ASIDE FROM COMING TO THE RACE TRACK, WHAT’S THE ONE GO-TO THING FOR YOU WHEN YOU COME TO SONOMA?
“A lot of sponsor stuff. That’s always the go-to thing. El Pollo Loco. I love that. We need some of that out in Charlotte. That’s always the go-to, El Pollo Loco.”
IT’S A BIG MARKET FOR YOUR SPONSORS, TOO
“Yeah, yesterday we came in early and went out to the Clorox and Kingsford plant out there in Pleasanton and we met some people and signed some autographs and did a plant tour. I didn’t get an opportunity to do that last year. It’s always a big race for the hometown sponsor, for Kingsford and Clorox, and for me being a hometown race. You want to go out here and perform, but I just try to make it like any other race. No more pressure. No less pressure. And just go out there and do all I can and hopefully my good enough is enough to win. If not, just try to get everything we can.”
A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE SAYING YOU ARE THE BEST ROAD COURSE RACER IN NASCAR. HOW DO YOU REACT TO THAT? DO YOU HAVE THAT LEVEL OF CONFIDENCE?
“For me, I try to be at my best everywhere we go. My background is obviously road course racing, so it kind of leans towards that. Winning at Watkins Glen last year kind of helped that. But, the Sprint Cup Series is so difficult right now. I think there’s been what, 10 winners in the last 10 races here? I know if we go out there and we’re at our best and I do my job we’ll have a shot to win, and that’s all I can ask for.”
YOU GOT THE WIN AT WATKINS GLEN LAST YEAR TO GET INTO THE CHASE. HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU VIEW THIS WEEKEND IN TERMS OF DOING THE SAME?
“I know the format. If you win, you’re in the Chase. Right now, our team is just trying to improve. And the last six or seven weeks, we’ve kind of lost our way a little bit. This is probably a great race to try to get some momentum back, knowing that if we go out there and we do a good job, we should have a good chance to at least win the race or be in contention inside the Top 5. The guys have done a fantastic job in the off-week to really focus on this race car and get it better. But yeah, at the end of the day, I know what the prize is. I know if you win, you make the Chase; and that’s so important. But I try not to focus on putting the pressure on that this race is do or die, or Watkins Glen is do or die; and if we don’t, it doesn’t happen. We’ve just got to get better every weekend. I know that’s kind of cliché, but right now that’s really our goal. If we go out here and have a great run and build some momentum, that’s all we can do. Like I said, for me, I just try to drive my butt off. And if it’s good enough, it’s good enough. If it’s not, it’s not.”
YOU KEEP SAYING WE JUST WANT TO GET BETTER. AFTER THE WATKINS GLEN WIN LAST YEAR YOU SAID YEAH WE MADE THE CHASE, BUT WE REALLY NEED TO MAKE BIG STEPS AND IMPROVE AS A TEAM. HOW FAR HAVE YOU COME, IF AT ALL, FROM LAST AUGUST TO WHERE WE ARE NOW?
“It’s tough. I think we’ve improved. And everybody has to improve more again. That’s kind of the nature with a smaller team is you’re always trying to play catch-up a little bit. We started the year really well. I think we were fifth in points after five races. We had a couple of DNF’s and we blew some motors a couple of weeks in a row. We crashed at Bristol running inside the Top 10. And from there, I wouldn’t say panic set it, but we started trying different things. Okay, where have we lost it? In a way, maybe we hadn’t lost it. We just had bad results. And then we kind of got off track and we came full circle. So, in the end, we know where we have to improve. We have the steps in place and the ideas in place, but it’s not an overnight process, either. So, I think that’s just the biggest thing is that it’s not that we show up at say, Kentucky, really because that’s the next oval track 1.5-mile typical race, and we’ll have better cars once we get there, but it’s a process.
“So, we have improved a lot, but the way this sport is, everybody else has, as well. So, we’ve got to kind of keep stepping-up our game. But in the end, what makes a race team is not all the positives. It’s the negatives and how you deal with them. And I think over the last couple of weeks that, to me, is what’s the most positive. We’ve had to sit down and really look at each other and say okay, we can fall apart or we can come together and be stronger. Our communication is probably the best it’s ever been. That’s the positive I really take from it.”
WHAT CARRYOVER COMES TO THIS TRACK FROM WATKINS GLEN? DO YOU USE THE SAME CAR AS LAST YEAR? IS THE SET-UP SIMILAR? WHAT CHANGES IN YOUR DRIVING STYLE WITH THAT TRACK BEING A LITTLE FASTER THAN THIS ONE?
“It is the same car. It’s the same car we ran at both races, actually. We’ve definitely improved the car. As I said, my guys put a lot of details, especially during the off-week, in going out there and looking at all the fine details. That’s kind of what’s hard when you’re a smaller race team, is a lot of stuff kind of gets lost in the cracks and you’re just trying to get the car prepared as good as you can, but get the next car prepared and the next cars for the next few weeks.
“Well, with having that off-week, they’ve really been able to focus on this car and improve the body a little bit and get a little bit lighter and all the stuff we need to do. But you know, really, it’s not carryover from Watkins Glen. We were fast here last year. In the end, I don’t know if we had a race-winning set-up, but there was stuff that I learned and that we learned as a team, to try to improve it.
“The set-up we’re at least we’re going to start with, is pretty close. I don’t know how different the package is, motor-wise and aero-wise, it will be around here, but we’re starting with a similar package we had last year when we had a lot of speed. So, I think it’s just more confidence from our team and myself, knowing that if we do the right things, especially at a place like this, we can go win the race. But it’s Friday and we’ve got to see where we stack-up after these practices and have a good qualifying session on Saturday, and then we’ll focus on Sunday when it gets here.”
WITH DAYTONA COMING UP ON 4TH OF JULY, DO YOU HAVE ANY MEMORIES GROWING UP OF HOW YOU CELEBRATED THE HOLIDAY OR FUN TIMES?
“Growing up, my parents, we were at a race track somewhere on the 4th of July. It was always a Go-Kart race somewhere and getting ready and watching the Sprint Cup Series, whether it was when they were running on the 4th of July or just on the weekend itself, I always loved that Saturday night race. Now it will be a Sunday night race. But my biggest memories are always being at a Go-Kart track on a Saturday night and having fireworks shoot off and kind of a big barbeque that we’ve always had at the track with all the parents and us kids running around and playing. It’s kind of no different. It’s still racing, you know? Just like Memorial Day and remembering how fortunate we are of why we get to do this and what the sacrifices are of why we get to do this and why we’re here. So, I’m always trying to keep that in mind and remembering that it’s just racing and we’re there to have fun.”
THE LAST EIGHT WINNERS HERE, IT WAS THEIR FIRST CUP ROAD COURSE WIN. IS THERE SOMETHING ABOUT THIS TRACK OR THE STRATEGY HERE OR THE WAY IT RACES THAT HAS ALLOWED FOR THAT?
“I think with this place different than Watkins Glen, tires come into play a lot. Strategy, when that yellow flag falls, getting tires is really important at the right time. So, I think if you look at here compared to Watkins Glen, I wouldn’t say luck, but the way yellows fall and the way strategy plays out, it can really shuffle the race. Watkins Glen, the race is kind of a flow of okay, we can do it in two or three stops, but the tires aren’t as important. They don’t wear out as much. So, it’s a typical flow. You see the same cars up front throughout the course of a race. Here, a yellow at the wrong time or if you get a guy that gets tires when doesn’t, it can change the whole course of the race. And I think that’s what we see a lot is just that strategy that goes on around this place. Aerodynamics aren’t as important, so you get a bit more beating and banging. You get guys running into each other and spinning each other out. So, that can change the course of the race. So, yeah, it’s definitely a different race compared to Watkins Glen and I think that’s why you’ve seen so many different winners here.”
AS A NORTHERN CALIFORNIA DRIVER, TALK ABOUT THE IMPACT JEFF GORDON HAS HAD ON YOUR CAREER
“Especially when it comes to the Sprint Cup Series, I think seeing; I was always a big Jeff Gordon fan. My dad, even when I was real young, would tell me stories about going out and watching him at the sprint car races at Ascot and Baylands and those types of places on the dirt tracks and just seeing this 14 or 15-year-old kid sitting on phone books in a sprint car taking it to all the big guys and that’s where I became a Jeff Gordon fan was sprint car racing and watching him on Thursday and Saturday night thunder. But I think if you really look at the Sprint Cup Series and what he’s done for it; the time he came in, it was more of a Southern sport kind of led by guys (like) the Dale Earnhardt Sr’s, and Rusty Wallaces and the Darrell Waltrips and this kid that came from California and was kind of young and brash and came into the sport and changed it in so many ways made guys like me that weren’t from the South say okay, maybe we can get our foot in the door and get there. Jeff has done so much. I feel so fortunate to have raced against him and be able to call him a friend that’s helped me through some difficult times and be able to talk to a guy that I know has no motives. He’s just going to tell you how it is and the right and wrong and the good and bad. So, it’s meant a lot for all of us to have him in the sport. But for me, he was my racing hero growing up. And to be able to say I’ve raced against Jeff Gordon; I never thought it would happen when I had all those posters in my room. It’s cool to see everything that he’s done and I hope he has a strong weekend at a home race. I hope he finishes second, honestly (laughter). Good luck to him. That would be awesome.”
TALK ABOUT THE NEED TO BE AGGRESSIVE AT SONOMA AND THOSE WHO ARE WILLING TO GO BEYOND A LITTLE BIT MAY BE THE DIFFERENCE HERE
“Yeah, this place is a place where you have to be aggressive, but it’s a careful aggressiveness at times. At the end of the race, kind of all bets are off. But as I said, the aerodynamics on these race cars aren’t as important around here. The speeds aren’t very high in general, compared to a place like Watkins Glen. But you definitely have to stay on the race track. Especially when it gets hot here, if you miss your apex by a foot and a half, the car never stops. It just keeps sliding through the corner. So, you’ve got to be aggressive, but you can’t overdrive the car because it’s easy to really tear the tires up and lock a front tire up into the corner, or especially trying to be aggressive getting around a guy and burn the rear tires up. That’s something that’s really hard here in the sense that you can be fast for five or 10 laps; you can be the fast car on the race track, but if you’re doing it by overdriving and using the car up and using up the tires, those next 25 laps in the run are going to hurt. So, it’s a fine balance around here. It’s like a short track, in general, for a road course, I look at Watkins Glen like almost a 1.5-mile or a speedway; a lot faster. But it’s definitely an interesting place when it comes to how aggressive to be compared to just making sure you hit your marks and staying on the race track.”
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