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.”