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.”