. And, like I said a second ago about getting sponsors exposure and things, I think that’s really the root of what he was probably getting at. And he wants us to grow – grow not only ourselves individually, but our sport as a whole. If the drivers are growing their following, then likely the sport is benefiting from it too. I think he’s just trying to help everybody win. At the end of the day, if we’re all gaining a following or popularity in a different area that we typically wouldn’t be in, you’re likely going to benefit. And likely, we’re all going to benefit.”
DO YOU HAVE A COMFORT ZONE? DO YOU KNOW WHAT’S OUTSIDE OF IT?
“Yeah, I mean we all have a comfort zone, for sure. I think for me, I don’t mind stepping outside my comfort zone. Where I sometimes struggle with wanting to go do things is I want to feel like those people want me there too. You want to feel like somebody cares about having you as a part of their show or whatever it may be; not just to check a box for them. When I feel appreciated and respect, I’m all in and I’ll go as far outside of my comfort zone as they want to get.”
WE HEAR A LOT ABOUT THE DUELS AS A PLACEMENT RACE OF THE DAYTONA 500 AND WE HEAR A LOT ABOUT PROTECTING THAT CAR BECAUSE YOU CAN’T WRECK YOUR CAR IN THE DUELS. BUT THE FANS ALSO WANT TO SEE A RACE. HAS THERE BEEN A LOT OF TALK AMONG THE DRIVERS ON HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF, BUT ALSO GIVE THE FANS A RACE?
“Yeah, well that is the race. That’s part of racing somedays and you either like that or you don’t. I hate to be that way; but at the end of the day, we’re going to do what we feel like is going to give us the best shot to win at the end of the day on Sunday. What that looks like sometimes might not be what people want to see all the time. But that’s just the way it unfolds. Would I love to mix it up for 500 miles? Absolutely I would love to put on the most exciting thing ever for four hours. But I also want to win; I want to win worse than I want to just make sure it’s super entertaining. That keeps integrity in our sport and as long as we have integrity in what we do and we all want to win, then I think the fans and the people are going to appreciate it. I think that’s an important piece; just keeping the integrity in what we have going on and making sure everybody still wants to win and make all of those right decisions to put themselves in the right position to do that.”
THE LAST TIME A HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS DRIVER MADE IT TO VICTORY LANE DURING THE DAYTONA 500 WAS DALE EARNHARDT JR. BACK IN 2014. YOU GUYS HAVE WON EVERY SINGLE POLE SINCE THEN, EXCEPT FOR 2020. DO YOU FEEL LIKE YU GUYS ARE FOCUSING TOO MUCH ON QUALIFYING DAY AND NOT SO MUCH ON RACE DAY? HOW DO YOU GUYS GO ABOUT TRYING TO FIX THAT FOR THIS YEAR’S DAYTONA 500?
“No – I don’t think we’ve put too much emphasis on that. Qualifying day is really just kind of a testament of how much speed your car has. I would rather have that than not. I feel like we have - on more than one occasion down here - I’ve probably crashed one of the fastest cars during the Daytona 500 and I was driving it. I think we’ve had plenty of opportunities, we just have to be smart about our decisions and do better jobs behind the wheel.”
BEFORE THIS EVENT TWO YEARS, THERE WASN’T A DIRT RACE ON THE SCHEDULE. THERE WEREN’T SOME OF THE ROAD COURSES ON THE SCHEDULE. WE’VE SEEN CHANGES TO THE SCHEDULE, THE CAR AND THINGS LIKE THAT. CAN YOU GIVE ME A SENSE FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE HOW MUCH YOU’VE SEEN THE SPORT EVOLVE JUST IN THE LAST TWO YEARS? BUT ALSO WITH ALL THESE BIG CHANGES, HOW MUCH MORE CAN THINGS HANDLE? IS IT GOOD TO STILL CONTINUE TO BE AGGRESSIVE OR WHERE IS THAT LINE FROM WHAT YOU’VE EXPERIENCED?
“Yeah, that’s tough. I don’t make those decisions, so I don’t have to worry about it too much. I’ve been supportive of the leadership group at NASCAR here currently. I feel like they’ve changed more in the past two or three years than they’ve changed in the prior 25 the way it feels; just kind of looking back at history. But I don’t know where that line is. We have a sold out crowd on Sunday for the Daytona 500 and this place is expected to be packed in the infield and out there. So, I guess they’re doing it right. It seemed like everyone liked the Clash, which was definitely outside the norm. It seems fine to me from my end, but it’s hard to know where that line is. I’m not sure. That’s a great question.”
WHEN IT COMES TO SPONSORS AND STUFF, HAS THERE BEEN ANYTHING IN THE LAST FEW YEARS IN YOUR CUP CAREER WHERE A SPONSOR CAME TO YOU WITH AN IDEA FOR HOW TO UTILIZE YOU THAT MAYBE YOU SAID ‘NO’ TO BECAUSE IT CLASHED WITH YOUR PERSONALITY OR WHAT YOU WANT. ARE THERE ANY BOXES YOU CHECK OFF BEFORE YOU SAY ‘YES’ TO SOMETHING?
“Yeah, I’m sure there have been things I’ve said ‘no’ to at some point. But it doesn’t just mean it doesn’t happen; there might just be a little different way of getting there or achieving what the partner wanted. I feel like we typically try to make it work. If they have an idea of something that’s going to give you some exposure or whatever it may be, I feel like nine times out of ten, I find a way to make that happen. I don’t know how to answer that, but we pretty much do what we can to please our partners. And also too, it is sometimes super useful on our end too. When a partner activates with you, it’s not just them that’s benefiting. If you’re being activated on a national level, you’re benefiting too just by being there. It goes both ways. Also, I’m appreciative of the opportunities that I’ve had - to get on that stage and be able to do that; and that’s all because of a partner likely.”
WE’VE HEARD A LOT ABOUT MERCHANDISING AND MARKETING TODAY. DO YOU HAVE ANY MEMORIES AS A CHILD, OR HAVE YOU DISCUSSED WITH YOUR DAD, HOW DIFFERENT A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A NASCAR DRIVER IS NOW COMPARED TO HIS DAYS OF MORE HANDS-ON IN THE SHOP?
“Yeah, a little bit. His days of racing in the 80’s was much different than his days of racing were in the early-2000’s. 2002 was 20 years ago, right? So, that’s still a long time ago, if you think about it. And at that point, I feel like the model of how things work is really similar from jobs being more individualized at the shop. Guys starting to be hired to do specific things and then the drivers being hired to do their specific things too; as it pertains to driving, taking care of partners and making sure we’re doing the things we need to be doing. I feel like the model has been pretty similar for a number of years now. I think people will think about the heyday; what they think is the heyday. And yeah, it was different in the 80’s and 90’s. But I feel like when we got to the early to mid-2000’s, I feel like we were well on the path to what we have now and not far from it.”