|Talk about heading to Chicagoland Speedway this weekend and kicking off the Chase. Is getting a strong finish at Chicago as important as ever with the new playoff format?
“The first Chase race is important but not as important as it used to be. When we had a 10-race stretch, starting off strong could carry you a long way. Now it’s three races at a time. You could say it’s more important or you can look at it and go, ‘Well, if you are in the Chase, it means your team has done a good job all year and you shouldn’t stress it more than any other race and that, if you just go and do your job, you are going to end up with a solid finish.’ But the Chase now is structured three races at a time. So it’s Chicago, Loudon and Dover. If you win Chicago then, yeah, you don’t have to sweat it at Loudon and Dover. Same thing in the next round – if you win at Charlotte, you don’t have to stress at Kansas or Talladega. So, the Chase is broken up into four sectors, three races at a time (for the first three sectors).”
Why is Chicago such a good track to kick off the Chase?
“There are endless reasons on why it’s a cool place to start the Chase. It’s a one-race venue. It’s a big market. It’s in the Midwest, where we have a ton of NASCAR fans who are hungry for NASCAR. And, when you go to one track, one time, it just has that different feel about it, like it’s very important. It’s great that we only go there once. May as well kick off the Chase at a track like that and end it at Homestead, another track we only go to once.”
What have your previous races at Chicago been like for you?
“Chicago is a fast, mile-and-a-half track I have always enjoyed racing since I started racing there in my rookie season. The track isn’t as smooth as it used to be – it has some bumps in it – but it’s a place I like. It’s another one of those tracks, though, where I just haven’t had the best of luck. An example is the 2002 race. We had a really fast car for that race but, for some reason after the last pit stop, the car just wasn’t handling the same as it had been. We were just way too tight and really couldn’t figure out why. When we got back to the shop and started going over the car, we realized that the radiator pan had come off and that’s like 100 pounds of front downforce. We were going so fast that the car bottomed out and dragged the radiator pan out. It’s just weird stuff like that.”
What makes Chicago difficult and what does it take to be successful there?
“It’s tough because we only go there once a year. It’s a typical mile-and-a-half that has its own characteristics, but you can use the balance from other mile-and-a-half tracks to get you close. Then, as the race plays out, restarts are important. The bumps going into turn one, the bumps coming through turn four, all of that will play out and you just have to kind of roll with it. If you’ve got a chance to win, you want to capitalize on that. That helps ease the stress of the next two rounds of the Chase.”
How would you compare the Chase for the Sprint Cup to playoffs in other sports?
“It’s very comparable. The way that the 2004 Chase was introduced that puts us into a 10-week stretch of accumulating the most points or doing the best in the postseason. Now, with our new structure where it’s three races, advance, three races, advance, it’s a bit tougher because you can have a part failure come up in one of those three and completely kill the whole season. Yet, you’ve got to be your best at the end. That is what this format is all about. You have a regular-season atmosphere; you have your playoff season, Chase atmosphere.”
What is the pressure like to perform?
“It’s my job. It’s what I do. It’s what our team does. It is what our team prepares for. It’s what I prepare for. It’s part of being against the best of the best in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and, to come out on top, you have to perform under all the different pressure situations – qualifying, short-track, superspeedways, intermediates, the pit stops. The pit stop guys, they have a tremendous amount of responsibility and that is just part of being a team. That is what the team aspect is all about.”
How do you see pressure affecting not only yourself, but other drivers, as well?
“You could have your back against the wall by having a bad finish in one of the rounds and you have to win. Case in point – my teammate Kevin Harvick, last year at Dover, they had to go in there and win. That was really the only way they were going to advance and they pulled it off. That is a bottom of the ninth, clutch moment. That is what this Chase format does for the 16 different drivers. It puts everybody in their own little scenario and they have to go and compete not only against themselves, but against the guys they are very similar to.”
Is there anything you can take for granted in these first three Chase races?
“Not much, but the first three races there are 16 guys, we look at ourselves on the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevy as a top-eight team. When we do that, you can’t just ignore nine through 16th. But, if we go out there and do our job, we should have no problem advancing through the first round.”
Is there an equivalent in the Chase of being able to throw a Hail Mary?
“Those are the games that I just turn off. You don’t want to watch it zig-zag that violently, back and forth. Are there those moments? Yeah, I mean Harvick pulled one off last year at Talladega where he had cars spinning and scrambling – green, white, checkered. When was NASCAR going to freeze the field? We didn’t know. Then there is the Phoenix race with the rain. Can we get the track dry on time? There were so many different intangibles that came up last year that are part of the excitement. That is part of rolling with whatever is going to happen. That is like having a blizzard come through in the AFC championship playoff. You just never know what is going to come your way.”
How do you have to go about your business in the first round?
“Business as usual. That is what I think is the best, easiest, way to play to the strengths of this No. 41 car.”
How do you look at Chicago this weekend?
“You want to win there and set the tone for the Chase.”
We’ve heard so many times that you can’t win the Chase in the first race, but you can lose it. Do you agree with that mentality?
“Oh, this whole Chase format, you can lose it at any moment. You can have a black flag because of speeding on pit road, or a restart thing that NASCAR might not have liked. Then there is just the fact somebody spins out and you’ve got no place to go. There are so many things that can pop up in this format.”