Does the chance to win the Daytona 500 and qualify for the Chase increase the intensity? “I’m not so sure that it amps the intensity up -- I think we all always try to win every single race anyways. This year with the new Chase rules and format the way it is, I think it’s going to be a little bit different each week, but not a lot different. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out really. Looking forward to it -- looking forward to Daytona of course. It’s the start of a new season so I think most of us are amped up ready to go and had a good off-season. Just getting back at it and getting back to work.”
If you win one of the first five races will it change how the others are approached? “I don’t know that it would really change a whole lot for the rest of the year. I think that it gives you an opportunity where it relieves a little bit of pressure because you can say, ‘Okay, we’re locked in the Chase so now we don’t have to try so hard and put ourselves in bad situations or whatever when it comes to trying to make the Chase.’ Like I said, there’s more spots now than ever to make the Chase.
There is going to be guys that make the Chase with no wins although we hope we’re not one of those guys. It’s just going to play itself all the way down to Richmond on who’s in, who’s not and what all happens. The flip side of that is you can win a race early on in the season and the pressure comes off and you can go on and you can win six or seven because you’re just going out of the box. You’re trying to crazy stuff and seeing if you can’t steal some wins I should say versus earning them I guess.”
How have you changed entering your 10th season in NASCAR? “It doesn’t feel like 10 years at all, but yet when you look back at life outside of racing you think, ‘Okay, I was 18 when I came in here -- holy crap a lot of things have gone on and changed over 10 years.’ It certainly seems like a whole different world not only me in it, but just a whole different world in general. I don’t think we had Facebook or Twitter back 10 years ago. You could actually go to a bar and not have somebody tweet about it. It’s interesting, there’s certainly a lot of things that I have yet to accomplish that I’m disappointed that I have not accomplished yet. Some big wins of the marquis events as well as being able to become a Sprint Cup Series Champion. The Nationwide Series championship is great, but ultimately what all of us drivers look towards is a Sprint Cup championship. Been an interesting nine years, but we’ll see what happens in the 10th.”
What have you learned in the past nine years? “I remember years ago I wouldn’t think a whole lot about situations and just racing and making my way up through the middle and ruffling some feathers and pissing some people off. Nowadays, it’s a little bit more thought about and calculated, which kind of maybe slows you down, but I think that still you become more calculated and you become smarter and more in tune with your abilities and what the car has for ability that day. Obviously, it shows a little bit better towards me being years ago a little erratic or wrecking out and not finishing races I should have and then these days being able to finish a lot more and just get the points you can get for those days. You obviously learn a lot and you become smarter and you become more in tune with what this sport asks of you.”
How can another driver beat Jimmie Johnson for the championship? “Jimmie’s (Johnson) an animal. I don’t know any better way to put it really. It’s just amazing what him and that 48 team has been able to accomplish in this sport. Throughout the whole time of being here, even when he wasn’t winning championships his first four or five seasons, he was still finishing second, third, fifth -- no worse than fifth ever. It’s just crazy what they’ve been able to do and they knock championships out like it’s popping M&M’s. It’s cool to see, but at the same time it’s frustrating because we’re racing against him right now.
There’s been other guys that have been able to do the same things over the years whether it’s been Darrell (Waltrip) winning three pretty quick or (Dale Earnhardt) Sr. winning seven or (Richard) Petty winning seven. I think JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) has a great team behind them and I think we’ve got great resources and I think (Matt) Kenseth raised the bar a lot last year -- he ran really well all throughout the whole season and still come up short.
He missed running well at Phoenix and probably lost 20-something points and ended up losing the championship by 19. Certainly there’s better opportunity for a lot of us that we can keep up with them, but the bar is definitely high and you know when you win it, it’s going to be a huge accomplishment.”
Will you see drivers getting in each other’s way with the new qualifying format? “You may or you may not, but 30 minutes for everybody to be able to get out there and kind of get a clean lap I think is enough time and realistically you’re not going to make multiple runs in one session -- I just don’t see that happening with the way tires are. Maybe Phoenix or Kansas or Michigan -- places like that where the pavement is still new and laps on tires actually makes you go faster. I think you’ll see it at those places, but without being able to adjust air pressure and cool your car down and all that stuff, it really doesn’t lend itself to being able to do that a whole lot.”
Do you believe Darrell Wallace Jr. is prepared to win a championship this year? “I hope Darrell’s (Wallace Jr.) well prepared for it. I think that getting the experience of being a rookie in the sport lends yourself to a lot of learning. It gives you the opportunity to make a few mistakes here or there and try to learn from those mistakes. I think later in the year we saw that Darrell was a lot better racer and he started finishing races a bit more consistently -- he won Martinsville, which was awesome. I think he’s going to be a threat to go to Martinsville again and win right out of the gate this year.
I’m looking forward to Darrell’s success and hopefully him still being able to learn off of me, being able to learn off of Erik Jones and go to these race tracks and just be competitive every week and try to figure out what it is to be up front. We watched it last year with (Matt) Crafton -- Crafton won a race, but he finished top-10 every single week until like the last four races of the season. If you can do that and have a couple wins in there and what not then there’s no reason as to why Darrell can’t be a champion in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this year.”