Talladega marks the 600th NASCAR Cup Series race for your crew chief, Rodney Childers, and 314 of those races have come with you. What’s made your pairing with Childers work so well?
“Rodney and I are pretty much the same age with a very similar background, as far as racing goes. But we’re kind of opposites in that he’s very calm, cool and quiet, and I’m kind of rambunctious and full of excitement. I think that pairing has brought a lot of respect just because I know his demeanor, he knows my demeanor, and it’s kind of a good balance in the middle.”
Currently, you and Childers are the longest tenured driver/crew chief pairing in the NASCAR Cup Series, and by a wide margin – 71 more races than the next longest pairing of driver Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson (241 races). How have you been able to maintain this relationship when so many others have not?
“I think a lot of that just falls into the understanding that we know each of us can do the job, and we believe in that and each other, and a lot of that comes down to conversations, being able to communicate. We communicate well, and I think that’s what makes a good pairing, being able to talk and communicate and put those conversations into action. And when you’re wrong, understanding when you’re wrong, and working through that and not have anybody’s feelings get hurt and start pointing fingers That’s what’s made it work.”
When you were first paired with Childers back in 2014, did you envision this kind of longevity?
“It’s always better to have a longer relationship than trying to fill the gaps with people every three or four years, because it’s just hard to get somebody you trust. It’s hard to get somebody that’s good. I guess history sort of speaks for itself at this point.”
What’s a playoff race like a Talladega?
“It’s a lot like the regular-season finale at Daytona. You have a lot of different agendas. You have guys who really know that it’s their only opportunity to win. You have guys who know there’s going to be carnage and run at the back. There are guys who need stage points and try to run at the front. It’s a race of agendas and, as you look at that, it creates a lot of different aggression levels. But usually at that part of the season, there are people who just want to win and know that it’s one of those opportunities, and there’s a lot of pushing and shoving and wrecks. It’s usually how that works out, so survival is obviously the key, but you have to balance that with trying to score some sort of stage points and putting yourself toward the front for the first two stages.”
What are your expectations for Talladega?
“It’s one of those places where you want to race up front and race hard all day because you have to try to win stages. I believe you have better odds at the front of the pack when it comes to staying out of a wreck if you can keep that track position all day. You’re going to race in a pack – three-wide at times – and you’re going to get pushed and have to push at times. You just never know what’s going to happen because Talladega is its own animal. It’s hard to finish a race there. As we’ve seen over the past however many years, you try to put yourself in the right position and hope you have a little bit of luck on your side that particular day. I know our Busch Light Ford Mustang will be fast enough to contend for the win, but you just have to get to the finish.”
Talladega and its sister track, Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, are often mentioned in the same breath, but there are differences between the two venues. What are they?
“Talladega is a lot bigger. It’s a lot wider. The track itself is bigger. The shape of Talladega is different than Daytona because of the track being wider and the way the tri-oval is shaped. The start-finish line is almost all the way down into turn one, which seems to change some of the outcomes of the finishes because you have to go all the way down the front straightaway before you get to the finish line. Talladega’s tri-oval is a little bit different than Daytona’s. That bottom groove has a little less banking than the rest of the racetrack, so it’s almost like you’re dipping down into a hole. Sometimes you see guys get loose down into the tri-oval and spin out, so it ends up being where some of the wrecks are caused. It’s really hard to push through that tri-oval, especially as you’re heading down into that bottom lane. It’s tough to know exactly where you need to be at the end of the race. I’ve only won one of them there. In that particular race, we were tandem racing and I was second coming into the tri-oval and was able to get past Jamie McMurray. But I would still rather be leading and in control. It’s a chess match all day. You have to have a little bit of luck on your side, but you can also put yourself in a good position by making the right moves, having a good day on pit road, and not making any mistakes.”
There are some drivers who really seem to excel at Talladega and Daytona – almost like how some drivers rise to the challenge at a road course. What is it about superspeedway racing that makes some drivers stand out over others?
“There are some guys who are really good at it. I think some guys look at it as, ‘This is my chance to win,’ and just take all the risks throughout the day to put themselves in position. We just want to finish where we’re running.”
They said that Dale Earnhardt could see the air when he raced at Talladega and Daytona. Are there things that you see behind the wheel that kind of foreshadow what will happen next? If so, are you constantly thinking two or three steps ahead when you’re in the draft?
“You try to be one step ahead of everything, but as you go through the day, you learn the things that work and the things that don’t work, and you try to be around the cars that you want to be around. But, by the end of the race, a lot of times you just wind up in a position and just kind of go with your gut and your instincts and the things that you’ve learned all day. I think it’s important to race all day to try to not only get stage points, but to learn the tendencies of the style of race that you’re in so that you can do everything that you can in order to maximize your position.”
There are some physically demanding races on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Is Talladega mentally demanding?
“Superspeedway racing, in general, is just a mentally demanding situation because of the constant looking in the mirror and looking around and trying to keep the car going as fast as it can go and being aggressive and pushing and shoving and doing all the things it takes. There’s just a lot that you have to process from a mental standpoint, for sure.”
Describe the intensity of racing at Talladega.
“You have to be aggressive just for the fact that if you’re not aggressive, it always seems like you’re not going to be where you need to be. Nine times out of 10, the aggressor is going to be the guy who comes out on the good side of things just for the fact that you’re making things happen and you’re not waiting for something else to happen. When you wait for something else to happen, that’s usually when you get in trouble because it’s usually someone else’s mess. You can still get in trouble if you’re aggressive, but with the way things are, it’s best to stay aggressive and try to stay up front.”