THIS IS A HOME RACE FOR YOU. OBVIOUSLY YOU GREW UP IN CHARLOTTE AND VERY FEW DRIVERS CAN SAY THAT THEY ARE CONSIDERED A TRUE HOMETOWN FAVORITE, SO TO SPEAK, HERE WHEN WE ARE AT CHARLOTTE. TALK ABOUT THE COCA-COLA 600, CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY AND WHAT THIS TRACK MEANS TO YOU, BEING ABLE TO CELEBRATE THIS WEEKEND EVERY MAY?
“Yeah, it’s always good getting to May. I feel like it’s a time period that I look forward to, just coming to the Coca-Cola 600 and getting ready for the Charlotte (Motor Speedway) race. But also, just being back home and being able to see a lot of family. It’s a busy time, for sure, but I just always have great memories of Charlotte Motor Speedway and going to the 600-mile race and just being up in the stands. Every time I come back, it gives me a lot of excitement and I think my team thrives off of that. With Hendrick Motorsports being right across the street, certainly we look forward to Charlotte every year and that’s no different this year. I think honestly this year, this is probably the most we’ve looked forward to the 600. Looking forward to it.”
WHAT TYPE OF ADVANTAGE IS IT STARTING ON THE POLE?
“Yeah, I mean I try not to get too excited, one way or another, on the weekend. I think that we’ve done a lot of good work this week just in the simulator and talking about the race. Really, it started before Kansas (Speedway). When Kyle (Larson) tested here, we talked a lot about what we felt like we needed. We’ve carried some of that to the other 1.5-mile tracks. Darlington (Raceway) isn’t really a 1.5-mile track, but there’s similar traits in the car there. I thought we were really strong there from the beginning to the end of the run, and that’s what you’ll need at Charlotte. The runs are pretty long.. usually probably going to be 50 laps on tires, at least.
It's certainly nice to get the pit selection. I think really the track position is not that big of a deal for a long race like this, but the pit stall selection is huge going into the race.”
YOU SAID 50 LAP RUNS ON TIRES. DO YOU EXPECT WITH CONSTRUCTION CHANGE THAT’S DIFFERENT FROM A YEAR AGO THAT YOU WON’T SEE DRIVERS JUST SPINNING OUT LIKE THEY DID LAST YEAR IN THIS RACE?
“Yeah, I think a lot of the issues that we saw last year – obviously the cars were a handful, but there was also just a lot of attrition for some reason and I think that guys were making contact. We weren’t used to the track changes. They might have been different than the old car. It was really hot outside. So I think the car just being kind of unpredictable and guys having more issues with kind of bottoming out and losing grip that way. I don’t think there was a ton of tire failures.. at least there wasn’t for us. But certainly we didn’t understand the tire fully to be able to maximize the whole run, so there was a lot of uncharacteristic kind of fall-off throughout the run. Hopefully we’ve worked on that a lot and we can run 40 or 50 laps on tires and still hold on well.”
I THINK IT’S BEEN SINCE WEEK TWO AT AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY THAT THE ENTIRE HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS CAMP HAS BEEN TOGETHER. HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO HAVE EVERYONE TOGETHER GOING INTO THE SECOND-HALF OF THE REGULAR-SEASON?
“It’s really important for the morale of the shop and us be able to kind of pull the rope in the same direction. I think having Josh (Berry) in was great. He really did a good job subbing. But obviously we have notes from four or five years, or more, from working together as a group of four. I feel like we understand each other’s driving styles and that just really helps grow the group, in general, and grow the setups forward. I think having all of our feedback back together, it would be nice to see that kind of payoff with practice. But I think Monday, we’ll really be able to dissect what we all had in the race and it will be nice to have everyone back to do that.”
WITH THE CHANGE IN THE SHORT-TRACK PACKAGE, WHAT DID YOU NOTICE AT SONOMA (RACEWAY) LAST YEAR THAT WAS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER RACES AT SONOMA IN THE PAST?
“Yeah, I mean I don’t really remember Sonoma (Raceway) that well last year, but I do feel like as a group, we kind of struggled more than we thought we would. INAUDIBLE…. The No. 99 (Daniel Suarez) was really strong. I feel like those notes will still apply, but we’ve come a long way with our road course program and I think that will payoff at Sonoma. It’s such low grip. You really have to manage the tire falloff. I feel like COTA was that way and we were pretty strong there. Still some work to do to get to where the No. 45 (Tyler Reddick) was, but hopefully at Sonoma we’ll make a lot more progress.”
THE LAST COUPLE OF WEEKS, A LOT OF THE TALKING HEADS HAVE KIND OF CONSIDERED THE CHAMPIONSHIP WILL LIKELY COME DOWN BETWEEN HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS AND JOE GIBBS RACING. IS THERE ANYONE ELSE, OTHER THAN YOUR TEAMMATES, THAT YOU SEE AS DIRECT COMPETITION FOR YOU IN GETTING THAT FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP?
“Well I think honestly, our goal is to make that final race and the Championship Four. I think as I see more talk about one guy or two guys or whatever – I think really you have to realize that it’s really just about getting to that final race with a chance. That’s been our goal all along.. every year it is, but I think realistically, the last two years that’s been the realistic goal.
I do think that teams are starting to emerge as strong players - the No. 19 (Martin Truex Jr.), the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin), the No. 5 (Kyle Larson), the No. 1 (Ross Chastain). I think there’s quite a few guys out there. I think you’ll see an evolution throughout the summer and some other guys will come on really strong, as well. I try not to set too much on one guy or one team, but I certainly think our team is in that mix. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing to stay on top of that order.”
ARE YOU PROUD OF THE GAINS THAT YOU AND RUDY (FUGLE) HAVE MADE?
“Yeah, I think it’s really been a steady improvement. I think a lot of people look to us to make big waves and things like that. But we’ve really just kept gaining on it each year. I feel like now we’re in a place where the foundation of our team is strong and it’s going to continue this way. We didn’t make any major steps really quick. We just kind of continued to win one or two races a year, and now we’re at three races a year. Hopefully that just continues.”
YOU TALK ABOUT THE INCENTIVE OF GETTING THE POLE AND THE PIT BOX SELECTION, BUT THAT OBVIOUSLY MEANS YOU DON’T GET THE PRACTICE TIME. ARE YOU A GUY THAT’S OK WITH GETTING THAT POLE POSITION AND FIRST BOX AND IS COMFORTABLE ABOUT WHAT YOU HIT THE TRACK WITH WHEN IT COMES OFF THE TRUCK?
“Yeah, I think one of our strong suits is practice. So I think for us, we enjoy going out there – cutting some laps, getting ready for qualifying, adjusting the balance. We have really good notes on what to do for practice and qualifying, so I feel like anywhere we go, we’re a threat for a pole in that sense. But yeah, we’ll take it any way we can get it. I also do trust that they’re going to unload something that’s close. We have good tools with Chevrolet and our simulator program, so I feel confident about that. We also had a test with Kyle (Larson) here. I feel good that we can unload strong.
I guess I’m kind of impartial. I feel like we can excel either way. Obviously the easier way would be to have qualifying canceled, but yeah I think either way trying to get a strong pit stall and go to work from there.”
HOW MUCH DOES THE PIT STALL EFFECT YOUR STRATEGY FOR THE RACE, AND DOES CLEAN AIR SORT OF NEGATE ALL OF THE UNCERTAINTIES IF YOU SHOULD GET THE POLE WITH NOT KNOW WHAT YOUR CAR REALLY HAS OR DOESN’T HAVE?
“Yeah, I think the pit stall has a lot to do with your performance throughout the race, honestly. We talk a lot about qualifying each week and really that’s what I try to do – try to get into the top seven or eight, or seven to 10, to get yourself either an opening in or opening out of the pit box. Those are really the important things.. just not being boxed in all day throughout the race. I feel like for us, that’s why we focus so hard on qualifying – not really for the track position, but more so for pit road. Try to do a good job of that each week and see where we end up.”