A NASCAR Cup Series champion will be crowned Sunday at Phoenix. As a former Cup Series champion, what do you think winning a championship says about you?
“I think it says a lot about our team. For me, leaving RCR (Richard Childress Racing) and coming to SHR was a huge risk, and breaking out of my comfort zone and being open-minded to new people and new cars and new things is something I’ve always looked back on and said, ‘That’s why that change was good.’ Don’t ever give up on the evolution and the change of what you need to do to progress with the sport because our sport has an incredible progression rate, as far as how the car progresses, how the rules progress, how the tires progress, how the team progresses, how your driving style progresses – it’s kind of evolve or die, and I think that’s important to remember.”
What makes a championship memorable beyond just winning a title?
“I would tell you desire and grit, and that ability to not let the outside world affect what you do, and how you do things and why you do things, and believing in the process and the things that you do. Believe in the people around you, but don’t be afraid to change things along the way. For me, the biggest thing is just learning how to do that as an adult. But professionally, which is something that I didn’t do great at RCR, I think as Rodney (Childers, crew chief) came into the picture and we were able to evolve with the team, and each of us was able to evolve as a person, really helped the communication and the things that happen with the team, to be able to keep that cohesiveness of the group, to be able to be productive and work forward through good times and bad. Sometimes, the good times were harder to progress through than the bad times. In the bad times, you know you have to get better. In the good times, you can be a little bit slow to react. You have to balance these things. That’s why you always hear me talk about balance, because it’s not really just about good times and bad times, it’s also about the circle of life and your team and everything that goes with that to get the maximum potential out of the mental thought process and things that come with being good and being a communicator. I’m not the fastest driver in the world, but I feel like I can out-think a lot of situations and help my team think forward to figure things out. That’s part of what we do well.”
How difficult is it to defend a championship?
“Our first thought was, how do we defend this championship and not look like it was a fluke? We were a first-year team, won the championship the first year, and then at the end of the year we didn’t win the championship, but we had a way better year than we had in 2014. We just came up short from winning the championship. The only conversation we had as a group was how do we do better than we did in 2014 to show them that we are for real.”
A championship wasn’t in the cards this year, so what are you looking ahead to in order to prepare for 2023?
“You want to have all the cars as competitive as possible, and you do the things that it takes to do that. So, the better we can make all the cars, the better off everybody is going to be. That’s the goal.”
Chase Briscoe was SHR’s last man standing in the NASCAR Playoffs and he nearly raced his way into the Championship 4. He’s finishing his second season in Cup, and it’s one that delivered success early as he won at Phoenix when the series first raced at the track back in March. How is it working with Briscoe?
“Chase and I have developed a good relationship. I like hearing his feedback because of the fact that he has such a different, fresh approach to what he’s feeling, seeing, ideas, how he drives. It keeps it good for me too, because of the fact that he looks at it so differently than I look at it. Being able to have that conversation go both ways is important for the progression of the organization. Him finding a balance of what I do and me finding a balance of what he does, because they’re two different outlooks of what you’re feeling and seeing, that’s healthy.”
What are some of the things you and Briscoe talk about?
“We’ve had more time to spend on the plane and go to the tests and just be around each other more, other than just showing up at the racetrack, which is what we did the first year. During COVID, you just showed up at the racetrack and weren’t around each other much because you weren’t allowed to go to the meetings and things at the race shop, anyway. Obviously, that’s different now, and we’re back to a more normal routine. That’s good, because one of the hardest things to learn in what we do is how to deal with not only just becoming a Cup driver, but in his particular case, how to deal with success. Then you have a family and you have finances and you have commitments and all of those things that you have to balance. And Chase is a very simple person. His life revolves around his family and racing, and I think when you start to complicate that and your life becomes less simple, you have to figure out how to deal with life and still maintain that ability to have that approach of, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to put myself in a position to be a driver, to be a winner.’ That’s hard, and sometimes you let your guard down. You see a lot of these younger guys let their guard down after they win their first race, or when they get to the Cup level, and they can’t ever figure out how to get that same hunger in their belly to get to that second win and that third win and that fourth win and be that consistent, up-front guy. That’s the difficult part and, after he won, what I tried to stress to him was, ‘Hey, don’t ever lose that fire in your belly of thinking that you’re not going to make it, that you might not have a job tomorrow, because that’s what will drive you to be great.’ He has that ability because he’s been on the other side of the fence where he’s been sleeping on couches and wondering what he’s going to do tomorrow. I’ve been there, a lot of us have been there, and you don’t want to go back to that. You want to keep the success that you have, and I think not having had that before, that’s what sets Chase apart from a lot of the guys he’s racing against.”
You talk about making the time to commit to racing. Does that include working on the car?
“Well, I haven’t worked on a car in 25 years. Working on a car is almost viewed as you’re in the way, now. That being said, I think young drivers should work on their cars a little bit, but I also think there’s a point where it becomes more about the computer and the iPad and the data and the information to understand what their job is from a driving standpoint and, more importantly, to be able to communicate with the engineers, and understand the graphs and the information that’s coming with it. The information that you give, it isn’t a guess anymore. If you’re not doing a good job, like if the car’s tight or loose in the simulator, they can tell that it’s tight or loose, and then if it’s something that they don’t expect, they can diagnose whether it’s aero or mechanical. So when you start feeding those directions, it’s more important to able to analyze the things that are going on because it’s a different era.”
That “fire in the belly” you mentioned, is that how you got the nickname, “The Closer”? Do you remember who gave you that nickname and when and where it started?
“It had to be Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip, I would assume. Darrell probably had three or four different nicknames for me throughout the years. I guess that’s just the one that stuck. I think as we went through the years at RCR, it’s kind of like where were there at the end of August, where it’s like, ‘Man, how in the world did these guys even get into contention to race for a win this week and now they’re walking out with the trophy.’ That’s kind of been the M.O. of everything that we’ve done throughout the year. There’s just no quit. It’s never over until it’s over, and there’s never a race where I’ve gotten into the car and I haven’t said, ‘OK, we have a chance today. We might be slow, we might be fast, we might have something go wrong, but in the end, we’ve just got to figure it out.’ And I think that mentality has carried over to all the guys on our Busch Light team.”