Have you and Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) had conversations about whether you’re going to try to flip the stages or stay out and try to get points, especially with how chaotic the final stage was last year?
“For sure. I think the strategy has been a big topic this week. Switching back to the stage breaks, I think that’s going to bring in a new element and we’ve got to see what this tire wear is like with this tire at this race track. Definitely some questions on that, but I know that our goal is just to obviously win the race, and then if we can get a stage win or two, would be nice. You’re really looking at a 40-point day as a max here.”
You’ve had success at Atlanta (Motor Speedway). With Atlanta being added to the playoffs next year, do you kind of embrace the unpredictability of the first round, or is that something you feel a little tenuous about?
“Yeah, definitely nervous about it. I’ve won two races there and I’ve crashed out the other two. So it’s very hit-or-miss and hopefully next year we can have two good races. Obviously there will be more emphasis going into those races next year. This year when you went to Atlanta (Motor Speedway), it was a great chance to get some points, but not really planning outside of that. It definitely throws a wrench into the playoff format. I think that having two road courses as well, it’s going to really put an emphasis on, to me, the special teams races of our season. Road courses have typically been kind of an afterthought outside of this track, the ROVAL. I think it’s going to put an emphasis on those and obviously an emphasis on being good at Atlanta, which we already are, but we need to limit those DNF’s.”
To your point that there’s no pressure on the line for qualifying, sometimes you can qualify better because for some reason with the stress relieved just a little bit? What makes qualifying here hard?
“For us, it’s definitely going to be less stress. But once we get to the race track, we’re trying to win the race, so it’ll be stressful because of that. Qualifying here is tough because you can lock-up tires and miss corners. There’s a lot of shifting, so it’s tough to get it all right. I feel like you can hit 90 percent of the track right and miss 10 percent, and that can be worth two or three-tenths. Last year, I looked at my qualifying and I qualified second here. I just missed a little bit in (corners) seven, eight and nine, the back chicane, and that was worth two-and-a-half tenths. Had a great lap going up until that point. It’s definitely a tough place.”
Having won at Texas Motor Speedway, how much confidence does that give you going into Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which could be the pivotal race in the next round?
“Yeah, it’s definitely the pivotal race because as we’ve seen – if you can win that race and advance, you give yourself a good chance to prepare for Phoenix (Raceway). So with winning Texas (Motor Speedway), we’ve given ourselves a couple of weeks to prepare for Las Vegas (Motor Speedway). I feel like all of that stuff has checked-out pretty good. I think our setup is strong there. We’ve made some good decisions and we’ve had time to really decide; go to the simulator and figure out what we want to race there. We’ll get a chance to make sure we’re on the right track when we run this week and kind of run through our teammates’ setups, but so far so good there. The history there has been good for us with winning the race there earlier this year. It would be great to win there just because you won’t have to stress near as much.”
Paul Wolfe said that was ‘the’ race because, as you said, you’ll have plenty of time to prepare for Phoenix Raceway. Is there somebody who’s like a (Joey) Logano that’s waiting in the weeds that could just pull out that win and advance that we might not be thinking of?
“I don’t know – I’m not really worried too much about the other people in the playoffs. I think for us, it’s just trying to focus on what we do best. I’m not trying to rank guys or try to figure out who’s got what. But we’ll certainly see when everyone unloads off the truck at Las Vegas (Motor Speedway); what they have and you kind of adjust from there. Typically, you can see with lap averages and then it’s all about pit crew execution and driver execution. Unloading fast off the truck with good balance is one of the three, and then I think you really test the race team to figure out the other two – how the driver contributes and how the pit crew contributes.
Last year was very unpredictable. I feel like this year, it’s a little more set and stone with who’s fast, but I would say any of the eight that make it are probably well qualified to win there.”
When you look at that next round, not only Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but also Homestead-Miami Speedway and Martinsville Speedway – those three tracks, you’ve had success on and been pretty consistently fast on. How are you feeling entering the Round of Eight?
“I would say, good. I would say the best about the beginning of the round because we obviously had a dominate race there (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) – scored max points in the spring and we were a top-two car.. us and the No. 5 (Kyle Larson). And then I think as the round trickles down, I think the end of the round, I’m a little more apprehensive about because of how we ran in the spring at Martinsville (Speedway). We had an issue there with the clutch, but we were not super competitive there. We were great in practice, but not in the race. I feel confident at all of the tracks, but I would say less confident as the round goes. So hopefully over the course of the next two or three weeks, I can kind of gain some confidence and gain some certainty in what we have there. I would say Vegas and Homestead are definitely really good tracks for us.”
When you look at how you guys have ran and kind of assuming that you’re going to run well – looking at the fact that you’ve got all of these bonus points and you’re going to have a little bit more of a safety net than some other guys.. is your path to Phoenix Raceway and the Championship Four relatively straightforward in your mind?
“It’s definitely us against ourselves. I feel like it’s us executing races. It’s us putting together good performances.. top-five performances that we know that we’re capable of. But yeah, with that being said, the points are really close.
Yeah, to be honest with you, I haven’t really looked a lot past Las Vegas. I think, honestly, I’ve thought a lot about this weekend right now. And then Vegas has really been a focus for us and then we’ve got a little bit of Homestead trickling in as we get prepared for that. It’s really hard with this deal to really not just think week-to-week.”
Anytime you get to a cut-off race, there’s going to be some aggressive drivers that need to race their way in or point their way in. In any point of the race, are you concerned that their aggression level may be up and that it could take out somebody that’s not even involved in the situation?
“No.. I mean I just match the aggression. I’m just going out there to race and try to win. If they try to move me, they’ll probably get it back.”
Looking ahead to next year, there will be two road courses in the playoffs. How do you feel about that?
“You know, I think selfishly for us, those road courses have been good for us. I’m kind of excited to see Watkins Glen (International) in there after this year, and I think that will translate into next year.
But yeah, I mean I think it’s definitely different. I feel like road courses have been important for us for awhile and they’re just gaining more and more importance as we get them later in the season. There was talk about this going back to the oval. Having another ROVAL I think will just put more importance on your road course programs.”
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