Is it true that bonus points leading into the Chase really are not that important? Yes, you have an initial advantage over the competition, but you go right back to racing for points like you did for the first 26 races of the season when the Chase begins…
“They are, as you pointed out, important and you'd rather have them. If you can get up to 50-80 points, I think you can see where that would change things or make things very interesting in Homestead over the last couple of years. I always think back to, I guess it was '04, where we lost this thing by eight points, so I don't think we've seen an example of how important the bonus points are yet. There could be a larger number given; more bonus points make a bigger impact on things. It just hasn't shown its face yet.”
Jeff Gordon said that the Michigan win solidified Kevin Harvick as the favorite for the championship. Do you agree with that?
“Well, first of all, I do think that those guys should be considered the favorites. If you look at their success on all types of tracks, the 29 is doing a great job collecting a lot of points everywhere we go. I know for a lot of people the win at Michigan solidified things for them, but to us in the garage area and watching the points total, it's all about collecting points – you don't have to win a race in the Chase to be the champion.
"They're on fire right now; they're doing a great job. In racing with Kevin over the years and being around him, I've always known that this is the most important thing to him. I think a lot of us were shocked to see the last few years, the way things have been for them. You don't win a Busch/Nationwide championship by accident; you don't win the big races that he's won by accident. He has the talent, the team does and they have it all on the line right now and they're doing a great job. We're definitely working hard to catch those guys.”
There's been a lot of talk about teams that are basically in the Chase doing a lot of experimenting this summer with setups, geometry, saving cars for the Chase, etc. How much have you guys been involved in working for the Chase with different approaches over the past couple of months?
“We've definitely been working on things. Our program from a mile-and-below and at the road courses this year have been really strong. We're very pleased with our performance at Phoenix although we didn't win, we looked at New Hampshire, we looked at Dover, we won here [at Bristol]; so we feel good about that stuff. We've been off on the mile-and-a-half and two-mile tracks.
"Even at the start of the year when I won a few, I wasn't the dominant car. If you look at California, the 29 was coming and got into the fence and we won. Vegas, we had a solid performance, but the 24 dominated all day and we got him at the end with some tire strategy. We knew then that we needed to go to work and find some speed and we've been working all summer on the big tracks to find it. Not where we want to be yet, but fortunately we still have some time. I know the Chase starts in a month's time, but before we get to a mile-and-a-half track in the Chase that counts, we have a little bit more time than that.
"We made some decisions recently on what type of car we want to run, what packages we want to run, and we're committed to our direction at this point moving forward. Hopefully we have the speed that we need within that; if we get to Atlanta and see that we don't have the speed—and Atlanta hasn't been our best track for us with the COT – but once we get in the Chase I'm not sure what our first mile-and-a-half track is, if we get there and we don't run like we need to, we'll step back and punt. Right now we're making decisions on what we're going to take into the Chase and do everything we can with that.”In 2009 at this point in the season you were 303 points back, 2008 you were 302 points back, 2007 you were 512 back and now you're 386 back – have you got them exactly where you want them?
“I'm happy the numbers stacked up that way; I'll sleep a little better tonight! I've been going through my mindset over the last few years and how things have been leaving Michigan going into Richmond, for that matter. Last year, we left Richmond and in my mind I thought we were in big, big trouble for the Chase. I just didn't think we had the speed. We ran terrible at Richmond, I was frustrated and angry and just mad. What I keep telling myself is that those 10 races in the Chase, it is its own world. The people act and react differently under pressure; including us and, for the last four years, we have done a great job in that environment"
With the double-file restarts, how will your philosophy change in the Chase? Will you go at them a little more conservatively, or will you go after them all like a green-white-checkered finish?
"I'm not where I want to be, I think we need to be faster on the mile-and-a-half and two-mile tracks, but I also know that we respond well to pressure and that we have good tracks in the Chase for us. We also have some time, although we don't get to test on those mile-and-a-half tracks, but we have some time to find what we need. I think we've done that over the last few years. We've entered the Chase hot, we've entered it cold, and either way we've found a way to come out on top. It gives us confidence knowing that we have it in us.
“Yeah there are a couple aspects to the double-file restarts. The first part of it is, you spend the majority of the race worrying about long runs and to have a car that is kind of fast on the long runs means that it's going to be very uncomfortable on the short runs. When you start two by two, you need a comfortable car to make stuff happen and not lose spots. You're left with the question, 'Do I sacrifice the long run for consistency on the short run and track position?' Then you get to the end of the race and we seem to have a lot of cautions, and your entire strategy changes. It's really tough to get a car to respond well for the short run and be good on the long run – we fight that week-in and week-out. It has changed the way we work on the track; I think it has made it very exciting for the fans, but it has changed the game for us in the cars.”
Jeff Gordon said that he'd be just fine with winning a Cup championship without winning a race. How would you feel if you lost your championship to Jeff or to anybody else who hadn't even won a race?
“Man, if you score the most points, you score the most points. I think it's easy to take shots at someone if that did happen. A lot of comments would come out, but at the end of the day, the rules are there and you won the championship the way the rules allow it. I think for the guy who does do that, you don't care. You won it. It's whatever it takes to win the championship and we all have that mentality. It wouldn't stop some cheap shots flying around from people; but when you're sitting there staring at that trophy and that big check they give you, you really don't care what people say.”
In the spring race here at Bristol, you and Kurt Busch basically went at it the entire race, and at the end after you got the win, he said that he'd rather get beat by any driver other than you. You guys have had your run-ins throughout the year since then; coming back to this track under the lights with the position where you're at in points, where it doesn't really matter – you guys are going for the wins. If he's in your rearview mirror, do you need to think twice about that, or are you doing your own deal?
“At the end of the race, you look in your mirror and you form an opinion of who is behind you and how they race. I think that's why I was so shocked at New Hampshire that I got the bump-and-run from him, because we had raced for nine years and I hadn't seen that from him.
"With that in mind; at Bristol, I know the bump-and-run could be coming from the 2. I know it would come from a lot of other drivers as well, so it's not just singling him out. It's short-track racing; the rules kind of change a little bit on these tracks. Although we're in a decent place in the points; I don't feel like I can throw caution to the wind here this weekend. I need a good top-five finish, get some points. Obviously a win would be the way to go.
"I don't want any issues in Richmond; that is my number one goal. I want to get through these next couple races clean and to try to go to Richmond locked in and not have that race determine our fate to get in the Chase or not.”