A FEW WEEKS AGO, YOU SAID YOU HAVEN’T BEEN LOOKING AT POINTS. NOW THAT YOU’RE GETTING A LITTLE BIT CLOSER TO THE CUTOFF, I’M CURIOUS IF YOU’VE TAKEN ANY MORE OF A LOOK AT IT IN THE LAST COUPLE OF WEEKS?
“I haven’t, really. I hear people talking about it.. that we were I guess somewhere closer and within reach of pointing our way in. But no, I haven’t been paying much attention to it. Really just trying to run better and get some stage points. To me, that’s probably been the biggest thing that we haven’t done, aside from winning. But we haven’t been getting a lot of stage points. We got some at Talladega and a pretty big chunk, but that’s really been about it. We’ve had some decent finishes, but not a lot of stage points.
What did you say.. 63 points?”
YES, 63 POINTS BEHIND 16TH RIGHT NOW WITH 13 RACES TO GO.
“Obviously there’s still some stuff going on there right because you have Alex (Bowman), who’s been out, and opportunities for new winners, too. It sounds like 63 points is attainable in 13 weeks, but I think a lot can happen. My goals don’t really change either way. Your best chance of having a shot at the championship is to go and put yourself in position to win races, and same for gaining the most amount of points you can have. If you’re running up front and in the mix of winning, those are the guys that are getting the most points every week. So to me, it’s all one in the same.”
IT’S BEEN SIX RACES, INCLUDING THE ALL-STAR RACE, THAT YOU’VE BEEN BACK BEHIND THE WHEEL. HOW DO YOU FEEL PHYSICALLY GETTING BACK INTO THE SWING OF THINGS? DO YOU FEEL MORE CAUGHT UP TO SPEED, SO TO SPEAK, WITH THE PACK?
“Yeah, I do. I don’t feel any different, honestly. I don’t even really feel like I missed any time, just from driving. I think the things that I haven’t done well, I wasn’t doing well before I got hurt, too. I think all that stuff is very much back on pace.
In the car, physically driving, I don’t feel any bit different than I did last season or the beginning of this year. I feel like all of that is very normal. Certainly outside of the car and just getting back to being 100 percent physically, it’s a long recovery. If I was playing a stick-and-ball sport, it would still be months from doing those things. So fortunately we’re in a position in these cars that – and I’ve said this – your leg is in a pretty good spot and it’s pretty secure, too. You could be in a much more compromised situation, for sure. Just lucky that’s the reality for us and in what we do, and I could get back to work.”
WHERE IS THE NO. 9 TEAM, IN TERMS OF PERFORMANCE? WHAT’S THE BIGGEST THING YOU GUYS HAVE BEEN TRYING TO FOCUS ON?
“Well, stage points being one. And I think some of that comes with how you qualify. So yeah, qualifying has been really pour for me for probably six months or more. Unfortunately that trend has continued. I think that’s the big one, for sure. That impacts your pit pick – your pit pick you have to live with throughout the entire race. But yeah, qualifying a little better and stage points. And certainly want to run better in the races, too. I feel like some of the components have been there. Our pit stops have been really good this year. I feel like Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and everybody has called good races. I think it’s really just on me to do a better job and make sure I’m giving those guys the information that they need to make our car better, and then ultimately to go put down a faster lap in qualifying. Just trying to fine tune all of those little pieces. I think the pieces of the puzzle are there and our team has been performing really well in all of the areas that don’t necessarily pertain to me. So I’ve been super pleased with all of that and just trying to push and get a little better on my end to make sure I’m bringing my part to the table.”
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS HAS LED THE MOST LAPS. AT THIS RACE TRACK, HMS IS SO GOOD. IS THERE ANY REASON TO THINK THIS ISN’T A TYPICAL YEAR WHERE ONE OF THE HMS CARS WOULD WIN AT CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY IN THE COCA-COLA 600?
“Yeah, I certainly would like to think so, right? That betters my chances. Yeah, it’s been a really good track for Hendrick Motorsports over the years, even before I was around. I hope that those trends continue. Obviously I think you have to look at more recent history now to gauge where things are, especially since the Next Gen car has been implemented. And then even more recent than that, looking at this season - I feel like the 1.5-mile program has been solid as a whole for Chevrolet, which is a good thing, and also very solid for Hendrick Motorsports, in particular with William (Byron), Kyle (Larson) and Alex (Bowman), as well, before he got hurt. I think that’s been a strong suit, so would love to capitalize on that. I think it’s a place where we can come and run well at. I know one of our cars did the test here a couple of months ago or whenever they had it, so have some notes and information to look back on from that, so that’s always a help coming into the weekend. Just try to put together 600 miles and be around there for those last 100 to have a shot.”
YOU’VE SAID IT’S THE LONGEST RACE OF THE SEASON, BUT IT DOESN’T FEEL THAT WAY TO YOU? IS THAT TRUE WHEN YOU’RE RACING IT.. THAT IT DOESN’T FEEL THAT LONG?
“It really doesn’t. It is a long race, for sure. But I don’t know.. from the driver’s seat, I just feel like a lot of times when you’re running this race – which I feel like I’ve crashed out of quite a few of them. I did last year.. I think I was out before halfway last year. I guess it’s been a couple of years since I’ve finished one. But the couple that I have finished, I just feel like – it might seem a little longer, but you’re just so honed in on what’s going on right now, that next pit stop and just focused on that next task, so it makes it go by pretty fast from the driver’s seat, in my experience. Hopefully that’s the case again. Typically if things are going good, it goes by quicker. If you’re really struggling and having a hard time, it can make it go by slower. Hopefully we’re on the good end of that.”
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO HAVE THE WHOLE HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS’ CAMP BACK FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY?
“Yeah, it’s just nice to be back to normal. I feel like everything at our campus over there has just been a little chaotic in one way or another right - with me getting hurt and just kind of not knowing when I was going to be able to come back and talking through all of that stuff. I feel like everybody over there did a great job handling it and same for Alex’s (Bowman) injury, too. But it’s just extra work, you know, that you don’t want to have to do – more questions to answer and I think a little bit of just a distraction more than anything. But fortunately or unfortunately, we’ve gotten well-versed in this category this year. Hopefully that’s the end of it, at least for this season. The good news is that there’s a lot of racing left. You have the entire summer stretch into early fall before the playoffs start, so plenty of time to get done what you’re going to get done and to figure out how you’re going to run and whether or not you’re going to be a contender or not. Those things don’t just change overnight, so plenty of time to get back on track if that’s what we’re going to do. I certainly feel like we can as a group and as a company and particularly in the No. 9 camp, too.”
YOU HAD A REMARKABLE SEASON LAST YEAR WITH FIVE WINS, BUT WE KIND OF EXPECT YOU TO BE THIS ROAD COURSE WARRIOR ONCE WE GET TO THOSE TYPES OF TRACKS JUST GIVEN YOUR SUCCESS THERE IN THE PAST. DID THE NEW CAR HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH NOT GETTING THE WINS ON THE ROAD COURSES LIKE YOU HAD IN THE PAST?
“No, we talked about this some last year and I feel like I answered this question then, too. I told y’all when we were winning all those road course races that I didn’t feel like I was doing anything special. We had a good package that worked out and it just suited me at the time. I don’t think I did anything special or spectacular. I tried to make sure everyone understood that. I just think as time goes on, everybody gets better and improves. Certainly coming in with a new car, you kind of have to re-baseline on some of those things – those thoughts and ideas that were working for us. You just can’t copy and paste those things, and all the little small details that I feel like we did a good of exceling at. So yeah, it’s just different. It’s definitely different everywhere, but certainly the road courses are no different in that regard.
I guess to answer your question – yes, I would say the new car and all the changes that came along with that, and then combining that with everyone just getting better in the garage, too.”
DID THE CAR FEEL CONSIDERABLY DIFFERENT WHEN YOU WERE AT SONOMA RACEWAY?
“Yeah, the car feels pretty different everywhere that I remember last year. To me, it was a complete departure from anything we had driven in the past in the NASCAR world. It’s just a different animal. The thing is just different, for sure, good or bad. It kind of has its own way now.”
HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO GET BACK INTO A CONDITION WHERE YOU KIND OF FEEL LIKE YOU’RE AT 100 PERCENT?
“Well I think racing is the biggest piece of that puzzle, right? I sat around for six weeks or better there before Martinsville and I was hurting for sure after that. But even when you’re in good shape and you have good weeks of preparation, you can still go through a race weekend and certain events, temperatures or whatever can fatigue you more than others. I think it depends on the weekend. The good news is for Alex (Bowman) and probably me too with still trying to get back in the groove of things – it’s kind of cool here this weekend and obviously the rain coming through can impact that, as well. The summer stretch is going to be tough.. it always is. But Alex is in good shape and he hasn’t really been out that long. It’s only been four weeks, so I think he’s going to be fine. Like I said, he’s in good shape, so I don’t think he’s going to have a problem.”