What was involved to get you back in a race car?
"It was obviously a long process. Not only finding out what happened and trying to figure out what's the problem, how do we solve it, where do we start -- you know, going down the list. Going through the surgeries, having the heart surgery was not a small thing. The doctor said, `You need to have heart surgery.' It's like, `Whoa.' Making that decision, going through that process and then training again and getting back into the routine and getting prepared for the season. Going back to my first test at Disney was a really big moment. Being back in a car and not knowing -- there was a point in time in my life when I wasn't sure if I was ever going to race again."
How tough is it to watch racing from the sidelines?
"I find racing very entertaining. I love to watch racing as long as I'm not supposed to be in the race. I love watching the Truck races every weekend and the Nationwide races and I always loved watching the Cup races growing up. Watching a Cup race that you're supposed to be in from the sidelines, sucks. It's horrible. I've used this quote several times and I want to give the guy credit that said it first because it's true, but he said it the best, Dale Earnhardt said one time when he was out of the car that it was like watching his wife cheat on him. That's pretty much what it felt like sitting on top of that box, I know exactly what he went through. I've talked to some other guys that have been out of the car before. I talked to Kyle Petty a little bit about it, he was out for a period of time. It's painful to sit there and try to watch your car. That's why I didn't go to a lot of the races. Some of it was because I wanted to do things in my life that I've always wanted to do, but a lot of it was that when I was there, I was just miserable. That was a large part of it."
What type of racing do you expect from the Daytona 500?
"I would say to win the race. In all honesty, I think it's going to be a pretty awesome race. I really can tell you -- and I think that's a good thing, as a driver who has actually been there and tested and has been drafting and done the whole experience, I cannot tell you how that race is going to finish. I don't know. I would like to say that it was going to be a two car kind of break away, but maybe not. The pack is always going to be on your heels. Even as fast as we were going in groups of two, it seemed like whoever was behind always had an advantage in the draft in your slip stream. During the switch, they would always catch you. Whether it was another group of two or whether it was a bigger group of cars. It's going to be one of the most exciting races that I think we've seen there and I say that because there's a dynamic playing out right now with the cars and the way the drivers are drafting with them. The two guys taking off and then two more guys catching them. We had a couple times down there in testing when it was Kasey (Kahne) and I versus two of the Hendrick cars. There was a point where we had a 20 car length lead and they caught us in a lap and passed us. Then we got back together and caught them from 10 car lengths and passed them. How is that going to play out at the end of the race? I don't know. How is it going to play out when you have a pack of 30 cars running you down too? Those are a lot of factors that I think are going to make this a very unique Daytona from what we've seen in the past. Even compared to Talladega."
Do you view racing from a different perspective after having to sit out some races last year?
"Yeah. Taking some time away -- I love racing, I love what I do. I've been very fortunate to do it for a long time. No matter how much you love something, it's human nature to lose sight of that sometimes and to get tired of things and grow old of things. Being able to step back and lose what you love most really makes you appreciate it. I think that's going to show up on the race track, in my driving, my determination and my focus in a lot of things."
What kind of teammate do you expect Kasey Kahne to be this season?
"We don't want to judge it before it starts or put the cart before the horse, but I expect it to go really well. Kasey (Kahne) and I -- have we had our run-ins? Yeah, of course, but they're far and few between. We got along as opponents so I can't imagine we're not going to get along as teammates. His experience level is going to bring a lot to the table. That's something Red Bull hasn't had. I'm not going to get into whether or not he's a better, more successful, less successful driver -- that really doesn't matter. The point is that Scott (Speed) brought his own talents, but he didn't have experience. You can't just make that, you can't just create that. It just takes time and that's something Kasey does have. Kasey has experience and depth in the sport. I can lean on him, he can lean on me. When he starts talking about something he's tried at a particular track or a car setup or something that's bothering him in the car -- he has the experience to back it up. That's something that we haven't had at Red Bull. No fault to AJ (Allmendinger) or Scott or to any of the guys that drove my car last year. Kasey has a depth and experience that they didn't and I think that's going to help Red Bull. It's going to help the whole organization grow and grow stronger and better."
How far has Red Bull come since starting in 2007?
"How much we've grown from the beginning is immeasurable. When I was hired at Red Bull as the first driver, gosh, I was like maybe the fifth or sixth employee. Literally I walked in the shop and it was just me and a handful of other guys. It's incredible to watch the team go through everything it's gone through and grow as much as it has. The evolution from a handful of guys all the way to the company that it is now. There's been a lot of change. There's a group of guys that are still there the core group that have been there since the beginning, but there's a lot of guys that have come and gone. That's expected in a new organization. You create an organization and you create a culture -- some guys are going to fit in it and some guys aren't. Doesn't mean they're bad or good, they just need to fit the right piece for the right puzzle and I think over the years I've seen the company and the culture we kind of went one direction and then we changed and now we're going back in the original direction that we went from a cultural standpoint. I think all those are good changes. We've learned a lot from that as a group and through that process people have come and gone. Where we're at right now, I really believe is as good as we've ever been as an organization. From a direction, a culture, a structure, a passion, a drive -- I think the enthusiasm within the team on both cars within the race shop in the highest it's ever been. Having two experienced guys that can lean on each other is the best it's ever been. Honestly, I'm really excited about 2011 and the growth I've seen through the years."
What was your feeling when you first climbed back in the driver's seat of your race car?
"I savored it -- it felt good. I guess you don't really know what to expect, you're not really sure which direction to go, what emotions to feel. When you get back in the car, you're not sure what's going to happen. My gut always told me that I would get right back in it and it would be just like an old pair of shoes or riding a bicycle, but everyone starts asking you, `It's been eight months, do you remember how to drive?' It's not that you really start believing it, but you start wondering what that experience is really going to be like. But when I got back in that car, the belts fit, I remember how to put them on nobody had to tell me how. In so many ways, I think I truly appreciated it more, but at the same time it was almost like I hadn't even been gone. It just felt so comfortable, it felt so good, it felt so normal to be back in that seat. I got in, climbed in the car, the belts still fit, the helmet fit and I put it all on and went racing. Just got back on the race track and it was a very special moment."
Do you want the illness to be forgotten so your career is not defined by it for years to come?
"I don't really care -- I just want to win a championship. I do believe that the experience has made me a better person and therefore I think that translates on the race track. The person you are and the personality that you have is always going to translate in your driving style. I want to use this experience as an opportunity to reach people whether it's clot awareness or different things. Do I want to be defined by it? No, but ultimately you're defined by your actions, you're defined by what happens to you, you're defined by a lot of things. This is going to be one of them and I accept that. After Daytona, I want to be talking about winning the race not about clots. But I understand that who I am and what I do and what I've gone through, it's always going to be a part of my life."
What did you learn at the Daytona test?
"We learned that you could still hold it wide open. There's going to be drafting and it's going to be an exciting race. We did learn a lot of things that I think are going to help us as a team, but a lot of guys learned a lot of things. We got faster while we were there, but so did other guys. I don't know if I could tell you how the race is going to be. It's going to be one of the most exciting Daytona 500s for me from the driver's seat and I'm sure it's going to be the same for the fans. The track surface is part of it, the cars with the new noses is part of it. I think the evolution of drafting. Could our old cars have done what we do now, the way we draft in pairs and really pick up a lot of speed? Yeah, maybe they could have and we just never tried it. We didn't really push that boundary. Maybe the new car is a part of that. The surface is definitely a part of it at Daytona. Why you didn't see more of it at Talladega I don't know. I think you're going to see a lot of it at this race, but you're still going to see a big pack. You're still going to see three wide. How the two car breakaways are going to play into that -- I don't know, but it's going to be exciting to find out."
Did you ever consider retiring from racing?
"Absolutely. Listen there was a point in time where it wasn't really up to me. We weren't sure what caused it, what happened, am I coming off blood thinners, am I not? Medically we had to answer a lot of those questions. There was a lot of time there where I wasn't sure if it was even in my hands. Once it was in my hands, I still had a decision to make. If I decided to come back racing, was I going to be thinking about a blood clot every lap? Was I going to be able to focus on my job? Was I still going to love it? Was it time to move on to something else in my life? I had a hard decision to make and there were a lot of things that had to be weighed."
What has the support from competitors been like throughout this process?
"There's definitely situations with guys that have changed. Some of the guys that were the most there for me were the obvious ones and the guys that I am the closest to outside of racing -- Casey (Mears), Jimmie (Johnson), Jeff (Gordon). There were some guys there that checked in on me every once in a while and were very supportive -- Tony Stewart was one of the first guys to check in with me via text or phone. When I was at the race track he would always say something. He was the first guy to stick his head in my window at Daytona. Tony obviously has his rough side and his moments and I wish he would show more -- it doesn't come out as much as it used to. I kind of liked it. He's a teddy bear inside. He always has been to me. He was great and I'm just giving you one example because I don't want to go through all of them. Him for instance, that meant a lot to me on a personal level. It really did. It really showed me a side to Tony that I'd seen some, but not directed towards me. It was Sonoma when he and I got into it and that was awesome. I think it cost him some money. Back then I used to love to push his buttons and I was good at it. Tony and I have become really close over the years and have a mutual respect. Him and I race well together now and probably as good as I've raced with anybody on the race track. Really hard when it's time to be hard, but not when it's not. I think that's a good example of what he did and how his little comments here and there meant a lot to me. I still want to beat him and I think he knows that. He expects that and that's what he respects. He's not going to feel bad for me either. He's going to race me just as hard if not harder than he ever has and I like that -- that's what I love about our sport. That's what I want. I want to race these guys with respect and I want to race them hard, but when we all go home we're all people. We're a community, we're a team and the NASCAR community as a whole has been very supportive through this. People talk about that a lot, but it's truly there. I think you really see it when things are bad. How much everybody really supports you and are understanding. I would even say that to all you guys here and all the media in general. A lot of the familiar faces that are there week in and week out. You guys were great -- you could have been in my business and asking just inappropriate questions, but you weren't. I understand you have a job to do and I think I talked about that in some of my press conferences. I wanted to give you guys as much as I could, but in return I asked that you give me my space and you did and I really appreciate that. I think that's part of our community. You don't get that in a lot of other places. I talked to some of my friends that are athletes in other sports -- they don't get that, they don't get that at all. They don't have the accessibility on the front end. That's why I tried to give you guys as much as I could. That's always meant a lot to me and I really appreciate it. I think that's another example of what you're talking about with the community coming together whether it's your peers as drivers or the media or the fans or the teams or whatever. When Sunday rolls around I still want to win."
-source: toyota motorsports