You've won a lot of big races. Where do you rank the Coca-Cola 600 on your list of races that you want to win?
“On my list it ranks pretty low, but I'm a little bit biased the wrong way, I guess, because it's been just such a tough place for us. In the sport, I think it's obviously an important race just for the fact that it has a lot of history and it's a really long race and it's right in everybody's backyard. Hopefully we have a good weekend; a good, solid weekend is really what we're looking for this week.”
Is there a specific element of this track that gives you trouble?
“It's just one of those places that has been tough for me to interpret and communicate the right feel of the racetrack and what I need in the car. Usually, that's my strong point in helping them and helping to guide them in the right direction, but this place has been a little bit tougher for us. We ran good in the second half of the All-Star race the other night. We ran good for the last race here, too. We should have a decent day.”
It's obviously a long race. What does a driver need to do differently to prepare for the 600 as opposed to any other race?
“There's just so many things that you go through in a 600-mile race, just with the fact that you start during the day and you wind up being later at night than a lot of races go to. This track is very temperature-sensitive, so your car has to be very adjustable and do things that you normally wouldn't do in a weekend adjustment-wise for pit stops, and just trying to anticipate when the racetrack is going to take those swings. Hopefully, you make the right adjustments to anticipate those swings. From a driver's standpoint, you prepare early in the week and just make sure that you're hydrated correctly and try to take care of yourself for the couple days before that to eat the right things and have as much stamina as you can in the car.”
Is there any difference for you mentally this weekend now that your contract is signed, announced, and there are no more questions?
“Well, I think we did a great job of just preparing, getting everything done, and keeping it between ourselves. For me, I think there was a lot of questions that you guys wanted answered, but we did it the right way. Now, we can just concentrate on doing the things we need to do on our racecars. We can put all that behind us and really concentrate on being in contention and hopefully racing for a championship.”
Are you more relaxed?
“I've been relaxed all year. I don't know why. I've been relaxed about it and when things are going good it's a lot easier to be relaxed.”
You talked about how temperature-sensitive this track is. Does that come into play with qualifying and how important your qualifying draw is?
“Yeah, I think speed comes with darkness here. As soon as the temperature starts dropping, the surface temperature drops rapidly and it just gains a lot of grip. It's hard from a driver's standpoint to know how far you need to drive it into the corner, how soon to get back to the gas, and to anticipate how much grip you have. A late draw usually helps a lot here.”During a race like this, are they more your teammates early on? Does it change your mindset later in the race if you're running 1-2 with a teammate?
“Not really. For the most part, our teammates and myself are respectful to each other on the racetrack and we always know where each other is and the spotters communicate well. You do what you have to do in the position that you're in to try and make sure that everybody is in a good spot and working together as well as they can.”
Are logistics the main reason that you don't want to do the full Nationwide Series schedule, and are you reconsidering based on where you stand in that series now?
“No, I'm not going to do the whole Nationwide schedule. They've made it impossible to not take away from both programs with the Road America race, and if I can't do them all, there is no reason to even worry about the whole summer stretch. Mike Bliss will be in the car for the next couple weeks and at St. Louis at the end of the year. Ron Hornaday will be in the car at Road America and ORP. Montreal will still be up in the air. We've known that that was what we were going to do for a couple weeks; we were just trying to make sure that we had all our ducks in a row before we made that happen.”
Are you disappointed that you can't do them all?
“I never had any intentions of doing them all. You might as well leave that little ray of hope that everybody wanted so you guys could all keep talking about it. The Nationwide races are fun and we like to be competitive, but we have won a couple championships and a lot of races, and we really want to win the [Sprint] Cup championship. The only way to win it is to be competitive and to race for it.”
What are your expectations for Mike Bliss?
“I think Mike as a driver, in general, we expect to go to those races and have a chance to win those races. I think that's one of the reasons he probably agreed to drive the car. He expects to go to those races and have a chance to win as well. I think he'll fit right in. He and Ernie Cope are good friends and know each other well, so I think that will be a good thing.”
Looking back to the Kyle Busch/Denny Hamlin incident last week. Can you put into perspective what it means to not win a race when you think you have a winning car, and to have your teammate be what you perceive as the cause of it?
“I watched the tape and didn't really see anything that happened wrong on Denny's part. I know there was a lot of emotion and a lot of money on the line, so sometimes you see it differently when you're sitting back there. From TV it looked like he really wasn't even up beside him, so it's pretty tough to lay any blame on the 11 car for doing anything wrong. All he was doing was riding around in his line. (But) there is a lot of emotion in the racecar and I can understand where Kyle's coming from.”
From your perspective, have you ever been in that situation? Can you describe how angry you would be?
“It's hard to tell. I've been in those situations where you wind up being mad about something and you go back and look at it and say, ‘Man, I should have just shut up.' To me, just watching it, it looks like one of those situations.”
Given your consistency behind the wheel of everything you've gotten in this year, can you talk about how it feels different than last year?
“It's a 180. I think for us it's just been a good start to the season. We had a good end to last year – very competitive – and doing those things on the racetrack. This year, we kind of shed some of that bad racing luck that we had last year, and we've had some things go our way, too. We just got to keep doing what we're doing, but we have to progress as a team. We have to get better through the middle of the year, and we have to take another step toward the end of the year to be able to contend for the championship. That will just be the kind of the story that we'll have to wait and see if that happens, and we'll hopefully in the last 10 weeks be able to have a chance and go race for it.”
With a 600-mile race, can you talk about the strain on the engines and even the strain the brakes take trying to get into Turn 1?
“Yeah, really the motors haven't been an issue since the shifting has gone away, because of the gear ratios and everything that has been put in the car to make sure that that's not there. As we go to Pocono, brakes are more of an issue than anything else. We've seen those be really close to big issues over the last couple years. You've got to take care of the brakes and do what you need to do to keep them under the car.”