Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth were made available to the media at Contender Chase Media Day in Charlotte:
KYLE BUSCH, No. 18 Crispy M&M’s Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
How does it feel being in the second round of the Chase after the start of your season with the wreck at Daytona?
“It’s certainly a lot better day today than it was in February after the wreck at Daytona, but still we’ve got three more races here to make it through in order to make it to the next round and three more races after that to move on to Homestead. Essentially with the points format the way it is and the opportunities that I have in this format to make the Chase, it’s a blessing for our year, but now it’s nothing but make it to Homestead. As healthy as I am and as good as our race team is and as good as we’re performing right now, it still would be a dismal year if we weren’t able to make it to Homestead.”
What did you learn by being eliminated from this round last year?
“Last year we played it right, we were the top point total scorer of the first two rounds and we were seeded the highest guy without a win and we went to Talladega and we sure learned how to throw that away. I don’t know that it necessarily matters really. For us, if we can do the same thing again, then we’ll do the same thing again. I think what we can do a better job of instead of being one of the only guys to race at the back of the pack and get ourselves caught up in something that none of the other Chasers were involved in is race with all the rest of the Chasers and if they all get caught up in a wreck and we do too then hopefully our point total will all be lower, but all the same instead of me just being the only guy down at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Is there a plan for this round to make it through?
“I think you would want to win at a Charlotte or a Kansas for sure. You want to take a win at either of those places, I don’t care which. It’s just to have yourself solid in through Talladega, that’s just the biggest crap shoot we have. I feel like as a race team if we can make it through this round with Talladega being in there then to me the rest of the year is kind of simple. I feel like we can run really well at Martinsville and Texas and Phoenix – those are places we’ll run fine at in order to score a win at either of those or be able to move on through and go to Homestead with a good chance to win a championship.”
Is Charlotte a track you can get the victory at this weekend?
“I’ve run really, really well at Charlotte over the last few seasons and since I’ve been there in trucks and Xfinity, but I finished second there I think three times and I finished third there three times so I’ve been really close. I’m just yet to knock through that barrier of being able to get that first win there.”
Can you take what you learn in Charlotte and use it at Kansas?
“Not Charlotte to Kansas, I think maybe a little bit from Chicago. Chicago is probably the closest to Kansas, but yet the pavement now with the fresh pavement at Kansas is entirely different. I don’t know, all those mile-and-a-halves you look at them from the top side and they all may look the same, cookie cutter, but I think they all race entirely different. You have to know what things work at every single one of those tracks differently.”
What has this Chase been like with Adam Stevens?
“Adam (Stevens, crew chief) is a great team leader. He and I, I think we share in that responsibility and I think it’s been a lot of fun this season to work together and to be as good as we have as quickly as we have. I feel like we weren’t really sure whether we were going to be Chase eligible this year at all without getting a win or without getting enough points to be in the top-30, but once we were able to accomplish all those things – this is Adam Stevens rookie year in the Chase so he’s got a lot of pressure on himself as well as me having a lot of pressure on me to be able to make it through those rounds and get to the round that matters and that’s Homestead.”
Does it feel like the passing of the torch with Jimmie Johnson not contending for the Chase this year?
“I don’t think you can necessarily say it’s the passing of the torch. I think the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) car, he’s shown us that he has run well in these races, they just had a bad luck thing happen to them that knocked them out. It would have been similar to us getting knocked out at Loudon over a tire going flat.”
Do you consider Kevin Harvick to be the biggest threat for race wins?
“Week in and week out ever since Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers (Harvick crew chief) has joined Stewart Haas Racing they have been the car to beat no doubt about it. I still feel like when it comes down to the final 10, old Chad Knaus (Johnson crew chief) he’s still able to perform with the best of them.”
Do you like this Chase format and did it give you a chance to come back from your injury to compete for the championship?
“I think with the Chase rules the way they are it gave me an opportunity to make the Chase. Years ago with the old format obviously I wouldn’t have had a chance for the championship, we would have just been racing races and racing for wins. It’s different now and I appreciate that, but at the same time sometimes it’s really cool the way the points are and sometimes it’s very frustrating the way the points are. As a team and as a driver and as a competitor within it, it’s all over the board and your emotions are all over the board. As a fan of the sport looking on it, if you were on the outside looking in, I think it’s great. It’s very entertaining and very unpredictable and you have to keep following and keep watching until it’s over in order to figure out who’s going to win the championship. With the way our season’s gone and reflecting and looking back on it, I don’t know that I’m necessarily ready to do that yet. I feel like I want to get through Homestead and hopefully get to Homestead with a chance to race for a championship. If it comes down to us and being able to win that race in Homestead and then to celebrate, I’m pretty sure the first thing that will happen when the race is over is tears may be flowing.”
Was it a daunting feeling to know what you had to do to make the Chase coming back from the accident?
“I wouldn’t say it was a daunting feeling, it just kind of was what it was. Having the opportunity to go out there and achieve those points and get what we needed to get in order to make the top-30 was a task that was set forth for us and we had to go achieve that. It definitely felt good when we were able to achieve that with a race remaining going into Richmond and we were free and clear of being a Chase team and that’s what we worked towards. After getting back in the car for a month, it didn’t look very good after Michigan, but we certainly turned the tables. Without those four wins that we had in the regular season, we wouldn’t have made it through the first round of the Chase. Those bonus points that we had going into the first round is what set us free and clear to finish second at Dover and get us through.”
How frustrating was the New Hampshire race outcome?
“We obviously didn’t have the day we were looking for at Loudon with a tire going down and just crazy circumstances – 23 laps into a run you don’t normally look at a bead failure or a tire failure, 50, 60, 70 laps on it, but that was 23 or whatever. It just seems like September, October, November is typically not my part of the season to have good luck. Maybe the luck that we did have over the summer months is maybe paying off now.”
What would it mean for you in this round to win Charlotte this weekend?
“That’s a race that we would love to win, we wanted to win it last year. I think we finished third or fifth, I can’t remember which one, but we finished top-five. I think we ran good all night, but then we went to Kansas and we were a little worried about Kansas and we made it through there free and clear and finished third so we had a good day. Talladega, I look at Talladega and if I had to do it over again I guess I just concentrate on where the rest of the Chase cars are and if they’re all racing in a pack then race in the pack and if we all get wiped out then hopefully the points will take care of themselves rather than me being the only Chase car to get wiped out in a crash that nobody else did. That just eliminated us just like Jimmie Johnson at Dover, it was the same sort of thing. It’s not all that fun when you go into an elimination race, you don’t have a win, but yet anything can happen and anything that can happen is 99.9 percent of the time out of your control. You hate that pressure being put on you like that, but it is what it is for this sport.”
Were you confident before Talladega last year that your points would be good enough to transfer?
“We were like, ‘Hell yeah, we’re going, let’s work on Martinsville setup.’ That certainly didn’t make the case however many laps we got crashed.”
Why did Kevin Harvick point out JGR as those he would beat for the championship in Chicago?
“I don’t know his reasons — you’ll have to ask him. I don’t know, but Kevin (Harvick) is just one of those guys that likes to rile things up a little bit and get people on their toes or get people on edge. To us, it didn’t faze us any bit. Obviously we know they’re good and we know they’re going to be our stiffest competition. If it’s not for the 4 (Harvick), then it’s for the 48 (Johnson), it’s the four Gibbs cars and the two Penske cars – that’s who we look at as to who is going to be the players in this championship and who you’re going to have to race against barring circumstances taking somebody out.”
Are you looking forward to your charity dinner Wednesday night here in Charlotte?
“Looking forward to Wednesday with our charity dinner that we have and all the work that Samantha (Busch, wife) pours into that throughout the year and what everybody does in order to have the Kyle Busch Foundation charity event – the dinner. It’s a lot of fun, the first year we made $55,000, the second year $75,000 and this year we’re already up to about $120,000 or so. People really enjoy coming back to that, it’s not so stuffy. We try to make it fun and enjoyable and kind of chique for everyone to be able to come out and have a nice time. It goes to a great cause and it benefits the breast cancer of Charlotte, North Carolina area with Project Pink and the Pretty in Pink Foundation and then of course with our newest edition this year, Brexton (son), adding to the Bundle of Joy Fund for REACH and other families to be able to add to their family.”
Will you be bringing guests to the track again this year?
“We have 22 champions we’re going to pay for this year and I think the total there is about $57,000 that we’ve already contributed to them for their medical expenses and things like that so they can be free and clear and breathe easy. We’re going to host them at the race track on Saturday this year. The past couple years it’s been Friday with the Xfinity car, but I’m very grateful and appreciative of M&M’s jumping on board and allowing Samantha and I to turn the car pink for this week and have an enjoyable time to bring out some of our champions.”
How important is the new restart rule for Charlotte?
“I think the Charlotte races is as important as it is with restarts because temperatures are cooling, we get into a night race and it’s 55 or 60 degrees, the grip is around the bottom of the race track and that’s where the speed is at and it’s hard to make time in the middle or around the top side. Once it gets kind of single filed out or spread out a little bit, that tends to be where you ride, it’s unfortunate that way, but Dover seemed to be that way this weekend. Only the cars that were really good could make moves and that seemed like myself, Kevin (Harvick) and probably the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) was one of those cars too until his troubles.”
How did you feel about the restarts in Dover?
“I felt like Kevin (Harvick) did a really good job of restarting within the zone, it wasn’t like weeks past where you always have a guy that restarts before you get to the double red marks, that’s been the case a lot lately. I felt like this week was really good. Obviously the advantage was back in the leaders hands. I felt Kevin got some really good restarts and I hung with him a couple times. He was always clear of me by turn one, but I felt cleaner than times past.”
Question about ‘give backs’ versus pass through penalties on jumping restarts:
“It is a little disappointing, but I guess you can’t be so aggressive to take advantage of a restart that you’re counting on that give back. You just have to do it right because there is no give backs. That could go either way and right now we’ll see how it plays out and how it continues on. It’s always an evolution, I think that’s Mike Helton’s words, that things will always evolve and we’ll make changes when we need to make changes. They finally saw the need to make those changes and if they need more then that will allow that to happen.”
How are the Chase races different emotionally from the regular season races?
“It’s definitely a time of the year where it’s not all that enjoyable as it is in the summer months. Last year for instance when I had a win at California, we were just able to race the rest of the year and not have a worry on our mind, but once you get to Chase time then every single week you’re worried about something. Loudon, I wasn’t even worried about anything, we were running like ninth and I was like, ‘Okay, we’re not where we need to be right now, but let’s play this out and pit strategy play out,’ all of the sudden we have a blown tire and we’re in the fence. Anything can happen and those moments will certainly catch you off guard.”
Why don’t you run well at Kansas?
“It’s not my fault I don’t run good there, the 18 car wrecked again so I think it’s something to do with the 18. I’m not sure what it is, but (Erik) Jones was doing a fabulous job, he was really fast and looked good and then got caught up in a crash late in the going. I’m looking forward to getting back, especially with the speed that Erik Jones had with the limited experience he has in a Cup car, I felt like that was a positive for how Adam Stevens (crew chief) is and what he does with his race cars and then we went there and tested just a few weeks ago also for the single day test that we had as part of the NASCAR plan and things went well. I thought everything was pretty normal and look forward to getting back there.”
Is it an advantage or disadvantage having all four JGR cars still in the Chase?
“I don’t necessarily think it’s an advantage or disadvantage. I feel like if all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars were in the championship hunt at Homestead, I feel like Homestead would get quite awkward as far as sharing information and all that stuff would go. I think whether there’s two guys in or two guys out or three in, one out, however it may play, I feel like we’re still a strong, cohesive unit at four cars and we’ll always help one another as best we can in the garage area to be able to have the best setups for Sunday.”
Are you worried about losing Nick O’Dell from the pit crew?
“I feel like Nick O’Dell, he’s one of my best friends. I’m friends with all my guys and if any of them left I would be hurt about it. I didn’t want to see Nick go, but things happen for a reason in this business. Certainly being a part of Joe Gibbs Racing and the development work and everything that we’ve done into those air guns, obviously Nick has been a part of that and Nick knows some of that stuff so he’s a guy that does have some of that knowledge and will share it I’m sure with the Hendrick Motorsports group. I’m sure it will take six, seven, eight months for those guns to appear, but we’ll see them next year and we’ll be competing against them for sure.”
You were vocal about more SAFER barriers on Twitter after the Las Vegas Truck Series wreck, what are your thoughts on more tracks needing to add SAFER everywhere?
“My thing about it is that they do need to work faster. I know there’s a plan, but there’s no reason why some of these race tracks like Bristol for instance had the walls on the straightaway before they showed up in the spring and a place like Vegas, it’s been eight months and nobody’s been there and they don’t have walls. It’s frustrating sometimes. You don’t know all the schematics and everything that happen at these places and who pays for what, but NASCAR, ISC, SMI, they’re billion dollar corporations and they should be able to move a little bit quicker I feel. I feel like people can sympathize with me because of my injury and because of what I went through and say, ‘Yeah, Kyle’s right.’ Instead of me just saying those things and never being heard, but man that crash – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, us NASCAR drivers, we’ll figure out how to crash in the stupidest ways in the weirdest spots and get hurt. That Austin (Theriault) crash, that was so weird and never should have happened, but it did. We all need to stop playing God and protect as much as we can protect and let the rest take care of itself.”
What responses did you get after your comments in Michigan about grass at race tracks?
“People were mad at me at Michigan when I wrecked on Twitter for saying what I said on my interview – they’re like, ‘well don’t spin out.’ Well no s-word Sherlock, but when stuff happens, we’re not all perfect – let’s cut out the opportunity for there to be bad circumstances. There’s no reason to tear up a $200,000 race car to have aesthetics on the race track that are grass. For what? The backstretch is all paved no, they don’t have a problem with drainage back there. The thing that (Joie) Chitwood (Daytona president) told me about Daytona is their government regulates them to have so much square footage of grass, but to be honest with you, if they were regulated then how come they paved all of what they paved. Off of turn four they paved years ago and now getting into turn one they’ve done that so I’m sure there’s ways of getting around the regulation, let’s do it.”
CARL EDWARDS, No. 19 ARRIS Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
What did you take from the first round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup?
“I had a little bit of a reality check after the race at Dover (International Speedway) because I went into Dover honestly no pressure. We just kind of having a good time and I got out of the car and I was doing the interview and I noticed on the little NBC screen we were plus 20 points to the good and we finished 15th and we had that right front wheel issue that really could have been a disaster under green. I thought if that wheel would have broke or come off and we had hit the fence and finishes 36th, we’d have been out, done. Yes, so it kind of made like – it gave me chills there for a second and I thought, ‘It’s that competitive,’ and I have no reason to believe this next round won’t be just as tough. I mean, look at – you look at what happened there. I mean, obviously, Jimmie’s (Johnson) out. The 4 (Kevin Harvick) was almost out. Kyle (Busch) was almost out. You think, ‘Man, if it can be that tough for those guys than nobody’s safe.’ I guess in a way, yeah, I should probably be a little more concerned than I am, but right now it seems like things are going well.”
Is this format stressful?
“For me, I guess throughout my career, I like it when you show up at the race track and you have to perform. Sometimes before you get there thinking about it, that’s not very much fun, but once you actually get there you strap in and it’s time to qualify or it’s time to race, that’s a really fun time. I look back to 2011, the last four weeks of that season were the most fun I’ve ever had in a race car just knowing that you’re competing at that level. It seems like all your senses are heightened and every lap matters and so, yeah, that’s fun.”
Can you compare Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway?
“Not really. Charlotte (Motor Speedway) and Kansas (Speedway) appear a lot alike, but they’re different and I’ve not mastered either one of them, so to me those are going to be tough races and then like we were just talking about I mean we’re going to have to go there and get every single position and qualifying – everything is going to have to be perfect. Restarts are going to have to be perfect because really you want to win one of these. You don’t want to go to Talladega (Superspeedway) having to finish 10th or something. That’s not going to be a fun way to race at Talladega. You either want to go there with a win or with nothing to lose and just go race.”
What makes those tracks difficult?
“Well, it may – it does seem like miles-and-a-halves have been on average pretty good for me, but there’s something about those two tracks and it just seems like if you’re just a little off you’re off. They’re real finicky. The good thing is right now our cars are really good and I think you saw it at Dover – we didn’t have the greatest car, the greatest balance or any – let’s say that different, we didn’t have the best balance. Our car wasn’t perfect and we were still going to be a top three or four car at Dover, so I feel like we have a lot of speed and that’s the reason why I’m not really stressed over the next two weeks, but like I said, I just don’t know. Those tracks – it’s easy to run 15th at either one of those tracks.”
Does your May win at Charlotte give you confidence?
“Well, we didn’t win because we were dominant. We won because Darian (Grubb, crew chief) is really smart and he – we got everybody on fuel strategy, so really it doesn’t change much. We got the win. That’s what we needed to do, but we – we’ll see. After practice, we’ll know, ‘Hey, we’ve got something here or we don’t,’ but I guess for the most part I feel pretty good about it just because the speed our organization has had.”
How has it been working with Darian Grubb?
“Darian (Grubb, crew chief) and I, it seems to be getting better and better and I think it shows in our stats. We’re just – there’s no real urgency or panic. Everything just seems to go smoothly and there’s a lot of confidence and just I feel pretty good about everything.”
How is the track surface at Kansas changing?
“I don’t know. It will be interested to see if it’s aged a little bit. I don’t think they got a lot of rain or anything this summer. I don’t think it was a really harsh summer, so we’ll see. I have a feeling it will still be restarts, track position. It’s going to be a tough one.”
Who are the favorites in the Chase?
“Right now, it’s so early and I think that it was eye opening definitely to me like I said earlier about how easy it is to be out of this thing. I’m really just focused on being as fast as I can be. Who knows who you’ll be battling at Homestead (Miami Speedway)? I mean, this thing could take so many twists and turns. I don’t think you could pick a favorite. I do know that our organization has the speed that I would bet that one or more of us will be in the final four. I think whoever wins the championship is going to have to – it’s either going to be a (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) cars or they’re going to have beat a Gibbs car. I just can’t see this organization not putting a car or more in the final round, but other than that who knows? It’s crazy. I mean, anything can happen.”
What are your thoughts on Jimmie Johnson’s elimination?
“I don’t know. You just have to get every single thing you can and then – I didn’t see Jimmie’s (Johnson) interview afterwards, but I was told he, you know, took it really well, but racing can be a brutal sport and especially when you’ve got a three-race season basically. It can be really brutal, so I don’t know that you can work any harder or guard against those things. You just have to look at everything and treat every race like it’s the championship.”
Has Kevin Harvick elevated his game?
“I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t know exactly – I haven’t seen, I didn’t see all of it on TV or whatever. That car was extremely fast at Dover (International Speedway), so if – they’re performing very well and you’re going to have to beat those guys and they’re getting it done. So that’s what we have to do is keep working and it’s – but, man, I’m telling you, this thing is so crazy and with everything that can happen all week can do is bring the – and this is what we’ve done. I believe that’s why we have the – we’re in that position we’re in with all these wins and everything is we’ve just gone to the race track and performed in qualifying and the race, on pit road, not made any mistakes and if you – I don’t personally want to be in a positon where I have to win the third race of a round to advance, you know what I mean? I think that that’s a tough position to be in. I don’t – we want to perform every race so we don’t get put in that spot.”
What makes this format so difficult?
“I’m telling you, every single lap of every race is critical. I mean, what happened with Jimmie (Johnson)? He had like a seal – I mean, that can happen anywhere. You just have to get every point that you can. I mean, take the 4 car (Kevin Harvick) for example. They were – I don’t know how fast they were at Chicago – but they were fast there. They were the fastest car at New Hampshire. The fastest car at Dover (International Speedway) and they only won one of them and, I mean, it’s like anything can happen. You just – it’s tough, man. Just the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) being out in the first round explains it all for me. Anybody can be out of this thig at any time, so I guess your question is – to answer it, every lap is important and I don’t know that you can do anything other than just get the best possible finish you can, hope that it’s a win every race because that’s up.
What did you think of the drivers who needed to perform at Dover doing so well?
‘”Right, that was crazy. I looked at the scoreboard afterwards and it’s like, ‘Man, everybody stepped it up,’ and most of them went through tech afterwards, so I don’t think there were many questions, but it is amazing that everybody can push it that hard and make it happen. You saw it at Homestead (Miami-Speedway) last year too – it was crazy. It was like the guys who were in contention stepped it up. I mean, even with Tony (Stewart) and I back in 2011, it’s like we ran one-two and I can’t point to anything and say we did anything different, but it kind of makes you question yourself and say, ‘Man, can I run like that every week? Maybe I really need to trick myself a little bit.’ I don’t know. I don’t know what that is, but it is pretty amazing.”
Can you try too hard, too early in this format?
“You never know how a team’s prepared. I don’t know if people have cars sitting there that they’re planning running certain races. I mean, who knows? All of these teams are capable of bringing some really good stuff if they have to and working late hours and making things happen. I don’t know how it looks, but it feels like the competition is stiffer and tougher than it’s ever been and I think whoever wins this championship, I’d venture to say they could say they won the toughest championship at least I’ve been a part of it. It just feels that. It feels so competitive, so I don’t know. But as far as your question, can you expend too much energy, it’s only 10 weeks and anybody can do whatever it takes for 10 weeks. You can make it happen and, no, it might be some run down people at the end of it, but, yeah, I think it’s going to be everybody. You’ve got to remember, people are getting used to this now and they understand that this thing’s going to crescendo and everybody is starting to push resources and efforts to be as good as they can at the end of the year. This thing is just going to evolve over time to where – who knows where it could go? But, yeah, there’s a lot of effort being put forth I’m sure by everybody right now.”
How tough is this sport on your crew guys?
“This sport is so tough on all the guys and everybody talks about the schedule for the drivers and everything, but we’ve got jets and more home and all this stuff. It’s a cake walk for us. For the guys that are working on these cars, building them, traveling to the race track – they’re the first in and last to leave – and all the officials and everyone. This is a grind. It really is tough on these folks and you can see it throughout the season. You watch Daytona (International Speedway), everybody’s got a little bounce in their step. By the time you get to Phoenix (International Raceway) let’s say or Dover (International Speedway), yeah, everybody’s just like, ‘Man, I just want to get through this weekend. I think that’s a neat part about our sport – you see who can really step it up and when it’s tough it’s hard to that.”
Did you think you had an engine issue at Dover International Speedway?
“Yeah, I just had a – the engine sounded different and it never felt like it made less power, it just sounded different. So I just made sure to tell him in case there was an exhaust crack of something like that.”
How is your team able to overcome adversity?
“For us, we’ve had a couple times this year where things have not gone the way we wanted and I think as a group one of our strong points is just being able to stay focused, get the best we can out of it and not panic and Darian (Grubb, crew chief) does a really good job of staying calm on the radio. I know it means a ton to me when we have a problem and he says, ‘Hey, don’t sweat it. Let’s just keep moving.’ That just always business all the time just moving forward and that’s cool.”
Why don’t you want to be in a position to need a win?
“The reason you don’t – the reason I don’t want to be in a position where you have to win the final race is because it – anything can happen in one race. I’ve won enough races to know and lost enough races to know there’s nothing guaranteed in this sport – even the last lap. I think it was Bill Elliott I remember watching him on the last lap at Homestead (Miami-Speedway) with a two second lead or something have a flat tire and it’s over, so you just don’t want to rely on a win if you don’t have to. So I guess of all the tracks you would want to go to having to win, Talladega (Superspeedway) would be the one that would be the most fun because really then you have nothing to worry about. You just go out there and try to lead every lap and just go for broke. It’s a different style of race and you can kind of risk it all for the – you roll the dice and you might get lucky.”
DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
How is your ACL injury?
“It’s fine, really walking around you don’t really notice it much. It’s just when I’m in a hurry and I’m trying to run somewhere it doesn’t work. Other than that it’s fine. I’m not able to play any sports or anything outside of racing, so that part is the biggest bummer.”
Does it cause you any pain or discomfort?
“It doesn’t hurt in the race car anymore. Outside the race car when I’m done racing, it bothers me a little bit. Literally as soon as I get back to the bus and I get on my Game Ready machine, I’m good after that. It’s the same thing that really all the football players use – ice and compression on a machine that sucks your knee up pretty tight.”
Do you have any physical restrictions?
“No running, no jumping, things like that. I still don’t have my full leg strength back yet because my head still knows it’s injured so it’s correcting for it, but right now really nothing inside the race car gets hampered at all.”
Did you feel you had something to prove after the injury, winning a race again out of the gate?
“It seems like it is for sure. It seems like we always win the second race back after something goes bad with it. I’m hoping it’s just coincidence and not something we need to do anymore this much forward. I’m one more knee injury away from quitting sports all together – one more.”
What do you think of the damage seen to the Dover race winning car?
“A lot has been brought up this weekend, you don’t just talk about Kevin (Harvick) – I think it’s been going on for a long time. With NASCAR’s procedure for not inspecting, not scanning the cars until after the race – we all know what pulling the fender does and it’s a big help on the race track. If you chose to manipulate your car at all and know it’s not going to get tech’ed until after the race, you have to do one of two things – you have to guarantee yourself you’re going to win because you don’t want to be a random because the winner is the only one that’s able to damage his car after the race without being too obvious. I think it has been going on for a really long time, but it’s something definitely that NASCAR should look into. Maybe look into these cars before they damage them after the race. While it may look like it’s on accident sometimes hitting the wall, more than likely it’s not.”
How do you celebrate following a win?
“Nothing we do is without merit. We all know what we’re doing. Like I said, it’s a tough balance because NASCAR wants you to celebrate – but as drivers we know when a tire is about to blow and sometimes we continue to put the throttle to it and other times if you really want to save your car for a race coming up, you don’t do that. There’s a way to do it – I’m going to leave it up to NASCAR to do it however they might, but I’d like to see in the future some kind of way to say, ‘Hey guys, make sure it comes into victory lane the same way it was on the race track.’”
What type of balance is needed in post-race celebrations between teams and NASCAR?
“Winners didn’t used to blow their tires, they do now though. We know. I think there’s a way to do it. NASCAR is really smart and the teams are really smart and they are constantly battling each other to outsmart each other. It’s always a game and the game never stops from when you leave the shop until when you get to that R&D center.”
How long has there been a cat and mouse game between NASCAR and the teams on rules?
“Games have been going on with NASCAR and the teams for a really, really long time. It’s nothing new. It’s just high stakes. When someone’s season is on the line, you never know what they will do. Regardless whether that car had an unbelievable setup – looking at the in-car camera he was working the wheel the least of anyone, so it seemed like he had a pretty fast setup. You don’t want to discredit anyone’s win because of what he did was really, really impressive. Obviously as all the other competitors, whoever doesn’t win each week wants to make sure they’re on a level playing field with whoever did win. Me going forward, I would like to see some sort of way of ensuring our cars all stay intact at the R&D center because right now the R&D center is kind of a moot point if guys tear up their cars.”
Do you think NASCAR would choose to take a win away if the violation was large enough?
“There’s rules in the rule book that would take wins away, I don’t know. I’ve seen NASCAR come down hard, and you’ve seen them at times say, ‘Don’t do that again, it’s kind of against the rules.’ They have Chase media as cars go through inspection, is (Jamie) McMurray on standby here? I don’t think so.”
Are all the teams in the same boat as far as following the NASCAR rules?
“We want to make sure the integrity of the sport is correct. Like I said, there’s no team excluded from playing the game that NASCAR tech is. It’s a tough balance and I don’t envy NASCAR at all, especially when they see something that is wrong. Like this weekend when they saw visually on the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) – that’s tough to do to send one of your Chase competitors to the back of the field. They did it and the 78 team was able to overcome it. It’s tough – I don’t envy them at all, but it is their responsibility and all the money that is invested in these race teams and drivers to make sure everyone is on a level playing field.”
Are the rules subject to a judgment call?
“It’s very similar to the Brad Keselowski call at Loudon, it’s a judgement call right or wrong. I think they were right in Brad’s call even though guys have done way worse in the past and not been called on it. Anytime you have officials – the officials are there to enforce the rules – each official I think interprets the rules somewhat differently. It’s always going to be judgement. They’ve used the ball-strike thing a thousand times, but sometimes umpire strike zones are tighter than others. NASCAR has a very tough job at policing our sport to the nth degree, whether it’s an untraced action or making sure every car rolls through tech exactly as it should be. It’s a very, very tough balance. I don’t envy them. Last night was a tough deal and it could happen at Homestead. We could see somebody — technically the second-place car hit the gas before the first one and it’s up to NASCAR’s judgment whether to penalize them. You might want to make sure you stay on NASCAR’s good side.”
Does Talladega make this the most challenging round in the Chase?
“This round is the most difficult and most drivers will tell you this is difficult because Talladega is in it. Not only that, you want to be one of the two drivers entering Talladega – locked in because he’s won or one that has nothing to lose because you’re so far out on points you have nothing to lose. I think you want to be able to go out there and race for the lead. To try to do this thing on points at Talladega sucks – we had to do it last year and it was miserable. Every lap was miserable because we didn’t know where we stood and every lap it changed. I think there’s only going to be one person that’s secure going into Talladega of where their standing is and everyone else is going to be sweating it out.”
What do you expect at Talladega?
“There’s not much I would change because we did make it through. I count on there being a big wreck at Talladega because there always is. Low and behold, there was never that wreck in the Chase race last year where I thought it would be a complete wreck-fest because three-quarters of the field doesn’t have anything to lose. I remember having to finish 18th or better and I was going into the last lap 22nd and I’m out they said. I’m trying to gain every position I can – I finished 20th and made it in anyway because whoever I was racing didn’t get there. It’s just so nerve wracking, you just want to do the best job you can the first two races so you don’t put yourself in that tough position going into ‘Dega. Like I said, I hope our first two races go really good or really bad.”
Do you have a better chance to win at Charlotte this weekend to lock yourself into the next Chase round?
“I think the intensity for wanting to win Charlotte is the greatest because my chances of winning Charlotte is greater than my chances of winning Kansas simply by my track record there and I know the tracks I’m good at and the ones I’m not so good at. I look at this week as a very important week for myself personally even though I haven’t won a Charlotte points-paying race, it’s been a very good track for me in the past and I feel like I can win.”
Does Charlotte race differently from May to October?
“It will race differently – it becomes more of a single-groove track than what it was in the past. Really since we’ve had these bigger spoilers on the car, the wall has not been as big of a line as it used to be. We’ll learn from that and hopefully get our Camry where it needs to be. It’s a lot tougher to pass in the October race as it is in the May.”
What would it mean to win your first Sprint Cup championship?
“We all have strived to get to this point – and to get to the highest point and win the championship – who knows how I’ll feel? I’m sure I’ll be excited. The biggest thing for me is, I’m selfish and I want to get myself the win, but Joe Gibbs Racing has been since 2005 that anyone from Joe Gibbs Racing has won a championship. It’s the first year I came into the Cup Series and I know Joe has really worked hard to get the championship and he spares no expense doing that. Being the guy that has been around the longest, I’d like to get him that championship.”
Does momentum help with how your team is racing?
“I think they carry a lot. We didn’t have a great Dover and a lot of it was self-inflicted on my point from getting two pit road penalties. We have momentum, our cars are fast though it may not have looked like it compared to the 4 car (Kevin Harvick) this weekend, but our cars are fast. We know that we can go to each race track and perform at and win. I feel like we have an advantage over the field, so that always helps on those last money pit stops. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be one of the guys that they have to beat when we get to Homestead.”
What will your Talladega race strategy look like?
“I think that it would certainly be easier to strategize that race because Talladega typically comes out to a fuel mileage race, which a lot of people don’t believe. We are always sweating fuel mileage at Talladega because we always pit when we know we can make it. The less green-white-checkers takes the equation out. I think the biggest thing for the finishes at Talladega would be a single-file restart. I think double-file restarts really play into whoever is leading’s advantage. If you put us all single-file it forces the people third, fourth, fifth to make a move to get the lead. Right now the leader has such the advantage – he’s able to block both lanes that I think single-file restarts at the end that would cause more exciting finishes than what we’ve seen there in the past and think they would be safer.”
How do you envision a single-file restart looking like at Talladega?
“From the driver’s perspective, you know that the winner is coming from the front row, maybe the second row on a green-white-checkered. The reason is when we get side-by-side, the leader usually breaks the plane of somebody and then second and third get side-by-side and they are side drafting and nothing happens – the winner wins the race. When you’re single-file, the leader can’t block the second and third-place car that are coming – he can’t block both lanes if one goes high and the other goes low – he can’t block both. They are not dragging each other down as much, so I think there’s more of an opportunity to pass for the lead with single-file over double-file as contrarian as that seems.”
Have you spoke with NASCAR about your single-file restart idea for Talladega?
“We talked to them about it and it’s an option. I think it’s less likely for us to have a big wad crash at the end because the likelihood of us getting three-wide with nowhere to go is less likely. We’ll see if they do it. I think it’s an option for sure.”
How would the fans react to the single-file restart?
“I think initially the fans won’t like it, but I think they’d like the outcome they see from it. I think it is more likely that we have less green-white-checkers than it is us going to single-file restarts – both are a definite option.”
How do the drivers share their thoughts with NASCAR?
“We’ve done a good job as drivers of collecting our voice and streamlining that voice to NASCAR. In the past, NASCAR would talk to everyone – put everyone in a room and this driver has this idea, and this has this idea and next thing you know we’re in a circle and three people don’t agree with that idea and they voice that opinion. Next thing you know NASCAR has no direction of where to go. I think we’ve done a better job of us drivers talking amongst ourselves coming up with one voice to go out there to talk to them about what we want to accomplish. We’ve so far done a good job of accomplishing those goals. I think it’s been better overall, I think the meeting we had in Loudon was really good, especially with all the manufacturers there, the team representatives – all this is to improve what the fans see on the race track as well as keep us safe in the car and give us what we want as drivers. We want as much passing as the next guy. When we feel what it takes to do that, we want to express that to NASCAR and have them make a change and I think they are heading in that direction.”
How important are SAFER barriers to race tracks and competitors?
“It’s pretty similar from what I’ve seen and heard. It’s a tough thing, but the good thing is I’ve seen the numbers in which NASCAR is going to invest in SAFER barriers over the next two to three years. They’ve given us the layout of how they’re going to address each track. Las Vegas is a huge priority, but they just have to have time to do it. They know it needs to be done, they’re going to get it done. It takes a little bit of time. It’s not a money thing – they’re putting that investment in. They just haven’t had time to get it done. It’s very unfortunate someone hit the wall this past weekend that is going to have another injury. I’m confident 12 months from now if that same situation happens again, we’re going to have a much safer driver.”
Did your ACL injury come because you’re a competitive player?
“I think it’s the competitive side of me. I think that I’m such an idiot that doesn’t play within my skill level. I always try to do more. I’ve told all my – we play in a recreation league – it’s a draft and everything. I told all the scouts looking forward you can assure yourself that I will not be playing defense anymore, that’s where my injuries have all come from. I’ve just got to play within myself and realize I’m not 25 anymore and I’ll be fine.”
MATT KENSETH, No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Who is the favorite to win the championship?
“With the way the system is, I think all 12 drivers that are here today really have realistic shots because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Something can – you’re the best running car – I mean, Kevin (Harvick) had by far the best car at New Hampshire and at Dover and if he wouldn’t have won Dover he wouldn’t have made it and had a real good car at Chicago too, so you just don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel pretty good about our performance with everything being equal. I feel like we’ve all been top-five, top-six cars on speed, but you just never know what’s going to happen.”
How much of a worry is the Talladega race?
“Well, you know, we all worry about things right, but I’ve also learned through the years that worrying about things never makes anything better. It usually just makes it worse. I think you just take it one race at a time, but certainly with Talladega the third race in this round it would be great to get a win in the first two races and if you can’t get that you want to gather as many points as you possibly can to hopefully give you a little protection if something bad happens there.”
Do you look at Charlotte as a good opportunity to win after your teammates won there earlier this year?
“You know, honestly I think the way our stuff has ran all summer I feel pretty good about going everywhere. Again, Talladega is everybody is sort of equal and you never know what’s going to happen there. I feel good about Charlotte. I like it. Denny (Hamlin) won the All-Star (race) like you said, Carl (Edwards) won the 600, Kyle (Busch) ran really, really well. I think we ran pretty well at the 600 and had something happen – I can’t remember. Anyway, I feel good about that. I feel pretty good about Kansas too. All of our stuff has been running better I feel like when we get it running good, it really should run good at all the tracks unless we just totally missed the setup, so hopefully we’ll be competitive at both of them.”
How much of an advantage is the strength of the Joe Gibbs Racing pit crews?
“Well, you have to be good at all aspects of this to be able to win these days. The competition is so close. It’s very hard to pass at a lot of these tracks once it gets singled out. It’s not like it used to be. It used to be, you could have something happen and you could fall back a few spots and no big deal – I’ll get them back in 20 laps. Well, now you lose a couple spots and you might never get them spots back again the whole race, so certainly pit stops are very important. Strategy, restarts, qualifying, all of that stuff is extremely important. You’ve got to be able to have it all though.”
How important is it to you to have a second championship on your resume?
“Well, I mean, it’s important. I don’t think it necessarily defines you. I think you go do the best you can every week. Everything has changed so much since I won. I really honestly don’t think you can compare a championship today to a championship 12 years ago or really even a championship three years ago or before they changed the points system. I just think it changes so much. You get down to that final four and it’s all about that one race. Last year the best car won the championship, but they could’ve had a flat tire or something the last race and lost it too, so I don’t know. I mean, the short answer is yeah, you want to win another championship. After you win one that’s your goal every year is to win another one, so certainly that’s our ultimate goal. At the end of the day we take it one week at a time, do the best we can and kind of let the points fall where they may.”
Does it make it easier to not win a championship because it’s decided by a single race now?
“I mean, yeah. It’s harder to say whether it’s easier or harder. That’s just so different with the elimination thing. Look at Jimmie (Johnson). Typically, the way it used to be you had a mulligan for one bad race – typically you did – in the final 10 and now like in Jimmie’s case I think he had a good Chicago and Loudon and had that part break (at Dover) and he’s done for the next seven, so I don’t know. It was interesting last year. There was two cars that were in the final four that were real fast and won a lot of races and led a lot of laps and there was two cars there that didn’t have terrific years, but they were very consistent and smart. It showed that you could get there either way and anything could’ve happened and one of those other guys could’ve won it just as easy as Kevin (Harvick) if circumstances changed a little bit.”
Who winds up in a head lock this year?
“Hopefully it’s not me.”
Does it feel like the intensity started a little bit earlier this year after going through it last year for the first time?
“Yeah, I hate to start every answer with I don’t know, but I don’t know. I think it’s always intense. You put your best foot forward every week. I’ve never really sat and worried about points because it’s never done any good. Each and every week you try to go gather as many as you can, hopefully it’s a win and if it’s not you want to get as many as you can even if you do get a win in one round you still want to get as many as you can because you’re still going to get ranked I guess fifth and below the rest of the year off of how you run and how you finish, so you always want to do the best you can. I don’t know. Certainly there’s a lot to watch, a lot to talk about and a lot to think about when it comes to the elimination rounds. I know it was real close this weekend – I think they had a tie for that last spot so obviously that creates a lot of excitement.”
What did you learn from last year’s Chase that’s helping you for this year?
“It’s a lot different for us this year because last year we came into the Chase and our performance was very mediocre. We were pretty consistent and we were doing a really nice job on pit road and we had a lot of that stuff going on. But, like I said, our performance was very mediocre where this year we come in being one of the stronger teams. Certainly, the 4 (Kevin Harvick) and the Hendrick cars and everybody has really stepped it up the last few weeks, but we’ve been competitive and we’ve been winning races so that’s a lot different feel than it was last year. But, you’ve got to have the performance but you also can’t have any mistakes or failures or real bad finishes.”