What are your thoughts about the new restrictor plates and other rule changes in place for the Daytona 500?
“We're learning and growing with all the other teams in the garage area in general trying to get our heads around the rules that are coming along. How I can drive it and be better than the others and how our team can do a better job. I completely understand the position that NASCAR is in and have talked to [NASCAR president] Mike Helton plenty about changes and ways to help keep the speeds down. I have certainly seen the process and respect the decisions that have been made and only time will tell. I think, in general, we'd all like to have no plate on the car, which we all know is impossible, but the biggest plate on there we possibly can. But, the speeds, we know what happens with cars at 195mph or whatever it was Brad [Keselowski] and Carl [Edwards] at Talladega. You add 10-15mph to that, it is going to be even worse. So I understand the process and look forward to getting on track and just knowing what these new rule changes are going to do and how the cars are going to drive.”
Safety is a big topic this week especially with the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death. How safe do you feel in the cars particularly with NASCAR continuing to make adjustments to slow them down and keep them on the track?
“We drivers know that we're in a profession that isn't necessarily safe. To a large degree we have assumed those risks and our families have as well. We've come to grips with that decision a long time ago. But, all that being said, in 2001 what went on and the five drivers who we lost, including Dale Sr., turned the world around for us and has increased the threshold multiple times. I don't even know what the number is, but to see the impacts with the data recorders on the cars and have drivers not lose consciousness; not break bones; walk away, it is amazing where we are today.
“Hopefully we keep an open eye on the small details that are left. There are weird angles on walls at tracks. I think grass is another area of focus. Fire is always an area and, fortunately, we haven't seen anything like that. So we seem to have done a really good job as a sport to beat that problem before there really was one, at least in my era. I know back in the early days it was probably different. I think intrusion is an area of focus that NASCAR is looking at in the next step for us as well.”
Do you like tandem racing and do you think that is good for NASCAR to display that in its showcase event?
“I don't think that it is fair to say NASCAR ‘displayed' that, because no one knew this was going to happen from the sanctioning body side. We as teams and drivers knew at Talladega we could stay together for awhile. We all went home and worked hard within the rules to do it longer. I don't think anybody anticipated it turning into this. Even at the test session, maybe the track was too green and dirty – but all the reports I had from the first test session when Goodyear brought the tire test here was you can't do it, don't expect to do it. Well, we come back for the open test and here we all are linked up and going, so it is evolving and moving.
“Is it good or bad? I don't know. I've watched some of the clips and talked to a lot of people. Some find it interesting to see all the passes that took place and the fact that we aren't riding in a big blob and you can't advance. Others like the big blob of cars and say this wasn't all that exciting. So, I don't where it nets out for me as a driver. I can say it was fun and interesting because there was something new. It was fun for the guys in the Shootout to try and find something before your competitors did. At the end of the day, Kurt Busch did the best job, figured it out and won the race. To be in that space of finding something new…especially at these plate tracks where the rules are the rules; the draft has been the draft. To have something new to focus on was fun for us in the cars.”
Your teammate Dale. Jr., Denny Hamlin and a few others felt like they should have gone the other way – made the hole larger so it would have been tougher for you guys to get out there in a two-car tandem. Have you got any indication to believe that is true?
“I've talked to Junior in detail about it and that's what he felt like would be a good fix and I guess at the Goodyear tire test, there was a larger plate on the cars and it was more difficult to stay together and guys couldn't do it. My only counter to that is at 204 or whatever my lap time was – I know 206mph was the big number – I've not been in a position to lose control of my car yet, so I am not convinced that a few more miles an hour is going to change that. I think all we are doing is having the potential of getting more speed in the car and a bigger issue for liftoff. With the position we're in as a sport, with a couple of practice sessions, a race, then the 500, I don't think we have a lot of time to experiment and try stuff.
“I think we all felt like a smaller plate was coming and understand why so I am not saying I have a problem with the direction it is going. I think everybody would love to see the plates off the cars. It is that necessary evil that we talk about every time we go to a plate track. NASCAR was trying to do everything they could to not go down on plate but they are kind of at that point. At least for the Duels and see what happens through it. I believe they are in a position where they would like to make a big change and then, if they can give us something back for the 500, they will. So I know that this pop-off valve for the water pressure in the engine system and the cooling system, that is going to change the game. That valve opens up, you are losing water, so go ahead and push as long as you want, you're not going to last long.”
You won the 500 here in '06, but the last three years, your finishes haven't been strong. What is it that you need to turn things around?
“In the plate stuff in '06, I had a really good understanding on how to drive the old car; where to position myself and how to really defend once I got to the lead. I don't feel like I'm doing the best job with plate racing and the way the CoT drives. Couple of things lead to that: One, we've really tried to make sure we are learning for the Talladega Chase race, so I've not been in position in a lot of plate races to race for the win and defend. It has been trying to understand how to be in the right spot and avoid the problems and then go like crazy to get to the front at the end. The other side to it is, if you look at those races, we've been caught up in wrecks late in the race each time. That is what reflects those poor finishes. I guess last year I felt like we were in a position to win, we were right there in the thick of things with the leaders and with [Jamie] McMurray obviously cycled out to win and we were caught up in a wreck. So I think our finishes would have been better than what the results show.”
Does that speak to your great success in the Chase, because you are thinking Chase when the season starts?
“Yeah, it does. Sometimes we feel like we make good decisions for plate tracks. Other times it is so tough to tell because, quite frankly, there is a lot of luck involved in missing the big wrecks and being in the right line and having the right guy pushing, whatever it may be. So, there is skill that is involved, but it can be superseded with luck at any point on a plate track.”
Phoenix has announced that they are going to reconfigure that track, change some things on pit road, change some things on the front stretch and dogleg as well. What was your reaction when you heard about that and what do you think about the changes they are planning?
“Definitely disappointed that they needed to resurface the track. I understand that at some point all tracks need it and they are at that point. We love the tracks that are worn out and on the verge of needing to be resurfaced. I think we put on our best races there. So, disappointed to hear it go – but Phoenix has done a good job in speaking with drivers, trying to understand the track from a safety standpoint and to make sure that we don't have single-file racing starting at the first race after the repave. I've been in talks with Phoenix and the crew that is working on the track and I feel good about things and where they are going with it. If we don't like it, which sounds like the chances are low, in time it will come back, just like a lot of the other tracks.”
From what you've seen, where do you want to be coming off Turn 4 the final lap?
“I still think leading is not the position you want to be in to win the Daytona 500 or at Talladega. We will be able to push for some period of time. Even if the cars overheat in a very short period of time for the win as you come off of (Turn) 2 or (Turn) 4, you'll find a way to get connected and try to separate yourselves and just run until the engine blows, whatever that threshold is. So as long as the push is in effect, the guy pushing has the advantage.
“Kurt (Busch) showed us all something in the Shootout – that a second group coming up has a fair shot as well as the leaders. I would say you either want to be second or third; that's really the payoff position as of now. When we had the old cars and the way we would be single file and we couldn't connect the bumpers, leading was a pretty good position to be in. It took a lot of work from second place of dragging the break to get to third, get a bump-draft, to get the momentum to try to make a move. And it took lap after lap after lap just setting that up. If the leader was smart he could just ride the brake and control that energy and never allow a pass to happen. Those days are gone. We can't do that now. As you drag the brake to stop the energy from taking place, the guy just picks you up and pushes you and off you go. So it's just a different game.”
In regard to the yellow-line rule, do you ever feel like you're in an unfair position, having to make that decision, if somebody can force you below the yellow line, you either go and get demoted or end up in a wreck?
“The time I feel it's unfair is mid-race when you're not willing to knock the right side off your car and somebody is coming, coming, coming and you're left with the decision and I don't want the fender pushed in and don't want the side of my car caved in, I'll go out of bounds, let off, let the pack go by and get back in line. That's the time where it's kind of unfair. Coming to the finish, there has to be a boundary line at some point. So, at that point, I'm willing to knock the fenders in and have some contact but, mid-race, I've been forced out of bounds a few times or chosen to not hold my line because I didn't want to damage my car and then I'm below the yellow line I have to let off and you can't get back in line. Before you join the field you're 25th or something. That part isn't a lot of fun. I don't know how you police it any differently. There is an argument from off of 4 to the start/finish line, have at it – but I don't know if that's really an option.”
Would you like to see them do away with the yellow-line rule on the last part of the last lap?
“In some ways I think the potential is there for an even bigger wreck, because now if you're the leader you're going to go to the inside to the lowest line to prevent somebody from trying to shoot up the inside. So now, if I'm the leader I'm going straight to the grass. I don't know if it really changes a lot. I see that there can be some contact and some guys really blocking, now you push the car off in the grass, he's going to come back out of control across traffic and that can be another issue. At least now when you get shoved out, you're shoved on the apron and you can still control your car. Where if the apron was the track and the grass was out of bounds, if you get shoved out you are out of control when coming back up into traffic. If that makes any sense.”
If you're in the lead pair or there are cars around you and you need to swap position, how are you going to go low if there are other cars around or go high and complete the pass and switch positions without letting those other cars interfere with your air?
“Yeah, that's really the interesting part and I think the part that will keep the race entertaining and exciting. You can try to get air in the nose by sticking your fender out on the other side then try to get some air around and into the car to try to cool it down, but I think it's impossible to say that guys are always going to change or switch at the same time. So someone's car is cooling a little better, someone got connected a lap later or a half lap later, whatever it may be, that change right now is the equalizer, I think.
“The Shootout, we didn't have to change all that much; in testing and practice we did a lot of changeovers and in those changeovers, two or three times we had done our changeover and were coming and the group in front of us were trying to do it and they weren't organized yet and we caught them at a bad time and there was nowhere to go. As we caught them, our group broke apart because the racetrack was kind of full and we didn't have anywhere to go. So that is a tricky part to it and the closure rate of guys coming that could potentially cause some wrecks. The pushing car can't see unless the spotter is doing a real good job of describing what's up in front – you can push the car you are up against right off into guys who are running side by side trying to cross over.
“That's what was so interesting from our standpoint in the cars, was all this new stuff and we would make our switch, connect, then here's a group that was disconnected. It was all this new stuff to try and that's why it was fun for us in the seats. Then trying to strategize: ‘OK, if we can stay together half a lap longer or a lap longer over the period of time we'll do less changes than anyone else.' That's why the teams are working so hard on the cooling. Then we as drivers worked real hard in the test sessions to minimize the amount of time it took for a changeover. We were doing that down here at the test session and were timing our laps and really got our lap time down about a second and a half on how we re-attached and got going again. Just trying to find something that we could stack up over a period of time.
“So, it's been fun for us. That's why you see drivers kind of enjoying it I would say. I think that's what I've heard. I'm not sure and could be totally wrong, everybody is in here saying they hate it. The guys in the Shootout, I thought, enjoyed it because there's a new element of racing that's involved.”