What are your expectations as you return to Las Vegas since last competing at the track nearly seven months ago?
“I honestly can’t even tell you what happened in the first race, it’s been so long. We’ve just been through so many tests and so many simulator sessions and so many different forms of setups and things with the car, and the evolutions of the setups and the tires, and the understanding of the vehicle is just in a massively different spot than where we were at the beginning of the year. That progression of the sport that naturally comes year after year after year is just much more rapid this year because of the new car, so it’ll be interesting to see how Las Vegas is this weekend with our GEARWRENCH Ford Mustang. A lot of it depends on just how hot it is. We’re expecting hot, but I think the falloff will be dictated by that, and which tire we bring with which stagger, will also be a little bit of a difference than we had the first time.”
Was there a point this season where you felt like you finally had a handle on the NextGen car?
“It has depended on the racetrack, especially as we go to some of these racetracks for the second time – Richmond being one of those. For me, it’s been a relief just because you could look back and say, ‘OK, the car felt like this, this is what my notes say, this is what the team said.’ You can watch the videos and all the data that comes with everything we do in today’s world, and say, ‘OK, this is where I let off, this is how I drove the car last time.’ That part has happened a lot as we go to some of these races for a second time, and that gives me a comfort level to know that you can do this with the car and that with the car. But it’s still a learning process because our garage never quits learning. The teams are always learning, and it’s a constant progression of setups and evolution of driving and styles and things that you can and can’t do. You’re still trying to find those limits to where you can race, and how you can race, and what you can do on, really, everything. It’s not as fast as it was at the beginning of the year, but it’s still a pretty rapid evolution. But that’s pretty constant in our garage, because we have so many smart people and engineers working on these cars.”
What’s different about the NextGen car?
“It’s just different in every aspect of everything you do. Other than the fact that you’re in a race, everything inside the car just feels different. The steering is different, where we went from just an old-style steering box to now rack-and-pinion steering, so if you touch the wheel just a little bit, the steering immediately reacts. The pedals are all different and the way that they feel is different. You have an extra gear inside the car. It’s a sequential straight-up, straight-down sequential shifting mechanism that goes inside the car. So, there’s just so many things that are different that we’ve had to learn and, really, had to relearn some of the things that you have to do within the car, whether it’s how you use the throttle, how you steer the car, use the braking, which have different tendencies than the old car. It’s nothing outside the box, but it’s so drastically different that you’ve had to almost retrain yourself to do some things and the style of things that you’ve learned the car likes over the season. That part has been fun and difficult all at the same time and, for us, we’ve been very fortunate to spend a lot of time in the simulator and have it be somewhat relevant to the racetrack to try to create that muscle memory and thought process of things that you have to do that are different.”
What’s it been like racing with the NextGen car?
“There are definitely more accidents, and I think a lot of that comes with the aggression of knowing you’re not going to cave a fender in, and you have to be able to do what you need to do on the restarts to try to gain spots. So when you look at that, there have been more DNFs, there have been more accidents, there have been less top-10s, less top-fives, more spread out as far as the win column goes with the 19 different winners so far. It’s been much different as everybody’s learning about the car and trying to understand it. It’s kind of spread things out throughout the field. You’ll have something torn up, you’ll have races where you don’t get torn up and you don’t run well, but you can still salvage a top-10 because that attrition rate has been higher.”
Why is the attrition rate higher?
“The racing is closer and the cars are more durable, so people are more aggressive, especially on the restarts. Pit road has been different with the loose wheels and the speed of the pit stops and the margin of error is just less. I think the aggression level is up. Some places are more difficult to pass than they’ve been in the past and you have to take your opportunities as you can. You’ve seen a lot more people spin out this year, and you’re just seeing a lot of things happen that haven’t happened in years past.”
Las Vegas has become quite the sports town. What are some of the sports you might’ve played if you weren’t a NASCAR driver?
“I’m not the most athletic person, but I have a little bit of grit and determination, which is the only thing that got me through my four years of wresting in high school. I don’t know what I would’ve done. I went to the local junior college and knew I wanted to race and never pursued the wrestling piece of it. I would’ve definitely had to do some things a little bit differently. I was a little guy in high school. I think that worked out OK now, being 46 years old, but I always wanted to race and I have no clue what I would’ve done if I wasn’t driving cars. I started driving go-karts when I was 5 and raced cars when I was 16 and started traveling all over, racing cars or working on the trucks for Wayne and Connie Spears as a mechanic. Racing is all that I’ve known. I have no clue in which direction it would’ve gone if it wasn’t for racing.”