|When I say Daytona 500, what comes to mind?
“At the beginning of the season, there’s always so much talk about how you do those first five races of the season and, you know, it’s like if you get an F on your paper at the start of the year, you spend all year just trying to get back to an A or a B, and I feel like that’s obviously how it works in our series, too. If you start the year off not so great and at a place like Daytona, where it’s speedway racing and there’s a lot of wrecks, I mean, it’s very possible to finish 40th that day, or 30-something, and that’s obviously a bad start to the season. But, you know, just those first handful of races are so important and so it’s really nice when you can start off with one of the more challenging ones to get that great finish. And, on top of that, for it to also be Daytona, it’s a cool way to kick off the season for us, as a sport, to have our biggest race of the season be first, and it draws a lot of eyes and I hope that we put on a good show.”
What are your goals and expectations for 2017?
“The goal is to do better all the time and hopefully some of the things that have changed within in our team, the big one being the changeover to Ford, will open up some opportunities and possibilities and just some pure potential for the team and we can improve. Hopefully, there is more room to improve now, so that’s kind of exciting to me. I’m optimistic and hopefully it will be something that makes a difference. I think if you’re in the top-15 every weekend, then you do a little bit better and then you’re in the top-10 and then, once you’re in the top-10 with good pit stops, good strategy and all the things that play into it – some of the new formats for the races can play into segment wins – so I think it’s important to be realistic. So, to tell you to go out and win races and segments is not something I necessarily think is going to happen right away, but we’ll assess. We’ll assess how strong we are as a team. A few years back, we were really strong and I felt like that’s where I was running by the end of the year, was up in the top-15 and getting into the top-10, so hopefully we can get back to that and work from there.”
Do you think the new race format NASCAR has implemented will be beneficial?
“I think that the new structure for the races is cool. I think that winning is something that, for a fan, it’s easy to understand and, for a really casual fan, it’s even easier to understand. I think that having a lot more winners every week and throughout the year is a cool thing, but what I have said is I feel like this is definitely going to be a big chore for the crew chiefs. If I were them, I would already be nervous or trying to think of scenarios. I’d probably be going to bed and waking up thinking, ‘If this happened and then we were running here, but we were fast…’ You’re running through all these scenarios in your head with ‘what would you do?’ I feel like it’s going to be challenging because, as far as a driver goes, I do try and drive the fastest laps I can every single lap. I’m doing my best unless there’s a reason to slow down, like fuel or tires are going off or something like that, or you want to maintain your tire life – something like that. So, I think it’s going be exciting as long as the information of the format can be translated to the fan or average fan in a simple, understandable way. I think it will be cool.”
What is it about Daytona International Speedway that you like?
“I think I’ve always had the good fortune of driving for good teams that have good cars. I also think that my IndyCar background is very similar to the style of racing that the superspeedways bring to NASCAR. That was full-speed, flat-out, don’t-lift-if-you-don’t-have-to racing where you have to keep your momentum up and lots of big-pack racing. For me, that was a big comfort zone when I came over to NASCAR, that it was a lot like the IndyCar days of driving on mile-and-a-half speedways. It’s all about having an awareness of what’s around you, making good decisions and trying to stay out of trouble until the end.”
Describe the intensity of restrictor-plate racing.
“It’s super easy to drive around the track flat-out by yourself. It’s not hard at all. When you put all of the other cars around you, it’s not necessarily about how the car feels on the track, although that can be an issue, for sure, at times. It’s more about what everyone else is doing around you. You’re constantly looking at what’s happening in front of you. You’re also looking at what’s behind you. Probably more important than what’s happening in front of you is what’s happening behind you – who’s coming, who’s following you, who’s helping you move forward. There have been plenty of times that I’ve gone to the bottom and complained, ‘Where’s my help?’ It seems like I’ll slot in on the bottom line and then everyone behind me disappears. You really have to have people behind you, pushing you. The race is constantly evolving and you and your spotter have to be on it. It’s a big race for spotters, so having a really good one that you trust is very important.”