|Is it still important to a driver to win a Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400?
“It is. It certainly was special winning both of the Brickyard races. I think that, for myself and the 18 team, winning there (at Indianapolis Motor Speedway) two years in a row was thrilling. It was really special as a whole team, and they treat it very special there, as well, with the whole ceremony postrace and everything that goes on there with taking the ride around the track and the owner being with you. J.D. (Gibbs) was there a few years ago. That was pretty cool. It is a big deal. I feel like it is for us. For our team, we circle it on the calendar every year – that’s one we want to win. We always circle the Daytona 500, the Coke 600, the All-Star Race, the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500 and Homestead. We crossed another one off that list earlier this year by winning the Coke 600. There’s probably a couple more in there that you want to win, such as any one race within each round of the playoffs. You want to win any of those to get yourselves locked in and moving on to the next round just to solidify your chances of being able to win a championship. But it’s obviously a big race, and I guess it still pays pretty decent, so you might as well win it.”
Sunday is the last M&M’S Caramel race of the season. Are there any special plans for the weekend?
“It’s great to be back in the No. 18 M&M’S Caramel Toyota this weekend. We’ve had some great success in Caramel cars this season and last, and I love M&M’S Caramel and encourage everyone to try them if they haven’t. To give fans the chance to use M&M’S Caramel as an all-access pass to one-of-a-kind experiences, including an awesome opportunity this weekend to get some cool merchandise at the Brickyard, will be really fun.”
What makes the Indianapolis Motor Speedway so special for you as a driver?
“I think the biggest thing about the Brickyard is the prestige – the track’s history and quality of racing, all the historic finishes it’s had over the years, whether it’s been IndyCar or NASCAR. To me, it’s a special place to go to because of its heritage of being Indianapolis. Every guy in NASCAR, and especially every guy in IndyCar, they want to win there.”
What’s your favorite Brickyard 400 moment from either watching or participating over the years that didn’t involve you?
“I think my favorite moment from over the years, besides our win there, was probably the first one. I just remember Jeff Gordon being my favorite driver. It was his second full-time season in 1994, and he went to victory lane there in the inaugural race. I think that was pretty cool and pretty special for someone who grew up being a fan of Jeff Gordon.”
What does it mean to you to race at Indianapolis?
“Indianapolis is a really cool place. It’s got a lot of history. I know the history is not all NASCAR – most of it is IndyCar – but it’s one of America’s oldest speedways. The prestige of winning there is a big deal. It’s a unique place to race. If you are back in traffic, it’s a little more frustrating because it can be hard to pass there. But if you have a fast racecar, being able to cut the middle and get down the long, fast straightaways is important there. We’ve run well there the past couple of times. We haven’t qualified well, though, and I think we need to focus on qualifying when we get there. If we can do that, we will be a heck of a lot better off for the race with our M&M’S Caramel Camry.”
Is there something you’ve figured out there, or have you just run well there?
“I think it’s a little bit of both. I think I figured a little bit of something out, but I also think that me figuring something out has helped us be able to develop our car better, too? Like setup-wise, I know what I need within the car now that makes you faster at Indy than at what I had been running in the past.”
What is it about Indianapolis Motor Speedway that makes it unique compared to other tracks the NASCAR Cup Series visits?
“It’s very tight down the straightaways. You roll through (turns) one and two and there are people on the inside, there are people on the outside, there are people in the grass, just sitting along the back straightaway on the inside. You’ve got the golf course there and fans sitting on the hills underneath the trees. You start back up into turn three, with the grandstands going around (turns) three and four, and then down the frontstretch and, again, there are two tunnels. There’s a tunnel at the (turns) one and two side, and on the (turns) three and four side. There’s a center road that runs all the way through and then, coming down the frontstretch again, looking on both sides of you, you’ve got the pit road, which is really narrow and really tight, and the grandstands on the inside and the outside. So, you’re going down a ‘V’ of just people – a sea of people. Coming to the Pagoda and the media center, the way it is, and of course the scoring pylon being as tall as it is, you come down there and, if you’re leading the race, sometimes you can’t see that high, so you’re kind of wondering who is second and third, or who is behind you. It stinks when you’re running in the back because you can see yourself (car number) right there.”