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 (Richard Childress Racing), 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’ve done well.”
With all of your success at Phoenix, is it safe to say it’s your favorite racetrack?
“Results-wise, I would say yes. Phoenix has always been a good racetrack for me. Growing up on the West Coast, that was really the facility that you wanted to win at the most because we always had our biggest Southwest Tour races there. And in the Winston West Series, they actually had provisionals that would get you into the Cup Series race at that particular time, so you had a lot of Winston West guys who would go over and try to participate in the Cup race. I’ve been able to race in front of fans that I started racing in front of in 1994. I’ve been there through reconfigurations and grandstands moved around and start-finish lines moved, but Phoenix has always been a successful spot for us. And I’m fortunate for that because as a kid I dreamed of going there and winning Late Model races, and then you’re coming back and winning Cup races. So it’s fun to be able to live out a lot of those childhood dreams, and I also remember that while I’ve been successful at Phoenix, it really didn’t start that way. I crashed a lot of cars and Trucks there leading up to finally being successful at that particular racetrack. I think I wrecked in ’94 and ’95, in ’96 we didn’t race, ’97 we did OK, ’98 was OK, and we always just kind of did OK with everything that we had.”
Twenty straight top-10 finishes at Phoenix. How have you been able to be so dominant?
“We’ve probably dominated Phoenix because we spent so much time there learning and tearing stuff up and doing the things you’re not supposed to do at the racetrack. But flat tracks, in general, have always been pretty good for us, just because of the fact that I grew up on so many flat tracks. I’ve spent a lot of time at Phoenix. I know the configuration has changed over the years, but it’s a big part of why the flat-track results have been so good throughout the years because it’s a racetrack that I spent a lot of time on growing up in the early part of my career. It’s a racetrack that we put a lot of emphasis on throughout the years because of the fact that we felt like some of our best racetracks were the flat tracks, and Phoenix was one of those. And for me, it was always kind of a sense of pride to go there and run well because I know I have a lot of fans and friends that come to that racetrack. It’s always fun to tell war stories about Phoenix and the things that you did wrong after you’ve won a race in modern time.”
One of those fans who would come to Phoenix to watch you race was your grandfather. Talk about that.
“My grandpa and my uncle would always go to Phoenix every year to watch the Cup race. When I started racing there, I guess 1994 was the first time, my grandpa would go there three weeks early, and he’d drive his motorhome there and he’d park it right in the same spot. He’d be in the very corner next to the chain-link fence on the exit of what would’ve been turn two at that particular time before they flipped the racetrack. You used to come over the racetrack – there was no tunnel or anything to drive through – so you had to sit out there while they were waiting for practice to end or they cleared everybody to open the garage. I drove the truck and trailer, and every time I’d get there, my grandpa would be smoking a cigarette, leaning against the chain-link fence, waiting for me to drive in and race. I knew if I didn’t go over and talk to my grandpa, he’d yell obnoxiously loud until I came over there, and he knew exactly when I was going to get there, when I was going to drive by, what time the garage opened, whatever it was, you were not escaping Grandpa. While he was alive, he was always the first one there and the first one you’d see every time you drove in.”
Phoenix marks your final race as a NASCAR Cup Series driver. What’s it like to leave while still at the top of your game?
“That’s really one of the things I’m most proud of. Somebody asked me when did I ever feel like I’ve made it. This is really the only time that I’ve ever felt like I’ve made it because I got to choose how I ended it. I know that that’s rare, and as you look at it, I got to plan my last year and say this was it, and then we were still competitive, and then we went out and did what we were supposed to do. It’s really the first time I felt comfortable saying that I’ve made it.”
You’ve had a tremendous career, but was there ever a moment in the early part of your career where you felt vulnerable?
“As a racer trying to progress through the ranks, you’re always on edge. You take a certain responsibility of making the car perform. The car needs to perform, and if it doesn’t perform, you need to survive. Making something out of a day, consistently, is a must, and going back to the shop to try to solve a problem with the guys is also absolutely necessary. I went from a family-owned race team to stepping out of that saying if I wanted to succeed at this, I needed to go to the next step, to go to work with Wayne and Connie Spears as a mechanic hoping they would give me the shot to drive. That was 1996, and that didn’t go over well from the family side of things. And then you go to the Spears organization, and then you get the next opportunity, and being able to say this is what I need to do and make the hard decision to move forward, those are just yearly decisions, because if you sit and you’re content with everything – and I tell my guys this today, you either evolve or die in this particular sport, and if you’re not willing to evolve and change and make the hard decisions, then you’re just going to get stuck. Fortunately, we had the guts to go and keep making those decisions and wound up where we did at RCR. And I think in 2000, the pivotal moment was probably winning that (Xfinity) race in St. Louis because I’d torn up a few cars up until that point and I had to sit down in the boss’s office and have him tell me that I needed to quit wrecking stuff, and when Richard tells you that, you know that you need to get your stuff together and you need to start finishing races, and we went out the next week and won. There’s just a lot that you have to do to continue to grow and evolve and keep track of. And I think, for me, that’s really the part, at the point of saying, ‘OK, I’m done,’ of just letting go of that competitive mindset because it consumes so much of my mental capacity to go and make those decisions and be willing to have the hard conversations, and think a year in advance or six months in advance or two years in advance, or this situation pops up and then you have to address this. And it’s just like, man, there’s a lot that goes into it to be able to stay competitive and keep progressing and doing the things that you need to do. It just takes a lot of mental capacity and time to do it right.”
When racing becomes a job, what changes?
“That’s the part that’s tough. When you become a professional racecar driver, it becomes work and it becomes a business, and in order to do it well, you can’t think about a lot of other stuff. You have to be able to compartmentalize everything and you have to be very strategic in the things that you say and the things that you do. It’s a 24-7 mindset in order to be good at it because, in order to be good at it, you need to have your hands kind of in everything that’s going on in order to have a pulse on when it’s good, and before it gets bad, you need to address it. That could be competition, that could be sponsors, that could be a performance flaw, it could be personnel, it could be anything. When you’re in the middle of all this, you just never know what’s going to be on the other end of that phone call that’s coming in, or what’s on the other side of that e-mail from whoever it is in the topic line. It’s something that you just learn to deal with, but not like a robot, because I have enjoyed what I do. I like the grind. I like to beat you. I don’t like getting beat. I like being with my guys and the week-to-week battle and the challenge of the setups and all the things that come with that. But in order to do that well, you have to be very ingrained in it, and you also have to put these barriers up to not let people know too much about you. This year, I haven’t had to do that, so it’s been fun.”
Was there ever a day this year when, among all the tributes, you finally felt like you made it?
“Gosh, that’s a tough question because I’ve always felt like, and I still tell my guys this today, it’s evolve or die. If you want to be successful at this, you have to evolve with it, and whether that’s a car or a tire or a team or a racetrack or a dirt track or a road course, there are just so many things that make up this evolution of trying to make yourself better. I’ve never let myself get too comfortable and thinking that I didn’t need to get better or not do something because I didn’t have to. But I also think that’s what’s kept us relevant for so long. I’ve just never felt comfortable that you were going to be here forever, and to be able to sit in this chair and say I’m going quit at the end of this year and I’m going to do it this way, for me, there is some sort of closure to that, to be able to say, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do for the last year, and when I get to this day, it’s over.’ There are just not too many who get to go out on their terms, and I think being able to do that, that’ll probably be the first time that I say I’ve actually made it because I got to end it. Everything else in-between, there’s always somebody who wants your job, there’s always somebody who wants to beat you, there’s always somebody who is probably better at something than what you do, and you’re always having to go try and recreate yourself in order to keep yourself relevant. Just like with this new car, you had to recreate your driving style in order to be competitive and do the things that you needed to do to learn a new car and learn all the things that come with it. It’s always something, and it’s been that way for my whole career – there’s always new cars, there’s always new tires, there’s always new rules, there’s going to be different racetracks, there’s always something that you just have to get better at. For me, and my wife will tell you, I’m always worried about this: did we do good enough, or how do we get better? Because that’s just what we do. I think if you’re comfortable enough to say we’ve made it, then your career expectancy is pretty short. The end is near, in my opinion.”
How has this year been in compartmentalizing all that you’ve done with all that you still want to do on the racetrack?
“This year has been very productive for me from just trying to grasp, really, what my career has been. It’s been fun to hear the fans tell their stories, and people showing up at racetracks they’ve never been to before to see you race for the last time and telling you why. And when you take that all into perspective this year, it’s been fun because I can let my guard down and listen to all these stories and tell stories and be a part of these videos and conversations and feel OK about it. There’s no reason to hide from it. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great career and win a lot of races and go out on my own terms, but it has been a ride. And you look back – they showed me a picture of me, I think when I was 7 or 8 years old in my leather go-kart jacket and sitting in my go-kart and they asked, ‘What would this Kevin tell the Kevin of today?’ And I’m like, I have no idea because that Kevin was having way too much fun and didn’t give a crap about what all the things that come with this means when it becomes a job. But I think being able to, as a kid, riding around in your backyard on your Big Wheel and talking about winning the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500 or winning a race or whatever that is out there in fantasyland, being able to actually live out the things you’ve dreamed about as a kid is something that I’m very lucky to have. There’s no reason to hide it anymore. Be proud of being fortunate and successful and, this year, all the people have been the ones to bring that out.”
Has anything about this final season surprised you?
“The surprise to me has been just how much I’ve actually enjoyed it. Knowing that you announced your retirement before the season started, and then worked through the season and were competitive, and now here we are at the end of the season, and I know how excited I am for everything that I have going on in the future. We’ve been working on restructuring companies and starting new companies, so it’s been a lot of work, but now we’re at the point where you’re starting to see all the plans start to transition into what’s going to happen next. That would be no different if I was still going to race next year – the planning would have already started for next year as we go forward – but I’ve really enjoyed the celebration of the last season because of the fact that, in the years past, you’re always so closed-minded to hearing people’s stories or talking about the things that you’ve done. And I think for me, personally, I get so embedded into the day-to-day grind of the process that you lose sight of the impact you have on people. And the impact that you have on people’s daily lives are the things that you do on Sunday, or the things that you say during the week, or the things that you post on social media. And for me, it’s been fun to hear the stories of people who grew up and watched me win my first race at Atlanta and now they’re bringing their kids to the racetrack, or somebody who was struggling through COVID to make it on a day-to-day basis and would turn on the races on the weekends and get their mind off of things. You hear so many of those types of stories and, to me, that has been a lot of fun because you realize the impact that you have on people. In the past, I really hadn’t been as open-minded to wanting to take all of that in. This year, whether it’s a celebration of the success that you’ve had at a racetrack, or hearing the fans’ stories, or bringing your kids to the racetrack and letting them see the #4EVER signs on the turn-four walls, or the banners and murals and different things that have been at each particular racetrack, it’s been fun for us as a family.”
You seem very much at peace with Phoenix being your last race. Are you?
“For me, going into this year knowing that you could just let your guard down, to where it didn’t matter if somebody saw you having fun, it didn’t matter if somebody saw you hugging your daughter, it didn’t matter if somebody saw you giving your son a high-five. It’s been fun to go out and compete and not be this really uptight, ‘I’m going to knock you out’ type of personality and instead be able to just let that guard down and go out and race hard and not have to worry about the show as much as you have in the past.”