You’re 14th in points with nine races to go before the playoffs begin. Ten different winners are already taking up 16 of the available spots. How important is your Daytona 500 victory in the scope of securing your playoff position?
“It’s vital. It’s definitely a nice safety net to have for our Haas Automation/Monster Energy team. Once we went to the West Coast early in the year, we struggled with alternator issues and missed the setup a few times with the new balance of our Ford versus where we were last year. And then since Texas, though, I think we’ve turned a good corner to find good, consistent runs. Like Kansas, I was running fifth on the last restart and we ended up 19th just getting hit by Denny (Hamlin) on that last restart. Similarly, at Michigan, we were running 10th and got 12th at the end with Jimmie Johnson passing us on the outside. We’re running better, but we’re just not capitalizing on any of the stage points. That’s been the toughest part so far this year and that’s why we’re down a little bit in points.”
How would you assess your season so far?
“To start off winning the biggest stock car race in the world and to have the chance to hoist up the Harley J. Earl trophy – that was a special moment and the highlight of my career. That isn’t something to rest on. I would say a few weeks after that, we were slightly hungover, not necessarily literally, it just seemed like a fog. There was a lot of energy. All of us were so excited. We’re ordering rings, flags. We’re taking the Harley J. Earl trophy to Ford’s headquarters, Monster Energy’s headquarters, Haas Automation’s headquarters – there was a lot going on. Once we settled in and learned the balance of our Ford Fusion and how things were changing here and there, quite honestly, I think we’ve done great. In half the races this year we have a top-10 finish. We have to focus on the mile-and-a-halves and making sure we are best prepared for when the playoffs start”
Did winning right out of the gate this year change your approach to this season?
“The way that it seems to have unfolded the last few years for us on the 41 car is we’re always building up to that win. We’re running well with a top-five here and there and a bad day might be 12th. When we broke through at Pocono last summer for the win, then it seems like it was a struggle after we won. You have to get it rebuilt and adjust and not get complacent and get ready for the playoffs. So when you win the first race of the year, it changes the game in how you have to adjust and build it back up.”
You mentioned the importance of the mile-and-a-half tracks. Kentucky is the only mile-and-a-half racetrack before the playoffs start. How important is this race?
“Well, we tested at Kentucky earlier this year (May 9-10) working with Goodyear on the tires. I know that we have a Chicago test (Aug. 15-16) with Goodyear on the tire that they’re wanting to bring to that race. A lot of it is getting into sim work. I was on the Ford Performance simulator before we went out to Sonoma, and then there are the computer simulation models that the engineers use. I think it’s just getting into more details and gaining a further understanding of what it’s going to take to be successful at Chicago, Dover, Charlotte, Kansas and Texas. Texas is one of the most important races, or at least it used to be, because the asphalt surface was very comparable to Homestead. Right now, I think the two most important races coming up are Kentucky and Chicago if we’re gearing up for a championship run.”
You’ve been competing at Kentucky since its beginning, running the track’s inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in 2000. The track has changed quite a bit even since the NASCAR Cup Series began racing at Kentucky in 2011. What did you think of the place when you first arrived as a Truck Series rookie?
“I went there for the first time when I was racing Trucks. It was an inaugural race and I thought that since it was the first time anyone went there that rookies had just as good of a shot to win as veterans. I overdrove that race every ounce I could and ended up wrecking with about 15 laps to go while running in the lead pack. I hit pretty hard. I think that was one of the hardest hits I’ve taken. Kentucky stood up and bit me the first time I was there. And, up until recently, we never ran a Cup race there, so we used it as a test facility. So, my time when I was at Roush, I think we were there every other Tuesday making laps. So, I had plenty of laps at Kentucky, but not in race configuration.”
Richard Petty turned 80 earlier this week. What are your thoughts on The King and his contributions to the sport?
“He’s our King. He deserves a full year of celebration. He’s a true pioneer of our sport. Two hundred race wins. Seven championships. The legacy that the Petty family has is incomparable, and it’s great that he’s still here and signs autographs every week. He’s the most charismatic guy and his personality is so big. Every time you see him at the track, he’s got his hat and sunglasses on and he’s just happy-go-lucky, and yet he is the face of our sport when it really comes time to reaching back to our past. My favorite moment was watching him win his 200th at Daytona and having Kentucky Fried Chicken with President Reagan. And the time I got to meet him at Richard Petty Motorsports in Level Cross, North Carolina – that was a big moment of walking into the King’s office and being there where the history of our sport has been rooted. It was really neat to go to his office and share a moment with him.”