"It’s the mental picture that the Daytona 500 gives you and the pressure that comes with that spectacle."
TALK ABOUT YOUR QUEST TO WIN BOTH RACES AT DAYTONA THIS YEAR AND OUTLOOK THIS WEEKEND “Yeah, I guess Jimmie did it last year and before that it was Bobby Allison who did it around ’82 or ’83 or something. So it’s tough to do, especially the way the package is now. It’s real hard to get by the leader and we know that pretty well now from the way we ran in Daytona earlier this year. I really haven’t gotten a chance to see how this car is going to respond to the track. I am certain it’s going to be competitive, but knowing it’s not the same car though; we are going to have to see if it has any different characteristics in the balance. It’s a lot different surface temperature than we had in February so we have to figure out how that is going to affect the way a car drives and if the balance of the car is going to be different. I would welcome the car to be more challenging as far as the balance at this place and to where we use a little bit more of the race track. Getting handling to come into play would be a bit more fun. Hopefully the surface is starting to age a little bit and we will see when we get out there, but I don’t anticipate it being a whole lot different in the change over time.”
TALK ABOUT YOUR INTERVIEW THIS WEEK WITH ELI GOLD AND HOW YOU WERE ALMOST APOLOGIZING FOR YOUR RACE AT TALLADEGA EARLIER THIS YEAR “Yeah, it was embarrassing man. I hate to talk about it. The way we ran and what I chose to do at the end of that race is just really uncharacteristic of anybody that is in the field and trying to compete. I just got really frustrated with the way things were working out for us. I lost sight of the overall big picture, what you are out there trying to do, who all is out there depending on you to do it, and what you need to do. I learned some lessons and you are never too old to learn them. You are never too old to be taught a lesson either. I definitely experienced that in Talladega this year.
“So I think when I was out there running this year, I got real selfish at Talladega, and how the result affected anyone – I never took into account. I was just out there really thinking about me, and what I thought, and what I wanted to do, and how frustrated I was. I forgot that there was a team behind me, and depending on me. Lot of fans there to see us race, showed up to spend hard-earned money, so it was a difficult thing to go through.
“I would love to sweep the races at Daytona because that is a cool thing, but I just love winning here. So to go to victory lane here regardless of what we did in February, would mean a lot to me. I expect that we will try to do the best thing that we can to help us strategy-wise so that we are toward the front. We did it perfectly for the 500 and we were in a position at Talladega to gamble and make it work like several guys did. We learned a little bit there too as far as how we could be a bit more aggressive with our pit strategy considering where we are in points and the wins we have.
“Hopefully we can do that. If we run out of gas, I can take that if we are trying to win a race. So we need to be willing to make that happen because I think that is what it’s going to come down to. The way they do these races these days, you have to get that track position and you have got to be first. When everybody is done pitting, you don’t want to have to drive through the pack. It’s hard to pass and you get boxed in. So what happens is that you need to be doing is putting fuel in your car as often as you can so that the last time you have to come down pit road to get in that window, you only need to put a few gallons in the car to reach that window. It’s where most of the field is putting 12 to 22 gallons in on that stop and you are only putting in what you need, and you beat them off pit road. And there you are – in position to win. As long as you, as a driver, can maintain that track position over the restarts and all the things that are going to go on over that run. So we know we need to do it that way, it’s just hopefully everything else falls in place that way such as the cautions and everything else. Steve (Letarte) is the master of those things and I have seen him improve so much over the last four years. So I feel like I have the right guy on the pit box.”
YOU HAVE WON BOTH OF THESE RACES. IS ONE A TALLER ORDER THAN THE OTHER? “They are both similar physically to win. It’s the mental picture that the Daytona 500 gives you and the pressure that comes with that spectacle. There are so many people here, and just the driver’s meeting alone will set the tone and take you out of the race and intimidate you if you let it. There is so much happening, so many people on pit road, and you are being thrust in front of all these people to shake hands. You just want to think about the race and get in your car and you don’t want any distractions so you are just kind of struggling through that in the pre-race. It won’t be like that for the 400. It will be a typical weekend. The Daytona 500 is just so crazy before the race and that just gives you a different feeling and makes you understand how big that race is and how many people must be paying attention to what is going on at the moment.
“I don’t know if the viewers are any different, I am sure they are for the 500. And you imagine that as a driver. But all those things really take a backseat once you get in the car. I mean I remember when we were running there at the end and just how nerve-racking all those restarts were. That is much more of a bigger deal in the Daytona 500. But winning here regardless, it’s a great feeling. So you are going to try your guts out but I think you get much more nervous and certainly aware of how big the situation is when it’s the 500. So mentally, it’s tougher.”
WHEN YOU COME INTO A WEEKEND, IS IT THE WINS THAT GET YOU GOING OR THE RACES LIKE AT SONOMA OR KENTUCKY WHERE YOU DIDN’T EXPECT A GOOD RUN BUT GOT ONE? “Well, we have surprised ourselves a couple of times like at Sonoma and Kentucky after how practice and everything was going. I just couldn’t believe how well they got that car put together as competitive as it was for that race. Those are the things that build momentum and build confidence. So when we struggled, I used to get really frustrated on Friday’s or Saturday’s when practice wouldn’t go well. You definitely don’t allow it to affect you as much anymore knowing the potential of how it can turn around for this team so well.
“So on weekends like last weekend four or five years ago, we wouldn’t have rebounded or run as well. The ship was sinking on Friday and it would have been under water on Sunday. But we seem to be able to calm down, talk it out, patch it up, and make something work. It just comes from a lot of experience, great engineers, and it’s really amazing work that they are doing. The speed in the cars directly relates to Kevin Meendering and my engineers. It doesn’t directly relate to Steve Letarte. He is the orchestrator of the individuals, the people, and running the team.
"But the pure speed the car has comes from the engineers and how they choose to set the car up to work on it through the weekend. They are doing an amazing job and when we can go to Sonoma and run like we did and then go to Kentucky and struggle and rebound so quickly in the matter of a day, it makes you feel good. But that is how this sport has always been. You can win the Daytona 500 one day and then the next day can be the worst day you have ever experienced in this whole deal. And that is just the way it goes and I have had those days back-to-back. You wonder why in the hell it’s like that but that is the way it goes.”
DID YOU WATCH ANY FILM OF THE DAYTONA 500 OR TALLADEGA TO PREPARE YOU FOR THIS WEEKEND? “Not really, I didn’t watch any film. I have a pretty good understanding of what I was going through and what I was thinking through the last 100 miles of the 500. I understand what was working for me and what mentality I need to have. You just really have to crack the whip and push yourself mentally as hard as you can for every position. Once we got the lead in Daytona we started battling with (Greg) Biffle, the 99 car, and whoever else was up there. You just had to really reinforce to yourself how important it was to not settle into second or third and allow that to be alright. It was so important to be the leader on the restarts, to have that control, and to have that control of the person behind you and who was starting on the outside of you or if you wanted to be in front of your teammate and start on the outside line, or in front of your teammate on the inside line. That was so important and we saw that on those last several restarts and to have Jeff (Gordon) behind me on that last restart.
"So you had to keep reinforcing to yourself as you were running, that if someone would get up beside you for the lead, how important it was not to let that person have the position. You had to run extremely aggressive side drafting and try to box them in on the fence. You wanted to make it really hard on them to take a position away. I realized that if I get put in that position again that you are going to have to play to some pretty hardcore, cut-throat racing.”
WHAT IS IT YOU ENJOY ABOUT TWITTER THE MOST? “Sometimes I feel like I am tweeting too much. Sometimes I feel that Twitter has got filters on my account to keep me from seeing all the negative stuff. But it’s been fun, and been so positive. I really underestimated how enjoyable it would be. I really enjoy sharing what I am doing, what I think is cool, and what is important to me. I enjoy seeing that feedback and also that interaction, the conversational interaction about topics. I enjoy a good comment, or a smart aleck. My momma was a good smart aleck, so I can appreciate a good smart ass. I enjoy the going back and forth and stuff like that. And also just reading and seeing what everybody else is talking about or whatever interests everyone else has. Basically and mainly in our own industry and just seeing what people are talking about, what they think is important today. It gives you so much access. I know the fans feel like they get a lot of great access, but for me it just taps you into the heartbeat of everything. What is going on in here (media center), what is going on in the garage, what some of the executives are thinking, and just gives you an idea of what direction everyone is going. It’s pretty neat so I am having fun with it and not trying to make any missteps. It’s been very positive.”
ABOUT HOW CONSISTENT YOU HAVE BEEN RECENTLY? “I am just thrilled with the way the team is competing obviously. I don’t look at those stats directly but I know we have been doing some great work since the beginning of the Chase last year. And maybe even a little bit before that. I thought in the Chase we had done everything just right except for Chicago. I thought that whatever happens in the offseason is going to tell us if we can be good enough to win a championship this year. If you look at the graph going back to 2011 when Steve and I got together, if you look at our performance, it’s been a linear trajectory in improvement. It just seemed to make sense that this year would be that much better.
“Then we won, and then we came out of the box and ran second a couple of times and I was thinking man, this is awesome, this is the best I have ever had it. It’s as good as I have ever run at Hendrick and maybe even DEI – consistently. We were running up front every week, and having a good car that could stay in the top-five every week. I remember when we put together a couple of top-15s a couple weeks in a row, and then it became a couple of top-10s. And then man, if we ran in the top-five a couple of times, we were really doing it. So it’s steadily gotten better and that progression makes sense to me, but at the same time when you do look at the numbers it really surprises me that the team has been able to sustain it. That has been the tough part for me over my career, is to sustain momentum and get ourselves running well for a long period of time. We would start off great, then have a terrible summer, then end well. It just never was complete. So it seems that this team is as good as it’s ever been and hopefully we can maintain it.
“We will worry about next year and the change at crew chief and all that good stuff. But man, it’s important for us to sustain this for this season. More important than anything else and we are going to concentrate on that.”