What have the last four weeks been like for you winning three of the races?
“It’s certainly been pretty remarkable to come back and be as successful as we have been for us and this 18 team. Certainly it started out a little rough, but it’s certainly gotten a heck of a lot better here as of late in the last three of four weeks. The guys have done an amazing job – I can’t thank them enough for just the work that they’ve put in and just the job that all of Joe Gibbs Racing has done to get our company striving a little bit better and our cars a little bit better, setups a little bit better – everything has just kind of come together. TRD (Toyota Racing Development) with the engines as well. It’s just been a process and all of our guys are doing a good job at that. I’ve enjoyed the last little bit and the stretch that we’ve kind of been on – I hope it continues. We’ll see how that goes here this weekend coming to Indy and being able to race here at this historic track. I finished second here a couple times and would love to be able to get my first Brickyard 400 win here eventually and maybe this year is the year and we’ll just keep on going and knock out three in a row with three different aero packages that would be pretty cool.”
Why do you think Chevrolet has been dominant at Indianapolis?
“I think Chevy may be a dominant force here just because they have a deal with the race track, I don’t know. I’m just joking. They have certainly been really, really good here over the years. Obviously they’ve won the most races here. The Chevrolet teams that have won here has been majority Hendrick Motorsports and RCR (Richard Childress Racing) has a few. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to win here as well with our Toyota camp and to do a good job there. We’ve been close – last year we finished two, three, four and there was just one guy that was better than us and he was far better than the field last year. We’ll see what happens here.”
Does it bother you not to have won some of the bigger races in the Sprint Cup Series?
“As far as missing out on some of the big races in the series, of course I would love to be able to have those checked off the list and to not be looking for just one victory, but two or three at some of these places. I think Jeff (Gordon) is looking for five here at Indy at the Brickyard. That’s pretty remarkable. For me to just be looking for one, it’s a little disappointing that I’ve been around this long and haven’t won those races, but the things haven’t all quite worked out and haven’t put ourselves in the exact perfect position in order to win those races. We just need to continue to do that and continue to race and act like we have here these past three or four weeks.”
What were you able to learn about the new aero package yesterday?
“I think yesterday was a good day for learning, there was a lot of different things that happened. Mostly everybody was running single car stuff just trying to get a feel for what they had. I think later in the day there were some cars that were on some long runs and some other guys that were on some shorter runs and you’d see them kind of catch up to those guys. It just seemed like the effect of the second car was just loose. We’ve got to see what we can do to try to help that with our packages. Past that we’ll just see exactly how the race plays out. I think the biggest thing is restarts are going to be quite entertaining for sure. We’re going to be all over the place. There’s such a big drag effect and two cars side-by-side is going to be huge for that third car behind them, but when you’ve got two guys side-by-side or three guys or four guys side-by-side, where is everybody going to be able to go with the runs that they have — whether they can make those passes or not. I’m sure the backstretch and into turn three, trying to go from four-wide to one-wide is going to be quite hectic.”
What do you view as the biggest obstacle in getting into the top-30 in points?
“I think the biggest thing is just getting caught up in someone else’s stuff. I feel like Dover was one of those instances trying to get by a lapped car there at the end of the race and we just got together. He wasn’t sure I was there or didn’t know I was coming and we got together. You’ve got those situations that can come up any week and that can be frustrating. We don’t want to have any more of those happen. You look at Watkins Glen, it’s always kind of an unknown. I feel like our road course program is pretty good and if we can be up front then I feel like that will take care of itself, but restarts can be quite crazy. There and probably Bristol – you can be leading the race and lapped cars get together in front of you on the straightaway and you can get involved in it. That is certainly one you look at as being a challenge as well. Of course I made my own mistake at Michigan earlier this year. There’s so many different things, it’s racing and you just have to let it play out. There’s going to be a lot of different ways that these races can play out so hopefully we’re on the good end of it.”
Are you looking forward to returning to the Truck Series at Pocono next weekend?
“I’m looking forward to it. It was always slated on my schedule to run that race at Pocono so it’s not anything that just kind of popped up. I’m looking forward to getting back to the series. I wished I could have made it back at Charlotte, that was a race I was supposed to run, but it didn’t quite work out. I wasn’t ready for that yet. Things have gone well and progressed well in my healing and everything. I’m only running three or four this year total so it’s not like I’m running 10 or 12 or anything. Shouldn’t be too terrible. Pocono is a relatively easy place to get around in a truck. There’s a lot of throttle-on time so not a lot of brake that needs to be used. Just looking forward to getting back to the series and seeing if I can’t score a victory and have another year where I’ve won across all three series.”
How has the attitude of your team been throughout the ups and downs of this season?
“I don’t know, when I got hurt everybody was maybe a little bit down in the dumps, but they knew there was still work to be done so they just continued on and powered through and did a really nice job of being able to just get through all the different circumstances that came about. They had no idea what was going to happen. They were actually eating dinner when I crashed in the Xfinity race and they were like, ‘Well, we better go to the race track.’ They knew that there was work to be done to change a seat out and everything else. They didn’t even know who was going to be driving it until probably midnight that night. Then of course the weeks following, whether it was going to be David Ragan or whether it was going to be Erik Jones, obviously there was some finagling that had to happen there to get who was going to drive in the seat. They’ve done a really good job. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, they’ve had some good qualifying runs and bad race performances and bad qualifying runs and some good race performances. It’s just racing I think and it just goes all over the board.”
What was your mindset after the accident and did you speak with Tony Stewart about his injury?
“Tony (Stewart) was actually the first one to the hospital — as soon as the Daytona 500 was over he was there. He actually told everybody that was on his plane that they were going to wait. He was there for about four hours. We had a good talk, we had a good discussion about just what it was like and the process that he had to go through and how long it was probably going to be or what it was going to be. In all reality, our injuries were the same but entirely different. His was much more severe than mine. Just being able to talk with him, my mindset was okay. At first I was like, ‘I’m never going to race again and I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ all those things go through your mind. You just continue to power through and listen to your doctors and those that are around you and of course my wife and the support system that I had. I wouldn’t call it painless, there was certainly a lot of pain, but it went really, really well as far as you could say any injury healing goes. I was pretty pleased with everything.”
Are you surprised by how quickly you’ve been able to gain on the 30th place in points?
“As far as the deficit goes, we’ve done all we can do. Three of the last four weeks we’ve won, led a lot of laps and we’ve gotten some good bonus points and whatnot. We have to continue to do that and run top-five, run top-10. Obviously the better you do, the more points you’re going to chunk off. That’s what we’re here to do. I feel like there’s an opportunity now to be able to completely kill the deficit probably two races before the cutoff, which is good. Earlier this year, four or five weeks ago I guess you’d say, it was going to be close to get there and get it done. The better we can do to be able to get that deficit knocked off sooner rather than later just allows us to be able to breathe a little easier and allows us to have some fun and get ready for the Chase.”
Did you experience any issues with passing here during Friday’s practice?
“Yesterday I was behind (Tony) Stewart. I think he was on a little bit older tires than I was. I ran him down from a ways back and then when I got to him, obviously the draft was a huge effect going down the straightaway, you could really get a tow. I want to say I was seven, eight lengths back going down the from the beginning of the straightaway to the end and then I could almost pull out and pass him. It just wasn’t quite a big enough run to get there, but once I got to the next corner, I was really loose and I wasn’t able to stay within that close enough range in order to come off of turn two and have that drag effect be able to help me down the backstretch to get alongside of him. You’re going to have to be able to time your stuff a little bit and work around the aero affects you get in the corners in order to have a bigger effect on that help you get during the straightaway to be able to utilize that.”
Do you remember the Skittles paint scheme from watching racing while growing up?
“I remember the Skittles paint scheme. I think it was ’97 or ’98 that it came out and it was Ernie Irvan’s car, the 36. Certainly a lot less rainbow on my car than that car was. That car was all rainbow. I said yesterday, we probably don’t have enough rainbow on our car. All in all, love the Skittles scheme, love being able to drive for those guys, their quite quirky if you follow them on Twitter. It’s pretty fun to be a part of that sponsorship program and having M&M’s onboard and everyone else, too.”
How has crew chief Adam Stevens helped you to be better this season?
“Adam (Stevens, crew chief), he’s a really good leader. He stays pretty focused most of the time and you can rattle him a little bit, certainly. He does a good job in managing his guys and to let them do their job and be able to help me. If he’s not micromanaging his guys, he can help me more and stuff like that. Really, he’s been a great leader so far and we saw that on the XFINITY side with me working with him the last couple of years and Joey (Logano) working with him even the year before that. He’s certainly wanted to be a Sprint Cup Series crew chief and he went through the ringers at Joe Gibbs Racing in order to get that title and now he’s done a really good job this year of being able to help me and we’ve worked extremely close together. He was never really certain how much time he’d have to spend with me and I’m pretty sure it’s too much time. With the XFINITY cars, you’re in, you talk, you drive, you talk and you’re out. Just leave it to them to do their job. On the Sprint Cup side, it’s a heck of a lot more convoluted than that and I’m sure it’s more stressful for him as well.”
Do you feel you need a big race win in your career?
“I guess it’s kind of weird to say, but it’s bothersome but at the same time you go to that race on a particular weekend and you think, ‘If we get it, we get it. If we don’t, we don’t.’ It’s kind of the way it works. Like the last three or four weeks, sometimes luck is going to be on your side a little bit, but you also have to be able to get yourself in that position so when the luck does go your way, it pays off. We’ve done that. I’m just not sure I’ve seen that kind of luck work for me at some of these big marquee events, being able to come off pit road first or having the right amount of tires when you come off first and being able to come off pit road first and being able to hold the field off behind you. It all kind of depends. I’d love nothing more than to win some of these big races. You look at one of the top-four – I have the Southern 500, which is probably fourth on the list. To get those top-three – the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and the Coke 600 – those certainly would be nice accolades to add to my resume.”
Do you have an opinion on the merchandise tent that will be used next week in Pocono?
“I’m familiar with it, yeah. I don’t know if it’s going to be good or bad. I think we have to let it play its way out. I don’t see any reason as to why it’s not going to be better. I think having all the driver’s stuff in an area to be able to have fans walk through and checkout and be able to grab and hold and touch and stuff like that rather than being at a trailer. It is disappointing also to see the trailers go away, there’s a lot of people losing their jobs, some of the drivers and coworkers that work those trailers. That’s disappointing, but in this world and day and age, everybody is looking to save some money and less fuel costs up and down the road and less employees – that’s the easy way to save on that business plan. I’m not all focused in on it, but me being a team owner, I understand where most of our costs are, so I can tell how they need to work or operate in order to keep the companies striving. To be honest with you, I guess back in the early ’90s it was striving and doing really, really good throughout the ’90s and it was very popular and good business model and the business models have changed so much over the years and it’s actually gone through three or four ownerships in the last eight years, now it’s on to the next one – I think it’s Fanatics, right? Let’s hope they can do a good job for us and appreciate them stepping up for us and trying to take over and help us reenergize the souvenir business.”
Source: Toyota Racing