Ford Driver Southern 500 NASCAR Pre-Race Q&A

Ryan Blaney

Ford Drivers

Ryan Blaney
Joey Logano
Matt DiBenedetto
Clint Bower
Cole Custer
Kevin Harvick
Aric Almirola
Brad Keselowski

RYAN BLANEY, No. 12 Menards/Maytag Ford MustangWHAT DO YOU THINK BRISTOL WILL BE LIKE AS AN ELIMINATION RACE?  “I think it’s exciting.  It’s the first time Bristol has even been in the playoffs, so that’ll be neat and then making it a cutoff race too, that’ll be even more exciting.  That place gets very rowdy.  I look at it as just like having Martinsville as a cutoff race short track where everyone will be beating and banging.  I personally would like to have a win or be really good on points before we get there, but I think it’s great.  They’ve implemented a new format with some new tracks in the playoffs this year and I think it’s good, but I’m looking forward to that one and it will definitely be an exciting cutoff race for sure.”

ARE THE KEYS TO ADVANCE ANY DIFFERENT WITH NO PRACTICE AND NO QUALIFYING?  “Yeah, I mean it definitely is different, but it’s what we’ve been doing all year.  Teams have been preparing as much as they can before going to the tracks every single week.  It’s not like now when the playoffs start, we’ve got to start preparing  little bit more.  I feel like if you’re not doing that throughout the regular season, I feel like you should be doing that throughout the regular season, but it’s key.  It’s been key every single weekend.  Now I think the biggest point is not being off at the start of these races and not getting stage points.  That’s a really big thing.  You look at stage points of being very critical when you’re running against 15 other guys throughout the first round and then it gets cut throughout the rounds, so stage points are huge.  So you definitely want to be starting off good and have a good previous race with the way the lineups are set now with that algorythm they’ve got on previous week finishing and fast lap and points position, all that stuff.  You definitely don’t want to be back in the playoff grid, so preparation is huge and just to set you up for that first stage.  That’s very important.”

WILL STAGE POINTS BE MORE DIFFICULT TO GET SINCE ALL 16 START IN THE TOP 16?  “Yeah.  They were difficult to get before, but you’ve got some cars outside the playoffs that are really good as well that didn’t get in, so you’re gonna have to race them anyway.  You’ve been racing those guys all year, whether you’re top 12 in points or 13-24.  Luckily, fortunately, we were top 12 a lot, really all year, so we never really started terrible and that sets you up for the first stage, but with all the playoff guys being right there, they’re definitely gonna be hard to get.  It’s really good competition and you’ve got to make sure you’re on your game from the first lap.”

HOW DO YOU FEEL YOUR MOMENTUM IS THIS YEAR COMPARED TO PREVIOUS YEARS?  “Obviously, we’d like to have some more wins in the regular season.  That’s what’s kind of hurt us in the last few years in the playoffs and throughout the rounds.  We made it to the round of eight a couple of times, but just don’t have playoff points.  You’ve got to win pretty much and you have these years to where every year it seems like there are a couple guys that have tons of wins in the regular season and they have massive bonus points and that really pays off when you get in the round of eight and makes it hard for those guys who don’t have them like we don’t.  But I feel like our team has had more capability this year to win more races and be more competitive, it’s just a shame it hasn’t happened.  Some of that was our doing and some of that you can’t control, but our whole group feels really good.  I think our cars are pretty decent right now.  You obviously have the 4 and the 11 who are really strong.  Everyone is gonna be strong in the playoffs, so you really have to be on top of your game, but I like our momentum.  It’s just a matter of putting races together and take them one race at a time.  I think this team can do that, but it’s gonna be important for us to win in the rounds.  That’s what it’s gonna take for us, I feel like, to advance or have really, really good point days, but I feel really good about this team.  Todd Gordon and I worked well together this year, it’s just a matter of, like I said, keep building with each other and not making any mistakes, not having any blowups in the rounds.  You can’t really have a mulligan, I feel like.  I’m not saying we’re in the worst position.  There are guys in worse positions than us, but we’re not in the best position, so we just have to have a solid 10 races.”

IS IT AN ADVANTAGE TO HAVING THIS BE THE THIRD RACE AT DARLINGTON THIS SEASON?  “Yeah.  I know we ran there twice already this year, but you go back and look at those two races.  You go back and look at the Darlington race from last year and see how that plays out.  The pit strategy side is a little bit different this weekend than the previous two races.  They were way shorter.  This 500-mile race is super-long and the way the stages are set and your pit strategy is set and how you pit in the stages are way different, so that’s something you can’t quite look at from the previous races this year, but you can go back and look at your notes about ‘how is the track, how are we set up?’  Things like that.  Todd and I talked about that a lot this week.  I feel confident.  I thought we actually had a really good car in the second race and we had a penalty and we went in the back and got in the fence that kind of ruined our day, but you just go back and look at all your notes.  That’s really important nowadays too.  I mean, with no practice you’re relying on previous race notes and we rely on those heavily here going back to these tracks that we’ve already been to this year.”

DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE THE SPEED TO GO HEAD-TO-HEAD WITH THE 4 AND THE 11?  “I think so.  I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘No, we don’t have the speed.’  You’d like to think so.  There are some races I feel like we’ve been better than those guys and brought it to them and other races they’ve had really good cars and they’ve obviously shown up like they have all year.  They’ve done a great job.  Those two teams and drivers are doing really good right now and they’re super-strong and you go to the racetrack every week knowing those guys are gonna be strong, but the best you can do is just worry about your own team, worry about what you need to do as a driver to do the best that you can and figure out what you need to do with your race cars to be as competitive as possible.  So I think our team can it’s just a matter of playing to our strengths and not making mistakes.  That’s a big thing.  Speedwise this year, I think we’ve been close it’s just a matter of execution and I think, hopefully, we can pull all of that stuff together here and just take it one race at a time.  I think we can do it, it’s just a matter of putting everything together.”

DO YOU FEEL IT’S BEEN MORE IN YOUR TEAM’S CONTROL OR HAS IT BEEN THINGS OUTSIDE OF YOUR CONTROL?  “A little bit of both.  There are obviously things I can do better, some unlucky things but those things happen in racing.   There are some you can control, so I think it’s half and half.  You’re gonna have rough weekends where things don’t go your way and you’re gonna have rough weekends where I mess up, whether you damage your car or you don’t ask for the right things.  There were sometimes where calls can go the wrong way — pit calls and things like that, but that’s just part of it.  We just need to learn from those things, so I think to answer your question I feel like it’s about half and half, but I can’t sit here and complain about unlucky unfortunate situations because everybody has those, it’s just a matter of having fewer than others, I guess.  The best that I can do is do my best and our team do our best and whatever else happens after that happens.”

HOW MUCH WORRY DO YOU HAVE ABOUT GETTING A POSITIVE COVID TEST?  “Right now, it’s gonna really put you in a bad hole.  Do we sit around and talk about that?  Drivers?  No, not really.  You just be as smart as you can and be as safe as you can, not going out, not doing anything that you wouldn’t normally do.  There have been a couple tests, a couple positives throughout the year with some drivers, but I’ve been fortunate to not be in that situation.  I plan on not doing anything different.  You just stay smart.  If you’re gonna go somewhere with people, go with people that you know, that are doing the same things as you and being smart and safe about what they’re doing — not going out to crowded gatherings of people that you have no idea who they are and what they’re doing.  If it does happen, it happens, but the best I can do is just be smart and not try to put yourself in that position where I might catch something.”

WHERE DO YOU FEEL YOU AND TODD ARE FROM A COMMUNICATION STANDPOINT AND HOW HAS IT GONE?  “Working with Jeremy for a long time from XFINITY to Cup and transitioning to Todd, the first month was awesome.  You get to work with them full weekends.  He and I had to work together.  John Miles, my engineer, I got to see them every single weekend and throughout the week also and we really get to learn each other — and crew guys you get to know them and what they’re like.  Now it’s just been so limited with no practice.  You can talk so much throughout the week on the phone and things like that, but it’s just different than being able to go through a couple practices and the whole weekend with them and talking to them.  But I think we’ve gotten the best that we can.  Todd and I get along really well.  He’s an amazing crew chief and a championship crew chief and has won a ton of races, so I think it’s been going well.  It’s a shame, but everyone is in the same boat.  Joey and Brad have new crew chiefs also and a handful of other guys have new teams this year, but I think we’re doing the best that we can.  I’d like to spend three days out of the weekend with them and a couple days during the week with them just talking to them, but we talk as much as we can and try to figure out what we need to do week in and week out to be better, but I think it’s been going really good it’s just a matter of continuing that and knowing each other more.”

IS THERE ANY CONCERN THAT KYLE BUSCH COULD GET GOING AND RUN AWAY WITH THE PLAYOFFS, AND IS IT POSSIBLE?  “Yeah, we know it can happen.  Obviously, Kyle has not had the best of years, but it’s Kyle Busch and that team can turn it around any given weekend.  You don’t count anybody out even if they’ve been having a little bit of an off year and not what they’re used to.  You don’t count anybody out.  People can go on playoff runs.  Look at Tony Stewart in 2011 and the playoff run he went on winning five of those races and winning the championship.  Before the playoffs you never really thought they would be a contender and then people find stuff and they turn it on and things go their way and you saw what happened.  Yeah, I’m worried about 15 other teams.  You never know who can turn it on, what time.  They’re all great teams and great drivers, so you have to be worried about everybody but at the same time you can’t be thinking about everybody all the time you have to think about yourself and think about your own team and what you have to do.  You can’t control what everyone else is doing, but to answer your question, any one of these guys can turn it on at any time and it wouldn’t surprise me because teams can do that often.”

IS THERE ONE DARKHORSE TEAM PEOPLE SHOULD WATCH?  “I don’t know, maybe you’d consider the 18.  Those guys on that team, the Gibbs organization has been really strong.  I’m gonna be selfish and say I think our group has been check boxed as a darkhorse team by a lot of people.  Anybody can do it.  The 11 and 4 have been good all year, but there are a bunch of other teams that can step up and have really good rounds and I guess you could say upset what those guys have been doing all year.  I think anybody can.”

HOW SCARY IS THE SECOND ROUND?  “There’s are kind of some funky races in there with the Roval and Talladega, like you said.  You never know what’s gonna happen in those rounds.  You have one kind of normal race at Vegas there, and then you have the Roval and Talladega, so I don’t know.  I don’t know what can happen in those rounds.  You just try to go to the Roval and try to run a solid race and then Talladega is just try to stay out of wrecks.  That’s the biggest thing and with the way that Talladega ends that second round, it’ll be like at Daytona so it’ll be interesting.  It would be nice to be really to the good or locked in before that.  I’d love to win Vegas and not have to worry about the Roval or Talladega, but you just hope that you put solid races together, but that is a funky round for sure.  All of the rounds have their wildcards with Bristol being in the first one and then you have the Roval and Talladega in the second round and then Martinsville to end the round of eight, so there are a lot of interesting races in each round.  I think NASCAR did a pretty good job of splitting them up in certain ways, but hopefully my mind says ‘go try to win Vegas so we don’t have to worry about them two.’”

WHAT DOES TODD BRING TO YOUR TEAM THAT JEREMY DIDN’T?  “Todd has a little bit more experience than Jeremy.  He’s been around the Cup Series for a little bit longer.  I love Jeremy to death.  He and I will always be really good friends for what we’ve been through for many years.  We won our first race together in 2017 with the Wood Brothers.  That was special, but I think it’s neat when you switch crew chiefs for the first time because when I was with Jeremy you kind of get locked into one mode.  You guys kind of have your own language with each other.  I know what he likes to change and he knows what I like as a driver and you can kind of get in a certain mode, whether it’s good or bad, and maybe not be open to new things.  But the biggest thing I learned when I switched to Todd was everyone approaches things differently from a driver to a crew chief side and it just opened my mind up to just different things to try, and maybe certain things that I like that Todd does I like a little bit better than Jeremy or vice versa.  But it’s just knowledge, it’s just knowledge of two different minds from those two guys and you kind of personally, for me, you kind of combine those two and it just opens your eyes a little bit on different possibilities and capabilities out there of what you can learn as a driver and learn about other people.  So that has been nice to kind of combine Todd and Jeremy’s minds and working with both of them, so that was a big thing I’ve taken away from it.  As a young driver it’s nice to have that.  I think it just helps you learn.”

WHERE DO YOU NEED TO IMPROVE IN THE PLAYOFFS?  IS THERE A CERTAIN STYLE OF TRACK?  “You look at Richmond, the second race there, is a place we’ve struggled at over the years.  It’s nice that it’s in the round of 16, but you still have to put a good race together.  You can’t just run in the back all race and have a poor race like we’ve had there the last handful of years, so I would say on the Richmond side if we can only keep getting better there.  Todd and I have worked a lot on that racetrack here because even at the start of the year we looked at the playoffs and how we’ve got to go to Richmond.  That’s one of the biggest outliers to me as far as places where we need to really show up and do well at, a place where we’ve struggled in the past, but all the other tracks I feel really confident in.  We’ve run really well at other tracks — the Roval, obviously we’ve run pretty decent at, Talladega, we’ve won two races at Talladega, but you never know what could happen.  You can get jumbled up in someone else’s mess and end your day, so you never know.  Richmond, to me, is the biggest one that we’ve really talked about on just having to put a solid race together.”

DOES THAT PUT MORE PRESSURE ON THIS WEEKEND?  “To be honest with you, I haven’t even thought about it.  I’m focused on Darlington and then we’ll move on.”

Joey Logano (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

JOEY LOGNO, No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford MustangDO THE KEYS TO PERFORMING WELL IN THE CHASE CHANGE WITH NO PRACTICE AND NO QUALIFYING AND ALL THE PLAYOFF DRIVERS STARTING UP FRONT?  “I don’t know if it changes, really.  The dynamics are just as important to win as ever during the playoffs.  That part doesn’t change.  No practice always makes it questionable, but I don’t know, we’re almost used to it at this point with no practice and not knowing what’s coming around the corner next and not knowing who is fast changes the dynamics of the race a little bit, but we’ve kind of gotten used to it.  Kind of what you’ve seen here the last few races since we got back going will probably be more of that to continue, where there may be some teams that hit it really fast and others that need to make big swings on their adjustments and it’s how you get to that point as quickly as possible.  I don’t think the playoffs change what we’ve been doing here the last few weeks.”

THOUGHTS ON BRISTOL AS A CUTOFF RACE?  “I’m cool with it.  I think it’s definitely gonna add some drama.  We all kind of saw what kind of drama Daytona brought last week with it being the last race of the regular season and how exciting that is, so for the sport it’s great.  For the teams, a little stressful because anything can happen.  We’ve strategy work in a lot of different ways at Bristol.  We’ve seen contact at Bristol, so a lot of things can happen, but, for the most part, we’ve just got to do our thing.  The fact that the cutoff races are stressful already and they’re at tracks that anything can happen definitely adds a lot to it and for the sport that’s a great thing.”

STEVE PHELPS SAID THERE WILL BE NO CHANGE TO THE COVID RULE.  WHAT PRECAUTIONS WILL YOU TAKE AND WOULD YOU BE HESITANT TO GO GET TESTED?  “No, I think it’s important for us to, number one, our safety needs to be the utmost concern, just for everybody — not just for ourselves, not in a selfish way but in a selfless way we need to be smart about testing.  Now, also, we need to be smart about who we see and how we do things and all that as much as ever.  As the world is starting to open up slowly and things like that, I think for these 10 weeks I probably still need to be smart about it because my season is on the line.  I think we just keep doing the same things we’ve been doing.  You wash your hands.  You wear your mask.  You social distance.  Those are the things that you can do.  It’s also important that we need to win this thing, too.  As you guys know, sometimes going and doing everything through this Zoom isn’t as effective as you want it to be, and it’s the same when you’re trying to lead a team.  So just trying to do things the smartest way possible, trying to lead a team from a distance, but in times where it’s important to see people or do things, those are the moments you just have to make the most of, but, also, be careful about the way we do it.”

ARE YOU LESS OF A LEADER THIS YEAR DUE TO THIS SITUATION BECAUSE OF A LESS CONNECTION?  “In ways I have to agree with that.  I don’t want to agree with that.  I want to be the leader with Paul, but my hands are tied.  There’s only so much we can do.  Penske has done a good job at trying to keep everyone separated to where if there was an outbreak it didn’t shut down the whole (interruption at this point).  In general, we’re trying to be as smart as we can.  It’s hard to throw everyone up on a Zoom call and speak directly to somebody.  It’s been a little harder for me this year, too, because it’s a new team.  I’m typically the guy that’s in the garage until the garage closes.  The way I led was by being present and building relationships.  It’s been a little harder to do that this year, for sure, but we have to find unique ways of trying to gather the team together and rally the troops.  It’s a little bit different, but it’s different for everybody and we have to  be creative and find new ways.  Is it as good as I want to be?  No, it’s definitely not as good as I want it to be, but I feel like we’ve done a good job at being creative and trying to find ways to keep everyone together as a team.”

THOUGHTS ON PIT ENTRY AT DARLINGTON AND HAVING THE FIRST ONE UPON ENTRY?  “It’s funny you bring that up because that’s been the running joke here at Team Penske for a little bit is that Todd will always go furthest forward possible and Paul will be the guy that kind of goes back and forth on just trying to figure out what’s best for that particular weekend.  So, the first few weeks was a little bit odd because I’m used to being all the way down at the other end and I didn’t want to drive by the stall, but now I’ve kind of gotten used to it and Paul has done a good job at some pit selections.  That was one of the things we went through at the beginning of the year is what works for me with pit stalls, and what direction can we get the best rolling times with and each racetrack is different.  Some narrow pit roads are different than the wide ones and pit openings are bigger than others and timing lines, there’s a lot that goes into that game.  It’s not a random selection sometimes as much as some people think.  There’s a lot that goes into that and I don’t know if there’s one more challenging than the other being in the front or the back, it’s just more or less a strategy of how do we have the best rolling time at the end of pit road.”

IS THERE A DARKHORSE TEAM YOU HAVE YOUR EYE ON?  “I would say probably the 10.  I’m looking at a darkhorse team that’s maybe not everyone is talking about.  I think there are obvious ones that are gonna be fast, you’ve got Kevin, Denny, I think we’re in that mix, Brad is in that mix, Chase will be in that mix some, but the 10 has been kind of sneaky and just consistent — nothing flashy, but just kind of doing his thing — so I would say that’s one car that can probably get pretty far through.  They’ve got pretty good speed, they don’t make many mistakes and they just kind of get through.  The first couple of rounds that’s one of the things that this playoff system rewards the first couple rounds is being consistent.”

HOW MUCH OF A SUCCESS WAS THE FIRST WEEK BACK AT DARLINGTON?  HOW MUCH PRIDE IS THERE?  “One hundred percent, and I don’t think it’s the pride that the drivers take it’s the pride that the whole industry should take.  The drivers sometimes just show up and we do what they tell us to do, but when I think of the collaboration that it took from everybody in our sport — media, race teams, NASCAR, everybody, drivers as well had to come together to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity of being the first sport back without completely blowing it and having a COVID outbreak and being the first sport to come back and be shut right back down, and we look like a bunch of fools.  We didn’t want to do that either, so everyone did an amazing job, and that starts from the leadership at NASCAR and trying to find a way to be first back and do it in a safe way and continue going.  Other sports learned from and watched us because we were the first back.  They had nothing else to watch, so they had to see it and that was the opportunity ahead of us is that there wasn’t any other content out there at the time from a sporting perspective.  I love the term when people say when there’s a crisis there’s an opportunity and we took advantage of that opportunity, so, yeah, there’s pride in that and we should be proud of that.”

WHAT WILL IT MEAN TO WIN THE TITLE IN 2020 WITH EVERYTHING GOING ON?  “Nothing less than it would have if it was a normal year and nothing more.  It’s a championship and that’s all that matters is the trophy on the little thing back here, and it’s reminding me how badly we want it.  No matter what the rules are they’re the same for everybody.  There’s gonna be a winner and there’s gonna be a loser and we just approach it the same way.  Yes, we have to do things differently to achieve that trophy than we would have if it was a normal year, but the cards are dealt and we know what we’ve got and we’ve just got to play them the best that we can.”

HOW DOES DARLINGTON SUIT YOUR STYLE?  “I think it fits really well.  It’s been a good racetrack for us.  I don’t have a win there, but it’s been a racetrack that we’ve consistently been able to run in the top five and lead laps and be close.  We just need a couple of things to go our way to be able to win there.  It’s one of my favorite racetrack to go to.  I like that the tires wear out and you can’t go hard every lap and you’ve got to be smart on how you’re using your tires, and yet there’s still some aggression that you need to have on how close you run to the wall and moving around and finding places where there’s more grip as the run goes.  It’s a very enjoyable race for a driver.  It’s grueling.  It’s very tiring.  At the end of 500 miles there you’re more exhausted than any other racetrack we go to.  It’s a long, long race, where you can’t afford to make a mistake, especially in the playoffs — tapping the fence and getting a flat tire or whatever it may be, so you just gotta be smart.  It’s long and it’s mentally and physically very tiring.”

HOW CONFIDENT ARE YOU AFTER A CONSISTENT REGULAR SEASON?  “We just need to continue the confidence and consistency we’ve had over the last few weeks.  If you take Daytona out, we’ve been able to string together quite a few top 10 finishes and put ourselves in position to possibly win with some things going our way.  So no need to come off of that.  We need to continue to slowly build and become stronger as a team.  You’re not gonna find one thing that’s gonna be a light switch that’s gonna put us all the way to where the 4 and the 11 are, but we’re not far off.  We’re two or three little things away from that and this year is just reminding me of 2018, which is a great season for me, where we had some growing pains and some things we had to learn throughout the regular season and we slowly built the speed back up for the playoffs and the next thing you know we won two of the most important races and we win the championship.  It just has that feeling to me throughout the regular season, so I feel like for those reasons I’m as confident as anybody rolling into this thing in our race team and myself because we’ve been here before.  We’ve done this before, so we’re ready to rock.”

DO STAGE POINTS TAKE ON AN ADDED IMPORTANCE IN THE PLAYOFFS AND HOW WILL THAT AFFECT YOUR TEAM’S STRATEGY?  “It does.  Every point is gonna matter.  We’ve seen plenty of times where a team makes it or not make it by one point.  Sometimes it’s tied and it goes to your best finish.  That happens a lot, so every point matters and you just need to race that way because you don’t know what that point is gonna be worth at the end of the day.  That part is probably where the intensity piece comes up a little bit.  I don’t think it changes much for me because I’ve already raced that way.  I look at that as the regular season points how it just turned into playoff points at the end of the regular season came around.  I look at that the same way, where we have seven or eight more regular season points that could have been one more playoff point, and that’s over the course of 26 races, so we’ve just got to continue to have that mindset to where every point matters at every point of the race.”

WILL TEAM PENSKE WORK TOGETHER AT A PLACE LIKE TALLADEGA OR DOES THAT END IN THE PLAYOFFS?  “No, I think we all still need to work together when you go to the superspeedways.  The game has changed at the superspeedways the last few years with teamwork.  As you see not only the teams themselves working together as Penske or Hendrick or Stewart-Haas or whoever work together on the racetrack, but you see the manufacturers really work together.  You see the Fords, you see the Chevy’s, the Toyotas kind of on their own little island sometimes, whether it’s strategy or even within the group trying to position themselves to take control of the race, so I don’t see that changing because we’re in the playoffs.  You might even see that building.”

DO THOSE TWO WINS SEEM LIKE A LONG TIME AGO SINCE THAT WAS BEFORE THE BREAK AND WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU WERE MOMENTUM-WISE BACK THEN TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?  “It feels like a long time ago to answer your first question.  Way too long.  We’re ready to win again, but I do feel like we’re getting close back to that same point as we were.  To me, there’s no doubt when we went back racing we weren’t where we wanted to be.  I even said it a few times, almost like a lost puppy not knowing what road to go down to get back to where we need to be, and it’s hard to find that direction without practice.  Going to a different racetrack every week it’s hard to grow.  It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we’re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year.  We can get ourselves in position to win again and I feel like we’re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we’re at again.”

WHAT WAS YOUR MESSAGE TO ERIK JONES?  THE FACT YOU’VE BEEN THERE?  “I reached out because I feel like I’ve been there before and I just wanted to.  I watched his interview before the race at Michigan.  I was sitting in my bus and he was with Marty Snider and the question was asked about next year and what it was and I said, ‘Oh, my God.  I remember this.’  It just came rushing back and I was like, ‘Oh, this poor kid.’  So I texted him on the way home on the airplane and said, ‘Hey, man.  I’ve been where you’ve been before.  If you need someone to talk to about it, there aren’t many people who can understand exactly what you’re going through right now.  I’m here.  If you want to talk about it, that’s great.  If not, that’s fine, too.’  He reached back and said he wanted to go to lunch and I said, ‘Sure, we’ll go to lunch.’  His question was, ‘What changed from Gibbs to Penske in my career?’  Hearing his whole story is scary how similar it is, like it is almost identical the way he was brought up racing, the way he was at Gibbs.  It was almost identical.  That being said, you can’t tell the future and know where he’s gonna go next and that it’s all gonna be great and it be the best thing that ever happened to him, but I did say that God put you in these positions a lot of times to make you stronger and grow you and direct you in the place He wants you to be.  In the moment, you don’t know that.  In the moment, it’s the worst.  It’s awful.  The stress and I remember thinking so many times that, ‘Oh my gosh, all I ever wanted to be was a race car driver.  I put all my eggs in this basket and it’s coming to an end.  What am I gonna do with my life?’  Those thoughts run through my mind and it’s kind of scary, it’s really scary if we’re being honest.  It’s kind of hard to explain to some people because you’re still driving a race car for a living and it’s not that bad in comparison to what a lot of people have to go through, but it’s still something that’s challenging and doing that without your dad there for him, because that’s the guy he grew up racing with his family and his dad and I just couldn’t imagine doing that without him, so I just tried to speak some life into my situation and what can be for his.  It doesn’t mean that he’s gonna win the championship three years from now like we were able to do.  Who knows what’s gonna happen, but I do know that it’s steering him down a direction that God is pointing him to be in.  Like I said, it felt so similar that I had to say something and after talking to him it was crazy how close it was, so the whole situation all the way through was like, ‘Yep.  I’ve been there.’  So it was kind of fun to talk to him and I hope something works out for him, I really do.  He seems to be a really good kid.  I say kid, I sound like an old guy when I say that, but, young man, I guess.  But he’s grown a lot already in a lot of the same ways that I have.  I came in as a cocky, arrogant little kid that was gonna come in and beat everybody and then I realized that I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me to do and him showing his humbleness to talk to me about that shows a lot of growth as well.”

Matt DiBenedetto (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

MATT DIBENEDETTO, No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford MustangARE YOU PLAYING WITH HOUSE MONEY RIGHT NOW? “The way I look at it is I was pumped that we made it in and wanted it bad for the whole team because we know that we could be a playoff contender, not just making it and being there. I would say the most stressful part was making it in the playoffs. Now I feel like we are the most put together as a team and most prepared and ready to go and execute to make some hay and pick some guys off and try to make it through and do a really good job. I would say it is less stressful now and more exciting that it is a clean slate where we are all grouped together in points and can show the strength of our team now.”

NOW THAT YOU HAVE MADE THE PLAYOFFS AND DONE WHAT YOU EXPECTED TO DO, DO YOU START BUGGING PENSKE TO GET NEXT YEAR DONE? “Yeah, it is funny, we have talked about that. I hadn’t even brought it up or talked about it because the focus was so much of just making the playoffs which I am so glad we did for the team. Obviously I love driving for the Wood Brothers and our alliance with Team Penske is incredible and a place I want to call home for many years to come. I am sure we will get to that. My contract has options built in for multiple years and they expressed that they wanted this to be a relationship for many years to come so I would expect to have those talks here pretty soon to hopefully do what I assume should be continuing to drive this 21 car.”

ASIDE FROM YOURSELF, WHO DO YOU THINK IS A DARKHORSE OR POSSIBLE SURPRISE THAT COULD MAKE A RUN IN THE PLAYOFFS? “I think there are a lot of tough contenders but if I was picking somebody — we were talking last night and I was watching some of the picks that NBC and FOX and everyone was making for the Championship 4 and I thought that my pick might be Chase Elliott. I think he could be a good contender that might make his way into that final four and have a shot to win a championship. There are a lot of good contenders, so it is tough to pick.”

YOU CAME EXTREMELY CLOSE TO WINNING BRISTOL LAST FALL AND NOW BRISTOL IS THE FINAL RACE IN THE FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS. HOW DO YOU VIEW BRISTOL GOING INTO THE PLAYOFF RACE? DO YOU THINK IT MAY BE YOUR BEST SHOT FOR A VICTORY IN THE FIRST ROUND? “Yeah, I love Bristol, everybody knows that. Our team is strong there. We haven’t gotten to show it. We had some unfortunate circumstances both times we raced there but we had fast cars. I would say that would be one that is circled as a great opportunity for us to get a win. I don’t put too much emphasis on winning because there are a lot of things that have to work out for you to win a race on top of being really good throughout the day. But that is one we definitely have circled off. Really this whole first round is great race tracks. Darlington is a lot of fun. Richmond could be a great track for us. I love short tracks and our cars seem to be really fast on them. There and Bristol as the cutoff race is pretty exciting.”

WHAT IS IT LIKE RACING FOR THE WOOD BROTHERS RIGHT NOW AND WHAT WAS IT LIKE PUNCHING THAT TICKET TO GET THAT TEAM INTO THE PLAYOFFS? “It made it extra special making the playoffs driving the 21 car and doing it for the Wood Brothers because they have so much passion for what they do and it was so special too because to give it a glimpse of what it is like driving for the Wood Brothers, during that week last week it was one of the most stressful weeks ever. My wife was crying and I got a phone call from Len Wood, Eddie Wood, Jon Wood, Nancy is texting me, the whole family. It is just so special driving for that family. They are so supportive and have your back. They just told me to do my job and that either way they were happy and had my back either way, that it wasn’t the end of the world if we don’t make it, but if we do they would be really excited but I should worry about it, just go do my thing and have fun. Things like that are so special. That is the kind of family that I am lucky enough to drive for wheeling this 21 car. That is one of the dynamics that makes it so special driving for the Wood Brothers. It is really heartwarming and it really makes a bigger impact than they think and even Nancy was texting my wife to help calm her down. Things that really make a big impact and are special to us.”

DO YOU VISUALIZE YOURSELF WINNING AS PART OF YOUR PREPARATION? “You know, I think the reason that I say I don’t put too much emphasis on winning is that my goal is absolutely that we want to win. That is a given. I know we can win, for sure and we will. That has been my goal my entire career. As far as execution, the reason I say it is that I feel like you can get too caught up in focusing your race on how to win. It isn’t always the best car that wins. My focus is on how to make the most of our race car and the most of that day and not get too caught up in guys pulling away or how to get to them but focusing on yourself, your car and your team. Make the most of it. Maximize your day. Hopefully that puts you in position to have a shot at winning at the end of the race. Everyone prepares differently mentally but that is how I prepare to go into a race and I have learned over time, and even this year, to make sure I stay focused on this because it makes us better as a team.”

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE RUNNING AT DARLINGTON? “I would say Darlington is a little unique in the sense that you have to focus on racing the track and not quite as much racing other people. You focus on minimizing your mistakes and racing the track and making good adjustments. It is a long race to keep up with and get your car handling well. You are focused on yourself and your team and not smacking the wall and things like that.”

WHAT DOES A SUCCESSFUL PLAYOFFS LOOK LIKE FOR YOU? “Clicking off a win would be great. That is a great goal. When I say that I don’t focus too much on winning that is more when I am on the track and in the car. From a goal standpoint we would absolutely love to get that 100th win for the Wood Brothers. That would be an amazing goal to accomplish. I would say that now that we are in the playoffs we are focusing on executing and making the most of what we have and make it through a round or a couple rounds. We are competing for a championship. This is the time to shine and hopefully make it down to the end. I would say if I come out of it knowing that we made the most of our race cars and executed well and continue to grow as a team, win a race, that would be an amazing end of the season. To really pick off a lot of positions and points, this is a great opportunity for us to capitalize on now that we are closed in points wise and are the most prepared as a team to go out there and pick off a lot of guys. That is the most exciting thing that I could check off the rest of the season and what we would call a success.”

HAVE YOU HAD A CHANCE TO REFLECT ON HOW FAR YOU HAVE COME TO THIS POINT IN YOUR CAREER? “Yeah, that is what contributes to a lot of the emotion and appreciation that people see when I say things like my wife crying because we made the playoffs and all the accomplishments that goes back to. It is because of my past and my path to get here. I have gone so far and gotten so lucky. To fight and claw from start and parking a car to being in underfunded equipment and trying to show that I can make the most of a race car to fastforwarding to now and being in way beyond my dream opportunity of driving the 21 car and making the playoffs driving for the Wood Brothers. It is pretty surreal to have that opportunity to drive. All those things make me and my whole entire family appreciate it on a completely different level that we wouldn’t be able to without those experiences.”

CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT THIS WEEK HAS BEEN LIKE AS A VETERAN DRIVER IN THE PLAYOFFS FOR THE FIRST TIME? “I would say that this week has been a release. It was so stressful and kept getting more stressful leading up to Daytona and the points closed in and we lost the gap that we had and all that. I would call this week exciting and we got to celebrate with some friends out on the lake Sunday and have a good time but come Monday it was time to shift focus and we still have a lot of racing left and a lot to accomplish. It was a relief and exciting moving forward now instead of stressful. Exciting knowing that we have an opportunity to really put a good end to our season and cap it off and have a lot more success. I am pretty pumped up about that and I am appreciative to be doing it for the Wood Brothers.”

YOU HAD A GREAT START TO THE YEAR BUT HAVE BEEN ON A BIT OF A SLIDE THROUGH THE SUMMER, WHAT CAN YOU AND THE 21 TEAM DO TO CORRECT THOSE INCONSISTENCIES? “Yeah, that is a good question because I feel like we started the year – to summarize our season, we started the year and we had fast cars but we didn’t execute well. We had a lot to work on. We were a new group working together so we didn’t maximize our races and that is frustrating if you don’t maximize what you have to make the best of your day. We got to work communicating and figuring out what we needed to do. During 2020 it is crazy times, but we really worked on communicating. In the mid stretch we got to the point we were running up front weekly and we got stage points like eight stages in a row and we were running top-five and top-10 and right up front. That was great. Then we got into a bit of a slump where not all of them were execution. We went to Texas and we were running fourth and got wiped out by a lap car. That hurt us really bad points wise. At Kansas we got our car really good and thought we could run top-five or top-10 at worst but got wiped out on the restart. Bristol we got wiped out from a crash. Then we went to Dover and just flat out struggled. Some of the circumstances were just not really great luck. Some of the things we can improve on as a team. Now, we are in the playoffs thank goodness and have a lot of race tracks that are big strengths for us and we are prepared as a team to go out and execute.”

HOW DO YOU ANTICIPATE THINGS WILL ELEVATE ON THE TRACK IN THE PLAYOFFS? AS A PLAYOFF ROOKIE, WHAT DO YOU ANTICIPATE IT MIGHT BE LIKE AND HOW WILL YOU HAVE TO REACT OR CHANGE? “I think there is just a little bit more desperation in the playoffs because there is so much on the line and every race matters so much. You just don’t have margin for error. During the regular season you have a little more margin for error and it is a long season and you are trying to rack up stage points and things like that. Now, there is just really no margin for error. As far as how I would approach it in the playoffs. I have been doing this awhile, my sixth year full time, but as a playoff rookie. From the experiences I have had I have learned to only focus on what is in my control and to drive the race car and approach the race just like I would any other race which is to make the most of what we have for that day. I really don’t change my approach personally. That takes discipline to do with so much on the line. I am lucky that as I have gotten older, I am 29 now and been doing this awhile, that I feel more disciplined and mentally mature and ready than ever on those things that really affect my execution of my race with my team.”

Clint Bowyer (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

CLINT BOWYER, No. 14 PEAK Throwback Ford Mustang — GREG ZIPADELLI SAID HE POTENTIALLY COULD HAVE THE SAME LINEUP AS LAST YEAR.  HOW CONFIDENT ARE YOU ABOUT RETURNING TO SHR?  “They’re working on that on the future and what that looks like.  If it’s a part of this sport in any way shape or form I’m excited about it.  We’ll work on that and really go to that.  For right now it’s still about the playoffs.  It’s new life.  I’ve been so frustrated this summer.  I mean, this pandemic sucks.  I’m frustrated for our sport.  I’m frustrated for our fans.  Twenty thousand people we got to bring back.  It’s slowly starting to come back and see life.  That’s awesome to see.  You could hear them.  You could see them.  There was a damn crowd there last weekend and that’s a shot in the arm for our sport, a breath of fresh air for everybody involved — competitors, fans, everything.  I was across the street at Bass Pro Shop and it was full of race fans it was like, ‘Yes, we’re back.’  This is getting close to what normalcy is and I’m excited about that and I’m excited about these first three races within the playoffs.  I’m excited about Darlington.  We ran well there in Darlington 2, won a couple stages and, again, it was the same old Darlington for me.  We ran well doing the things we needed to do.  We pit, the caution comes out and you’re a lap down.  Boom.  Next thing you know you’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole and put it in a hole I shouldn’t have been in and hit the wall and the rest is history.  It’s just that fast it can get away from you and, oh, by the way, now it’s for all the marbles and a championship.  People ask you all the time these playoffs, what does it mean to be in the playoffs?  Yes, it’s an elite group or whatever, but that doesn’t matter.  You’re in the playoffs for one reason — to compete for a championship and that’s Phoenix.  The only way you can do that is to go through these rounds.  We don’t have very many points.  We’ve got to earn stage points.  We’ve got to race under our capabilities and moreover for our 14 car we’ve got to minimize mistakes.  That’s how we go rounds in this thing and compete for a championship.  The capability is there, we’ve got to clean up the mistakes.”

WHAT WILL BRISTOL BE LIKE AS A CUTOFF RACE?  “It’s gonna be more of the same.  I don’t know.  It’s like they were just wanting to — how can we make this as nerve-wracking as possible.  I mean, we’re talking like ulcer level nerve-wracking situations and they found it.  The Roval, Bristol, Daytona, I mean it can’t get anymore nerve-wracking than that.  Going into this thing, I don’t have a lot of playoff points.  We’ve got to get these stage points established right off the bat.  We’re starting relatively up front.  From the way I’ve started all summer long, a ninth-place start is way up front.  I’m super-pumped about a top 10 starting spot and going after this thing.  We’ve got a new rabbit you’re chasing.  That thing gets a little bit wore out as you’re going through those summer months and we’ve got a new one out there in front of the hood and, by God, I’m gonna chase it.”

WHO IS A DARKHORSE TEAM IN YOUR VIEW?  “That’s an interesting question.  I don’t know.  I think everybody knows everybody’s strength and weaknesses.  Again, I don’t know who is the darkhorse.  William Byron, I guess.  If you look at him — momentum is something, confidence is something, winning your first race is worth something, having a crew chief like Chad Knaus is worth something — trust me.  That all is building at the right time.  I came into the playoffs before and won New Hampshire right off the bat and rode that off into a second place finish and a shot at a title.  That’s real.  Look at Tony Stewart, his last championship.  They sucked all year.  All of a sudden, boom, here they come running and get on that wave, found the right wave and rode that damn thing off into the sunset down there at Homestead and a championship.  It can happen.  It can happen with any race team, but you’ve got to, for us, again, going back to how it’s gonna happen for me and that’s minimizing mistakes.  We’ve got to clean up the mistakes that we’ve made.  If we can do that, I’m telling you we’re capable of going rounds in this thing.”

WHAT PRECAUTIONS DO YOU HAVE TO TAKE TO PROTEC YOURSELF IN THE PLAYOFFS TO PREVENT A POSITIVE COVID TEST?  “Gas mask.  Same precautions you have.  I mean, it’s the same thing . It’s COVID.  I mean, it sucks.  It’s pretty crazy to me that we’re this far along and we still really don’t know a whole lot more than where we’re at.  I mean, it’s crazy times, but, nonetheless, you’ve got to take care of yourself.  I’m probably not gonna go to college and hit up a keg stand.  I’m probably not going to do that.  I would say that would be a good opportunity to find yourself pointless.”

IS IT ANY MORE SERIOUS FOR YOU NOW WITH THE CHAMPIONSHIP ON THE LINE THAN IT WAS THE FIRST 26 WEEKS?  “No, it can’t be.  The seriousness comes if you have COVID  you can’t race.  That sucks.  Honestly, the thing that sucks even worse than that is I’ve talked to both of them that had it and probably had worse hangovers and couldn’t race.  You know what I mean?  It is what it is and that’s the foul.  It’s not a judgemental call.  When the ref calls a foul in a basketball game you don’t get a chance to go plead your case and get it overturned.  It is what it is and it’s done.  It’s very unfortunate that Jimmie Johnson didn’t get in the playoffs because he had COVID.  It was completely out of his control.  Honestly, you can do all of the things — you might get it opening your car door.  There’s a lot of precautionary things you can do, but there are a lot of things out of your control, in my opinion.  Eventually, we’ve got to put this thing back in gear.  Your kid’s gotta go to school.  They’re gonna be around people.  I mean, there’s a lot of things that are real, but you’ve got to pray that it doesn’t happen to you and do everything you possibly can to stay away from it.”

AT WHAT POINT, IF RETURNING TO SHR ISN’T AN OPTION, DO YOU START TALKING TO OTHER TEAMS?  “Man, again, we’re working on all of that with the future.   Hey man, I said it to Bob, if it’s being a part of this sport in any way shape or form I’m excited about it.  I’m more excited about the playoffs right now.  We have an opportunity to win a championship.  You see that right there?  (Picture of the trophy)  I don’t have one of those.  If you get me one of those, I’ll have way different opinions on strategies and what I’m gonna do, whether I’m staying or whatever.  I want one of those and right now that’s the only thing that matters.”

HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH JOHNNY KLAUSMEIER EVOLVED THIS YEAR?  “I really like Johnny.  I think a lot of him.  His demeanor is certainly not like mine, and I think that’s a really positive thing.  I don’t know how many times the old driver in me, I don’t know how many times I’ve got out of the car and got home and your wife is like, ‘What in the hell is wrong with you today?’  You’re like, ‘What are you talking about.’  You’re like, ‘God, you were an a-hole.’  ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about.  I thought it was a pretty good day.’ She’s like, ‘Man, you were pretty hard on it.’  That’s just part of I guess the competitive nature of me and how I go about business, but, all kidding aside, the thing I do like about him is when you’re whining about something all you get is a 10-4 and he goes back to work.  He listens and he tries to make the car better for you and nine times out of 10 he does.  A lot of unknowns with the way that this season has been since the pandemic and not having a lot of things to fall back on, and it’s been tricky watching him.  It seems like it’s really tricky because in 2018 we kind of had this package going — the aero package — obviously a lot of things have evolved since then, but they had a lot of success in 2018, run up through the playoffs and had some fast race cars.  I’ve seen it be confusing trying to land because you’re guessing at it anyway.  At the end of the day you’re guessing at it, especially with no notebook with the driver, with no recent experiences with this aero package.  I mean, not going to no practice — nothing.  He’s throwing darts at it and a best guesstimate, and a lot of times he hit it and sometimes we didn’t.  The thing that’s good about our relationship is we’ve got that behind us.  Now, we’re finally going back to these tracks for the second time and we have that notebook.  It’s established.  We won’t make the mistakes that we’ve made.  We learned from those mistakes and don’t make them again.  Now, yes, that’s obvious and every other team is doing the same thing, but I feel like that’s gonna go rounds for us.  That’s gonna be how we go rounds within these playoffs is just clean up the mistakes.  We’ve shown our capabilities.  We’ve run up front.  We’ve won stages.  We’ve led laps, probably more laps this year than I had last year, maybe, but, nonetheless, we’ve been up front but we’ve made mistakes.  Now, we have a notebook of what not to do and we’ve got to put it to good use within these playoffs.”

WERE YOU WORRIED ABOUT THIS WHOLE THING BLOWING UP THE FIRST TIME YOU CAME TO DARLINGTON WITH COVID AND WE WOULDN’T EVEN GET TO THE POINT WE ARE NOW?  “I’m not gonna lie, I was really confused.  I don’t know.  I’m as confused now as I’ve ever been.  I remember Darlington well.  I remember passing a drag strip that was packed, packed to the gills with people in the pit area and fans in the stands and everything else.  The beach is going crazy and you could walk across the street and walk into a diner and eat, but you couldn’t bring my wife to the motorhome.  There was just a lot of confusion, but there’s so much that we’ve learned from then that the regulations that the state put in, the guidelines that they hold you to as a sport so you can even come into the state and put on the show to begin with.  You’re playing by their rules.  It’s the house rules and it’s not the same, it’s not uniform across the country.  You go to this state and it’s one thing.  You go to the next state and his mind set on another opinion of guidelines, so they’ve done a good job of bobbing and weaving as we go throughout this endeavor of pandemic and, honestly, we’re still standing.  I think it proves that you can do things safely.  Again, looking back at last weekend 20,000 fans that’s nothing to miss.  That was a gain, in my opinion a huge step in the right direction of getting back to normalcy.  Do they have to wear masks?  Do we all have to wear masks?  Yes.  That’s part of it, but if it’s making somebody somewhere safe, I don’t care.  That’s fine.  If that’s what I have to do to go race, then that’s what we’re gonna do.  That’s human nature.  Racers more than anything, and I will say this, it’s been this way my whole life.  I’ve experienced it and I’ve watched it time and time again with racers and still do, whether it’s at a grassroots entry level of racing or the elite division of Cup — racers find a way and they always find a way before the next guy.  That’s the competition of racing.  I remember time and time again watching a guy roll into the racetrack, flip his car, total it down and out.  The dude is working three jobs, wife is working, it’s time and time again you’re like, ‘Well, he ain’t gonna be back for a month or so.’  Nope, here they are probably the first ones sitting in line at the guard shack to come in the gates.  I mean, that’s what racers do and it didn’t surprise me in the least that we were able to figure it out before other sports.”

IS LAUGHING HOW YOU HANDLE PRESSURE OR DO YOU EVEN FEEL ANY PRESSURE OF THE PLAYOFFS?  “If this looks like fun, you’ve got to get out of that library or whatever you’re in.  This is going on three-and-a-half hours of sitting in my office on a Zoom meeting.  Zoom meetings suck.  If there’s anything that I hate of the pandemic, it’s Zoom meetings and backdrops and Zoom meetings.  I think everybody ought to have a free pass at Zoom when we’re all done with this crap.  It’s all I can do to remember my password to turn on the damn computer and you’ve got me clicking Zooms and unmuting and muting and videos.  Oh my God, but you’ve got to have fun with it.  We all love this.  If we didn’t love it, hey, it don’t pay that damn good.  You know what I mean?  This is a lot of work for everybody — you guys covering this sport, us.  You’re gone from your families a lot, doing the things that we love to do.  I mean, it’s what we do.  We’re racers.  I’ve been to dirt tracks and watching my dirt guys, I mean, it’s just what you do and I love this sport.  I really do enjoy being a part of it on the racetrack.  I love selling it to a new fan, interacting within it of this sport, whether it’s in the infield or a coffee shop somewhere.  There’s nothing that makes me more proud to be a part of something when you walk in and they’re like, ‘Damn, that race was good last night,’ and sparked up a conversation of old boys somewhere at a Lowe’s or somewhere or a gas station.  That’s cool to be a part of something that so many eyes are on and enjoy.”

SO DO YOU FEEL PRESSURE OR NOT?  “Hell yeah, you feel pressure.  Yeah.  I’m gonna postpone that pressure until I get in that damn car Saturday night.  I’m just gonna wait for then.  I’m not gonna go ahead and feel pressure right now.  I’ve chosen not to experience pressure today, Wednesday.  Saturday, it’s a different day.  I will feel the pressure.  That’s just the way it is.  I can tell you this, there’s nothing that lasts longer than a bad run.  I’m bad about it.  You ask my wife, she’ll say, ‘God, will you please get back to the racetrack and try to fix whatever this is’ because you come home as a race car driver and you are super-pissed and not much fun to be around for a couple days after a bad run.”

IS IT AN ADVANTAGE TO HAVE ALL FOUR SHR CARS IN THE PLAYOFFS OR MORE COMPETITION?  “It could be both.  It is both.  There’s no question that it’s both.  I’m super-proud of everybody, all the men and women at Stewart-Haas Racing.  What an accomplishment.  All four cars.  All five cars.  That car is gonna be racing for a championship too, that XFINITY car.  A group of pretty special people.  I’m gonna tell you, Stewart-Haas runs as lean as I’ve ever been a part of with any organization and arguably as lean as anybody we race against, and certainly as lean as anybody that’s sharing four cars in  the chase, I can promise you that.  I’m proud of that.  That means that you’ve got the right people put in place and they’re all pulling on the rope in the same direction.  That’s how we got here.  We cannot lose sight of that, but, make no mistake, there’s probably gonna be a time within probably this first round you may have to be fighting one of your own for a position to go onto the next round within these playoffs.  There’s real life scenarios that are gonna be there as well.”

Cole Custer (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

COLE CUSTER, No. 41 HaasTooling.com Ford Mustang — HOW DO YOU SEE THE CUP PLAYOFFS BEING DIFFERENT FROM LAST YEAR AND YOUR APPROACH TO THEM?  “I think the biggest thing is that there’s just more competition.  In the XFINITY Series you have probably five to six guys that can probably make it to Miami, where here there are probably 10-12 guys that could.  It’s tough.  You’ve got to be really competitive and you’ve got to beat a lot of good guys, but at the same time you don’t want to put yourself in a hole either, so there’s a lot to balance.”

WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS WITHOUT ANY EXPERTS HAVING YOU IN DURING THE PRESEASON?  “It’s huge.  I mean, I think we can go in there and prove some people wrong is the biggest thing, but at the end of the day it’s about being consistent and it’s about being competitive.  I think we’ve had a lot of peaks and valleys at times this year, but at the same time we just need to try and level it out more going into these playoffs.  If we can be consistent and we can put it all together and put all the pieces together for these last 10 races, I think we’ve shown that we can compete with anybody it’s just trying to put those pieces together every single race.”

ASIDE FROM YOU, WHO DO YOU THINK IS A DARKHORSE?  “I think you can look at my teammate, Aric Almirola.  They’ve been knocking on the door all year pretty much being consistent and it only takes one thing to go right and I think they can win some races, so I can definitely say that you can probably look at them a little bit.”

YOU ARE THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR.  DO YOU READ ANY OF THE STUFF ON TWITTER WHO FEEL YOU DON’T DESERVE IT?  “I don’t know.  I don’t make the rules (laughing).  At the end of the day I guess we won, but I don’t know.  I’m not the most confident guy out there that’s gonna say I’m better than all those guys.  I know that all of us have been pretty competitive this year and I think we’ve all made big strides.  It’s just a matter of we won at Kentucky.  I don’t know what to tell you, so we were Rookie of the Year.  It’s tough to swallow, I guess, for some people, but it is what it is.  I’m gonna be proud of it and I think our team should be proud of it.  I think we’ve shown that we can compete and we can have good finishes, so it’s just a matter of being consistent and putting it all together.”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO WIN THAT AWARD?  “It’s huge to be able to race against those guys.  Tyler, Christopher, John Hunter, I think we all made huge strides this year and were all fairly competitive.  It was definitely cool to be able to race these guys for the last 5-10 years and to move up to the Cup level together and have that battle still kind of going on was really cool.”

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO GET AN AWARD OVER CHRISTOPHER OR TYLER, WHO WON CHAMPIONSHIPS IN OTHER SERIES?  “It’s cool to win that.  It’s one of those things you’re gonna look back in 5-10 years and say that was pretty cool to win because it was a really good rookie class and I think it’s cool.  I don’t know what else to say about it, but it’s one of those things where it was competitive and I think for us to come out on top of it is definitely something to be proud of.”

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON LAYING THE BUMPER TO SOMEBODY, IF NECESSARY, DURING THE PLAYOFFS?  “I think he put it about right.  You’re not gonna do it every single lap and every single time in the race.  You’ve got to do it at the right time, but if it’s gonna move you to the next round or it’s what you need to do to make your team move forward, it’s what you’ve got to do.  I don’t want to be wrecking people.  I think, for me, you want to  move them out of the way cleanly.  I don’t think you want to just start wrecking people, but it’s something where you’ve got to do what’s best for your team.”

HOW OFTEN WILL YOU LEAN ON YOUR TEAMMATES, ESPECIALLY KEVIN, IN THE PLAYOFFS?  “Kevin has been a huge help to me this year.  I’ve tried to talk with him pretty much every single weekend to try to get an idea of what to expect going into the races.  He’s definitely been a huge help. At the same time, I think you’ve got to make your own path at times and you have to have your own ideas because sometimes you’re just gonna confuse yourself having a lot of different people talking in your ear.  I have some great teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing and we all obviously made the playoffs and that’s a huge deal for our organization.  I think we have a great team that can work great together and share info and it’s just a dream come true, I guess, to have those kinds of teammates.”

IS YOUR CONFIDENCE HIGH IN THIS FIRST ROUND SINCE THERE ARE SOME TRACKS YOU’VE WON AT BEFORE IN XFINITY?  “I think so, for sure, but at the same time you’ve got to make sure you’re doing your homework before the races and going in there 100 percent.  There are a lot of things that can go wrong in the playoffs.  I think we’ve seen that in the past, so it’s a matter of trying to make sure you don’t put yourself in a hole is one of the biggest things.  You’ve got to run competitively, that’s for sure, but you don’t want to be one of those guys that has to be desperate going into the final race.”

WHO HAS GIVEN YOU THE BEST ADVICE OUTSIDE OF SHR IN THIS PLAYOFF PROCESS?  “I think I lean on my crew chief, Mike Shiplett, a lot.  He’s been a huge help over the past two years of being a really calm guy that can give you a lot of advice on a lot of different things.  He’s definitely pointed me in the right direction a lot of times.  I think going in these playoffs it’s just a matter of taking it one step at a time and you do enough things right, you’re gonna find yourself in a good position.”

HAS TONY STEWART GIVEN YOU ANY ADVICE?  “Tony is definitely probably every driver’s dream come true to have as a boss.  I mean, somebody I’ve watched since I was a little kid on TV and one of the legends of our sport is pretty amazing and he’s definitely one of those guys to have somebody give you support going into different things and going into races and into the playoffs means the world.  We had a team pep rally this week and he was on it, and on the Zoom call obviously since we can’t do it in person, but to have that kind of support from him and seeing how we’re doing means a lot for me.  I’ve watched him since I was a little kid.”

DO YOU FEEL YOU’VE MISSED OUT ON ANYTHING THIS ROOKIE SEASON BECAUSE OF COVID?  “I think all the races with the fans before the race is probably the biggest thing.  It was cool going to Daytona and still having it be a normal race because you have all the pre-race stuff going on and it’s really cool.  I think that’s one of the biggest things is just the atmosphere before the race with the fans is probably the biggest thing that we missed out on.”

DO YOU FEEL YOU’RE AT A DISADVANTAGE IN THE PLAYOFFS BEING A ROOKIE AND NO PRACTICE?  “You can go back and forth on it for sure.  I think I would definitely like some practice.  It’s one of those things that even though we’ve been to tracks like Darlington before, some of these guys have been there for 10-15 years.  There’s stuff as a rookie that we’d just like to try in our car to see if it was better or worse, but we don’t really have that opportunity, so we make our best educated guess on what we brought there last time and what our teammates did and what we’ve compiled through this whole year of what works and what doesn’t work, but it’s just a matter of adapting as fast as you can and try and use your notebook as best you can.”

WHAT WILL BE YOUR MINDSET FOR THIS SOUTHERN 500 WEEKEND COMPARED TO THE OTHER TWO DARLINGTON RACES THIS YEAR?  WILL THERE BE MORE NERVES?  “I think so, for sure.  One of the biggest things is how you manage your car for that long of race in a playoff race.  A lot of times sometimes you’ve got to be a little bit conservative at the start of a race to make sure you don’t knock the fence down and ruin your day, where now you might have to be aggressive from lap one, so you might see a lot more guys hitting the fence throughout the race, so that’s probably the biggest thing is how you’re gonna manage your car throughout that long of a race.”

HOW DOES THIS TRACK SUIT YOUR STYLE?  “I think for me it’s a fun track to go and move around at and you do what’s best for you.  You can kind of figure out your own kind of path of what works and what doesn’t for your line and how you work the throttle and how you want to save your tires.  I think everybody kind of has their unique thing and own style in how they attack that racetrack.”

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO RELY ON YOUR NOTES FROM PREVIOUS RACES THIS YEAR?  “It’s huge.  That’s all we have to really lean on is what we brought there last time because you don’t have any practice to kind of work through things.  Keeping good notes and making sure you’re staying on top of things and coming to the racetrack prepared and crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s is very important right now.  I think we’ve kept good notes.  We’ve gotten better throughout the year and it’s just a matter of trying to put all the pieces to the puzzle together.”

WHICH WILDCARD TRACK IS YOUR BEST OPPORTUNITY OF MOVING UP THE STANDINGS?  “Whatever one is next, I guess.  You just look forward to the next one and you take it one step at a time.  I don’t know how else to answer your question, really.  I think all of the cutoff races are gonna be tough ones because they’re very unpredictable and they’re tracks where a lot of things can go wrong at, so I think they’re all gonna be pretty exciting.”

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO FINE-TUNE YOUR NOTES FOR PHOENIX?  “I think we’ve been good at the flat short tracks this year.  It’s tough, like I said, there’s no practice to work through things, but at the same time we’ve had a good notebook and we make our best educated guess going into the race and I think we’ve done good at that.  It’s just trying to use all your notes and trying to make sure you cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s going into every single race.”

Kevin Harvick (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

KEVIN HARVICK, No. 4 Busch Light Ford MustangHOW MUCH DOES NOT HAVING FANS HELPING MAKE THE RACES FEEL MORE LIKE AN EVENT CHANGE THE RACES?  “I think everything has changed and I think our events are probably better than what most people can possibly imagine at this point, so I think you have to be careful in how you phrase that and how you put that because in today’s world our events are pretty good compared to what you see in other sports.  Our events are starting to have fans migrate back into the grandstands and different portions of the racetrack from a camping perspective, and I think as you look at what we do we’re in a very, very fortunate spot to be able to go back to the racetrack and work and do the things that we love to do on a weekly basis, so our environment is, for what we’ve been used to at home and the things we can and can’t go do and being able to go to a sporting event safely is pretty extraordinary at this point.”

ARE YOU TAKING EXTRA PRECAUTIONS AS FAR AS TRYING NOT TO GET COVID CONSIDERING THE IMPACT IT COULD HAVE ON A PLAYOFF RUN AND WILL A DRIVER EVEN GO GET TESTED UNLESS THEY HAVE SEVERE SYMPTOMS?  “It’s changed my whole life, my family’s whole life in the way that we do things.  I travel by myself.  I drive in the rental car by myself.  I go to the motorhome by myself.  I get back in the rental car and I go home.  We don’t go to the grocery store.  We don’t go to any social events anywhere.  My son doesn’t go to school.  He’s now homeschooled, so there’s really nothing that this whole situation hasn’t changed in our family’s life in order to try to create the safest environment that we can possibly create in our own little bubble, I guess you could say.  It’s touched pretty much every portion of our life, trying to create an environment to be as safe as possible and do the things that we’ve done and learned throughout the year.  I think the protocols and things that NASCAR has put in place for us at the racetrack, some may think it’s excessive or over-the-top, but I think when you look at the situation that we’re in and trying to get back to work, trying to keep working, trying to go by every state’s guidelines and county guidelines and make everybody happy it has to be extreme.  So, I’m on the side of the fence that I would rather be overly cautious in trying to make sure that we do the things that are required to keep racing.  I like going to work and I like doing the things that I get to do on Sunday and we’re trying to do our part in making sure we follow those procedures and guidelines.”

WHAT IS YOUR OPINION ON BUILDING MOMENTUM IN THESE PLAYOFFS?  “You’re not gonna start that now.  Four or five years ago we sat down as a team and really tried to figure out how we could playoff race every week.  There’s no switching gears from that mindset into a different mindset.  You know that there’s going to be (audio cuts out).

…as far as how to race in playoff form on a week-to-week basis, and do that as a team at that level and I think that, for us, has worked very well because when we get to the playoffs it’s not how do we switch gears into playoff mode, it’s keep doing what you’ve been doing at that level in order to continue that going forward, so momentum comes in different waves.  Obviously, we’ve been fortunate to have great momentum throughout the year and have been able to capitalize on the weeks when we’ve had great race cars and the weeks that we haven’t we’ve made decent finishes out of what we’ve had.  I think momentum is real, but it comes and goes, but starting the playoffs can’t be — our theory is not that you change gears and try to do something different, it’s you better be ready and already have been in that mode.”

IS THERE A DARKHORSE IN THIS PLAYOFF?  “There always will be.  I think as you look at the competition level and I think this year could be a little bit different just because of the fact of I don’t think manufacturing can keep up with engineering with the way the shops have to work, and I think a lot of the planning, especially for guys that felt like they were going to be in the playoffs, I think waiting on the cars and things that might cycle around for the playoffs will be different just because of the way that we’ve had to work.  I think it’s up in the air.  Everyone is waiting on Kyle Busch to knock down that wall.  We all know that he could win on any given week and know that he’s had a lot of bad luck this year, but it really could be anybody that goes on that type of run with the situation that we’re in.”

WHAT WILL A CHAMPIONSHIP MEAN FOR WHATEVER TEAM WINS IT THIS YEAR WITH EVERYTHING THAT HAS HAPPENED?  “I think, obviously, for us and you guys have heard me talk about this before, we’re week-to-week on trying to be competitive week in and week out.  It would be great to win the championship, but it’s hard to put together that one week and let alone 10 weeks of the playoffs in order to just get yourself there.  Our biggest focus is trying to be competitive week in and week out, win races, which we’ve done over the first 26 weeks and that’s our goal to continue forward and do those things.  To have it all come together like it has says a lot already about our organization and the things that we’ve been able to accomplish in extreme circumstances, so winning a championship in this particular year would say a lot about the people, but being able to be competitive week in and week out and win races says a lot about the people already.”

CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE CHALLENGE OF MAXIMIZING TIME ON PIT ROAD?  “I think for us it’s a lot of communication.  Our engineers have a lot to do with that in the way that pit road is shaped, where your pit stalls are picked, so there’s a strategy behind everything.  I think as you look at the things that we do on pit road it’s really the shape of the pit road, the strategy of the location of the pit stall and making sure that my gauges and things are set up to the way that I like them and something that works for me and our team to be able to maximize that, so it’s just like anything else, you want to maximize everything that you do on pit road, but there’s a lot of little details that go into making that happen.”

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON CONSECUTIVE SHORT TRACK RACES IN THE FIRST ROUND AND WHAT WILL BRISTOL BE LIKE AS A CUTOFF RACE?  “Here’s the thing, I think as we’ve gone through the playoffs in the past any of these races can turn into a wild, crazy race that is the race that you all dread, and any of them can do that.  So, I think as you look at the first round this year has obviously been very different already, but I think when you look at the schedule and the things that are happening with the schedule it definitely has shook things up to be able to have those short tracks come into play.  As you guys know, on those short tracks there’s a lot of beating and banging and situations that could definitely affect what we do, but that could be any race, and I think as you look at the first round it’s very intriguing, especially when you go to Richmond, a racetrack that we haven’t been there this year and you kind of have to take a guess at what you need to do.  It’s a high wear racetrack from a tire standpoint, so getting your cambers and everything right is going to be a little bit tricky, so I think as you look at the playoffs in general, though, the way that they’re set up is intriguing as you go through every round just because of the fact that you have different racetracks from the year before, but they’re also racetracks that can be detrimental to finishes and gaining points because of the style of race or the situation that it could create.”

HOW UNPREDICTABLE WILL THE SECOND ROUND BE?  “It’s like I just said.  They all can be unpredictable and they all have their own unique situations that could be detrimental to the things that you’re trying to accomplish, so, they’re pretty easy to read in.  All you have to do is look at the schedule and understand the type of race that they are and you’re right.”

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU HEARD THE CHAMPIONSHIP RACE WOULD BE IN PHOENIX?  “I think, for me, the first reaction was, ‘Man, we didn’t run very good there last year.’  The second reaction was, ‘We’ve had a lot of success there in the past,’ and when we got done with the first race realized that we were back on track and capable of being able to win races and be competitive there this year.  Obviously, Phoenix for me is kind of like a second home racetrack just because of all the races that I’ve been able to run there and participate in and have a lot of fans that have watched me race there since the mid-nineties.  It’s a place that I’ve gone to watch races for a long time, so looking forward to being able to see how it all plays out and hopefully we can have some success there like we have in the past.”

HOW MANY DOUBLEHEADER WEEKENDS OR NO PRACTICE TYPE EVENTS DO YOU SEE GOING FORWARD?  “I think the most important thing, to me, is that we have a healthy sport.  I think a lot of that is going to be left up to NASCAR and the teams just because of the fact we have to come out of this pandemic and situation learning something.  I think efficiency and what that brings from a financial standpoint is definitely something that I think everybody is calculating into the equations, but we also need healthy racetracks and we have to have opportunities for the fans to come to the racetrack as we move forward, so there’s a lot of information that is coming out of the season that we are in, and in the end the most important thing is how do we get the race teams through this with the way that we have to work in the race shop.  Obviously, with North Carolina and the rules and things that we have here and have in most of the race shops here you have to be able to work within those guidelines, so I think as we go from racetrack to racetrack we’ve learned that if things aren’t gonna work out in a certain location, we can go to a different location and everybody has been very open to that and navigated that very well.  So, there’s a number of things that I think everybody has been wanting to try in the past with doubleheaders, midweek races, one-day shows and I think that we’ve all learned that practice and qualifying are really not that important to what the outcome and what the race looks like on Sundays or Saturdays or whenever that race is, so there are definitely some things that have to be considered going forward because, in the end, I don’t believe we’re in a much different position of where we can race and how we can race and who can be there and who can’t be there when we start next year.”

HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO HAVE A SEASON LIKE KYLE BUSCH IS HAVING AND TO TURN IT AROUND IN THE PLAYOFFS?  “I don’t know what their thought process is or how they approach things or what the demeanor of the team is.  There are just so many things that would have to go into that equation.  I can only relate to the things that I know how we would approach it as a team and the open mind that we would all have and kind of creating that reset button that we talked about earlier of us not wanting to have — sometimes you have to reset the rules for yourself if you’ve had a bad year.  You have to be in it to win it.  I think as you’re in the playoffs and doing the things that everybody else is doing with a fresh set of point standings and elimination that comes along with every three weeks, there’s still opportunity there, so a lot of that is gonna come down to how their cars perform and how much better they’re going to be with the playoff cars compared to the regular season cars and really how it’s approached from a mental standpoint and how much they can leave everything behind them.  It’s hard to tell in somebody else’s situation, but I know for us we would definitely be letting it all go and trying to hit the reset button to get started on a fresh season that could make your whole year.  Here’s the bottom line with Kyle, he broke his leg, came back, missed 9, 10, 11 races — whatever it was — and won a championship, so it’s not like they haven’t been in some sort of situation like this before.”

IS THIS A TOTALLY DIFFERENT DARLINGTON THIS WEEKEND COMPARED TO MAY?  “I guess we’ll just take May and combine them because we ran one in the day and one at night.  It shouldn’t be that much different other than the fact that we’re gonna start the race with a couple other divisions already having been on the racetrack.  We’ve been on both sides of daytime and nighttime from the two races at the beginning of the year.”

HAVE YOU AND DENNY TALKED AT ALL ABOUT YOUR WEEKLY BATTLES, OR HAVE YOU JUST FOCUSED ON YOUR TEAM?  “It’s just really been focusing on our own race teams.  I think everybody is aware of where everybody is and who is doing good and who is doing bad.  Yeah, it’s definitely not something that we’ve been calling each other up and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think?’  It’s the distance understanding of what each other is doing and who is doing what and just trying to do the best you can for your team.”

DO YOU FEEL THE FIGHT TO STAY ON TOP OF NASCAR IS AS HARD AS IT HAS EVER BEEN?  “It’s different.  Winning a championship today isn’t how Earnhardt and Petty did it.  I think it’s a much different style of winning a championship than what it used to be, so I think when you look at the point standings from this year, you see why the playoffs were put into effect in trying to make sure that we had an intriguing 10 weeks of racing as we went toward the end of the year.  I think as you look at that it’s very difficult to get yourself to the last race of the season and be one of those four cars and trying to be able to race for let alone win a championship.  It’s very difficult to put yourself in that position and once you get there be able to put everything together against the other three guys on one particular day, especially when it’s been at the same racetrack every season that we’ve gone about it this way, so I think moving those racetracks and changing the venues and keeping it mixed up has made it very intriguing for the fans and very difficult from a competitor’s standpoint with navigating the last 10 weeks of the season and having it all work out is just very difficult.”

DO YOU THINK THE NUMBER OF 500-MILE RACES SHOULD BE FEWER THAN WHAT THERE ARE NOW?  “There’s no reason that any race outside of a crown jewel race is longer than 500 miles.  It’s not something that is really even necessary in today’s day and age.  The race, I’ll use Texas for example, 500 miles at Texas it takes forever to run that race and do the things that we do there, and we’ve all learned — and the fans and sponsors even look at it and they’re like, ‘Man, it just seems more intense when the races are a little shorter.’  But when you look at the Daytona 500 and you look at the Coke 600 and the Southern 500, those races obviously have a different type of meaning to our sport than some of the other races that have been added through the years.  I think the distance of 500 miles at a lot of these races is definitely too long.”

HOW WOULD YOU SAY DARLINGTON FITS YOUR STYLE AND WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL?  “The thing that makes Darlington so special is it just has such deep roots in our sport, and winning the Southern 500 is something that all the drivers want to do and all the teams want to do.  They understand the significance and the history that comes with winning that race, so I think for me it’s been a very good racetrack for us since we’ve come together at Stewart-Haas Racing and it’s a racetrack that has some very unique corners and tire fall-off and a lot of things happen there that don’t happen at other racetracks, so you have to adapt and adjust as you go throughout the run and throughout the day and night and so there’s a lot of things to wrap your arms around, so it’s a challenging racetrack and I think that’s one reason that it fits so well at Stewart-Haas Racing and the things that we’ve done on the 4 car over the past seven years.”

Aric Almirola (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

ARIC ALMIROLA, No. 10 Smithfield Ford MustangYOUR NAME CAME UP MULTIPLE TIMES AS A SLEEPER.  HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?  “I’m good if they do.  It makes no difference to me what anybody else thinks and that’s an attitude that I’ve had for a long time.  I’m the type of guy that just really puts my head down and goes to work with my race team, and that’s all I really care about is working with Bugarewicz and the guys on my team.  What anybody else thinks I really don’t care because only I and my race team really know what we’re capable of and areas where we need to improve and areas where we feel like we’re doing a good job.  I am excited about the playoffs.  I do feel like we have a lot of potential.  We’ve run really well.  We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”

WHAT IS YOUR THOUGHT ON THE IMPACT THE CHOOSE RULE WILL HAVE IN THE PLAYOFFS?  IT WILL BE IN 8 OF THE 10 RACES.  “I think it’s a good thing, honestly.  I think it’s nice to not be stuck in a certain lane that may not be an optimal lane and potentially lose spots because of it.  At least now if you come off pit road third, this is the ultimate scenario for me that I see is used to if you were running fourth and you come down pit road for a late-race caution and your pit crew does an awesome job and they get you off pit road third, it used to be you were like, ‘Oh, man.  Good job guys, but now we’re gonna start third on the bottom lane,’ and potentially you could be fifth or sixth or seventh by the time that first lap is over, where now if you’re third, you have the opportunity to choose.  You can choose if you want to start in the outside lane or if the guy in second decides to start behind the leader, you could start on the front row.  So, I think having that option is nice to not just be stuck in a lane because that’s where you came off pit road after pit stops.”

WHAT OTHER DRIVER COULD SURPRISE PEOPLE IN THE PLAYOFFS?  “I don’t know.  That’s the crazy thing about our sport is people get hot at different times and you see it happen.  Obviously, throughout most of this year we’ve seen the 11 and the 4 be consistently the best cars, but in year’s past we’ve seen other guys get really hot when the playoffs start and go deep into the rounds and it be unexpected.  I always remember back to when my boss, Tony Stewart, went through most of the regular season running average at best and he has a famous quote summertime of that year saying, ‘I don’t even care if we make the playoffs.  We don’t deserve to make the playoffs with the way we’re running.’  And lo and behold they make the playoffs by points, one of the lower seeds, and then he goes on to win five or six races in the playoffs and wins the championship, so it’s just a matter of who hits it at the right time and who can be perfect.  These playoffs demand perfection.  There’s no real room for error, especially the guys that don’t have a lot of bonus points.  The 4 and the 11 basically have a mulligan per round with how many bonus points they have, but everybody else doesn’t have that luxury.  You’ve got to be perfect.”

WAS THERE ANY DOUBT YOU WOULD BE STAYING IN THE 10 CAR AND DID YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH BUGA HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT?  “I think my relationship with Buga and how well we’ve run certainly played a factor, not only with me having that opportunity again at Stewart-Haas Racing, but certainly with the sponsor.  They have certainly appreciated being a lot more a part of the broadcast, running up front, leading laps and being in contention to win races on a more regular basis, so all of that certainly played a factor.  I’m just so grateful to continue to build on that relationship with Smithfield.  They’ve been a great partner of mine for nine seasons now and next year is gonna be going on our 10th season together and I feel like that’s something to be said.  There are very few driver-sponsor combinations that go that long in our sport and I think that’s a true testament to Smithfield and their commitment to our sport and their commitment to me, and then on the flip side just how hard I’ve worked to try and bring them value to their company in exchange for them sponsoring a race car that I get to drive.”

HAS JOINING SHR EXTENDED YOUR CAREER AND REINVIGORATED IT IN REGARDS TO HOW LONG YOU PLAN ON BEING IN THE CUP SERIES?  “Absolutely.  This is a performance-driven business, no doubt about it.  You can occasionally get opportunities for various reasons, but at the end of the day you have to perform and if you don’t, your days or your years will be numbered, and so, yeah, me joining Stewart-Haas Racing and performing at the level that I have over the last three years and being a consistent playoff contender — my first year there in 2018 going really deep into the rounds of the playoffs and ultimately finishing fifth in the points was reinvigorating for me and my career, absolutely.  I went six seasons before that and never really seen that type of success, and there’s only so long you can stay in this sport and be average, and that’s just being truthful.  I was grateful for that opportunity in 2018 and I took that opportunity knowing that I was gonna do one of two things, I was either gonna perform at a high level like Stewart-Haas Racing I know is capable of and I was either gonna rise to that occasion, or I was gonna be average and my days were gonna be numbered and I was probably gonna leave this sport, but at least at that point I would be able to sleep at night knowing that I got a great opportunity and I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, or I got a great opportunity and I performed at a pretty high level with that opportunity.  So far, I’ve been able to have some success.  I still want more.  I still have a burning desire to win more races, lead more laps and ultimately win a championship, but, so far, we’ve been successful.”

HOW DO YOU AVOID MISTAKES AT DARLINGTON AND BRISTOL?  “Again, you still have to be perfect.  You can’t go to Darlington and wipe the right side off of it and finish 29th.  You can’t scrape the wall and have a fender cut down a tire and go two laps down during a green flag cycle.  You can’t afford those kind of mistakes, so you have to be mindful of that, and the same thing at Bristol.  Both those places you typically run right on the wall, so there’s very little margin for error and that’s something that’s very mindful for me is that you’ve got to get 100 percent out of everything, but you can’t try and get 102 percent out of anything because that’s usually when mistakes happen.”

YOU HAVE A PAINT SCHEME HONORING FIREBALL ROBERTS.  WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU?  “It’s really special and, first of all, I’m glad and thankful that Go Bowling gave us this opportunity to do this on this Throwback Weekend.  It means a lot to me through getting to know and understand a lot about the paint scheme that we’re running and to learn more about Fireball Roberts.  He was from Florida, just like myself, and he played baseball most of his early life much like myself.  I played baseball all the way up through high school, so I feel like we had a lot of similarities and he had a lot of success at Darlington, which I have not, so in that fact we differ, but I’m hoping that his paint scheme will bring us some good luck and we’ll go run really well at Darlington in the Southern 500.”

HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH BUGA EVOLVED AND HOW HAS HE CHALLENGED YOU AS A DRIVER?  “Our relationship has obviously grown a lot.  I’ve worked side-by-side with him in the shop and competition meetings and the garage area when he was a teammate, but now having him as my crew chief we’ve grown a lot, not only as crew chief-driver, but as friends.  We have a lot of similar interests.  He enjoys cycling.  I enjoy cycling, so through the pandemic we went on several bike rides together.  His wife and kids come over to our house and had dinner together.  We’ve built that sort of relationship, which has, I feel like, made an impact on how we perform.  However, he has challenged me in ways that I haven’t been challenged before just from the fact that he is probably the most intense crew chief that I’ve ever had.  That guy, I don’t know when he sleeps.  I know he does get some sleep.  It’s not humanly possible to function with no sleep, so I know he sleeps sometimes, but I don’t know when.  He’s always working.  He’s sending me emails at crazy hours at night.  He’s just so intense and he pays attention to every single detail on the race car, every single detail on simulation.  He’s on top of every single guy on our race team, making sure that they’re paying attention to every single detail.  He’s just so intense and that makes me accountable and he holds me accountable, and I appreciate that.  I know that he is a fiery competitor and I love that about him, and I feel like I am the yin to his yang because I’m a very fiery competitor, but I’m very even keel and don’t show a lot of emotion.  I don’t yell and scream a lot.  I’m pretty laid back, but I do car tremendously and I work really, really hard at it, so I appreciate that side of it from him.”

IS THIS THE MOST CONFIDENCE YOU’VE HAD GOING INTO THE PLAYOFFS?  “Absolutely.  In 2018 I had a lot of confidence and it was kind of nice because there was very low expectations for us.  We were a new team.  It was my first year at Stewart-Haas Racing and nobody really paid any attention to us at all, and so having that confidence and low expectations we performed really well and through the summer leading up to those playoffs that year I saw the potential that we had.  We went really far in the playoffs and almost made it to Homestead, came up just a little bit short, but we finished fifth in the points, which was an incredible year for me professionally and personally.  And then going through this year I feel like we are performing at a higher level than 2018 when I had that much confidence going into the playoffs, so I am looking forward to the playoffs.  I feel like we have the potential.  We’ve been all around it, we just haven’t put it all together to win races, but we’ve been so close.  We’ve led a lot of laps.  We’ve run top five a lot and when you do those things, typically you’ll find yourself in victory lane, so maybe the Good Lord is just making me be patient and wait for the playoffs to come.”

ARE YOU ALL-OUT FOR THE WIN IN THE FIRST TWO ROUNDS OR POINTS RACING WITH THE GUYS AROUND YOU?  “Honestly, I think the two go hand-in-hand.  You see it already.  You’ve seen it throughout the year, the guys that win have the most points.  Kevin Harvick has dominated and Denny Hamlin has led a lot of laps.  They’ve won a bunch of races and they have the most points, so I think that, for me, is where our focus should be.  You can’t really have one without the other.  If you lead laps, you’re gonna win stages.  If you win stages, you’re gonna get the most stage points for that stage.  And if you win races, you’re gonna advance through the rounds of the playoffs and carry those bonus points from round to round, so I think our focus is still the same.  We’ve got to go and try to be competitive and try to win.”

WHAT IS THE CONFIDENCE LEVEL LIKE AT SHR OVERALL WITH ALL FOUR CARS IN THE PLAYOFFS?  “I think our race team is as confident as ever.  I think they’ve been doing an incredible job navigating building fast race cars through this pandemic with all the shift work.  It seems like our shop is operating around the clock with all the different shifts that are coming in in different waves.  We’ve got a morning shift.  We’ve got a late afternoon shift and we’ve got an overnight shift.  What all the men and women at Stewart-Haas Racing have been doing to rise to the occasion through these challenging times with the pandemic and things not being normal, showing up to the racetrack with cars that have never hit the racetrack and their first lap on the racetrack is gonna be the green flag for the race, I think that’s a true testament to the organization.  It’s not about just the individual team that has fine-tuned the race car throughout multiple practices to get ready for the race, it’s really about the organization, the preparation that goes into building the race car and making sure that no stone is unturned, and that every detail is paid attention to so that when those race cars get to the racetrack and line up for the race, that they’re not only fast, but that they stay together — that stuff is not falling off of them, you’re not having part failures and things like that.  I’m really proud of our organization and I think Stewart-Haas Racing has a lot of confidence going into the playoffs.”

Brad Keselowsi (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

BRAD KESELOWSKI, No. 2 Discount Tire Ford MustangWHAT DRIVES YOU TO KEEP FIGHTING FOR MORE CHAMPIONSHIPS?  “First off, I don’t like to suck, so that’s one thing that drives me.  If you’re gonna do something, do it well and winning races and going for a championship, in my opinion, is doing something well.  So that drives me because I don’t want to embarrass myself, but beyond that, building a team, seeing them come together, being a part of it and the camaraderie, that’s pretty darn cool.  I like to see other people come together and I like to be a part of it, so there’s a lot of things that drive me and those are probably the two biggest — not the only ones.  I think in a lot of ways I’ve been blessed as much as many of us have to be here at this time and point in my life, in my career, in the history of the world.  We have the opportunities we have, so why not make the most of them?  I met with my team yesterday in a socially-distanced gathering and I told them at the end of this 10 weeks someone will be holding the championship trophy.  Why not us?  I still feel that way and that’s my approach.  Why not us?  We can do it just as well as anybody and I’m ready for that challenge.  I want to do it as a team and I think that’s exactly what we’re gonna do.”

WAS THERE ANY HESITATION TO DO ANYTHING IN PERSON OVER THE NEXT 10 WEEKS AS FAR AS NOT TRYING TO GET COVID AND DO YOU THINK DRIVERS WILL BE ANY MORE CAUTIOUS OR QUIET ABOUT ANY SYMPTOMS?  “There is a lot of hesitation to get together as a group.  I wanted to do lunches and dinners and I love to eat with people.  I like to eat to begin with, but I like to eat with people because it’s a different atmosphere and you can talk more freely and so to not be able to do that with my team is really a letdown.  It used to be probably eight or 10 times a year I would gather the whole team together and have a team lunch, breakfast, dinner or whatever it might be, and so not doing that is kind of a bummer.  It’s one of the things that I really enjoy about being a race car driver is being around the team and, like I said, that camaraderie, so we stopped all that because when you eat you can’t have facemasks and all that kind of stuff, so that’s a big bummer.”

DO YOU THINK DRIVERS WILL BE ANY MORE CAUTIOUS OVER THESE NEXT 10 WEEKS AND WOULD THEY HESITATE TO SAY ANYTHING UNLESS IT’S BAD?  “I don’t know how we can be any more cautious than we already are.  I basically fly in an airplane almost by myself.  Every once in a while I’ll have another driver or two ride with me and sit way behind me in the back row.  You get on the Penske airplane and I’ve flown with them and everybody has got masks on and nobody is eating or drinking.  You have to keep your mask on the whole time, so things like that.  And then when I get to the racetrack I’m basically locking myself in a bus by myself for three or four hours until it’s race time and then I get in the car to race and I’m by myself for another three or four hours, so I’m not really sure, other than just doing nothing, what more precautions we could take.  So I feel pretty good about that.  As far as somebody getting sick and hiding it, I don’t know.  I don’t believe necessarily at this moment that the testing is strong enough for me to have confidence that somebody does or doesn’t have it more times than not.  So, I guess it’s a really open-ended question that I don’t know if I have an answer for.”

NASCAR WEEKENDS ARE EVENTS.  WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT MANY PEOPLE WON’T BE ABLE TO COME NOW THAT THE PLAYOFFS ARE STARTING?  “It definitely takes some things away, but it also adds some opportunities.  It’s hard to create a scorecard as to negative versus positive as the end result, but I think it’s important to recognize there are some gains and losses for us as an industry.  If we start with the losses, it’s hard to have those intimate relationships with sponsors that are so key to a race team’s success and survival with the current business model and climate.  We want to be able to host them.  We want them to be able to host their customers.  We want to be able to connect and have those conversations.  People like to do business with people.  They don’t want to do business with companies, they want to do business with people and more often than not what that means is connecting with them in unique ways, whether that’s in person or at events or experiences, and that’s one of the things sports entertainment offers for businesses, so to lose that it’s hurtful to the business model — not just for NASCAR but for all sports.  So that’s certainly a loss.  I think there are probably some gains for the sport in all of this.  We’re operating much more efficiently than we were beforehand, and that’s doing a couple things.  One, it’s reducing costs to the car owners and teams.  Two, it’s reducing a lot of waste.  There was a lot of waste previously that’s being cut out with this system, so I’m proud of those things and probably the third thing is there’s significantly less competition, which, if we’re doing everything right as a sport, we should be able to capitalize on with respect to rating and so forth and consumption digitally.  So, I think it’s hard to create a scoreboard and say positive versus negative — end result, but I also think it’s important not to just focus on the things we’ve lost, but also recognize some of the things we’ve gained.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE EVERYBODY IS POTENTIALLY RACING FOR TWO SPOTS AT PHOENIX WITH THE WAY THE 4 AND 11 HAVE RUN?  “They’ve got a lot of bonus points.  There ain’t no doubt about that.  That’s gonna serve them really, really well as they go through the rounds, but I tell you, I don’t know if there’s enough bonus points in the world to get you through that second round.  That second round is hairy.  Talladega is gonna be hairy.  The Roval is gonna be hairy.  You’re gonna want to go to Vegas and win, and the way the format is set up it’s intentionally designed to not allow somebody to just coast through no matter how good your regular season is, so I suspect that at least one of those two guys will find themselves in a spot at some point in time that they didn’t want to be.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE TRACKS IN THE OPENING ROUND?  “First off I’ll say that I really like the change made to the playoff schedule this year.  It’s different than what we’ve had in years past, but I think it’s different in a good way.  In some ways it’s more challenging and a lot of way, in my opinion, more exciting to have these combination of events put together the way they are.  I think if you look at the finale of each round — Bristol — well, first off, the start of the regular season at Daytona I’ve been advocating for that for six years now and I think it paid off in spades.  We had a great race Saturday and a great run to the playoffs accordingly, knowing that Daytona was gonna be the last race and the uncertainty that comes from that.  But then I look at the cutoff rounds like I was saying a minute ago — Bristol, one of the most famed NASCAR tracks on the circuit.  It’s just so fitting that it’s one of the cutoffs.  Then of course you have the Roval, a track I think most of the drivers would say makes the hair stand up on the back of their necks, and then Martinsville — a track that’s been around for going on not quite 80 years — something like that.  Long story short, what a terrific playoff schedule, much better than any format I think we’ve seen to date with respect to the actual schedule, so I’m really pleased to see our sport make those kinds of adjustments.  But looking at the first round, the first round is your tried and true NASCAR tracks.  Darlington, South Carolina — a tough track, 500 miles, one of the most historical events in all of sports, and then you throw in there Richmond, which is again back to one of the more traditional short track beating and banging short tracks and Bristol.  That first round is a power round with tracks that I think should have been in the playoffs from Day One, but we can’t live in the past.  You’ve got to look to the future and I’m glad that they’re in now.”

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO HAVE SUCCESS AT DARLINGTON?  “To be good at Darlington you’ve got to run up against the wall, as close as you can for 500 miles and not hit it while still going super, super fast.  The tires are falling off, you’re wearing out.  It’s super-hot outside.  You’ve just got to be perfect.  The pit crew has to be perfect.  They have a lot of pit stops because tires wear so much.  You’ve got to hit that.  My team two years ago when I won the race, great pit stops propelled us to the win, and then four or five years ago we dominated the entire race and lost it on the last pit stop.  You’ve got to be perfect.  I’ve had some great cars there that I’ve screwed up.  I bounced one off the wall while running up in front and having a chance to win and kind of ruined our chance, so I just think of it as a track that you just have to be absolutely perfect at to have a shot to win.”

WHAT WAS THE REASONING BEHIND THE ‘WHY NOT US’ STATEMENT WITH YOUR TEAM?  “I think it’s probably driven some things that are hard for me to explain verbally, but I’ll give it my best shot.  I think I’ve been in this position now seven of the last eight years — in the playoffs, really eight of the last nine years and I’ve brought it home once, which is great.  I’m super-proud of that.  It’s more than I thought I’d ever accomplish in my entire life.  And so I’ll always be proud of that, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wanting to stop there.  It doesn’t mean that I want to leave this sport with my one Cup and go home and tell my grandkids about it for the next hopefully 40-50 years, however long I’ve got to live.  I’d rather tell them about two than one, but the reality is a championship is much bigger than a driver.  They put the driver’s name on the trophy, but I’ve never seen a driver win a championship.  I’ve seen a lot of damn good teams win championships.  I’ve never seen a driver win a championship, and I think what gets caught up in all of that is the mentality oftentimes that you’re only as good as your last race, as good as your last few weeks, and the last two or three weeks have not been as strong as I’d like them to be as a team.  We went out and kicked some serious butt at Loudon, New Hampshire and I was really proud of that, but we weren’t as strong as I hoped we’d be at Daytona and Dover, and I think there’s moments as a team where sometimes people reflect on that a little deeper than is needed — not just as a team but media — and you have to remind yourselves what you’re capable of and sometimes the easiest way to remind yourself what you’re capable of is, in my mind, eliminating the fears of what you’re not capable of and so I guess why I think why not us is my way of saying, ‘Give me a legit reason why we can’t win this championship right now?’  And we’ll come up with it and we’ll hammer it down in the ground with a 100-pound sledgehammer and we’ll fix it.  Why not us is as much a rallying cry to addressing and fixing all the little gaps.  You have to be the best you possibly can as anything else, and I think if you’re asking yourself that as a team every day, that’s what becomes of it.  What becomes of it is a culture, a mentality and a mindset of continuous improvement to eliminate your weaknesses and hopefully there’s a tenacity born out of that that will serve us.”

HAVE YOU ACCEPTED THAT MENTALITY BECAUSE JEREMY IS YOUR CREW CHIEF NOW AND THE FACT THAT HARVICK AND HAMLIN ARE GETTING MOST OF THE ATTENTION IS IT EASIER TO FLY UNDER THE RADAR?  “I’ve been in Joey Logano’s shop a couple times in the last year or two and he’s got this sign hanging up in his shop.  It’s a sign from Jeff Gluck’s Twitter handle where it’s a picture of the big three of that year and they’re sitting at the conference table after the Homestead race and Jeff’s got some kind of caption underneath it like, ‘Not how the big three thought this would end.’  Hey, I’ve been in that.  I’ve lived those shoes and I think 2014 stands out the most to me, maybe 2014 and ‘15.  I had a great team and it didn’t come together — ‘14 probably for reasons just as much of luck as anything else, ‘15 was probably more my fault with some things I didn’t execute at the level I needed to execute.  But all together the scorecard was still zero and we had efforts that were capable of winning the championship those two years, so that stings.  I’ve been on that side of it, so I know how easy it is to get caught up in your own press clippings, to become overconfident and I’m just as happy as can be if you all just keep talking about them and leave my team alone.  We’ll just do our thing and be the best we can and let the results show on the track.”