Richard Petty Motorsports driver takes media questions on his NASCAR Sprint Cup season to date, this weekend's return to Darlington and Osama Bin Laden.
Q. You've been pretty solidly around the top-10 this year. What is needed to take that to the top-5, is it one or two things you can point to?
“Well, I mean, I think there's just certain areas we've got to work on, really including Bristol. We had a top-5 to a top-10 car at some point during the race, every race we've been there. We've qualified up front. We have run up front. The biggest thing for us is we have to get a little more consistent through the races.
“I have to keep cool during the race, try to stay as patient as possible. We have got to start making the right adjustments. We are just missing a little bit. We kind of get off-track and that hurts us.
“For us really we have to work on the mile-and-a-half, two-mile program. I feel like our short track program is really good. I feel like we'll be really good at the road courses, especially with Marcus there. Those types of racetracks, when it comes to mile-and-a-half, two-mile, we have to get an overall racecar starting in practice; so when the track changes we are not right there to where a small little thing kind of kills our racecar and that's kind of what's hurt us really.”
Q. I've got a really off-the-wall question for you: How did you feel about Osama Bin Laden being taken out and your general thoughts on that accomplishment for this country?
“It's a big deal for the country and obviously a lot of his actions that he's done put our country – whether or not it's economy or just heartache or just a lot of stuff that we've had to go through as a country, you know, it's really because of him. It's a big deal and hopefully that's the first step of getting everything back on track to where it used to be.
“I remember when it all happened, I was testing a kart in Sacramento and I didn't – it's like you hear about it and you don't really understand how big of a thing it is until the next couple of days kind of went on, and you really figured out, this is a big deal and this is going to really put a lot of damage on our country. So it's a good step in the right direction, hopefully.”
Q. When you first got to Darlington, what did you think about the track?
“Well, my first time was before they repaved it and, honestly, I thought somebody just completely messed up on the design. It's an insane racetrack. For how narrow it is and how fast we are around there, it's unbelievable.
“And I remember them telling me, ‘You're going to hit the wall when you get there,' but I didn't understand like what it meant to hit the wall every lap. And that was tough to do. But as tough as the place was, it was one of my best qualifying efforts in 2007 and we actually had a solid race until I blew the tire out.
“It's an insane place. I love it. I love the history behind it. I love everything about it. We just need to have a good run there so I don't leave the place hating it. I always go there loving it, I usually leave hating it. So we are going to try a different thing this time.”
Q. Are there any drivers now that you lean on for advice?
“Well, Carl [Edwards] and those [Roush Fenway] guys are fast. I try to talk to those guys to see if I can help. Mark Martin has always been just really nice to me, especially the last few weeks. Ever since I got to NASCAR, he's been probably the guy who has come up to me the most, especially when I was struggling early on in my career in 2007, telling me I was doing a good job.
“I've always just had a huge amount respect for Mark Martin and everything he's accomplished and how kind he's been to me. Especially this year, we seems like we have been next to each other or waiting in the garage next to each other. So I try to ask him as many questions as I can, because he's been around for a while, obviously, and he's never lied to me, so I can just go it up to him and ask him a question and I know he's going to tell me straight up.”
Q. Has Darlington lost a little bit of grip since it's been repaved?
You know, I really liked it [before it was repaved], and you were sliding around and that was a lot of fun to me. I feel like these cars – I'm better on racetracks that get slicker and you slide around a little bit more. I enjoy that a little bit more.
“But since it's been repaved, it's just fast. It's unbelievable, insane how quick it feels, especially in a qualifying run. It is just is crazy fast for how narrow the racetrack is, and to me that's the best way to describe it. The whole racetrack is fast.
“But the last couple of years, it has not lost a ton of grip. I mean, it's lost a little bit of grip from the first time they repaved it, but I felt like over the couple of years that went on, like the track would get a lot slicker. So there's still a ton of grip there.”
Q. You may be sneaking along in the points, an under-the-radar kind of thing, but you're there. Do you feel like your team is under the radar, or do you feel like you're on plan?
Well, I mean, to me, we are still not a solid top-10 team yet. And we definitely have got work to do there. There are certain areas that we have got to work on. I spoke before about the mile-and-a-half and two-mile racetracks, we have to be better throughout the whole race. I'll be the first one to step up and say I've got to work on how we have got to pace these races and just kind of get on with the flow and things like that.
“So the way I look at it is that we are 11th in points, and if you call it under the radar, I'm OK with that. Because we still need to be better to be considered one of those teams that are up there every week fighting to be in the top-10, to be in contention to win races.
“Do I think we have the potential to get there? Definitely. But are we there yet? Not yet. But I look at it as going into the All-Star break that if we are at least in contention of the Chase, we are inside that 20-, 30-point bracket to where we are contending for the Chase spot, we can move on to the second half of the season and keep trying to get better, I would be happy.
“So if we can have two solid breaks here, I think the first goal can be accomplished, and we can look forward to the rest of the season.”
Q. You mentioned pacing. Is it tougher to pace yourself at Darlington, where maybe you've got like another competitor to the wall?
“I think the biggest deal is, it's just so fast and it's so narrow, it's not really about pacing yourself, but you hear that saying where you've got to race the racetrack. And before it was because the tires would go off and you just basically can only go as fast as you can go, and if guys were faster, then so be it.
“But now it's a little bit different because it's not so much about your tires going off, because the tires stay on pretty good. It's just about not making any mistakes and hitting the wall. And you know you're going to scuff the wall, but you can't take that one hard hit where it knocks something in the rear out. You just have to be smart. It's 500 miles of that, of just kind of white knuckle, just trying to be smooth, stay off the wall as much as you can and one little mistake will cost you. So it's tough to pace the whole race there.”
Q. How do you have patience to develop your program when the competition is so tough?
“That's an area I need to get better in, is being patient. But you've just got to keep fighting hard. This year, although the program is getting better, it still has to catch up to Hendrick's. At Roush, although we share a lot of info, we still have to catch up, experience-wise. And, in the meantime, bringing in new sponsors, like we had Nautica on the car this weekend, which was really cool to get them in NASCAR for the first time and had a lot of fun with them.
“With all that said, you just, it's part of the job. That's what you have to do. You take guys like Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin – even when they are having a bad race, they don't do anything else to hurt themselves. And they take a bad race and they just get a decent result out of it, a 15th- or 16th-place finish to where they are running 25th all day.
“So that's the kind of mindset I've had this year. If it's a bad race, you can get frustrated, keep working on it, but don't do anything to hurt yourself and that's what we have done. And obviously that's why we are 11th in points.”
Q. Can you gauge how much the competition has jumped up this year?
“Listening to everybody on the radio throughout a race, it is tough out there. And it is the hardest sport – the hardest racing series I got into in '07 I had ever experienced and it seems like every year it just gets harder and harder.
“Honestly, it's because the competition gets higher. The sponsor money isn't spread as wide, so everybody is fighting to get that sponsorship money and they know that they are fighting for jobs. There are not as many quality rides out there. I think you see the top 25, top 27 guys, everybody is in a quality ride now and it's not that spread out.
“So you get those groups of guys trying to race for the same space – man, it's tough. It's fun to be a part of, though. To be in a series and to know how tough it is every week and to be on your game is an exciting thing as a driver.”
Q. Darlington is kind of an animal unto itself, but is there anything in your open-wheel experience on tracks that's even remotely similar to get you prepared in a way for that?
“Not really. I mean, if you take places like Dover or Bristol and Darlington, they are insane. There's nothing really that I can compare to.
“Obviously, when I was in Champ Car and in open-wheel in general, I was mostly racing on street and road courses. But to have big cars like this on a place built for 135 miles per hour and we are running 180; it's insane but it's fun.”