MATT KENSETH, No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
How can you improve for 2014?
“You always go back after every race, every practice, every qualifying session, certainly every season and you look back and try to see what you can do to improve. I’m super far from perfect so certainly there are mistakes I could have eliminated. There’s certainly things I can do a lot better so I think you always do that and you look back and try to make it better. Last year was a spectacular year for us obviously. We had really, really fast cars, led a lot of laps, qualified good, won a lot of races and really had a pretty decent last 10 races. Would have been good enough to win some years, it just wasn’t last year. Just keep working on it. There’s a lot of people that would love to have our season — it was a great season last year and just going to try to improve and try to be better if that’s possible this year."
Do you enjoy starting the season with Speedweeks in Daytona?
“Daytona is so unique. It’s our biggest race of the year, but it’s so long. We’re down here for a week-and-a-half or whatever. Honestly, Speedweeks and being down here for a week-and-a-half is a lot for me. I could stand going home for a couple days or something. I really look forward to the Unlimited this weekend just to kind of knock the rust off of everybody a little bit, get some pit stops in, get some laps on the track, draft a little bit — I think that gives you a really good head start on the week. Then outside of that I really look forward to Thursday and running the Duels to try to get qualified for the race and get out there in race conditions. There’s going to be some different cars than what you had Saturday and then the Nationwide race and then Sunday. I like all the preliminary races and the time to prepare, but it’s a long week-and-a-half so I really look forward to the actual 500 and getting that race in the books and then that almost feels like it’s a mini season and it’s over and then you get ready for the rest of the season."
Are you worried having a championship runner-up slump moving into 2014?
“If anybody was going to have a hangover the next year you would think it would be Jimmie (Johnson) winning the championship because they had a lot of fun. I’m not a big believer in that stuff. Every situation is a little bit different. I don’t know why that would be. Certainly as we got into the Chase and as we were leading and tied and behind and ahead again — we were tied with two races to go or three races to go and not to win it when we were that close and going to tracks that we thought were going to be really good was a little disappointing for sure. We’d be lying if we said it wasn’t. On the other hand, it was our first year together. When we sat here last year at this time we were really excited, we didn’t really know exactly what to expect or how we were going to do. We all had high hopes. Our goals were high that we were going to go out and win races and compete and make the Chase. To expect that and hope for that is different than doing it so I don’t think anybody expected us to have the year that we had. It was way better than we expected. I feel as good today as I did sitting here last year. I don’t know why we shouldn’t be better this year. We’ve got Denny (Hamlin) healthy again and won the last race at Homestead. Kyle (Busch) finished as high as he’s ever finished in the points and was really strong down the stretch. We ran good most of the year and was able to do a lot of really great things. I feel really good about our group and the whole group working together. Really the whole organization, but Kyle, Denny and I all getting together and the crew chiefs with how close they all work together, I feel really good about it. We just have to get to the track and see how it goes."
Do you have a plan to approach the new Chase format?
“I think that could change during the season. Certainly, right now you don’t. I haven’t really put — I put a very small amount of thought into it just because you’ve got 26 weeks to get in. If you win a race, you’re more than likely in so really you’re just going to go out and race the way you always race. Try to prepare to win, try to call the race to win, try to drive to win and do all those things and hopefully you get some wins — hopefully before you get to that 26, but certainly I could see that if you get down to that then there’s maybe a few things you try to do a little different. I haven’t spent enough time thinking it all through, but honestly there’s probably not a lot of things because other than Jimmie (Johnson) when he goes to Homestead more years than not and has that lead and all he has to do is finish 18th so obviously he’s not going out there trying to win, but other than that I can’t think of any examples where we’ve went to the track and not tried to win. If you look at a lot of our wins last year, Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) made some gutsy calls and rolled the dice to put us up there and give us a chance to win. I don’t know why that would be any different right now. I certainly can see some stuff once you get in the Chase and whoever wins Chicago is going to the next round so maybe that’s something to think about — maybe he’s got a teammate out there, which I hope none of that happens, but, ‘Man, I’ve got a teammate out there and the boss would like my team car to be in there too.’ I could see people talking and thinking about that, which I’m sure that will get addressed. Until you get to that point I don’t think the strategy is any different. You go out and race as hard as you can. If you don’t win, you still want to finish as high as you can every week. That’s a given no matter what I race, you always want to put your best foot forward whether there’s purse money or not purse money or points or not points. You still want to do the best you can. If you look at past history, there’s going to be a few cars that are put in that didn’t win a race. You still want to finish the best you can in case you don’t get a win so you have points to get in that way."
How strong was your car in last year’s Daytona 500?
“We had a really good car in the 500 and Jimmie (Johnson) had a good car as well. I thought whichever one of us was leading was probably going to win, if one of us was leading. We were getting ready for that last pit stop leading the race so that was disappointing not to finish, but on the other hand I left here last year more encouraged than I’ve probably ever been just because of how we performed and how we were able to learn and progress through the week. I didn’t have my car in the right place in the 150s (Duels) and lost that, but Kyle (Busch) was able to win it and in the 500 I thought we made all the right moves and we had it all in the right spot. A lot of things go into trying to win these plate races. You have to have things go your way and you have to be in the right place at the right time and you have to have people want to be with your car because it’s fast enough and you’re making the right moves. I’m looking forward to the challenge again this year and hopefully we can be there at the end."
BRIAN VICKERS, No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota Camry, Michael Waltrip Racing
What will be the biggest challenge for the upcoming season?
“The biggest challenge for everyone will be adapting to the new rules. Specifically more for us and for me, probably just going to tracks I haven’t been to in a while. Most of the tracks I hit last year in the Nationwide Series, but not all of them. We didn’t go to Pocono and a couple of them and I haven’t been to a lot of the tracks in a Cup car in a long time. I don’t think that’s going to put us necessarily in a deficit, but if I had to pick one challenge, that would be it."
Is there one track you favor over others?
“I like all of them to be honest with you. Daytona — I haven’t run the Daytona 500 for a few years. Racing in Europe, it’s been since I guess 2011. I’m looking forward to it, but I’m looking forward to all the races."
How did you learn your work ethic and commitment?
“I don’t really know specifically, I would certainly have to say my parents. My mom and dad and my family, kind of mentors along the way — my grandparents always worked hard and instilled a lot of work ethic in myself and my sister."
How have you been able to overcome the setbacks you’ve experienced?
“I think you have to be resilient in this sport because there is always going to be ups and downs. Particularly with everything I’ve gone through, there’s been more than most. You can just never give up and you have to keep pushing through."
How much are you looking forward to getting the 2014 started?
“Very, for a lot of reasons. One, my first full-time year back in quite some time. Being out of the car with health issues and getting ready to run the Daytona 500 again for the first time in a couple years."
What was your reaction to learning about last year’s health issues?
“I haven’t really put a lot of thought into it, which may answer your question. I’m really trying to be a forward thinking person with some reflection upon the past in regards to not making mistakes again. You want to learn from the past. But, I don’t want to dwell on the past. Clearly I had that incident, I did everything I possibly could to find out and learn as much as I possibly could about the clots, what causes them, why I had them, what I can do to prevent it, what I can do next time and I worked with a lot of doctors on it. The reality of it is, they really felt it was a fluke accident. I went through all the genetic testing, I didn’t have anything that was known to produce spontaneous clots. But, there’s always the unknown, right? In general, I move forward. I’m not saying I completely forgot about it, but focused on the future. My attitude and optimism are probably representative of that. It’s just kind of the way I approach it. It doesn’t mean I didn’t think about it on a long flight getting up and walking around. There’s things you can do and things I do now on a more conscious level that most people — things that everyone should do. It’s part of the reason I partnered with clotconnect.org and Janssen to raise awareness on clotting issues. The long flights, the long drives, the hydration — all those things that can affect your ability to produce clots or immobilization, which is what happened the second time. I had a boot on for a month, immobilized my right ankle and calf and that’s what produced the clot. Now it’s the same thing. I went through the same routine. I went to all the best doctors and said why, where and what happened. Here’s what happened. Okay, what’s next? Three months of anticoagulation, blood thinners and then after that you can get off and you can go drive. I’m still probably as conscious if not more conscious and careful than I was the first time. At the end of the day, you just have to point forward and just go."
CLINT BOWYER, No. 15 5-hour ENERGY Toyota Camry, Michael Waltrip Racing
Do you think Tony Stewart will be as good after being out of the car?
“I hope not. He (Tony Stewart) was pretty damn good before, I hope it slowed him down (laughter), just a couple tenths, you know. Give us a couple tenths. I’m so glad to see him back. This sport is built on characters and he’s definitely a strong character within this sport. We’re all glad to have him back."
What’s the worst injury you’ve had in the race car?
“Believe it or not I’ve scrambled my marbles a few times — can you tell? I woke up in the infield once, in the infield care center at Charlotte, clearly thought the wreck happened a lot different than it had. I remember coming out of there and I was super pissed and I was hollering at Richard (Childress) because I thought Kevin (Harvick) wrecked me, my teammate. He was like, ‘No, he didn’t do it.’ I was like, ‘Quit sticking up for him, yeah he did.’ Really, he didn’t get into you. I went back and we were in this argument and I’m looking over his shoulder watching the replay on television and he didn’t get into me. I didn’t know what the hell happened. My head hurts."
Is it difficult to get back into a race car after an injury or bad wreck?
“I don’t know everything is always on your mind until you get in that race car. Until that green flag drops and you go off into turn one, everything you were thinking about goes away. Focus factor is 100 percent and you’re focused on if there is a car in front of you, getting around him and if there’s one behind you, keeping him behind you. It doesn’t matter what your thought process was, what pre-race ceremony happened, what happened the week before. You get in that race car and you rifle that thing off into the corner — that’s all you’re thinking about."
What was it like growing up racing with your dad?
“The funniest thing about us, we were always so close. Literally from the time I was a kid, when I was four-years old, I wanted to be down and be with my dad, towing cars and working on motorcycles. I just wanted to be at the shop with pops. As we progressed and we got to racing a lot, we argued a lot because we were so close. Shoot, he was my best friend. We would fight, bicker and people would come down to the shop and people were like, ‘What the heck, these people hate each other.’ They’d leave and we thought that didn’t look too good. We were just us, having fun and picking on each other and that’s what we did. That was probably the most fun, when people came down there and these two generally hate each other and we didn’t do a very good job there."
What’s your mindset heading into the 2014 season?
“We have a lot to look forward to. There’s been more changes in this sport than there ever has been. I think it’s going to be good. Everybody has an opinion about the Chase, but we can all agree it’s going to be exciting. If you’re a fan — that's going to be some premium entertainment. Especially when you get down to Homestead, it’s going to be complete chaos. The only way I think possibly you could add to the excitement level any more than that is to put it right here at Daytona — could you imagine those four cars at Daytona on the last lap, here going for that mess? It would be — I’d have a heart attack before I made it back around to the start-finish line. That and then the qualifying procedure. Friday needed help, it was boring and I sucked at it anyways. I’m glad that we’re making some adjustments to entertain, not only on Sundays, but keep the whole weekend fun because you’re asking a lot out of a fan to come and be on vacation. This is their vacation, they’re coming and using their vacation time for three or four days at any given race — you’ve got to keep them entertained and that isn’t just on Sunday."
KYLE BUSCH, No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Does the chance to win the Daytona 500 and qualify for the Chase increase the intensity?
“I’m not so sure that it amps the intensity up — I think we all always try to win every single race anyways. This year with the new Chase rules and format the way it is, I think it’s going to be a little bit different each week, but not a lot different. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out really. Looking forward to it — looking forward to Daytona of course. It’s the start of a new season so I think most of us are amped up ready to go and had a good off-season. Just getting back at it and getting back to work."
Is there more pressure to win the Daytona 500 this year?
“I think this is now my 10th or 11th Daytona 500 and I don’t think I’ve ever tried to lose it, but I haven’t won it yet. It would certainly be nice to be the winner and to be considered into the Chase right off the bat and into the first race, but it’s a long season — you’ve got 26 races to get it done and to get yourself locked in. You’ve got more positions now than ever to get locked in. I don’t foresee it as being something that you take for granted, but I don’t know that it should be that hard to miss the Chase for a team of our caliber."
If you win one of the first five races will it change how the others are approached?
“I don’t know that it would really change a whole lot for the rest of the year. I think that it gives you an opportunity where it relieves a little bit of pressure because you can say, ‘Okay, we’re locked in the Chase so now we don’t have to try so hard and put ourselves in bad situations or whatever when it comes to trying to make the Chase.’ Like I said, there’s more spots now than ever to make the Chase. There is going to be guys that make the Chase with no wins although we hope we’re not one of those guys. It’s just going to play itself all the way down to Richmond on who’s in, who’s not and what all happens. The flip side of that is you can win a race early on in the season and the pressure comes off and you can go on and you can win six or seven because you’re just going out of the box. You’re trying to crazy stuff and seeing if you can’t steal some wins I should say versus earning them I guess."
How have you changed entering your 10th season in NASCAR?
“It doesn’t feel like 10 years at all, but yet when you look back at life outside of racing you think, ‘Okay, I was 18 when I came in here — holy crap a lot of things have gone on and changed over 10 years.’ It certainly seems like a whole different world not only me in it, but just a whole different world in general. I don’t think we had Facebook or Twitter back 10 years ago. You could actually go to a bar and not have somebody tweet about it. It’s interesting, there’s certainly a lot of things that I have yet to accomplish that I’m disappointed that I have not accomplished yet. Some big wins of the marquis events as well as being able to become a Sprint Cup Series Champion. The Nationwide Series championship is great, but ultimately what all of us drivers look towards is a Sprint Cup championship. Been an interesting nine years, but we’ll see what happens in the 10th."
What have you learned in the past nine years?
“I remember years ago I wouldn’t think a whole lot about situations and just racing and making my way up through the middle and ruffling some feathers and pissing some people off. Nowadays, it’s a little bit more thought about and calculated, which kind of maybe slows you down, but I think that still you become more calculated and you become smarter and more in tune with your abilities and what the car has for ability that day. Obviously, it shows a little bit better towards me being years ago a little erratic or wrecking out and not finishing races I should have and then these days being able to finish a lot more and just get the points you can get for those days. You obviously learn a lot and you become smarter and you become more in tune with what this sport asks of you."
How can another driver beat Jimmie Johnson for the championship?
“Jimmie’s (Johnson) an animal. I don’t know any better way to put it really. It’s just amazing what him and that 48 team has been able to accomplish in this sport. Throughout the whole time of being here, even when he wasn’t winning championships his first four or five seasons, he was still finishing second, third, fifth — no worse than fifth ever. It’s just crazy what they’ve been able to do and they knock championships out like it’s popping M&M’s. It’s cool to see, but at the same time it’s frustrating because we’re racing against him right now. There’s been other guys that have been able to do the same things over the years whether it’s been Darrell (Waltrip) winning three pretty quick or (Dale Earnhardt) Sr. winning seven or (Richard) Petty winning seven. I think JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) has a great team behind them and I think we’ve got great resources and I think (Matt) Kenseth raised the bar a lot last year — he ran really well all throughout the whole season and still come up short. He missed running well at Phoenix and probably lost 20-something points and ended up losing the championship by 19. Certainly there’s better opportunity for a lot of us that we can keep up with them, but the bar is definitely high and you know when you win it, it’s going to be a huge accomplishment."
Will you see drivers getting in each other’s way with the new qualifying format?
“You may or you may not, but 30 minutes for everybody to be able to get out there and kind of get a clean lap I think is enough time and realistically you’re not going to make multiple runs in one session — I just don’t see that happening with the way tires are. Maybe Phoenix or Kansas or Michigan — places like that where the pavement is still new and laps on tires actually makes you go faster. I think you’ll see it at those places, but without being able to adjust air pressure and cool your car down and all that stuff, it really doesn’t lend itself to being able to do that a whole lot."
Do you believe Darrell Wallace Jr. is prepared to win a championship this year?
“I hope Darrell’s (Wallace Jr.) well prepared for it. I think that getting the experience of being a rookie in the sport lends yourself to a lot of learning. It gives you the opportunity to make a few mistakes here or there and try to learn from those mistakes. I think later in the year we saw that Darrell was a lot better racer and he started finishing races a bit more consistently — he won Martinsville, which was awesome. I think he’s going to be a threat to go to Martinsville again and win right out of the gate this year. I’m looking forward to Darrell’s success and hopefully him still being able to learn off of me, being able to learn off of Erik Jones and go to these race tracks and just be competitive every week and try to figure out what it is to be up front. We watched it last year with (Matt) Crafton — Crafton won a race, but he finished top-10 every single week until like the last four races of the season. If you can do that and have a couple wins in there and what not then there’s no reason as to why Darrell can’t be a champion in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this year."
MICHAEL WALTRIP, No. 66 Blue-Def/AAA Toyota Camry, Michael Waltrip Racing
What do you think about the new no ride height rule change?
“That’s a great question because it’s a huge rule change and so far from listening to the teams that have tested, they can’t figure out which way to go about it. They know it will work this way, and it’s not going to work that way, so there’s a lot of options in order to arrive at setups that seem to be comparable to one another on the track. It’s a big rule change — maybe the biggest rule change since I’ve been around the sport because of the fact the car used to want to live four-and-a-half inches off the ground, that’s where it wanted to sit still. It’s where they had to sit. You park it on the ground, it sits there. That’s because of aero, when the aero is taken away, the car wants to go back up. When the car wants to go back up, that’s not good. You want it down and it tries to go up. There’s all this stuff going on. Now the car is going to be able to live where it wants to live. It should make for the drivers to have a little more consistent, more solid feel of the car."
How has the rule change affected your race team compared to the competition?
“We’re like everybody else. We’ve tried different setups and it’s interesting to put different setups in the car and have the same result on the track of lap time basically. But, I think everybody is sort of under the impression that we’re really not going to know the full effects of the rule change and how to properly setup the cars until you get to a place like Phoenix and try to race in traffic with the new rules. Somebody will hit it at Phoenix and others won’t and it will just continue — it will be a process that you’re going to have to sort. On testing right now, you can have two cars setup totally different, which is always sort of been that way, but it seems more significant running the same time."
Are you looking forward to running the Daytona Beach half marathon?
“My goal last year was to make anything in the 2.0’s and I made 2.07, which was 13, 9:30 miles, which I thought was pretty good for a 49 year old man, just to be able to run along and do that. I haven’t trained as much this year as I did last and now I’m 50, so I go to a different class, but my goal last year was anything in the 2.0’s and now I’m thinking 2.0-crap, you know. It’s going to be hard. I ran 11 miles the other night and I made it in two hours even, so I should be able to make 2.20-something and that’s my goal, just to finish this year and refocus and try to be in better shape next year. When I ran the 11 miles the other night, I was so happy because I got done and I felt good. I could have gone another two and made it. Quite honestly along about January 2, I was thinking I don’t know if I can run that far or not and be able to progress. I just use it for motivation. I just want to stay fit."
What do you think about the No. 3 returning to NSCS racing this year?
“I just look at it as, I knew Dale (Earnhardt) pretty good and I think he’d be cool with it. Richard (Childress) and his family, and I know how good of friends Dale and Richard were and I just feel it’s right. It feels perfectly right, perfectly fine to me to have the No. 3 on the race track. Austin Dillon is the perfect young man to drive the 3 car, he’s very respectful of the sport, he’s very knowledgeable of the history — he knows the significance of the number and the situation. I’m just really thankful that — I'm happy it’s back because I love Dale and any time I see something that reminds me of him, it makes me smile. Just knowing that number is right where it needs to be, in the right hand, with the right people and the right time is special to me."
Does it seem like the NASCAR driver body types are getting smaller?
“Well that happened a long time ago and it’s just continued to trend that way. There’s guys that are bigger — (Clint) Bowyer is over six-foot tall and Kyle Busch is a tall kid. What happened was, back in the 80’s the cars were really big and I fit in there perfectly and I was happy. Then the production models that were rolling into the dealerships got smaller and smaller and the cars got smaller and smaller. Then they started having power steering and so they became easier to drive, and so smaller was better. I went to Mr. France Sr. like in ’88 or ’89 or ’90 about I think and I said, ‘You all are really making me uncomfortable in the car, it’s getting really small and I don’t really want to do anything else but drive a car.’ At that point they said, ‘Okay, that makes sense, we can’t get the cars any smaller, and we’ll work on getting them bigger.’ So now, a guy my size or bigger can race and I just always felt it would have been a shame if the cars kept getting smaller and the next Richard Petty was 6’5" and weighed 220 in his prime and couldn’t fit in the car. There wasn’t any reason for it. So, now there is room for a big guy in there and the physical requirements to race a car today is much different than they were in the 80’s, so you can be smaller and do it. The competition is tougher today and so mentally it’s a tougher game, but physically it’s an easier game."
How is Michael Waltrip Racing heading into the 2014 season?
“We’ve been doing a lot of testing. Co-owner Rob Kauffman and I meet with our competition guys regularly and back in November, Rob’s vision was, don’t leave anything in the bank — let's invest all we can invest in testing, in preparation, getting ready for the ’14 season — all in. If you think we need to save something for August, we’ll worry about that in August. Let’s focus on now. Obviously a lot has been made out of the way you race for a championship now. The no ride height rule is the biggest rule change that has ever happened in my opinion in the sport, since I’ve been around. If you think about a car, last year it wanted to live four-and-a-half inches off the ground. If you just set it there, that’s where it wanted to be. The teams were smart enough to fake the car out through the first three-and-a-half inches of travel and get it down on the ground and run around the track really fast. A lot of that was accomplished with the mechanics of the way the car works, but a lot of it was also aero, because the car would get pushed down. When they lost the aero, the car would want to live at four-and-a-half inches, so the drivers were constantly in traffic fighting that car, wanting to get up to where it thinks it belongs. Now we’re just setting them up in the garage area really close to where they want to run. It’s going to change the way the driver feels the cars, changing the way we’re setting them up for sure and if I was a smart guy, I would have bought a spring company about last November because we’ve bought more springs over the last couple months than we have in the history of MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing)."
How has MWR taken what they learned in 2013 and applied it to prepare for the upcoming season?
“We made the Chase with one of our cars and we finished seventh. The year before, we made the Chase with a couple of our cars and we finished second in the championship. We didn’t do as well in 2013 as we had hoped, and we’re laser focused on 2014. Like I said, practicing, testing, preparing for the upcoming season as hard as we can. We’ve been on the track most every week since December and gaining a lot of information, putting a lot of stuff in the computer and trying to understand exactly what kind of setup we want to show up at Phoenix with. There’s a lot of people trying to figure that out."
JAMES BUESCHER, No. 99 Rheem Toyota Camry, RAB Racing
How is this season going to be different for you?
“This year is definitely going to be different for me — finally full time in the Nationwide Series after being in the Truck Series for a couple years. It’s going to be different from a lot of different aspects. Also, change in manufacturers and change in teams — going to RAB Racing and changing everybody that’s on my team. Chris Rice is my crew chief and Robby Benton owning the team and everything is going to be different this year other than having Rheem come with us from the Truck Series up to the Nationwide Series. Just the learning process of getting everybody to work well together and get off the ground and running, it’s a process and hopefully we can speed it up and come out of the box strong."
How has the transition been to a new team?
“It’s going really well. We’ve gotten to do a couple tests — we went to Nashville over the off-season and also the Daytona test and both went really well. We were really fast down here at Daytona. I’m looking forward to getting down here for the race and really seeing what we have and hopefully getting a good, solid finish and maybe winning this thing again. The off-season has been pretty short it seems like, but very busy. I’m looking forward to getting the season started and getting some races in."
What are your memories of winning the Nationwide race at Daytona?
“Fortunately for me, I’ve been able to be in victory lane a couple times now here at Daytona and that Nationwide race at Daytona was kind of a shocking win for all of us since halfway down the back straightaway we really weren’t in position to win. We were there and we were the first ones to the finish line. It will definitely be something I will always remember as my first win in NASCAR. The 2012 season started off with a bang here at Daytona and finished up with a championship in the Truck Series."
What is your goal for this season?
“Winning races. I think we have what it takes to win races in the Nationwide Series. Toyota has been a lot of fun to work with over the off-season and I think it will only get better and better. TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and everybody that helps out RAB Racing — it’s been fun over the off-season and I’m looking forward to getting the racing season started and seeing what we’re capable of. I think we’re capable of winning races and we’ll have to go out there and prove it."
Does it take a lot of work to be a race car driver?
“Being a race car driver takes a lot of work to be successful and I’d say that work ethic is something I have. I’ll put in the hours if it’s necessary, I’ll travel all night long to get to wherever I need to go for the next day of work. I’ve always worked hard to be successful in this sport, even from the beginning when I was 13 years old — I would spend my summers in the race shop working on the race cars and it was an hour-and-a-half from my house. It wasn’t like just hanging out with my friends all summer long, it was school was over and it was time to go to work. It’s kind of been my mentality of it growing up and working on my race cars from Bandoleros all the way through Late Models and the Hooters Pro Cup Series and I enjoy working on the cars. As busy as everything keeps you in this sport, you don’t get to anymore. It has been a lot of work to get to this point, but I think I’ve had the work pay off and had success. If I keep up the work ethic, I think I’ll keep having success."
How big of an adjustment do you have to make going from the Truck Series to the Nationwide Series?
“The schedule is longer in the Nationwide Series, but I think that’s a good thing. Two years ago in the Truck Series I was able to win some races and win the championship in 2012 and that year we ran 20 Nationwide races on top of that. So, my schedule was pretty slam-packed in comparison to last season. I think the longer schedule is only going to help me stay fresh. The off-weeks don’t keep you in the race car and the more you’re in the race car the fresher you’ll be to know what you’re looking for as far as feel and everything else. I think the longer schedule is going to help me for sure."
How important was it for you to test at Daytona in January?
“It was really important. Not only from the car aspect and seeing what we had on the race track, but just more time working with Chris Rice (crew chief) and my team and getting to know each other and how the communication is going to work and what he needs from me to make the cars go faster and what I need in the race car to go faster. It was good to speed up the learning curve for sure."
Are there tracks looking ahead that you may want to test at?
“I’m looking forward to all of them, but I’m really looking forward to the Texas race. My home track and I feel like I’ve had some success there. I haven’t been able to win a race there, but I’ve came close a lot and RAB Racing was really fast there last year with the 99 car at both events. So, it would be really cool to win a race at my home track."
DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
What kind of challenges will Tony Stewart face coming back from an injury?
“I think Tony (Stewart) has less challenges because he’s more talented. I think he’s shown he wins in everything he gets in. I think that not being in the car for him — although it’s for a longer extended period of time — will come relatively easy. I think it’s going to be more about team performance than anything. That’s what it’s all about for all of us early in the year is whether our team did all of the homework that they needed to do in the off-season to be competitive."
Do drivers lose some of their ‘racing edge’ in the off-season?
“A lot of drivers talk about they feel like have they forgot how to drive a race car in the last two months, but we’ve done so much off-season testing that I know that’s not true. It is — it's good for us though that the drivers who are part of the Unlimited to get the race rust off. We only do superspeedway racing four to five times a year so it is an art form of racing that the more you do it the better you’ll become at it. So, I think it is a big advantage for us in the Unlimited being able to get a race under our belts before the 500, which is our biggest race. It’s hard to go into the 500 cold turkey with no race experience the week before."
Were you surprised to win your first Unlimited race?
“Yes. A lot of things worked out great for us that particular event and obviously superspeedway racing at anything can happen. I was just so grateful. I remember on the starting grid just to be a part of the race I lucked up and got a pole in those last few races of the season I ran at the end for FedEx in 2005 and so it got me into there. The next thing you know I’m thinking let me just try to work on some friendships for next week in the 500 and next thing you know we find ourselves in a position to win it and Jimmie (Johnson) gave me a push down the backstretch, Tony (Stewart) gave me a push down the frontstretch and next thing you know we got to the line first. They gave me the trophy, the money and the checkered flag so I guess I won."
Do you think NASCAR is making the right changes with the foam in the seats for safety reasons?
“I understand what they’re doing. Ultimately, all of us want to be as low as we can possibly in the car for performance reasons. That’s why we do it. I didn’t have a whole lot of padding underneath my seat for performance reasons. I don’t know how much that foam is going to change things because ultimately as soon as you sit down you are going to be compressing it down into the seat, so I don’t know how much — and I think my wreck in particular had such an access compression that I don’t know if foam would’ve changed much of anything. It’s just a wreck that they don’t normally see any kind of compression in other wrecks. It’s always just head-on stuff where you’re coming out of the seat or you’re getting knocked back in the seat. Nothing being pushed down in the seat. I appreciate everything they’re doing. Obviously, I’m blessed every day that I came into the sport when it’s as safe as it’s ever been because 15, 20 years ago this was a very risky sport week in and week out."
Were you pleased to see NASCAR act quickly in race track adjustments following your accident?
“Yeah, I think there was a lot that went into me hitting that particular part of the wall. I was trying to save the car and realized last minute I wasn’t going to do it. Had I just hit the brakes I wouldn’t have had that problem. I was trying to save it, get to the finish line in any means possible whether it be through pit road or the infield. But, yeah, I looked at a lot of race tracks from the aerial view that my team showed me and there’s a lot of unprotected walls out there. I’m not going to pick on any race tracks, but they know which ones they are that need to have safer barriers on the inside walls. I mean, it’s crazy to see the highlighted areas around our race tracks that are not safer barrier, but I understand it costs money and all of that. More that goes into it than just what we want all of the time."
Is there any advice you can give Matt Kenseth after also finishing second in the points?
“I think if anyone — and you hear this year in and year out — if anyone’s not prone to have a hangover it’d probably be Matt (Kenseth). But, I don’t know. I think it’s such a crapshoot every year of who’s going to finish where. I mean, where did the third-place guy finish every single year the next year? Who knows. I don’t know what it is. I really can’t answer it, but it’s tough I guess. It’s not like you put all of your eggs in one basket for the end of the year and next thing you know you’ve got nothing for the beginning of the year. It’s all the preparations are all the same. As a driver is it the confidence? Maybe. I know confidence is very underrated in our sport. That’s maybe the only thing I can pinpoint it to. How did that driver’s team do the following year? Was it their team that had as much of a hangover as the driver or what was it? I don’t know."
Do you go into this year as the ‘weak link’ at Joe Gibbs Racing?
“I don’t think so. Not through at least the testing that I’ve seen. I’m up to speed, to say the least, within our race team. Where even last year we were a little bit off of our teammates and we’re going to have a little bit of a struggle at the beginning of the year because ultimately we have a bad parking spot in the garage and we’re going to miss the first 10 minutes of practice every week — yes, you’re still going to be parked in the garage. Not the haulers, but the cars. We were so far back in points we would miss the first 10 minutes of practice every single week. So, until we get ourselves back up in points where we should be I think the first few races will be tough for us. Other than that I think we’ll be fine. We’ll start the year, I think, we’re going to start as strong as JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) starts."
What keeps you up at night?
“The only thing that’s keeping me up at night right now is the anticipation. Usually you’re kind of thinking about the grind’s about to start and you’re about to spend a lot of time away from home, but for me I’m one of the few drivers that couldn’t get this off-season over quick enough because as soon as we hit the race track 2013 is over and 2014 has started and we can stop talking about last year. I’m excited for that part of it. So, for me, it’s the anticipation and what I’ve seen from testing I believe that we’re going to be one of the guys that come out pretty strong pretty early and that’s typically not how we start anyway."
Is there anything you can take from your experience last year to help you moving forward?
“It’s a dead year in a lot of ways, but what I take from it the most I would say would be just the appreciation of when you do run well and I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year. Just like it was easy. Really didn’t have to prepare for it. I just showed up and we did it. And, now I think with the competition and how we ran at the end of last year you’ve got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good. You can’t just rely on talent to do it. Looking over what you struggled with last time. It’s all about debriefing and figuring out in your meeting how can you get better? Not just chalking it up, ‘Oh, it’s just a bad weekend. We’ll rebound next weekend.’ No, why? Why did you struggle? How can you get better? I think drivers prepare for weekends as much as the teams in the sense of what they have to do. I just don’t think now you can just show up, sit down in your seat, not know anything about your car and run as competitive as some of the guys that win each week."
Did you even know what Pilates was before your injury?
“I did, but it was something that I needed to try obviously and heard that I needed to try and once I did it immediately felt better and I just kind of got addicted to it since then. It’s not pretty by any means, especially for a guy like myself being in a Pilates studio. It’s not pretty, but it works for me."
How has being a father changed you?
“In a lot of ways. It’s hard for me — I think you would have to rely on the people outside of me how have I changed attitude-wise. But, I feel like I’m a better person. I definitely enjoy the time at home a whole lot more. I’m on full dad duty this weekend while she’s (Jordan Fish, girlfriend) out of town. Yep, I did (bring my mom). But, all I can think about is bringing her to media day and I think that’s a little inappropriate so I’ve got an hour left and then I’m going to go and see her and I’ll be happy again. It’s fun. Every day she’s smarter and half says one more word and every time she sees even a picture of me now anywhere she’s saying, ‘Dada.’ So, that for me is fun and I just find joy now in different things other than — now it’s all about her. It really is."