2018 Media Tour - Toyota Notes - Wednesday
(CHARLOTTE, NC - JAN 24, 2018 - RIS) Here are the Toyota driver quotes from today on this year's NASCAR Media Tour: CHRISTOPHER BELL, No. 20 Rheem Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing - How do you feel about people’s expectations for you? "Well, that's cool that people believe in me that much. That is really cool. But I've got a year of XFINITY ahead of me, and I'm going to focus part on making the Final Four at Homestead. If we can win races, compete for wins every week and make the Final Four at Homestead, that's a win for us. So yeah, just kind of ‑‑ that's the same goal that I had going into last year, and really as long as you're competitive and can capitalize on that and win some races, you know, that sets you up for the year. That allows you to ‑‑ if you win one race, you're in the Chase, and then if you win multiple races you can start building on those points, and it makes getting to Homestead a lot easier."
Have you guys talked about extracurricular stuff you'll be able to do this year? "With the XFINITY schedule, it's going to be a lot tougher to run as many races as I did last year. Last year I got to race a lot. But I still will be able to race some. I don't have a schedule ‑‑ I probably won't be making a dirt schedule, just kind of off‑weekend, see what's racing, what rides I can get, where at and stuff like that. I won't make a dirt schedule, but I'll still be able to run some dirt races."
Do you have a number in mind for how many you'd like to run based on the schedule? "So last year I think I ran close to ‑‑ heck, I don't know, I think I ran close to 40, 35 or 40 races. So I won't be able to do that many, but if I could hit ‑‑ I really have no idea. I've already done Chili Bowl."
I know you'll do Turkey Night.
"Yeah, Turkey Night, so there's two, and just kind of sprinkle in throughout the year. I don't think I'm going to be doing any more dirt racing before Daytona, so once the season starts we go pretty hard until March, so yeah, middle of March will probably be my next opportunity."
Do you have any idea how busy your day‑to‑day schedule during the week will be compared to what trucks last year? "I don't know. It's going to be different because the trucks have so many off weeks that you really don't get a race ‑‑ you don't get multiple race back‑to‑back‑to‑back weekends like you do in XFINITY. It's going to be a new lifestyle for me, but I'd rather race instead of sitting at home waiting for the next one."
Does it surprise you that some people have already crowned you the 2018 XFINITY Series champion? "Well, I just have to live up to it now, right? I've got the equipment to do it. I've got the crew chief to do it. So I just have to do it. You know, to win a championship, especially with this format, is ‑‑ it's so hard to do. So A, you have to be good at Homestead. If you're not good at Homestead, you can write it off. So that's a very key part of winning a championship. But before that, you have to win races throughout the year to put yourself in that position. We've got a long road to go before we worry about winning a championship. We just need to focus on being competitive, number one, qualifying good, number two, and capitalizing on the speed that we should have and try and win races."
Does the hot streak you've had over the winter with the Chili Bowl and the other sprint car wins that you've had, is there such a thing as carrying that over? Does that give you confidence heading into the season, or is it a whole different discipline? "Well, confidence is ‑‑ racing is a very head game sport, so confidence is really big, and you can ‑‑ whenever your confidence is up, racing is a lot easier, and it's a lot easier to run good. But I've been racing since I was six years old, and I've learned that you have these highs and lows, and seemed like 2015 was a low and then 2016 was a high. Unfortunately at some point, it's going to start tapering back off, but I'm not going to let that be 2018."
Insofar as the schedule this year, obviously more races on the XFINITY side than the Truck side and no dirt. Are you disappointed that you don't get an Eldora type race in the XFINITY car like you had in the trucks? "Well, I guess for my competitive edge, yes, because I had a pretty decent advantage whenever it came to Eldora (Speedway). But that's not NASCAR racing. Everyone knows going into Eldora that it doesn't relate to anything that you'll ever doing moving forward, that it doesn't relate to anything you'll do throughout the rest of the year in the Truck Series. Besides the fact that it's a race on the schedule that I have an advantage at, other than that, it's kind of ‑‑ it is what it is."
What are you most looking forward to this year? "I'm looking forward to Darlington (Raceway) and California (Auto Club Speedway). Those are two racetracks that I didn't get to go to on the truck schedule. They do race really well. They're, I guess, sort of man racetracks, like Darlington you need to be able to go good next to the wall, and I feel like that's up my alley, and California is another place, they both wear out tires a lot. California is really rough. I'm looking forward to those races a lot."
You didn't do any XFINITY plate racing last year, right? "No, I did not."
So when you do Daytona, how do you expect that style of racing to be different from trucks? "That's a great question. I don't know. Plate racing has never really been my ‑‑ one thing I looked forward to after my Daytona incident a couple years ago. Just going to study film, and I've got a lot of – (Daniel) Suárez was my teammate, Kyle Busch was my boss, Erik (Jones) was my teammate, so I've got a lot of guys that have kind of done the same path as I have, or at least been there, done that in both divisions, so I'll rely on those guys to tell me what I need going into Daytona, and yeah. But the big thing for me will be studying film and trying to learn as much as I can."
It might be a ways off, but are you hopeful that you guys might be able to put something together for trucks at Eldora? "It would be really cool if I got to run the track race at Eldora. Eldora is my favorite racetrack, so it's always fun whenever I get to go back there. XFINITY is not racing that day, so there's hope. But got to find a ride first."
Road courses, it didn't necessarily seem like it was your strong suit last year in the truck, but there's a bunch of them all together.
"Yeah, I'd better figure out how to get good at road courses, that's for sure. I don't know, the truck race last year I actually was fairly fast. I won a practice session and I think qualified in the top 5. That was something that I was really proud of, and I was going to ‑‑ it looked like I was going to finish top 5, top 3 before I went from third to second again. But I struggled really bad at Road America. That was not my strong suit throughout the year. I've got to get better at road course racing, and I'm going to be doing a lot of homework because road course racing makes up a fair amount of the schedule this year, especially with the Roval or Charlotte road course being part of the playoffs."
What are you expecting from the Roval? "I think the guys that are good at road courses love it, and the guys that are not good at road courses hate it. Whenever they announced that they were going to do it, I was excited, man, because I thought I was going to be at home sitting on the couch watching it. So I was super excited to watch it. And then I realized I was going to be driving, and I got a lot more nervous. I've got to get better at road courses. That's the bottom line for me. Like I said, the guys that are good at road courses are really happy that it's happening, so yeah."
I'm curious, from a driver standpoint, because we can sit back and look and see how some of the racing is different, but what are the differences for you since going to the XFINITY car compared to truck? "The biggest thing is just the aerodynamics, right? That's pretty much the difference, so to speak. They've got pretty much the same motor package. Whenever you're inside the car or the truck, you know, the horsepower is really similar. The tires are really similar. Everything is really similar until you start going 180 miles an hour, and then the trucks you can just run so hard because they have so much downforce. You can almost run wide open at most mile‑and‑a‑halfs by yourself. But the trucks have so much dirty air because they're so aero dependent, the dirty air is way worse than what they are in the XFINITY cars. Aside from that, you've just got to figure out my limits with the lower downforce. That was something that I felt like I didn't get a handle on very good last year, so I've got to work on that, just finding my limits, how hard I can drive them, and stuff like that."
Talking about road courses, is there anything that's transferable from what you do week to week, oval racing, going to the road course, or what can the road course enhance for you bringing back to the oval? "Well, honestly for me, I feel like the road course relates a lot to dirt racing because dirt racing there are so many things you can do to manipulate your car to benefit you throughout the race, where pavement oval racing, there's not really too many things. If you're fighting a tight condition, you're tight. If you're fighting a loose condition, you're loose. You go to pavement racing, and if you're a little bit tight, typically you can find a curve and run over a curve and make it turn a little bit better or you can try a different angle through the corner or you can turn earlier or turn later, so there's a lot of different things on road course racing to manipulate your car to make it drive better. So that's one thing that I really enjoy about road course racing. I just have to figure out how to pick up speed on it."
Last year it was somewhat controversial, I think it involved Erik Jones and another driver making a comment, that was a classic dirt track move. I'm thinking that sounds like a skill set that's transferable into oval racing, so just an observation.
"Yeah, each driver has their own tendencies from the racing style that they grew up doing, so yeah, you can kind of ‑‑ pavement late model guys will bring their stuff over, dirt guys will bring their stuff over, so yeah."
Why do you think that maybe ‑‑ just again, this is your opinion, in the open wheel series it has been so hard for them to have some measure of success in stock car racing? "Well, I don't really think that's true. There's been a lot of open wheel guys that are legends of the sport, like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart."
More the IndyCars I'm thinking, Scott Pruett and some of those. It just seems like there's some difficulty.
"Yeah, I don't know. I've never driven an IndyCar or anything like that, so it's hard for me to relate to that."
Probably the IndyCar is the only thing you haven't driven. I've seen you in the midgets and in the sprint cars. I think one of the most important things for the drivers, especially the young drivers, is how you interact with the media. You do a very good job with that. Did you have any formal training? "No, I haven't had any formal training. It's just a matter of doing it, and the more you do it, the more comfortable you get with it. That's the biggest thing for me is just learning to be comfortable with someone holding a recorder in your face or a microphone in your face. And I've still got to get better at it. But yeah, just experience."
For some drivers it's tough. Now Ryan Blaney, he's a natural. But years ago I was hired by a marketing company to work with his dad, and when I went in, they said, now, this next gentleman you're going to work with, he doesn't like to talk. You're going to have a problem. When Dave walked in and said hi, the guy said I think you'll be okay. But I think Ryan has benefitted from the struggles that his dad has, and he actually has his own podcast.
"Yeah, it's really cool. You know, the Blaneys have obviously been around for a long time, and I've raced with Dale a lot through the sprint car ranks, and Dale is Ryan's uncle, and then didn't get to race with Dave that much, but I was teammates with Ryan at one time. Yeah, it's cool to see them doing good."
I asked Ryan last year, with grandfather, father, uncle all in sprint cars, how did you end up with fenders. He said, they didn't have sprint cars where I lived.
"Yeah, every time I see him I ask him when he's going to drive a sprint car because Dave is a World of Outlaws champion, Dale is a, whatever he is, a bazillion‑time All‑Star champion. But yeah, we've got to get ol' Ryan in a sprint car."
I was surprised that your name wasn't in the All‑Star truck. Are you kind of bummed that you're not going to be running any truck races this year? "Yeah, I am really bummed that I'm not running any truck races this year. I don't know, honestly, the thing that disappointed me the most was Eldora. That was something that Rudy(Fugle) really, really wanted to win, and he gave me a truck that I could have won in, and I spun out with it. So I was hoping that I'd get to go back to Eldora with Rudy and maybe get another shovel for myself and get Rudy a shovel for himself. Unfortunately it's not going to happen."
Is that one Truck Series race you'd like to run, Eldora? "Yeah, obviously that place kind of kick‑started my career in 2015 whenever I won there. But Rudy has won almost every truck race except Eldora and Martinsville (Speedway), and Eldora is my strong suit. I was really bummed that I didn't get to win that for him."
Volusia? "I'd love to run Volusia (Speedway Park), but I don't have a ride yet. Hey, car owners, I'm open."
I know that's been a big thing for you any time you've gone back and run dirt, isn't it? "Yeah, you definitely want to be in good equipment, and that's one thing that driving for Tony Stewart was really, really good at. I was going to have the best race cars and the best crew chief and best motors that I could ask for, and yeah, so if I'm going to go back ‑‑ especially Volusia. Volusia you'd better have your stuff together."
DANIEL SUÁREZ, No. 19 ARRIS Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
How do you feel your rookie season went? "We have done some homework, and even if we keep the consistency that we have the last couple months of racing, I feel like we're pretty competitive to make it. But that's not the plan. We want to be able to win races and to be competitive in the top 5. That's like all of the team. I feel like the team is capable of doing that. We have done some adjustments from last year to this year, and everyone seems to be really comfortable and seems to be going in the same direction, and I'm very happy to see that. I really can't wait to get into the first few weeks of racing."
When you say you guys have made some adjustments, what are you talking about, like what? "Well, last year in the last two months of racing, we had to change my number one engineer. We had to change my number two engineer. In the off‑season we changed the car chief. Maybe that's the biggest change that we've done. A couple other things that overall we feel more comfortable. Everything that we had last year was just for last year for many, many different reasons, and I feel like now having all the people together, all the people that we know are going to be together the entire year or even more than that, that's ‑‑ that just gives you more confidence and more ‑‑ puts you in a more comfortable spot to know that you are going to have the commitment of everyone, and everyone is super excited to be working together. Everyone knows the challenge that we have, and everyone knows all that we have. I really like that."
Where do you feel like you made the biggest gains personally last year? "I feel like the biggest gains was to learn how to race in the Cup Series. That's a big difference versus XFINITY Series, to learn that. As well, to learn how to get better every weekend. We had several weekends where we were good, but good is not enough in the Cup Series. You have to be great. And to push those limits with your team, I think that that's something that I learned, as well, last year, and to be patient. So many different races we had the opportunity to have a good day, and for one or another reason we didn't, and I feel like that's something, as well, that we learned last year to apply this year."
How do you push those limits without going over the limit, wrecking late in races, that kind of thing? Is there kind of a line there that you can't cross? "Yeah, I think there is always a risk. Looking to my numbers, I'm not a driver that wrecks a lot. Most of the time we made it back to the shop with two race cars, so that was a good thing. We competed almost 96 percent of the laps last year, so that was another good thing. As a rookie, that's not something normal. But that was a good year in that side. But there is a lot more ways that I believe there is improvement, in my race team side as well as on my side, and I feel like we are moving in the right direction so far in January. Hopefully we can keep moving in the same direction in February, March and all these months to hopefully be a team to talk about every weekend and a team that is going to be contending for wins."
What's the secret to avoiding crashes? How do you do that? "I think the biggest secret is to be patient. If you think about it, that is very important to be patient, to be in the front at the end of the races. Most of the drivers are very aggressive the entire race. Some other drivers are aggressive in the first half of the race, and I believe that staying in the top 15, top 10 is the place where you can stay out of trouble most of the time because those guys most of the time have more experience and they have more patience, as well. I feel like staying there and knowing what you have, knowing what you're going to do with the car that you have that weekend, I think that helps a lot."
Any particular tracks, when you say trying to stay out of trouble, trying to avoid crashes, that for you have to focus on saying, this is a track I need to be a bit more cautious? "Well, any track. Any track is a track where you can get in trouble. We are going very fast, and you can get in trouble any time. But I think that sometimes ‑‑ you can't hide. You are out there the entire time, like Bristol (Motor Speedway), Dover (International Speedway), all those places that you have no brakes. The intensity level is always very, very high. Doesn't matter if you are fighting with a car for a position or to put a car a lap down. I feel like there is any track where you have to go with the main sight of trying to be competitive, trying to win the race, go in the front. But at the end of the day, if you wreck in the first half of the race, you will have a lot to apply for the next time that you go to that race because you have a lot of ‑‑ you didn't have a lot of race. So I think that is always very, very important for me to finish races and to spend time with your team to improve your race cars instead of fixing your race cars."
You talked about being comfortable. Now that you're going to be in this Cup ride, how is that mindset different? "It is different for sure. Last year at this point we had everything together already, but as we went into the season, a lot of things changed, crew chief, car chief, engineers, a lot of things changed, and I felt like that was the reason of having everything a rush in the beginning. But that's not the rookie season that everyone wants, but sometimes that's what makes you tougher, and I feel like that teach me a lot of things last year to prepare myself better for this year, and I feel like we are going to show that on the racetrack."
How different are you today compared to when you were talking to us just a year ago just as far as ‑‑ are you less nervous? Are you much more comfortable? Just kind of where are you mentally and emotionally? "Yeah, for sure I'm more relaxed. I won't use the word nervous because I feel like I'm very calm. I don't get nervous very often. But for sure more relaxed. Last year I had a lot of things in my mind, and everything was happening so fast that the only thing I wanted was to go to the racetrack and drive, and right now everything has been more smooth, everything has been happening more normal, and I believe that will help everyone to have a good start of the season."
You still have obviously Denny that you can go talk to, you can go talk to Kyle. Does the change with Matt not being there, was he somebody that you talked to about how he maybe ran a particular track or setups or anything like that? Will it make any difference him not being there for you? "Yeah, for sure. I think Matt (Kenseth) is a great driver, a lot of experience, and very smart, very patient, as well. He's not one of those drivers that he's going to talk to you just like that. You have to go to him to ask him whatever you want. But he was very helpful. But at the same time, like you mentioned, we still have Kyle (Busch) and Denny (Hamlin) and Erik (Jones)and myself as young drivers, and Erik has done a very, very good job. He has speed all the time, and he's going to bring a lot to the table. I feel like I'm going to be in the same spot, and having the two veteran guys in the same house is going to be, as well, very important. I think we are going to be fine. I think we are going to have a lot of information, and I feel like we are going to have a good start of the season."
I think on the media tour last year you were telling us about how you had been calling Kyle all the time before you got to Cup. Did your relationship with him change at all once you were seeing him every week? Did you still lean on him for information a lot? "Yeah, I was still leaning on him for information a lot, but now ‑‑ I guess not as much as I used to in the XFINITY Series because now that there is some stuff I start to learn and I start to know by myself. I still ask questions about the track, about the car, what he's doing with that setup and stuff, but more technical questions. Before that, I had more basic questions like Texas, hey, what do you think about Texas, in the long runs, in the short runs, should I be a little tighter, a little looser, all that kind of stuff. And that kind of stuff, honestly, I can't remember the last time I asked him a question like that because now we talk more ‑‑ now we talk more about the car, about technical stuff. It's still advice, still questions, but they are not more basic questions about, hey, what should I do in Texas, what should I do in Phoenix, and I feel like that's ‑‑ that takes time. It's a process. But now we can trade information. Now I can try some things, and those things can be helpful to him, as well. So overall I feel more comfortable sharing information and putting my little bit on the table."
What surprised you the most about your rookie season and how it went? "I feel like my rookie season was okay. I felt like in the beginning of the season, I didn't know anything. I didn't know what to expect. But later on, I felt like we had top 10s and good results pretty early into the season, and then we started having changes and adjustments to the team and things out of our control, and that never really helps in the beginning. And I felt like later on in the year, we kept having things to change and stuff that didn't help us. But at the end of the day, I felt like that helped us a lot to learn and to make the right team for this year and to put the right group of people for this year. I feel like if I would have to do it again, I wish I don't have to change anything. That would make a better rookie season for myself or for any other rookie driver in numbers, in paper. But as a driver, as a person, I feel like I learned more the way that I had my rookie season because we are going to show that we are stronger for this year."
What's your relationship like with Erik, and you guys both being kind of the young drivers at JGR, kind of at a similar position in your careers, do you think there will be any sort of friendly rivalry between you two this year? "Yeah, Erik and I, we get along very well, but we know that we are competing with each other. We get along very well. But we know that there is that racing attitude all the time, and that is going to be there all the time. We are going to have that hopefully for a lot of years, hopefully for 20 years. We get along well outside of the racetrack. We do some things actually together sometimes with cars, with old cars and stuff. But once we are racing, we are going. If we have a problem, I talk to him, and the same both ways. I think that's normal. Really both of us, we are kind of new in this level of racing, but both of us, we know what we want. We know what we need to do. And we know that we help each other a little, we are going to move forward a little bit quicker."
With a lot of Dale Jr. fans looking for the next driver to get behind, what would you tell the fans about why they should get behind you? "Well, Dale, I don't think nobody is going to replace Dale. Before I had the opportunity to meet Dale, I didn't know exactly what to expect, and then once I moved into the Cup Series, I had the opportunity to spend more time with Cup drivers and with him. We'd ride bicycles together. He's a great guy. He's maybe one of the most humble drivers I know, and that's an example of how nice you have to be with people, how nice you have to treat people. He's not the most popular driver for anything else but because he's a very nice person with everyone. I was talking with Tyler, my PR guy, like he used to be his PR guy, and he told me Dale used to give hats to everyone. Every hat he used to give away, and that's a very nice person. And I feel like there is a lot of good drivers out there, as well, with the same ‑‑ with similar personality, not the same. It will never be the same. But with similar personalities that I'm sure those fans will find similar personalities to Dale to support."
During last year, did you get a good sense of how much your rookie season was being followed back home and whether more people were starting to follow you as the year went on? "Yeah, yeah, for sure. You know, it feels very good. I spent a month in Mexico and Brazil, and it feels very good to meet people that have been following you for a long time or even just last year in the Cup Series. It just feels very good to know that there are people all over the world supporting you and following your racing. I feel like NASCAR is doing a great job letting the world know what we are doing as a NASCAR family, and as well what I'm doing here in NASCAR. I feel very proud to be a small part of it, and hopefully we can keep letting fans know what we are doing and invite them to the racetrack and to have the life experience, because I have told so many different friends that one thing is to watch racing on TV, and another different level is to watch it in person. Once they have that experience in person, they become fans right away. I have had that experience not once, not twice, but several times, and it feels very good to change the perspective of looking to racing of so many people."
Is it unrealistic for you to make it to the Final Four at Homestead in November? "I think we can. I feel like right now it's very early to say where we're at because nobody really knows. But by the first half of the season I will let you know where we're at. I can tell you something: We have the tools to do it. We have the team. We have the equipment. We have everything. We just have to work hard. That is not something new for us. Have fun, and achieve our goals. If we do that, we can do anything. We just have to go out there and do what we know how to do. Last year numbers‑wise wasn't the year we were expecting, but we know that the changes and the adjustments that we've made are going to make a huge gain in our side."
Do you think you flew under the radar a little bit towards the end of the season because your finishes were a lot more consistent and you had a lot more top 10s? "I think we did. I think we did. But if you look at my results in the last month and a half, we were very inconsistent, as well. And part of that was for ‑‑ I had excuses. That's not me. But part of that was for a lot of preparation and adjustments and changes that we were doing for this year. Like I said, I don't feel like I had the rookie season that I was hoping I was going to have. It wasn't horrible, wasn't great, but I feel like as a driver and as a person I learned a lot, a ton. And that is ‑‑ at the end of the day, that's what it's all about, and I feel like that's going to help me a lot for this coming year."
Do you have any special like pre‑race rituals or superstitions that you do? "Not really. The only thing I do is to have fun, to clean my mind, and to go out there and do what I love to do. I have worked pretty much my entire life to be in this position and to be racing every weekend, and I just try to do the best I can. Obviously I'm very, very fortunate to be in this position. There is a lot of drivers out there that they wish or they are working to get in one of these positions, and I'm one of those fortunate. Just very thankful for a lot of opportunities with a lot of people."
You had a little accident in the snow with your car a couple weeks ago; is that the first time you'd driven in the snow? "It wasn't the first time, and it wasn't an accident, I just spun out. But I was going very, very slow. It happened, but nothing really happened."
MARTIN TRUEX JR., No. 78 Bass Pro Shops/5-Hour ENERGY Toyota Camry, Furniture Row Racing
What do you think of where Ryan Truex is now? “I'm very optimistic about it, as he is. I think it's a great opportunity for him. Last year did a lot for, I feel like, his ‑‑ what people see in him as a driver, as a personality as a driver. He's grown a lot over the years, and I think for a while he was kind of cast aside because everybody always thought he was really quiet and he's really reserved and it was hard to get him to say anything. He's kind of changed a lot over the years, and that kind of got lost in the shuffle. Good for people to see his personality last year, but most importantly what he could do behind the wheel. That team they had last year, they did a great job in kind of build a truck and did some things on a low budget and ran really well. That was good not only for his name but also for his confidence, to be able to do that. So I think this year is a really good opportunity. A really good team, had some good success the past couple seasons, and we'll see what he can do with it."
Has he gotten more vocal in the family? “Everything. He's completely changed. But I mean, he grew up. You've got to remember, he was 16 when he started racing and moved to North Carolina when he was 18, so he was just ‑‑ he's changed a lot. He's grown up a lot, matured."
Is it really kind of a sinking in moment? “It was part of it, I think. I think it still is, though. I don't know that it's still 100 percent. I don't know if I'm going to feel different tomorrow or still going to feel different when I show up at Daytona (International Speedway). I don't know how long it lasts. But it still feels really good, and it doesn't go away as we go. It's like, it's still pretty damned awesome. I don't know, maybe when we start racing we'll stop thinking about it or thinking about what it means, but it's been a ton of fun. It's for sure been a lot of work. Not had much of an off‑season to speak of, but it's definitely something I would do again given the chance."
You mentioned the kind of crazy off‑season you've had. How has Sherry Pollex kept up with all of that? “I sent her to Florida for about four weeks, and I went on tour. That's basically how that all worked. She's doing really good with it. All is going well on her end, as well. She's going to go to the Super Bowl with me next weekend, or in two weeks. We're going to the Bahamas next week, so my off‑season is next week."
You mentioned in some aspects it's still sinking in, but as a champion, what added responsibility or what things maybe how do you feel like you can speak on that you wouldn't necessarily have before? “I don't know that what I would or wouldn't speak on has really changed. I think I've always had what's best for me and the sport in my interest."
Do you feel more of a responsibility now as a champion? “I don't think more responsibility, but I think if you do have a ‑‑ if you do feel a certain way about something, you have a little bit more leverage to maybe make some changes or get things done or make something happen or maybe even make people ‑‑ other guys agree with you and help make a difference maybe, but I don't know. For the most part I honestly don't feel a whole lot different. I haven't done anything different. I haven't changed at all. I still like the same things and dislike the same things and do the same things. I haven't bought anything extravagant. I don't know, still friends with all the same people. But I have got to do a lot of fun different stuff and some doors have opened that probably wouldn't have before. I'm sure going down the road that some things are going to change, but I don't know what those are going to be yet, but it's been a lot of fun, like I said, and yeah, hasn't really changed me, but it's maybe changed my life in some respects."
Are you going to the game just as a fan or are you going to do some ‑‑ “Both. Yeah, I'm actually ‑‑ so I was slated to go to the game before my team made it, which was kind of cool. Yeah, going for NASCAR to do some NBC stuff with Dale Jr. pregame, and excited about that. And then it was like, all right, my team is pretty good this year, we've got a chance, we've got a chance, and the NFC Championship game was a pretty good celebration at my house last weekend, and yeah, I'm really jacked about it. It's going to be awesome."
When is the last time you saw them play live? “I believe it was 2015 in Philly. I haven't been in two years, so it had to be 2015. And I've never been to the Super Bowl, so the fact that I'm going to the Super Bowl for the first time in my life, my favorite team is going, as well, for only the second time since I've been born, that's pretty cool."
If you're not named Jimmie Johnson, why has everyone who's won the title not been able to repeat it? “Why? I don't know."
Any idea why? “It's hard. You know, I think more so now than even before his time, it's hard because this format. You know, I mean, years ago we had normal point race all year long. I would have to say that is way, way easier to repeat than what we have now currently, without any shadow of a doubt. It's just going to get harder, and that stat is going to probably live on for ‑‑ it has potential to live on for a long, long time, and it's going to get harder to repeat."
Do you feel like any more of a fan favorite or that people know you more? “I don't consider myself a fan favorite now, so I don't know ‑‑ it's hard to say. We'll just have to see. I love racing. I do my best, and what happens happens."
Does Cole Pearn have rock star status in your mind? “To me, yes." He seems so low key, but there's a competitive drive in him that seems like it drives him.
“Oh, absolutely. I mean, yeah, he's relentless. His work ethic and what he's willing to do, he'll do anything to win and to be competitive and get the job done. You know, him and all of our guys feed on that, whether it's the shop guys or the road guys or even the pit crew. They feed off of that, and it's been a big reason for our success."
This current schedule has been very kind to your team, of course. I don't know if you heard (Kevin) Harvick yesterday about the changes. Do you welcome that? “Sure. I'll go anywhere and race. I don't care. No, honestly, I actually feel like the schedule doesn't really ‑‑ the past couple years, the playoff schedule probably hasn't been some of our strongest tracks. You've got Martinsville in there, Talladega, and Homestead really the last couple years for our team specifically has been tough. Obviously this year we won it, but we kind of defied the odds a little. Phoenix is not a good track for us. So I mean, there's a handful of them in there now that we'd rather go somewhere else. I'm perfectly fine. I think Harvick has got a really good point about changing it up, keeping it new, keeping it interesting. I don't know what all that entails, and I'm sure the tracks aren't happy to hear about it, but I guess if you spread the love around and you mix it up, then everybody should be happy, right, not just the 10 tracks that have the race now. I think he makes a valid point, and I'd be all for it."
Over the last decade, a lot of drivers and teams would say that the 48 car and others have kind of been the role model of consistency. Do you feel like maybe the 78 is a part of that group? “I certainly hope so. I think it's more challenging today to find advantages, certainly keep advantages with the rules and the way things are. Everything is just so close. I think some of our advantages we can keep because there's a lot of stuff we keep close to the vest, and a lot of it is personnel and mindsets and the way we work together. Our chemistry of our team, a lot of those things are parts and pieces of our success and part of why we feel like we've had an advantage. We'll just have to see. You're not going to out‑spend anybody anymore like you used to and come up with some crazy setups that nobody can figure out. Those days are gone, so it's definitely going to be difficult. But I feel like we've got a great team, and we still have things we can improve on as we move forward, and hopefully we continue success."
What would you say is the coolest thing you've done as the champion? “The media tour today. (Laughter.)"
That's a great answer. The Super Bowl? "I was going to say that."
What has the reception been like in Denver? “So I was there just a week or so after the championship, had a little celebration, had the mayor at the showroom and had the trophy there and had to do some pictures for Mile High Sports magazine, and then I was just back there I guess it was two weeks ago, three weeks ago now. It all runs together, photo shoot, commercials, those kind of things. I haven't really got out in the public much. I've been so busy when I've been there. It's like, you go in, you do your work, and you've got to leave and go somewhere else. So I'm not real sure to be honest with you what the reach has been or what people think. Hard to say. But I know there were some things in the newspaper, interviewing people and some of the stuff (Joe) Garone has told me about just how much kind of notoriety it got, the championship, and the celebration and all the people going on Twitter asking for a parade and all those things. It was pretty cool."
Has the championship been therapeutic for Barney Visser? “Barney is hard to read, hard to gauge. I seen him right after Homestead that first time I was there, and he looked really good. I was amazed. I was sitting in the airport getting ready to leave, and of course he didn't come to the celebration because he didn't want to be around a lot of people at that point in time, and he's like, well, I want to see you at the airport, I'm going to come see you before you leave. He comes be‑bopping down the hallway of the airport, and I'm like, hang on a minute. I was like, did you lie to us? Nothing happened to you. There was never ever wrong with you. He looked completely fine, and this was like three, four weeks after surgery. He looked great then. And the last time I was out there a few weeks ago we had dinner. He sounds great, he looks great. He said he feels amazing and stamina is back, and he's got high hopes for this going forward. He's going to feel really good. Yeah, it's good to see him doing well, and hopefully this year he'll be able to celebrate more with us."
So you think everything about the Roval is the most challenging part of the track? “Yes. I'm telling you, it's going to be very difficult. The hardest part is there's so many changes in banking and cambers, and the makeshift chicane on the backstretch goes from the racetrack to the flat, back to the racetrack. It's like ‑‑ and there's so much of this going on and like ‑‑ you're just all over the place, and then of course you've got to have the car set up to go 175‑ish around Turns 3 and 4, 20 whatever ‑‑ I don't know what Charlotte is, 28 degrees, 24 degrees of banking, to keep the things off the trace track, and then you go in the infield and the car is six inches off the ground all the way through the infield. I'm telling you it's so much bigger of a challenge than people realize, and I don't know why, but when we tire tested there last year, it would just eat the tires off the car. You know, 10 laps, you couldn't touch the throttle anymore. 10 laps. I'm like, I can't ‑‑ on the infield, I can't touch the throttle at all. It's going to be a huge challenge. So I don't know. I mean, I think there's still a lot of unknowns about the track, about how we're going to do it, the turf around the chicane coming off of Turn 4 in the infield there, dropping your tires in that stuff is like hitting ice. There's a lot going on there that we don't know about. The curbs aren't put in yet. There's a lot of unknowns. But it's going to be very, very, very challenging. I can't stress that enough."
Do you expect a lot of folks (indiscernible)? “I think we should just have the All‑Star Race there and try it. I mean, let's just go for it."
Last week you were part of the Hall of Fame induction for Red Byron. Have you allowed the thought into your brain, your head at all that you will likely be inducted into the hall at some point? “You know, I never thought about it until Winston Kelley actually said it to me. Before Christmas every year, our foundation, we go to Levine's and walk around and hand out toys to all the kids, and I put my Santa hat on. It's a lot of fun, so I really enjoy it. Winston Kelley always goes there and helps, and he's like, just out of the blue, we're standing there talking and getting ready to go hand out toys, and he's like, you know, you're pretty much a lock to get in here now. He told me that, and I was like, well, I hadn't even thought of that. That's insane. I was like ‑‑ that was one of the moments this winter that I forgot about, what it was like. Yeah, I can't believe that. Just to think ‑‑ yeah, that's just crazy. Blows my mind."
But you were anxious before and not anxious now? “Yeah, absolutely. I feel like ‑‑ I feel zero pressure at all. I feel nothing. I'm so like ‑‑ like I'm so confident. I feel like we can just ‑‑ honestly, I really feel like we can go and start the season right where we left off, just pick up where we left off and continue as a team as we've done the last couple years of just ‑‑ we know what to work on, and we're just going to keep going down that road and hopefully have more success, but you never know. We'll just have to see how it all goes, but I'm not feeling any pressure, I'm not anxious at all, and I'll be ready when we get to Daytona."
Long-time RIS staffer, beginning in the mid-80s. Charlotte, NC area local contact.