This time of year, everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing is geared toward getting prepared for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. They're making sure my No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet is ready to go for our third championship which, if we can accomplish, would put us in an elite class.
I'm not sure we're exactly where we want to be yet, but we're gaining on it. We're closer. We're starting to think outside the box a little bit – we're trying some things instead of doing things that weren't working. I'm proud of these guys for that. Nobody on the team ever got down or discouraged when we weren't running well. They just started working harder, and now we're seeing the results of their hard work.
And the good thing is, momentum-wise, we're still climbing up the hill, where last year we kind of leveled off and were somewhat starting down the hill a little bit at this point in the season. So, going into the Chase, you want to be carrying momentum and, even though we're not yet where we want to be, I feel like we are in a lot better situation this year than we were at this point last year.
A big part of my comfort level is knowing that my crew chief, Darian Grubb (with Tony, LEFT), is so prepared. He knows exactly what cars he wants to take to each of the tracks. I don't plan that – it's something Darian does. Not only what car to take, but what our primary car is going to be and what's going to be our back-up car. And then, if you take that back-up car to this race, what's your back-up car going to be somewhere else? You have to plan those things, taking into consideration all the worst-case scenarios!
If you lose a car, OK, how long will it take that car to get prepared again? If that happens, what's the contingency plan? How does that play into what will now be a primary car for somewhere else on the schedule? Now you've got to figure out another back-up car to replace the first one.
I'm happy I don't have to do that. I'm glad my job is to just get in and drive whatever car shows up that weekend. I know for the crew chief, that's a major task at this time of year, because the sport changes week in and week out. They've got to figure out what car they want accordingly, based on what they're finding. It's a constant juggling act for those guys.
Although I'm satisfied with our momentum now, the competition is going to be tough in the Chase and, of course, there's the big question – how much of their hand are they showing? It's hard to tell if, say, the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) and the No. 48 (current champion Jimmie Johnson) are currently trying out new things. After all, they know they're in a good position to start the Chase and are happy with what they've got already, so they may be trying to find some magic that's going to make them even better. It seems like when the Chase starts, the guys you look at who are normally hot begin to get hot again and they stay hot through the Chase.
So I'm pretty certain those guys may be playing possum but there are also other guys who are getting hot right now. Those will be the teams which are still finding stuff and will continue on that path throughout the Chase. They probably won't get off-track with what they're doing, because they're happy with the way they're running right now, but for them – for all of us – it's just a matter of, is that going to be good enough when the No. 11 and the No. 48 guys will start the Chase at least as strong as they've been through the year? Remember, those two teams will also have had the chance to find new things that work and also eliminate blind avenues.
We all want to win every week, and we all want to make the Chase. Part of that is the competitor in us, but it's also critical for business. Performance is really important for sponsorships. If your car is running around in 35th, you're not getting a lot of TV time and the fans don't care about the driver at that point. You need to be up front, competitive and in the mix to keep the fans interested in what's going on with your team.
If you keep the fans interested in what's going on, then the sponsors get interested, too. Getting into the Chase is as big as anything. Just being in the Chase and having that opportunity is what the sponsors are looking for. And once you get in the Chase, anything can happen. I think sponsors are smart enough to realize that if you have that one bad race, that can put you in the back half of the Chase. So I think just getting into the Chase is where the value is for the sponsor.
When the Chase does get here, we'll be ready to race. This summer, I needed to get away and kind of blow off some steam and I've been doing that in a winged sprint car and having fun. That's something that was hard to do at Joe Gibbs Racing. I couldn't have pulled off what I did this summer at Joe's operation. But these guys at Stewart-Haas have kind of encouraged it and that's really been something that's helped me relax. It's helped me be more focused on Sunday, because my mind is free and I'm able to have fun with them.
It's a stressful deal, what we do in the Cup Series, so it's nice to go have fun and play around, but it also helps me be a better driver.
It doesn't look like it physically, but mentally I'm ready to go.