Media Tour - Toyota Notes - Tuesday
ERIK JONES, No. 20 DeWALT Tools Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Do you think people are looking at you guys to win off the bat? "Yeah, I would agree with that. I think in the past, at least from what I can gather from how it was 10 or 15 years ago, you know, if you could kind of stay out of trouble and prove that you were a consistent guy, I think everybody thought the wins would come along with that. But as the times have evolved and changed, I think ‑‑ I can remember getting into my first year in the Truck Series part‑time, and the expectation was to kind of compete and win right off the bat even at that level, and that continued up through the ranks to XFINITY and now to the Cup Series. I think ‑‑ I do agree with that, but I think there also has to be time given, especially at the Cup level. I think at the truck and XFINITY level it's acceptable to think that way. I think you've seen that with a lot of guys over the last few years that come in with a lot of talent and a lot of speed that are able to win right off the bat, but I think the Cup level is kind of a different ballgame in the sense it's just a lot more challenging. There's a lot more good competitors, there's a lot more good cars. It just takes more time to figure it out."
What have you done to get up to speed with Joe Gibbs Racing since you left Furniture Row? "Well, I think most of it has been over contact on the phone. A lot of guys have been off moving around and on vacation. I was in a Michigan for a couple months. A lot of it was just staying in touch with Chris (Gayle) and I think keeping up with what he had going on at JGR and the role he was moving back into, trying to figure out exactly what everybody's roles were going to be. I think as we learn that and figure that out and get to meet the new team ‑‑ I got to go up to the shop yesterday for the first time this year and get fitted in the car and just sit down and kind of start to meet everybody and figure everything out. It is a big transition in some ways, but in some ways it's not. The same race cars, same people that I've really known for a long time, and even worked with some last year in conjunction with Furniture Row. There is some similarities, but there's also some stuff that I'll have to learn along the way."
The fact that the crew chief is transitioning, also, does that make it more comfortable? "Yeah, I think it makes it more comfortable and a little bit easier. At least you get to work with the same guy for two years in a row, which is something that I really haven't had the chance much to do in my career from late models to NASCAR. I think Truck Series is the closest I ever got. I got to work with Rudy there for two years, and even that wasn't consecutive. I had a year off. It's been something in my career I've wanted to build and just haven't had the opportunity, so this is kind of the first chance I have to continue a relationship for multiple years."
How is the mindset going into this year as far as your comfort level? "Well, I think it's good. I think it's higher than last year. There were a lot of unknowns last year at this point for myself, at least, going into a new series with a new team, a new group of guys. It was just a lot of things that were really unsettled and weren't really all figured out yet. At least having everybody in place, knowing Chris (Gayle) and knowing the Cup Series one year better than I did last is definitely an advantage. I have a better feel for the cars and everything to expect there and what's going to be week in and week out and how the season kind of rolls and progresses. We'll see how it all goes, but I'm definitely at a more comfortable point with the Cup Series than I was a year ago."
Is anyone else coming over from Furniture Row or is it just Chris Gayle? "I believe it's just Chris. I thought for a while we were going to have a couple other guys come with us, but they ended up staying. A few of them stayed out there, a few of them went for a different opportunity, but I believe Chris is the only
Toyotas were really on a roll the last half of last year. Any reason to think it'll be any different this year? "I don't see why not. I think our speed will still be there like it was last year with Toyota. Obviously you've seen Chevrolet roll out a new product for this year. We'll have to kind of see what that's going to do. I think obviously that's going to put them in a position to catch up some. I'm sure they did their homework. You see honestly a lot of similarities between some of the stuff they've done with their cars and ours. I think that'll put them into catch‑up mode some, but I think us having a year under our belt with the new Camry is just really going to make it that much better. I think it's given us another off‑season to develop on it and know where some of our ‑‑ not many weak points but maybe a few of our weak points were with it and maybe where we can improve and get better, and I think we've put in our homework this off‑season to try to step that up even more."
Do you view this as a step up in expectations, or is the pressure still the same going from Furniture Row to JGR? "Well, I think at least in my mind it's really similar. I think I put pressure on myself last year to compete and contend, and I think with Furniture Row last year you saw obviously Martin was the fastest ‑‑ one of, if not the fastest cars week in and week out. I think that pressure to perform was there last year, and I think in a way some people pushed that to the side sometimes because we were a new team over there and we were starting up and there were some hiccups we had to work through. But for the most part I feel like we had the speed and had the opportunities, we just weren't able to sometimes put the entire race together. I don't know if the pressure is any higher. I think just looking at the 20 car itself and the legacy it has at JGR, I think some people kind of had pressure on for that, but for me, I think the pressure is always the same. It's kind of been like that throughout my career. I've always pushed myself to contend and win races, and that hasn't changed for me."
What does the history of that car mean? "Well, it's really special for me. I mean, I can remember growing up and watching the 20 car with Tony Stewart specifically when I was really young watching NASCAR, and then on to Joey (Logano) and then on to Matt (Kenseth), and you know, to be the next guy in that role is obviously pretty neat for me. Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the best organizations in NASCAR. I mean, there's only a few true top teams left in the sport, and JGR is definitely one of them. It's really cool just to be a part of that organization and that fold and that family, especially in the 20 car. That's a car that's had pretty close to the most history there, them and the 18. So it's just cool to try to continue that legacy and hopefully build my own role in that seat."
There's a lot of fans out there looking for a new driver to get behind. What's the best argument you can make for Dale Jr. fans to come and get behind you? "Well, man, it's always tough to lure fans in. It's so different now. I can remember when I was watching NASCAR when I was younger, and there wasn't any way to connect with the drivers away from the track, so fans just have so many more opportunities now to see what we're doing away from the track and see what we're interested in. I think they just have to keep up with that and see if we like the same things. I think for me, I'm a pretty regular guy. I really just like to spend time with my friends and chill out and have a good time, show up and drive race cars. It's something that's never really changed for me. I still like to go home to Michigan and just see all my old buddies and bring them to the racetrack on the weekends. I don't know, it's tough to pitch that, but I hope that they can follow along and find something in me that they can connect to."
On that, do you have a social media strategy when it comes to ways of trying to attract fans with your personality? "Well, I think that's evolving. I think over the last few years, it's become more and more important, not only to the fans but to sponsors and to our partners and everybody. Everybody wants more from that side of things. It's a big part of our sport now. Me personally, I've tried to develop more of a plan over ‑‑ especially I would say even the last six months, trying to figure out exactly how to portray that and how to put that out to the world. It seems so easy. You think you just get on social media and put stuff out, but at the same time, it's challenging in a lot of ways that you need to know the right strategy to put that out and when to do it and when not to do it. It's kind of a fine line of making your partners happy and also promoting yourself and showing a personal side. So it's definitely a fine line."
If you don't get a playoff berth will you be disappointed? "Yeah, for sure. I think last year it was disappointing for us not to make the playoffs. I think honestly ‑‑ it didn't ruin our year. I think we still had a good year, but it was disappointing. One of our big goals was to make the playoffs. Not being able to make it was disappointing, but for sure this year that's a big goal of ours. I think we have to make the playoffs. There's really no reason we shouldn't. We're going to have great stuff, and we're going to have fast cars, and we have more than enough opportunity to do that."
What have you and Chris Gayle done to teach you how to convert performances to wins? "Yeah, I think we went over that a lot really, even throughout last year and now some in this off‑season and just kind of analyzing what exactly ‑‑ where do I need to get better, and Chris, he'll ask me the same. He's not just going to tell me that I need to do better. He's going to ask me what he has to improve on and what do I need out of him, and he's going to tell me where he feels like he made a mistake or didn't make the right call. He's confident enough to man up to that and own those mistakes and say that he's learning, as well, which we were last year. We were learning together. We were two rookies in the Cup Series. I think we learned a lot. I think for me, I have a lot better idea of what exactly I need to do in these races to at least be in position to win and have more consistent finishes. I feel like last year I was really aggressive, which is fine at times, but it's not fine for all 400 miles of a race. I think just analyzing that a little bit and learning better when it's time to be aggressive and when it's time to ride is something that I feel like I learned a lot of, and I think Chris is way more confident going into this year. I think he feels real comfortable at Joe Gibbs Racing. I think he's really at home there. That's where he was up until last year, that's the only place he'd ever been in his NASCAR career. I think he's really at home there and feels comfortable working with the other crew chiefs, and I think it's going to be a good season for us."
Has JGR given you an idea of what you'll be running outside of the Cup Series? "Not really. Unfortunately for myself they don't restrict it. I can run as much as I want. But we've seen a lot of the mid‑week shows go away in late models over the last three years now. I think there's only three races I could even run just with the schedule. So it's kind of unfortunate, but at the same time, I feel like I really need to focus on my Cup career. I didn't run many late model races last year. I think I only ran one. Beyond that, XFINITY‑wise, I don't think I'll be running very much. We've got two full‑time drivers there, one part‑time car. I know one guy is going to max out his races, and I know one guy is going to run two others, and Ryan Preece obviously has to run his races, as well. That really limits my schedule there, which is fine. I think focusing on the Cup Series is pretty important to me. But I'm sure there will be some along the way late model and XFINITY I'll be running."
Is it tough for you having limited other races you can run? "Not really. I felt like last year at times it was pretty heavy schedule. I think I ran 18 XFINITY races, which was fun. It was a lot of track time and a lot of experience, but the cars drive really different. It was pretty challenging at times to go back and forth, especially when you have the XFINITY practices and the Cup qualifying at the end of the day. I think that was one of the toughest ones for me was that first round of qualifying. I don't think it's a bad thing not running as many, but I'd still like to run a few. There's definitely some tracks where I feel comfortable in either car and feel like I could go back and forth easily, along with Watkins Glen. I'd love to go there and run that, as well. We'll just have to see how it plays out with sponsorship and seats and availability, but I feel like I'll probably be in a couple."
Have you talked to your crew chief and acclimated to the new policy? "Actually I've been talking to Chris throughout the off‑season, but we went to lunch yesterday and I was able to kind of sit down with him and talk about some more things, and that was one thing that came up. He actually hadn't even watched it yet with the 18 guys. They've been working to prepare to load our car for the Las Vegas test next week. So I haven't seen it yet in person, but I feel like I've talked to guys at JGR, and they feel really confident about what we've got. The thing is nobody really knows the right way to do it because nobody has seen everybody else do it yet. I think it seems like it's a big secret right now in the sport with guys' different ways of doing it and the different way of getting to
the same place with the amount of guys. So it's been a lot of movement, though, between finding guys that are capable of doing different roles. I think a lot of guys' roles are changing and roles are being added to, so that's been interesting to see progress on guys on the pit crews."
Joe Gibbs Racing has had consistency of pit crews. Do you think that's going to benefit you with the new policy? "You know, they're really confident. I don't see why not. We've got really good guys that are in charge to train those guys and keep them in the right ‑‑ down the right path. But you know, like I said, it's really unknown. Until we get to Daytona and see exactly how everybody is doing it, there could be a team that's found a different way to do it, and it's just better. We've got good athletes, though, and good people, and like I said, good trainers, and they've done the best they can to find the optimal amount of time. They're definitely slower. The pit stops are slower, which is going to be a big change, but I think you'll still ‑‑ you'll see a different evolution. I think you'll eventually see guys getting closer and closer to that time we were at before. You'll never get back to it, but I think you'll see it reduced throughout the year."
Is there anything about being able to share, being able to look at EFI data to see what other teams ‑‑
"I haven't. That would be really interesting, but no, I haven't heard anything about that. Is that something they're talking about?"
We hadn't heard, either, but Austin Dillon said something about being able to do that this year, so I figured I'd ask somebody and see if they'd heard that.
"I don't know, maybe they have some secret code. Maybe they've been looking at it all along, I don't know. I've never been able to do that. You know, honestly if I was to have an opinion on it, I don't necessarily think it would be a great thing. I think before EFI, every driver had their own way of doing things, and they still do. I think every one of us is unique in some ways and some of the driving styles we have transfer to every track and we do unique things. But really now we're able to go in and look at the EFI data. For me it was great last year obviously not having any experience, but if I was Kyle or Martin or Denny, I would be frustrated that guys were able to look at exactly what I was doing and copy it. You know, so if you open that up to every team being able to see everybody else's stuff, I think obviously parity in our sport is low right now, which in turn doesn't create for a lot of passing and a lot of action at times on the track when guys are all super close, so that's just going to continue to tighten that up, which I don't know would necessarily be a good thing."
Are there advantages to JGR being in NC vs Furniture Row Racing in Colorado? "Yeah, there is. There's certain ‑‑ obviously Furniture Row gets pretty much all the information that JGR has, but there's definitely times where we can't make enough pieces for everybody. There's times where you find things, and I think JGR is able to put it on because obviously with Furniture Row being in Colorado they have to leave earlier, so they've found things later in the week and been able to add it to their cars before Furniture Row was able to last year, which isn't huge. It's never anything life‑changing when we show up to the track, but it is a little bit, and it's a little bit of pieces that add up to a little bit of time here and there. At the end of the day, though, there are different ways of running each operation. I think Furniture Row has their way, JGR has their way, and for me, I think I just know the Joe Gibbs Racing way better because it's just where I've been the longest. I feel comfortable there. I know everybody really well, and just excited to be back in that role."
Where is the fine line between going for a win and doing something dumb and wrecking cars? "You know, it's tough to say. I mean, yeah, there is ‑‑ as a driver you can judge your opportunity to win pretty easily, I think. You know how good of a car you've got. You know what kind of a shot you have to win at that day. I think if you're restarting fifth on a green‑white‑checkered you're going to have to really examine your opportunity. I mean, your opportunity to win at that point is pretty low. But if you're in third or fourth, that opportunity is pretty high. You know, you have to evaluate your risks. I mean, if you've got a win already and you're in the playoffs, go for it. But if you're trying to point your way in at that point and you haven't got that win and it's early in the year, I think you have to sit back and take that top four or that top 5. It's tough as a driver. You want to win every week, especially myself, I think I charge pretty hard for the win every time, and at times that puts you in a bad spot and a bad position throughout the year. But with this format it does reward that if you can get a win. It's a fine line, but I think you have to just really weigh your odds and weigh your season where you're at that point."
The restarts have gotten so much more important. Do you work at those? Can you practice restarts? "It's very track dependent. I mean, if you're at Texas and you're starting fourth, you can't ‑‑ fourth or sixth or wherever, you can't just go to the top and make it three wide around these guys. Obviously the track is not at that point yet. But there are opportunities at other tracks. You can go to Charlotte or another worn‑out mile‑and‑a‑half and really make a lot of big moves and pick up a lot of ground and make up a lot of spots. But it is track dependent. I mean, Martinsville you're not going to make a lot happen. It's very dependent on the track, but yeah, there is stuff you can do to improve it, and it's something that I thought I was always pretty good at, and then you get to the Cup Series and everybody is pretty good at it. It's definitely tougher in the Cup Series to make a lot of spots up on restarts."
Do you watch tape of that specifically? "Yeah, I do. I'll watch back what I did, if I made a mistake, watch back to see what I could have done better or when I have a good restart watch back to see exactly what happened, and then I'll watch other guys, too, see what they do. Obviously Kyle (Busch) is really good on restarts, Kurt (Busch) is really good on restarts, (Kyle) Larson is really good on restarts. So there's a lot of guys you can watch and see how they put themselves in those positions."
What do you want to improve on for this year? "I think restarts have always been all right for me. I think my biggest improvements need to come from I think green flag pit stops really are a huge spot for me to improve on. There's a lot of time to be gained on entry and exit of pit road as well as time on pit road. So there's so many small things there you can pick up and gain on, and I don't feel like I extracted really everything that was there to gain from it. Just working on that and improving from there I think will pay off big at the end of the day."
KYLE BUSCH, No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Did you bring in your shoes with a prospect of racing? "No. If we've got to work on our stuff, I'm sure we will. But with all the approval processes and everything else that's got to go on these days, you know, it's pretty self‑explanatory to where NASCAR wants everybody to be within all the same boxes and parameters, so I don't feel as though they're going to have that big of an advantage or anything that we've got to come from behind on."
What makes you guys think you'll be as good as last year or better? "I don't think we would be any worse. I would like to think we'd be better. We kind of started out the season a little bit on the slower side, if you will, last year with our new car. We were kind of behind the 8‑ball a little bit maybe, and as the season kind of progressed, we learned what things our car liked and what we needed to do in order to make ourselves better and more competitive, and we were able to do those things and got it to where we were pretty fast there obviously and peaked later in the season. Hopefully we can start out our year this year a little stronger than we did last year."
What do you think about being the only driver to sweep a single weekend, which you’ve done twice now at Bristol? "I mean, it's obviously pretty cool when you have the opportunity to run triple events. Obviously you want to win every single race you're in, and those opportunities don't come along very often. So being able to get that again this year was pretty special. I love going to Bristol, love that track. It's obviously a lot of fun for me. It reminds me of a track that I didn't grow up racing but I ran a few times when I was younger in my late model days and stuff at Winchester, Indiana. It's just a really cool place and a lot of fun for me, being able to run the triple there, and to start it off winning the Truck Series race on Wednesday night was real big, and then being able to bring it home the rest of the weekend was obviously special, too."
Have you had discussions with your crew chief about the new pit road procedures? "Obviously there's been some talk, and I've asked Adam (Stevens) about some of the guys, and we've kind of gone through a whole new restructure, if you will, of our pit crew, and the group, the whole selection process that we all had, it kind of was divvied out a little bit this year, a little bit differently than what we've done in years past from my understanding. I haven't seen any choreograph or anything like that. I haven't seen any of that stuff yet, or choreography. Is that how you say it? Whatever. I haven't seen any of that stuff yet. I'm supposed to go there this week, but I just don't have any time. I don't have any day available to go see."
By the end of last season, do you feel Joe Gibbs Racing matched Furniture Row Racing in performance on-track? "I definitely feel as though we matched them at Homestead. You know, I'd say that we were actually a little bit better than they were at Homestead, and that's what makes Homestead so painful is you can be a guy who wins 35 races out of the year, and then that 36th race you can finish second and lose the championship. We thought we had the opportunity to put the 78 bunch in that situation, but just wasn't quite able to pull it all off there at the end of the Homestead race. You know, that was kind of painful for us. Feels like a letdown, and having the opportunity to be able to win that race, we were right there, we were real close, but wasn't able to get it done. Other racetracks, you know, they kind of ‑‑ I feel like they've even gotten better at some of their weaker tracks, like Martinsville, for instance, they had a shot to win at Martinsville. They weren't quite as good as us, but they were right there all day. Loudon now they're really good at. Phoenix they're pretty good at. They outran us at Phoenix. Anywhere you look, they're obviously really good."
If you had to do it again, like if you ran Homestead again, just in terms of the chance to come out ‑‑
"Yeah, I think if we would have been out front, if we would have been in front of the 78, if we would have reversed situations where we would have been where the 78 was, I feel like we would have drove away, and we won would have by four or five seconds. They wouldn't even have gotten as close as I got to them."
Talk about the changes at JGR.
"Yeah, it's going to be good. I'm looking forward to having Erik (Jones). I'm looking forward to having him as a part of our team. It's just unfortunate that we had to get rid of a guy and we're not able to have Matt Kenseth anymore. Obviously I feel as though he was a guy that I really looked up to, especially the last few years, looking and watching and understanding what he was able to do and accomplish throughout his career and always being right there and always being a championship contender. He helped me kind of model myself a little bit, if you will, to being able to make the final three, three years in a row. It's going to be a little bit of a learning curve for Erik. It's going to be a little bit of kind of a setback, if you will, for us, especially with last year losing Carl (Edwards) and bringing on Daniel (Suàrez), and now this year losing Matt and bringing on Erik. You know, it's not quite the veteran status that we had two years ago."
How have you adjusted to the transition now that you're that veteran status? "Yeah, obviously it's a unique opportunity for me being one of the elder statesmen, if you will, of the sport, let alone Joe Gibbs Racing, and being able to kind of lead our younger guys, if you will, Erik and Daniel. Those guys have come through Kyle Busch Motorsports, so it's been fun to watch them progress through the years with the Truck Series, the XFINITY Series, and now being into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. I'm looking forward to working with them and continuing to see their progress, but also hopefully being able to continue to be one of the leadership guys at our team and being able to race on for championships for years to come."
Apparently NASCAR might be giving more data to teams this year from other teams as far as stuff that they've done ‑‑ throttle traces or steering inputs, whatever. Do you know anything about this? "No, that's news to me."
Does it sound like a good idea? "No. No. That's entirely not fair. I'd rather just disconnect all my stuff to begin with so nobody gets to see it."
You and your teammates? "Absolutely. I mean, I'd much rather just not have anybody be able to see anything. Even if I'm behind, I feel like I'm better at being able to catch up than just being able to hand my data to somebody else and say, here, here it is, this is how you do it. That's not good. That's the first I've heard of that."
Are you concerned that some team might show up at Daytona with some wacky design? "I've heard about jacks being thrown over the car, but I haven't heard about people jumping over the car. I don't think that you'll see a human be able to do that because these cars are so flimsy and fragile that I don't think they'll be doing that."
Is there kind of a limited box on what you can do really? There's not going to be some teams ‑‑
"Yeah, no, especially with the new rules and the pit guns and all that sort of stuff, too. They keep trying to make everything closer and closer together, and sometimes I feel like they do that, and other teams I feel like they make it worse. I feel like the limiting of the people, you're only going to have so many guys that are going to be good at what they're able to do. You know, the jack man is going to have to be a jack man and a tire carrier most likely, so a guy that's going to be doing that, jumping off of a wall, there's only so many tight ends in the NFL that are good at what they're able to do, right? There's five of them maybe. And there's 32 teams. Well, now you've got 40 teams, there's probably going to be five or six good guys that can do those roles at our level, and the rest of them it's going to get pretty bad pretty quick of guys not being able to do it, or there's going to be a lot of injuries, too. We'll just see how all that goes."
Do you expect the pit stops to be slower? "Yes, no question. I would think the pit stops would be slower, yes."
Do you feel that Toyota will continue to enjoy the success you had the second half of the season last year? "I mean, I don't know. That's tough to say. I think there's enough rule changes and things like that that are coming where I think that everybody is kind of on an unknown right now. I would think with us finishing out the season as strong as we did that we have a little bit of an advantage over the rest of them, just because we have that known, but some of the unknowns with the rule changes and things with the splitter and the fans and the this and the that that's happening with the cars is going to be a little bit of an equalizer for some of the teams. I would like to think that we'd be a little bit farther ahead, but I would think that we'd all be pretty even."
Do you feel like there's an emphasis on this younger generation of drivers? "Absolutely there is. Do you feel like that, too?"
Does that bother you? "It is bothersome. We've paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else, and all you're doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver. I think it's stupid. But I don't know, I'm not the marketing genius that's behind this deal. You know, I just do what I can do, and my part of it is what my part is. I guess one thing that can be said is probably the younger guys are bullied into doing more things than the older guys are because we say no a lot more because we've been there, done that and have families, things like that, and want to spend as much time as we can at home. You know, maybe that's some of it. But you know, it's ‑‑ some of these marketing campaigns and things like that, pushing these younger drivers, is I wouldn't say all that fair."
Now that you have a more leadership role, what are some of the lessons you've learned from earlier in your career? "Good question. I would say the time that I had with Jimmie Johnson was really, really good. Jimmie and I, we really enjoyed working with one another and really respected one another. Still do to today. I'd probably say Tony Stewart. I only got to spend a year with him but learned a little bit from him with that season that I had in 2008. And then since then I'd say Matt was probably one of the top guys that I've learned about being able to communicate and share and be a teammate in that respect."
In terms of the length of the off‑season, do you feel like it's dragging on or would you want another week or two? "I think it's not necessarily the off‑season needing longer. I think just some more breaks during the season would be better. I don't think we need to spread our season any longer from when it starts to when it ends, I just think if we could figure out how to maybe have a weekday race or maybe pack a couple races into a few more days, and then you have an extra off weekend, that those are really, really beneficial to all of us, especially with families and things like that, when you're able to go off and do something during the summer months or whatever it may be, to be able to just have that time away from having to go to the racetrack and to just kind of catch back up, if you will, on some much‑needed rest and relaxation."
Like two weekends off or something like that? "No, you don't even need that. Let's say you run a Wednesday race and then a Sunday race, then that opens up another off weekend. Just having another off weekend would be pretty good. We have three, I think, going into this year, so four would be nice, five would be even better."
Do you think a weekday race is something that fans would want to see? "I don't know. You know, there's obviously some races that it could work. There's some venues that it could work. There's some venues that it's absolutely not going to work. You've got to be mindful when choosing those things and being able to make some of that happen. Looking at the NFL, they've kind of done it. They've got that Thursday night football every single week. I'm a guy that tunes into that. I like seeing that. I look forward to Thursdays. I know there's a game on Thursdays. Maybe if the NASCAR fans knew that there was a race on a Wednesday, they'd tune in."
How significant do you think the new ride height might be at Daytona? "I think it's going to be better for the safety aspect. I think obviously with all of us trying to get our cars as down and as low as possible that that's going to be really good for us for lift‑off speeds and things like that. When the car gets turned around, it's not going to want to lift as fast. We kind of saw that a couple years ago, I think Matt actually went upside down at Talladega ‑‑ well, a few guys went upside down, but Matt most notably when the car turned sideways, it automatically lifted and then it just kind of went over. Now when the car gets sideways and turned, it's not going to lift because it doesn't want to rebound. It doesn't want to be pushed back up because of the soft springs and the ride height rule. It's going to want to stay lower, flatter, so it's not going to allow the air to get underneath it. As far as the drivability aspect of it, I think that's going to be pretty similar. I don't think there's going to be much of that. Maybe hopefully it'll make the cars drive worse so then there is some handling that comes into play. I would enjoy that. I would like that because I think any time you have an opportunity to out‑setup someone or out‑handle someone at a racetrack, that's what creates racing. That's what makes passing."
As a car owner and a truck owner and whatnot, driving with the new talents, guys that will make the transition to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at some point, does that make you want to stay aggressive? "I mean, you're always on the brink of something new, whether it's a new driver, a new car, a new chassis, a new tire, whatever it might be, so you've always got to be ready for anything that's coming. You've got to be adaptive in this sport. I think the biggest thing for me is I remember when I started in 2005, the way the cars drove then to the way the cars drive now and the setups and the things that you're doing to get yourself to be competitive, to be fast, is entirely different than anything you ever would have thought of. So things change so fast in our sport that you've got to be ready for all of that. I think that kind of lends itself a little bit maybe towards a veteran driver, but I think also it lends itself to the younger driver, too, because they don't know what to do. They don't know what to expect. They just drive the hell out of it. They don't know really how they want their car to feel. They just figure it out as they go. It all comes around, and the guys that are good and forever will be good are always good."
As a team owner, how do you see some of the rules changes that are coming in the Truck Series this year? "I mean, the biggest rule change that we've got in the Truck Series side is the engine thing that's going on, and obviously we want to be a team that sticks to our guns and sticks with the OEM engine as much as possible and as long as possible because that's what the series is named off of, and the nameplate of these manufacturers is the engine and the body. There's only one IP that's essentially in these things, and that's the engine, and where that all kind of started and how it was made. We'd like to see that as long as possible. But as far as some of the other stuff that's kind of going on, it's par for the course. Obviously we try to adapt as best as we can adapt each and every year that there's rule changes or things that happen, and we're ready for most of that. We think we are any ways. We try to think of any scenario. You're not going to think of every scenario, but to have the opportunity to try to be ready for things that are thrown at you, to be the best of that moment as quickly as you can, that's what makes us, I think, stand out from some of the other teams."
With all the support you've had from Toyota, is it disappointing in a way to see (indiscernible)? "It is, it's definitely disappointing. It's something that we've kind of been fighting and not wanting to see happen for a while, but we're also not going to dog it and say that we're never going to run it. We know that there's going to be an evolution of change, and we've got to be ready for that, and if we've got to change over, then we're going to have to change over. But we're going to try to make sure that we give every opportunity to the OEM engine for as long as possible."
Can you explain your success at Indy and what that does for your team with it being so close to the Playoffs? "Yeah, so the last few years we've been pretty good at Indy. I'm not sure how that kind of came about, but I'm really happy for it, obviously, and we were going for three in a row this last year. That didn't quite work out for us. But the speed that we've shown the last few years has been really, really awesome at Indy. I enjoy running around that place. It's a really good track for us now. We feel like we've got a good handle on it and feel good about it. Would like to get back to the way we've run there the last few years this time around going back."
What do you think about Indy being the final cut off race before the Playoffs? "It doesn't punch me through to the second round. It's the last regular season race. Hopefully I can win that one and win a regular season championship; how about that? But other than that, it's a good place for us now these last few years, and I'd like to think that we can continue that."
Does your mind ever take a mental break from racing, like in the off‑season do you think about racing less? Do you get recharged in any way? "Yeah, I think you've kind of got to ‑‑ I think you've kind of got to step away from it for a little bit just to kind of get recharged for it to get that drive back, that passion back, if you will, to want to get back into the race car. You know, there's times where you run these seasons out for as long as they are, and it's like, man, can it just get over, can we just go home, and finally you get home and you finally have a couple weeks or a month or whatever it might be away from the car, then you're kind of like, oh, I'm ready to go back now, you're itching to get back in the race car. A bunch of these younger guys are probably not that way. They'd like to see the season go all year‑round. But as they get older with more years and things like that, they're going to feel some of the same ways that we do and want to see a little bit more of a break or whatever. But we know the season is February to November, and that's what we sign up for, and that's what the challenge of our business is making sure that you can continue that longevity and making sure that you're ready for 38 weekends."
DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Matt Kenseth leaving, what's going to be missed without him as a teammate? "When Matt (Kenseth) came over, obviously it was a great addition to our team at the time. The 20 car had been struggling, and he gave it some solidarity. It performed well, and really the information is ‑‑ the comparatives that he had from Roush (Fenway Racing) over to Joe Gibbs Racing and how the cars drove gave us some good input about where we should take our cars in the future. Obviously he was a great teammate on and off the racetrack. I had a really close relationship to him off the racetrack. We were pretty good friends, and really during the meetings he was very engaged, asked a lot of questions, and that obviously is important in chemistry with any race team. That probably will be the next thing that will be missed the most is the input and the things that he said during the meetings to kind of send us in the right direction."
Being on the driver's council, what are some of the items of business that you're looking at? "Yeah, we don't have too many items of discussion, being that this is going to be a year with relatively limited amount of change. You know, I know we talked a little bit about cone choose rule on restarts for some tracks. That didn't come forth this year. I know several of us were hoping so, being that there was such a disadvantage at some racetracks such as happen to come off pit lane in the wrong lane, you're not going to win the race, and that's not necessarily fair. I think giving the drivers a choose rule would be something good to look forward in the future, but overall it's status quo on the way the stages went. The cars are relatively the same, so there's good momentum that we need to build on from last year."
Outside of that obvious goal of winning your first championship, what would be your next maybe biggest goal in the sport? "I'd say probably the next goal would be winning the Brickyard 400. I think that that is the next big one, that or the Coke 600. Equally I want both of them equally. Those are the two races that I'd like to cross off of the important ones on my list for sure."
Are you ready for the season or are you kind of soaking up the last few remnants of the off‑season? "Yeah, I think that this is far enough removed from the (Daytona) 500 that I'm still not in race mode yet. I think as we get closer to Daytona, probably a week away, I'll get engaged on everything. I mean, we have meetings before that, so I'm sure that it will start. But right now, we're still a month out from the official kickoff of our season. There's still a lot to ‑‑ a lot of downtime to be had between now and then."
We recently saw video of you walking with seven or something little girls in a pink limo, going to a doll store. Did you ever see yourself ‑‑
"No, no. I was told ‑‑ when I was informed of what Taylor's birthday plans were of going to American Girl doll store and things like that, I'm thinking, cool, I'm going to have the day off while you go do that. It's like, no, it's just us two with those seven kids. Wow, that was interesting. So it was really fun, though, because they were all four or five years old, so it was cool ‑‑ I mean, it's like ‑‑ I don't know, I can't relate it to any store that I can think of, taking like me and my friends to, but it's big for them, man, to be able to go in that store and kind of pick out whatever they want."
Did it help, make it easier to get used to the chemistry thing again? What does he bring? "Yeah, I mean, I think really not much changes within our race team because Erik (Jones) was already there last year in the meetings, so really we just kind of lose a guy. We really don't bring someone in new that we've got to understand, and I feel like Erik started to become more outspoken as the year went on. Same with Daniel (Suárez). And I'm sure their second year in it's going to be even more magnified. Yeah, it's just going to be one less car of information essentially from our team standpoint, and really, I think that by mid‑season we'll be looking at those guys just as if they were Matt Kenseth, using their notes just as often."
Has anyone emerged? "Not really, to be honest with you. I mean, I think that me and Kyle (Busch) both are vocal enough in our meetings that it just depends on what happened to who that weekend of who gives the most information out. I think that it's equal bearing on shoulders, and no one person has more of a larger role than another."
You've been also a model of consistency. What's kind of your strategy? "Yeah, we've been very consistently good, but we obviously need to have a great year. We need to have a year like 2010 or '12 where we win more than five races and contend for championships. With this format, it's a little bit different because the entire championship is based off of one race and not your whole body of work. I think last year we certainly had the correct champion as far as that's concerned. He performed well throughout the entire season. But it all comes down to one race now, so how can you focus so much effort in the regular season, putting yourself in a good spot, and still know that it doesn't matter if you don't perform well at Homestead. I think it's just taken us to the next level. I mean, I think we're right there. We're level 8 of 10 of where we really need to be."
You mentioned the end of the season. Do you still think about the way the season ended last year and have frustrations? "Yeah, but I've ‑‑ I haven't thought about it at all. I mean, I think that once the season is over, I'm pretty much offline from anything racing. But I mean, there's good and bads to every playoff I've ever been in. Like I've had the craziest things happen, and I've had things like last year happen. I've seen it all, so nothing really surprises me. You just learn from it, and you try to figure out how you can put yourself in a better mindset when the same situation comes up next year."
Have you had conversations with your crew chief or participated in pit practice where you have one less crew guy? "I have not. We've talked a little bit about pit crew stuff, but we haven't ‑‑ I haven't actually seen it."
Have you had a strategy discussion? "Within the team they have, and I've gotten a little bit of the summary of that, but I haven't seen it in person yet."
Kyle said earlier that marketing of all the younger guys is unfair. Do you see that being unfair, as well? "I think that we all get ample opportunities. I do think that they spend a lot of ‑‑ it's all about the young guys. It really has been over the last two years or so. But I mean, that's what's the future, too, right? We've seen an abundance of veterans retire over the last couple years, and so it's hard to bank and try to grow your sport off of someone that's not going to be there in the next few years. But I do think we're in a point now where the driver pool that we have now is probably going to be the pool two and three years from now. I don't think you'll see much turnover here in the next two to three years, so you're going to see ‑‑ this is going to be the field for a little while, I believe."
Is it fair to say that a driver that's been around as long as you have, if you can establish yourself as one of the more popular faces of the sport in NASCAR, it's probably throwing money away to try to (indiscernible)? "Right. I mean, I think your fan base is probably made relatively early in your career; no doubt about it. Even when I was a successful rookie, I mean, we never were really super popular. For whatever reason, there was always the bigger names out there and things like that. I think the young guys are very lucky now that they're coming in the sport, it's as other drivers are leaving, so those experienced drivers have their fan base that then they want to pull for somebody else. Most likely it's not going to be someone that raced against their favorite driver, it's going to be someone new that comes in. So that's where all the fans really go is to the new guys for that reason. They're picking someone from the start just like they picked their driver that retired from the start."
Being so close to the championship so often, is that motivation for you, or has it been more something that's kind of dragged you back? "It's been motivation. I mean, I'm always motivated to be better, and I'm just going to keep grinding as long as I can to try to win a championship, and putting in the hard work, I've definitely worked harder last year on things I can do to be better personally on the racetrack, and hopefully that pays off this year and for years to come. But it's not been a drag by any means. My career has been great every year. I feel like I'm better, and even those stats may not show it, I feel like I'm a better race car driver. But you just ‑‑ sometimes circumstances work out for you. Dale Earnhardt was the greatest Daytona driver for how many years before he won it? 20 years, right? He dominated every time. Every year he was in contention. He just never won. Eventually he kept putting himself up front and in contention, and he won. That's the way I'm going to keep approaching my career is keep grinding on the door."
All the Toyotas were good last year, the 78 a level above. Is there an easy explanation for that? "There's not an easy one, but it's a difficult one. I think that they do a great job of focusing so much effort on their two cars at the time, now one. Things move a little bit slower in a four‑car organization. When you have something new that you find, a part or piece that seems to be better or something aerodynamics, it takes a while to make sure everyone gets it, and they don't want to give it to just one guy. You have to make sure you have four of everything. For us there had to be six of everything. And they can implement things way, way faster than what we were able to, so it always seemed like we were just a little bit behind those guys. So I think there's something to be learned there. I think that they did a phenomenal job with everything that they had. They still had ‑‑ did a lot of things on their own. It wasn't like they were just taking our ‑‑ rolling a car out of our shop and he's getting on the track and racing with it. They spent their time and did their due diligence in Denver and made their cars better."
Obviously you have a kid now and I know as you've gotten older, the competition has changed, but is there something about winning a race that never changes for you? "You know, I think I appreciate the victories more now because in my mind they're harder to come by. I think with data sharing, it completely changed the game in NASCAR. I think that it's very similar to other sports where I think that Michael Jordan was significantly better than the second best player in his day. Nowadays the best player in the nab, I think the second best is very close to the best because they have more information. They have more data. They're starting sooner. And it's no different in racing. These kids are starting way earlier in their racing career than we started, so they're better. I think the talent pool is better now than it's ever been, which makes it harder to win, which makes you happier when you do win. I think as you get older, you do realize that talent is coming in bunches right behind you."
Do you have a dog in the Super Bowl fight? "No dog. But it's ‑‑ I think the champs are going to still be the champs. I don't know, I don't see it changing. I think it'll be close, but I don't think it'll change."
Is the NFL the other sport for most of the driver corps do you think? Mostly NFL? "Yeah, probably. I mean, that's what you see the most engagement on, and obviously when you look at ratings from 2017, the top 20 rated events on TV, like 17 of them were NFL, so I think that probably, yes, that's what most people resonate to."
How does it affect NASCAR that one of the announcers for the pregame of the Super Bowl is going to be a former NASCAR driver? "Well, it just depends on the role really, and whether it's a prominent role or is it just something at the pregame at 2:00 on Sunday afternoon. I mean, it just depends. I'd like to see what they're going to use him for. I would have said two, three years ago there's no way Dale Jr. should be on TV. But he changed, and he really has gotten so much better at it. When you think about Jeff Burton and those guys, I never thought they would be good at what they do, and lo and behold, they go through an off‑season of training, and they sound great on TV. I suspect that's going to be the same thing with Dale Jr."
With that big of an audience, it's got to help NASCAR.
"You would think it helps, but it's not an active driver. This is a former driver. So you have to get people excited about current drivers, not former ones."
With the new crop of drivers that are coming in and we talked about the football dynamic, driving for Coach Gibbs, how much of an impact does he have on newer talent coming in and grooming them in a good direction? "Well, I think it's a combination from JGR and Toyota. I think that Toyota plays a bigger role on driver development. I think that they start them in two or three series lower than what JGR is looking at drivers, and they have a good eye for talent. They always have. I think that they use the JGR platform in which to groom that talent. There's no better organization that some of these young guys can get into is getting in a KBM truck or a JGR XFINITY car. It's the best of the best; it's on you to perform at that point."
How many phone calls have you personally made about the Showdown this year, and do you have any special plans for this event? "I do. I actually just have a little booklet of ideas and things that we're thinking about doing. Not really ready to disclose them yet, but definitely excited about how we're going to do it, and the format which we run, I'll have input on all that, and obviously we still want to make it one of the biggest short track races we possibly can, just like we were two years ago."
You talked about how great Toyota's development program is, but at this point there's no room at the inn, and short of the 77 coming back, Christopher Bell has got to be one of the most talented drivers, where is he going to go? There's no place for a Toyota at this point.
"Well, I think there's always a place, as long as Furniture Row doesn't have four cars. There's always going to be a place that you can go. It's ultimately about sponsorship, though, right? That's the biggest ‑‑ been the biggest factor in the hiring and the firing of drivers in the last 10 years is sponsorship. And so you have to have it to perform. That's just the way the teams' finances is. They have to run off the bottom line, and they're going to put who they think is best for the job and financially makes sense. I think that we have four cars at JGR, but ultimately Christopher Bell is part of the TRD family, the Toyota family, and there's other Toyota teams out there."
How much security do you feel and how much comfort does it give you knowing you have the support of FedEx? They've stood with you throughout your career.
"Yeah, I mean, I'm in the first year of a new deal this year, so I'm very confident. We've been together for all of my career, which is ‑‑ me and Jimmie (Johnson) are the only two guys that can say that, and that's just ‑‑ yeah, you thank your lucky stars every day you have a company like FedEx behind you. I saw they got named one of the top 10 most admired companies, and for good reason. They're very loyal. They do the right thing, and obviously they're in here to win a championship, and that's what I want to do, and they feel like I'm the best fit to do that for them."
How would you describe J.D. Gibbs? "Well, he was instrumental in bringing me to JGR, which is ‑‑ he was the reason. He essentially is the reason I got hired at JGR. He's the one that traveled down to Hickory and watched me run laps in a late model in the middle of winter and told his dad that he thought I was something, and so we have a strong bond with the whole Gibbs family but especially J.D. and Melissa and his sons and whatnot. I think that Joe is priming his grandsons to eventually take over the reins at Joe Gibbs Racing, and you've got to have a long‑term plan. Joe can't do this for forever, even though he's going to try. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to be in good hands no matter who has it, but J.D. was such an instrumental part of my early career. There's a great picture at my parents' house that my mom really, really likes. It's my very first start in Daytona, and it's me and J.D. sitting on the wall, and my dad is in the background, and it was kind of like the passing of the torch, right, from my dad having to finance my racing career and being my mentor to J.D. then taking over. It's a special picture that we have."
Have you had a chance to evaluate Ty yet, Ty Gibbs? "I've seen him, watched him in person twice now, and honestly when you're his age, 14 or whatever he is, it's so raw. It's like ‑‑ there's so much refinement that has to be done between now and when he's ready to step up to the next level. But he's got the one thing that is hard to teach, and that's speed. You can teach control after that. I'm looking forward to seeing where he takes this whole thing."
Basketball head‑on, Virginia Tech, what's your feeling so far? "Well, they beat North Carolina so far, which is good, but they need more help if they want to make it in the tournament. I think they need one more big win."
Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Noah Gragson was made available to the media in Charlotte:
NOAH GRAGSON, No. 18 Safelite Autoglass Toyota Tundra, Kyle Busch Motorsports
Are you excited for the 2018 season? "Very excited. I'm excited to work with Kyle Busch Motorsports and (crew chief) Rudy Fugle this year in 2018. It's going to be a lot of fun, just getting back out on the racetrack and not being a rookie anymore. I made a lot of mistakes last year as a rookie, so I'm hoping to capitalize on that and learn from that."
What did you take from last year that you think could make you even better this year? "I want to finish every race and finish every lap. I think that's big. Looking back at the average finish of the past couple of champions, it's been around 6.6. If I can finish all the laps and finish in the top 5 a majority of the time, it's going to be a good year, and then we'll be able to build on that, and the wins will come. To finish first you've got to first finish. That's the way I'm looking at it right now, and I'm just looking to leave nothing on the table. Preparation is everything in this sport, so it's going to be key this year preparing, being physically fitter, eating healthier, all that kind of stuff comes into play. It's going to be a great opportunity to work with Rudy, the rest of the guys at Kyle Busch Motorsports, and hopefully I can carry on with how history has been with Rudy and win the championship."
Is it helpful for your development to have different teams – crew chiefs, engineers, pit crew etc.? "Yeah, this is the first time I've changed crew chiefs within an organization, so it's a little tricky. It's kind of that bittersweet deal. I'm very thankful to be able to work with (crew chief) Marcus Richmond and the team last year, and definitely am very appreciative of the things they taught me. But also moving on into the future, I'm looking ahead, and it's a great opportunity to be able to work with Rudy. He's kind of the head guy over at Kyle Busch Motorsports, so it's a good thing to be working with him. But definitely can't take it for granted what I've learned with the past crew chief Marcus Richmond and the team."
You're running the Chilly Willy this weekend, right? "Yeah, I'll be running that, too. I finished second last year. I'm really excited to get back in my late model, go out there and just have fun mainly."
How much different is it whether it's your own car or someone else's late model? "I hope to do as much late model racing as I can, probably six or seven weekends hopefully. We've got a few scheduled on our list so far. Really excited to race in the super late model races. Also excited to get out on track with the truck. A lot of moving parts, and they're finally all coming together, and I couldn't do it without safe light. They're a big part of this, Safelite Autoglass. To bring them on board this year, it's really special."
How important will the test be tomorrow to build a working relationship at the track with your new crew chief? "We've done sim a little bit with Rudy, just trying to get to know him a little bit, but really it's starting off cold turkey. I haven't worked with him at the racetrack, so it's going to be different. This weekend is going to be ‑‑ or this week, tomorrow is going to be kind of a dress rehearsal, trying to learn him. He's going to be trying to learn me. Just going to take it all in as much as I can. It's a four‑hour long test, so I have a long time to work with Rudy and get to know him, so that'll be good."
Was there anything that changed in October when you kind of had that breakthrough moment, you won at Winchester, then you won at Martinsville and your results really started to come? "Yeah, I think I was trying maybe a little too hard at the beginning of the season, just knowing the opportunity I was in, driving with Kyle Busch Motorsports. They're obviously the top dog in the Truck Series. You always hear when are you going to get that first win, so I think that kind of got to me a little bit, and I was trying super hard. But now that I won at Martinsville, I had a lot of momentum when I won those couple of races there in the three‑quarter mark of the year. It's a good deal. Hopefully we can carry on that momentum from the end of this 2017 year and carry it on to 2018."
Talk about your performance in Charlotte and how that will prepare you for night racing.
"I mean, Charlotte, we had a lot of speed there with Marcus this past year. I was pretty fast in practice. I messed up a little bit in qualifying. That kind of hurt us. But that's a really fun track, really tricky. I feel like I've run numerous iRacing races on that track, but it's a little bit different in real life, just with the bumps. Three and four are just really, really tricky. I remember going to Charlotte last year, and they had the test, and the first laps I made on the racetrack, I'm like, guys, there is something like broken in this thing. That was really my first mile‑and‑a‑half race on that track. I was like, man, there's something broken in this thing, and I went out again, and I'm like, no, I'm telling you, there's something broken, because I'm like way loose. And then I started figuring out how to drive it on that track, and it started to all come together. Charlotte is a different animal, that's for sure."
Do you expect the dynamic of the series to change from last year to this year with the spec motor and some of the teams who are generally considered underfunded to be closer to the front? "I think it might help their cost a little bit. I don't necessarily think the motor is the difference because with the way it is right now, a lot of it's with the equipment, the quality of it, and then the bodies. When we go into these mile‑and‑a‑half tracks, superspeedways, the bodies are a huge factor to it. It might change things a little bit at first, but once everybody starts figuring it out, I think I'll be back to its own ways probably."
Are you running any particular late model races this year? "Yeah, I want to run the Snowball Derby. That's a big one. I wanted to run the Winchester 400 that I won last year, but can't run it again because we're racing that w
Long-time RIS staffer, beginning in the mid-80s. Charlotte, NC area local contact.