You smelled victory last week and you're coming to a place where you've experienced it many times…what is your outlook for Martinsville?
“I'm just excited to come back to the track where we run so well at. When I look at the last two weeks and the fact that we were in the hunt for both wins says a lot about the team and the progress we're making. I'm excited about where we're at. I wish we had two wins under our belt right now and we're talking about a hopeful third this weekend, but we've climbed up a lot in the points.
“That's really one of our first goals after Daytona and then we had some troubles there at Vegas and it just looks so daunting there in the points when you drop a lot; with the new points system, it's tough to make it up. I've very happy to be up in the top five and hopefully we can get some distance between us and 10th as time goes on here. We've been decent here the last couple of times. We need to be a little bit better to have a shot at winning and we're looking forward to doing that.”
One of the fascinating aspects of short-track racing is there seem to be one or two drivers over a period of time seem to master the track. Can you give any insight as to why what seems to be the opposite of the logical is the truth?
“Yeah, that's a good question. I think that it really boils down to the mental status of the driver. When you come to a track where you have a lot of success and you have a good car and a good baseline, it's easier to control emotions that you can work your way forward, you can pass people, and it's the setup you're looking for. And I think that works into a driver's favor during a race.
“I know when I come here, and if we don't qualify well, don't be in a big hurry. It's a long race. I know that I'll work my way into the top five. I know I can come down pit road and pick up some spots. So you're just a little bit more relaxed. At tracks where you struggle at, once you get track position or if you have track position at the start of the race, you're just defending and maybe in a different place mentally and chopping people, rubbing on people, and creating some issues that then lead to some DNFs.
“So I think a lot of it has to do with the mental status of it. Guys that like certain tracks typically can find a way by without making enemies; and then you're usually not in a position to defend and to make enemies then, as well.”
In your career, you've never been longer than 19 races without a win. You're at 13 now. Given the fact that you're so used to winning, do you get antsy when you get up to 10 or 12 races without going to victory lane?
“No, I don't think about it much, to be honest with you. Wins are all so special, even though we have 53 of them; every one of them is very special to me. So I don't really think of stretches. I do know that you get to a certain point where the questions start coming up and I think it's kind of funny that when it's 13, people have some concern that it's a long stretch.
“We've done a great job to put ourselves in that position, so I've got to look at the positive. But I feel like we're knocking on the door, so regardless of what the outcome is on Sunday, the last two weeks we've been a threat for the win. And if you're in that position consistently enough, you'll get your victories. I've always believed that.”
How tough is this place on rookies? In your mind, what would be a realistic good finish for a cup driver at Martinsville for the very first time?
“It is tough. And I truthfully believe it's very tough to be a rookie today, period, without testing. I had the luxury to come up here and test; I think we tested twice in my rookie year. First race I was terrible; second race I did a better job. The testing helped speed up that curve.
“In today's world, if it's a track that doesn't fit a team or a driver, it takes a long time. I mean, it really does. So I think staying on the lead lap is a good goal for a rookie coming here and staying out of trouble. It kind of fits into that same thing; and I try not to rule out any rookies because when we see Trevor [Bayne] winning the Daytona 500 – no one would have bet on that. So just because certain tracks and trends don't show that they're good for rookies, it doesn't mean that it can't happen.”
You are only going to run two laps tomorrow for qualifying. Is that almost a wasted day?
“Yeah, it's wild to only run two laps tomorrow. I don't know why we're experimenting with this type of schedule because the guys are still here. At the end of the day it doesn't matter, in my opinion, what the drivers are really after. I guess the fans are first and foremost. But the next one in line I would say would be the mechanics and crews working on these cars. And they have a bear of a day on Fridays with this type of schedule and then an OK day tomorrow, a pretty light day, for just two laps.
“So, it's just weird. You'd rather spread that workload out over the two days and take care of your crew guys. I don't know why or how, but if it does help the fans, then we'll take it.
A lot of people think you just beat and bang around this track and then it's over. Do you know why you're so good here?
“Quirky tracks have always worked for me. And this track certainly is that. When I first came here, the first year or year and a half, there was no way I thought this track would be one that I liked. But in time, and in learning how to drive it, there is just one way to really get around here. And a lot of tracks have a lot of other options but there's one very specific line you have to run and when a guy finds it, and he can set his car up to it, you go and go and go for years.
“That's what Denny (Hamlin) has been able to do and what we've been able to do and Jeff (Gordon) has done. So I really think it falls into that category. You go to a big track and there are three or four lanes to run on, you can move around and find somewhere that works for your setup if you missed it and for your own driving style. That's not the case here. There's one way to drive this place and that's it.”
Could you talk about the importance of being physically fit for this sport and the difference between physical stamina in the car compared with mental toughness during a race?
“The physical side is important and, especially as these teams make the cars more durable; the tracks are faster, the speeds are higher, tires produce more grip and last longer, it just puts more of a demand on drivers. We have a long schedule. It requires being fit year-'round. You have to stay on top of things.
“To me, the physical toughness comes hand in hand with mental toughness. If you really are pushing yourself physically, you learn a lot about your mental toughness and how to push through pain and different situations. So that helps. How you deal with pressure is a separate aspect, I believe. You don't know what you're made of until you're really challenged. That's something about myself that I've been surprised with. It's just something that you work your way through.”