Ford Performance NASCAR: Wood Brothers Racing Teleconference Transcript

Ford Performance Notes and Quotes
NASCAR Cup Series (NCS)
Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Wood Brothers Racing is in the midst of their 70th anniversary season with driver Matt DiBenedetto and crew chief Greg Erwin. That duo is in their first season together and currently sit in 12th place in the NASCAR Cup Series standings going into this weekend’s scheduled race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Before that, however, they’ll be competing in tomorrow night’s All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the team will run in the preliminary All-Star Open with the hope of advancing to the main event.


American Muscle

GREG ERWIN, Crew Chief, No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Mustang – YOU’VE HAD A PAIR OF TOP-10 FINISHES THE LAST THREE RACES. HOW DO YOU FEEL THINGS ARE PROGRESSING? “I don’t think it’s any secret, probably when we got to what we’ll refer to it as COVID racing, when we got back to it without practice, that was a big roadblock for us, a big hurdle. We felt like the first four races of the year, obviously, one being a speedway and one being Phoenix, kind of two very different races, but the California and the Las Vegas race in particular our practice sessions were very productive because we weren’t really good and we weren’t close off the truck, so we needed those practice sessions to get ourselves kind of dialed in to his liking. So when we came back the first Darlington race it was a challenge and I can kind of name them off. Obviously, with the relationship that we have with the Penske guys it’s very open book, so I have access to all the notes from Brad and Ryan and Joey over the last couple of years. It was really like at times you were looking at these things and you’re looking at the setups and you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t really know Matt’s driving style. What kind of guy is he? Is he a hard-charger? Is he kind of a lay back, take care of the tires guy? How is he at 550 tracks? How is he at 750 tracks?’ So kind of deciding where to start him off the truck without having an opportunity for practice was certainly a challenge. We went five or six races and I felt like we showed potential. We showed signs of speed. At a lot of these racetracks we could come through the field and then inevitably we would wind up with a run in the middle of the race where the car would just go away, the balance would go away, and then we would find ourselves, or I would find myself typically over-adjusting to the intensity of his comments about how his car is driving. Just relating back the last couple of years with Paul’s comments about his car were always a little bit one way or a little bit the other, not very strong, not as exaggerated as Matt’s comments tended to be. So I would find myself in the middle of the race taking a 10th-place car and trying to adjust on it to make it a fifth-place car and inevitably make it a 15th-place car because I would over-adjust. So about a month ago we had another talk about that and explained to him that’s kind of how I felt what was going on. I was kind of keying off of his intensity and the amount of times he would talk about it and what he would say about it, and I’m thinking, ‘Again, I can make this 10th-place car better if I get on the other side of it.’ And most often, that wasn’t the case. So I think certainly going into Pocono we all know how challenging Pocono can be to get around. We spent a lot of time that week, not even so much with Matt, but we spent a lot of time with the engineers trying to sort through what has been a good setup up there for Team Penske, how we ran with Paul, what setups we tried to key off of over the last two years up there, and, again, it was kind of like, ‘Here you go. This is what we came up with. Let’s pull the string and see how it flies.’ Thankfully, we were really close off the truck, very, very competitive and we were able to score stage points and our strategy was a little off on the first Pocono race and then we kind of turned around and played the opposite strategy for Sunday in the second race and kind of instantly saw the results. As of the end of the day on Sunday, I think we were eight straight stages now with stage points – both races in Pocono, both stages in Indy and obviously last weekend at Kentucky was a good outing for us. So I think from a confidence standpoint it’s doing a lot for Matt to know that now we’re not necessarily copying Joey’s setup, we’re not copying Ryan’s setup. We’re kind of doing some things on our own right now, trying to make the car specific to the way he’s driving the car and the things that he likes, so I think that’s a confidence booster for him to know that he can have speed. Again, the last four races he can have speed and not necessarily be funneled into one setup because they don’t all drive each other’s stuff the same.”

HOW HAS MOVING UP TO 12TH IN OWNER’S POINTS HELPED IN TERMS OF STARTING SPOTS AND RANDOM DRAW? “It’s gonna be a tremendous advantage going forward. We were in eighth and ninth position, I think, when we started this COVID racing, and we held onto that for a couple weeks and then, obviously, we had that accident at Bristol, we had a part failure that cost us a good finish there. Two weeks later we went to Talladega and crashed. We had a slew of things kind of happen to us there that kind of knocked us out and we were really, really focused on trying to get back to 12th. Again, so much so that in the first Pocono race I was willing to give up track position in the third stage because we were really focused on getting all the stage points we could. We had a hunch that we’d be able to approach those cars that were above us. Obviously, the situation with Jimmie dropping behind us with his one-week absence, that helped us a spot in driver’s points, but I look at what we’ve been doing on the scoreboard right now, an engineer sent me a thing Monday, I think we may have scored the third-most points of everyone at the track in Kentucky on Sunday – combined finish and stage points that was a terrific day for us – but it does change your strategy. These races where we’re showing up now we know we’re gonna have competition yellows. NASCAR has kind of mandated the competition yellow at all of these tracks. The strategy really tends to split a lot of times right around 10th or further back, so if you can get inside that top 10 when you get to that first comp yellow, you’re pretty confident you can stay on strategy with the top 10 cars. When you slide back to 15th, well, sometimes you’ve got to flip the stage a little bit and that has its own risks associated with it. It’s gonna be very, very important to stay up there. Now with the way it is we’ll have a random draw for the starting spots. You may be 12th one week and you may sit on the pole two weeks later, so we’ll try and turn that into points every opportunity we get.”

THIS IS A STRETCH OF FOUR RACES IN 11 DAYS AT FOUR DIFFERENT TRACKS AND FOUR DIFFERENT CITIES. HOW HAS THIS STRETCH BEEN FOR YOU? “We prepare out of the Penske building, so the way that we’re set up right now is the three Penske teams and the Wood Brothers team are separated with shift work. My group has been a Shift A team from the very beginning of this thing, so we actually go in at six in the morning and work until noon. The challenge is a bit logistical. The lack of a backup car in preparation certainly helps as I’m sure you’ve probably heard from every crew chief and every team. We’re carrying less parts on the truck. No spare parts without practice sessions. Those types of things that NASCAR has done has been very, very beneficial to allow us to be able to do this. The car side of it is a little more difficult. Getting the cars through the building, through the process and into the team’s hands has certainly been a challenge, but the guys are getting used to it and they’re learning kind of a new communication network. Again, everybody is sort of split into an A and B shift and often you’ll have like my road crew work on the car in the morning and then they’re all learning how to communicate with guys that will work on that same car in the B shift, where they’ve never really had to do that before via email, texts, lists, all kinds of things. I’ve told Travis Geisler several times that we’re finding some efficiencies in all of this. I think our final product that goes on the racetrack is probably just as good. Our 21 road crew and the shop-based guys that we have are very, very experienced. They do a terrific job of prepping this stuff and we couldn’t do it without their experience, but, yet, it’s a challenge. We’ve spent a lot of time in front of this thing right here with various people involved, whether it’s engineering or Matt or the spotters, just like everyone else kind of doing the same thing, but myself personally and my group continue to go into the shop at last two days a week and probably three days a week during this stretch here.”

A MONTH FROM THE DAYTONA ROAD COURSE RACE. HOW DO YOU DO CAR PREP FOR THAT? DO YOU USE THE ROVAL AS A GUIDE? “Without a doubt, I think everyone is gonna just look to the Roval configuration of race car as probably what you’ll take down there to Daytona. I think we’re still trying to understand what the final track configuration might be. I don’t know that it’s necessarily as was originally advertised. I think maybe there’s talk of a couple of sessions, possibly some chicanes being added to kind of slow it down just a bit, so, naturally that takes you to the next thing is the simulator. For all the guys that haven’t been around that thing, how well are we going to be able to duplicate that with the Ford simulator. All of the simulator dates got booked pretty quickly. We were kind of fortunate enough to get in there and get one session, but it’s gonna be mostly simulator and it’s gonna be mostly trying to key off of what you did at the Roval, without a doubt, because there are huge compromises to be made on these cars, going slower left and right style, road course racing a little bit like the inner loop at the Roval or a little bit like Sonoma versus the real, real fast high-banked left-hand turns where, again, like turn three and four at the Roval. We have huge compromises to make on tire wear and car setup, so that will be the only racetrack that we personally will key off of.”

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE ALL-STAR RULES AND SHIFTING THE NUMBERS BACK ON THE CARS? “I think we’ve seen that over the last few years now. They’ve used this opportunity to try some different concepts. I think last year at Charlotte we had a hood breather on the race car that took air in through the nose, pushed it out the hood kind of right in front of the air box and, again, it gives them an opportunity to kind of do some things with the car to try it on the racetrack doesn’t really cost a whole lot of money and gives an opportunity to see what that might look like in front of the fans. As far as Bristol, the number shifting back to be able to put a little bit more sponsorship on the side of the cars, I think it looks kind of neat, but I think so maybe just because it’s different. I don’t mind things changing up occasionally like that. I’m not too stuck on any one design, so I think that’s cool. I don’t really know, but I think the underbody lights on the All-Star cars with us still being in the Open, we’re not setup to run that way quite yet. I’ll reserve judgement on that until I see them all out there at the same time. Stage lengths, for our race it’s relatively short. We’re gonna drive three-and-a-half hours up there and we might not be on the track for 40 minutes, so that’s gonna be a bit of a challenge. I probably would prefer to see slightly longer stages, quite honestly, even in the Open and then, like you see, there’s a 55-lap stage that opens up the All-Star Race. I think that’s probably a little more like what I would have liked to have seen because the shorter stage really puts a lot of emphasis on starting position. With Bristol being one of Matt’s favorite tracks, probably one of his better tracks statistically. I feel where we’re coming from around 10th we might have an opportunity to get there, but with the 10 car and the 34 car starting up front, they’re gonna be tough to get to in 35 laps. So we’re working on strategy right now. What if we get there, what if we don’t, and then what are we gonna do at the end of the second stage going into the third stage. The concern with the track being green and the way the tire wear as been there at Bristol, even up to a couple hundred laps into the race tire wear has been pretty high. I’m not expecting the track to rubber up too quick for our race, probably the guys in the All-Star Race might see some of that and see the balance change that’s associated with that. We’re lined up for a short run, quite honestly, and I hope we can get the 21 car up front.”

WHAT DO YOU FEEL YOU NEED TO IMPROVE ON MOVING FORWARD? “Consistency and I feel like we’re getting to a point now where we’re able to put some setups together for the mile-and-a-half program. The tracks that I mentioned that were specifically one-offs that have always been a challenge for the race teams – Martinsville is unlike any other track we go to. Bristol is unlike any other track. Pocono, not another track that we would even compare to it much. Those one-off style tracks are very, very difficult for a new team, new driver, new engineering relationship to come off the truck and be competitive, so, thankfully, we’ve got one each of those in the rearview mirror. I feel like we’re closing in on our mile-and-half program a little bit, but, like a road course, I haven’t been to a road course yet with him. Which setup do I use? How does he like to talk about his car? I don’t know. We’re gonna find out pretty quick here in about a month. That’s like my concern going forward are the one-off tracks that are certainly a little different. The Michigan racetrack is gonna be another challenge, but, right now, I feel like hitting the balance at those racetracks is our biggest challenge.”

DO YOU SEE YOUR DRIVER AS A GUY WHO CAN MAKE NOISE IN THE PLAYOFFS? “Great question. I think Matt sees himself as a contending driver. He sees himself as a top 10 driver. The races this year where we’ve struggled to get there, he carries that burden pretty heavy. He was pretty upset when we weren’t able to perform right out of the gate, and I think this last stretch of four races has gone a long way for him mentally. It’s probably gone a long way for the team to see that we can put this guy in good track position and give him a close race car and he can stay there all day, so that’s really good for team confidence in the driver and the driver confidence in the team. What do I think we can do once the playoffs start? If I say, ‘Man, at the start of the season people were asking can we get this 100th win?’ Sure we can, but what I really want to do is get to the point where I can run inside the top 10 every week because when I can run inside the top 10 every week, I know that winning is coming. When you’re a contender, you have a much, much better opportunity to get yourself to the very front of the pile. Now I realize we’ve kind of shown we can do that, so I think that opens up a whole new opportunity for you to get into the playoff and sneak a win or two hopefully by the time we get there and continue on into round two and maybe round three.”

WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT WHAT YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO DO IN TERMS OF HOSTING FORD PEOPLE IN MICHIGAN NEXT MONTH. I KNOW YOU GUYS OFTEN GO TO DEARBORN AND VISIT. ANY CHANCE OF THAT THIS YEAR? “I’m waiting to be told. If I can be 100 percent honest, we as a management group talk with the Penske guys on a daily basis. We don’t really know. We hear things that local government says this may go, this may not go. We don’t know what the restrictions are gonna be. We sit around every week and kind of ask, ‘Are there gonna be fans? Are there not gonna be fans?’ Two weeks out there’s a race, ‘Are we still going?’ So we live day-to-day with this problem just like everybody else and I don’t really know what the level of interaction will allowed to be when we get to Michigan. I know over the last couple of year’s we’ve done a terrific job of getting together with the Ford folks. I had a tour of the museum that I never had an opportunity to be in last summer. That was tremendous. We sometimes have get-togethers at the racetrack and talk about how things are going and what we need, how the cars are running, what our competition might be up to, but I really don’t know where any of that is gonna fall come the Michigan weekend at this point.”

TEAMWISE, WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN FROM THERE IN TERMS OF CONFIDENCE TO MAKE THE POSTSEASON AND CHASE A TITLE? “I could be able to judge that a little better if we were kind of functioning more in a normal weekly routine, where the guys have a certain amount of time off, a certain amount of work hours and these practice sessions is where I would get to interact with the guys a lot, whether it’s out to dinner on a Friday night or sitting at breakfast on Saturday morning before we go into the track, but this whole thing that we’re doing right now has really changed the dynamic on our team. When we’re together we’re all so busy working that we really don’t interact quite as much outside of like the professional, ‘Are we doing this? Are we doing that? Are the checklists done? What right-rear spring are we gonna run?’ We go through all of that, but to really be able to read their emotions has been a little bit of a challenge. Some of these days, as you know, have been near 24-hour days for us. You get up at 3:30, you fly to South Florida, you race, you fly back and you get back in your house at 2:30 or 3:00 the next morning. It’s made for a lot of tired folks the next day, so I’m starting off by saying that just so everyone understands this is a real challenge on the guys that are traveling, to be quite honest. It’s not an easy thing for them, but what I can kind of tell is different is when the race is over and the guys that are there at the track with us walk down pit road to go see the driver you can tell there’s a little bit of anxiousness there like, ‘We can do this. We’re this close.’ We got a good sense of it at the second race of the season. We wound up with a second at Vegas, pretty very near the same looking kind of wild finish. We had a late-race caution, we stayed out, we had a second row restart, Matt got real aggressive and brought the thing home in second and at that point in time everybody could tell, ‘Man, we’ve got something here. If we can get this thing up front late in the race, we’re gonna have a shot at it.’ There’s been some relief in that what we’re doing now is working and I think there’s been a little expectation that if we can get ourselves comfortably inside the top 12 to the point where we’re not going to Daytona the last race before the playoffs looking over your shoulder wondering if a guy behind us in points wins and bumps us out is this all gonna go away through the course of one race. So we want to make sure we build enough of a points cushion that we can go down to Daytona and race for the win.”

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT MIDWEEK RACES AND WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE GOING FORWARD? “Yes. Wednesday races, I think, have worked out well so far. They work out pretty good for the organization and the workflow that we have. They’re not without challenges by any stretch. It certainly sets us a little bit behind for the following race that weekend, but I think from a scheduling standpoint and a fan interest standpoint and the fact that they’re all maybe just a little bit shorter. Logistically, if we can make it work I think it makes sense for the sport. The guys don’t seem to mind it. I think most of them think it’s pretty good, and I think it provides some flexibility for NASCAR in the schedule maybe going forward and we may be able to realize some benefits from that due to just more flexible scheduling in the years to come. For us right now, I’m fortunate enough we have a large support staff at the shop that can keep producing these quality cars to meet these two race a week programs and that my guys are willing to put the hours in to be there to prep them and get them on the truck. I’m good with it. I’d be in support of it and I think most of the guys in the industry, from what I’ve heard, would probably say the same thing.”

EDDIE WOOD, Co-Owner, No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Mustang – DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU USED A SPOTTER? “I was just thinking about that the other day. I’m thinking about the first one I remember Kyle Petty was actually driving our car, so I’m gonna say 1985, 1986 and at that time it was a friend of ours, Mike Marcum, he owned a Ford dealership here in Stuart and he was friends with us and friends with Kyle. We would buy him a grandstand seat. Wherever the race was a week or so ahead you would call them, you couldn’t go online, and you would buy an actual ticket and they would mail it to you and that’s where he would sit during the race. Usually, we tried to get something, of course, up high as you could, but I remember Mike talking about all these fans that would be around him because he’s sitting there with a headset and a radio, which looked odd at that time. I guess people had scanners for a number of years even long before that, but to have one with a microphone and all that, it was different. It grew to what it is now and it’s so important now with all the headgear and the difficulty for the driver to see the blind spots and stuff, so I’m gonna say 1985.”

CAN YOU EXPAND ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SPOTTERS? “Now, you could listen to any team throughout the race and the spotter is doing the most talking. In our case, Doug Campbelll does a great job. He and Matt have been together for a couple of years and they really understand each other’s wording for lack of a better way to describe it, but Matt’s always aware of what’s on his left, what’s on his right, what’s behind him, how far back, if somebody is coming. It’s amazing. I’ve spotted practice before and I’ve spotted a few races. I’ve spotted for Jon when he was driving. It’s not an easy job and it wasn’t easy then, but now, I’m telling you, it would be like being an air traffic controller. There are two jobs I wouldn’t want to have in racing right now, one of them would be a spotter and the other would be a crew chief because they’re tough.”

DO YOU RECALL THE FIRST RACE YOU USED A SPOTTER WITH KYLE? “I think it was Bristol, not the first Bristol but the fall race in 1985 is probably when it started.”

WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO HAVE A CAR THAT IS RUNNING UP FRONT AND SHOWING SIGNS OF MAKING THE PLAYOFFS? “It’s a really good feeling. There’s a little bit of anxiety to it because once you’re in that spot you want to stay there. It’s hard to get there and then it’s harder to stay there. Greg put it very nicely, you’ve just got to stay consistent and minimize mistakes and just control what you can control. Things that are out of your control are out of your control. That’s racing. It really feels good. It’s really an enjoyable time. I wish we could go to the racetrack, but I’m watching them just like you guys are. Some of you may get to go to the racetrack, but it’s different. We have access. We can listen to Greg and the pit box and everything that’s going on in real time, which gets kind of confusing because you’re listening to that in real time and the TV is a bit behind, radio is a bit behind, so you already know what the future is gonna bring and what you’re gonna look at and that’s kind of confusing. Sometimes you just stop everything and just watch the TV and let it play out, but it does feel really good.”

ANYTHING SURPRISING YOU ABOUT MATT AT THIS POINT? “He’s a really good kid, a really good driver and he’s really grounded. There’s no problem with anything he does. He just wants to race. Racing is the most important thing in his life. He’s up here today signing some hats and some sheetmetal for us. It’s a really good working relationship with he and everybody at Team Penske helps us and Ford Motor Company. We have so many partners and everybody just works together really well. The Menards people and Motorcraft and Quick Lane, everybody just loves Matt. That in itself says a lot because there’s so much going on in the world right now to have a happy spot where everybody just gets along and it’s flowing like you want it to and everybody is happy is just a really special thing.”

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE NUMBERS SHIFTING ON THE CARS FOR THE ALL-STAR RACE? “It looks different. Of course, I’m school, but I kind of like it. I think it’s a different look for the sponsors. This weekend we have FVP on our car and they get a lot of good exposure, along with Menards. You’ve seen race cars like that in the past in other series that have that. I’m okay with it. If it helps your sponsors get more visibility, makes their name easier to read on a race car so far as when it’s shown on TV or in pictures or whatever, I think it’s fine. I’m not sure how the world is liking it. I haven’t really seen anything negative about it, so I think Bristol and the All-Star Race is the perfect place to try it. Like I said, there’s a lot of new things coming up up there with the cone and I kind of like that. I think that’s the place to try things. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it again. But if it works, looking forward, look at it to make it real.”

CAN YOU RECALL A CHANGE THAT WAS MADE THAT YOU WERE AGAINST AT FIRST BUT HAVE NOW STARTED TO LIKE IT? “Nothing really comes to mind. What I’ve learned over the years is NASCAR will make up rules and change this or that, but if you give it enough time they’ll be right. I’m going back to the seventies when they would make spoiler changes and stuff like that. They used to make spoiler changes at the racetrack during a weekend with heights or taking spoiler away from people or give them more spoiler back. But at the end of the day they still had a race, somebody won it and everybody went on. Like I said, usually their decisions, even if they’re really big – I remember when we went to the smaller wheelbase like we have now in 1981, they just announced, ‘Okay, we’re gonna downsize the cars. You’re gonna have these smaller cars. The wheelbase is gonna be shorter. It’s going to 110,’ and everybody thought, ‘Wow, that’s gonna be the end of the world.’ Everybody showed up at Daytona. They had a race and it was great. Things work out in racing.”

ARE YOU GOING TO BE ABLE TO COME TO MICHIGAN IN AUGUST AND WHAT FACTORS WILL GO INTO THAT? “It’s like Greg said, we don’t know basically on a daily basis what’s going on because there are so many people involved in whether you race here, whether you have fans, whether you don’t. There are so many people outside of NASCAR outside of our control. Hopefully, we can. It’s funny you ask that. I was just on the phone with Edsel Ford a few minutes ago and he asked me that very same question, and I said, ‘Mr. Ford, I don’t know yet. I hope we can all go.’ But you’ve got to do what’s safe for everyone and the way NASCAR has put together the protocol with 16 people per car is working obviously. Sometimes if things aren’t broken don’t work on it. Leave it be and let it all unfold and play out. We’re looking forward to going back to the racetrack, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and, thankfully, with everyone’s health and all the people that helped put it together with the TV networks and all the sponsors, it just feels like the whole world of racing is just working together. The networks, the sponsors. Our sponsors – Ford Motor Company, Ford Performance, Motorcraft/Quick Lane, Menards – everyone works together to make it all work because races had to be moved around and things like that. I’m just speaking from our team, but if you look at the whole thing as a whole, everybody is working together. It’s like we’re gonna do this for the great good. We’re gonna make sure we can have races and have a good show for all the fans because they can’t come. It’s not their fault, it’s just not working out, but I’m just really proud of the whole racing community on how well everybody is working together. Media, you guys, everybody. It seems like everybody is one.”

MATT’S CONTRACT IS UP AT THE END OF THE SEASON. DO YOU KNOW YOUR PLANS FOR 2021 WITH HIM? “We haven’t really got that far yet. With everything that’s been going on it’s hard for everyone to get together and really work on things like that. We just haven’t got that far yet.”

SAFE TO SAY YOU’LL REMEMBER THE 70TH SEASON OF WOOD BROTHERS RACING A BIT DIFFERENTLY WITH EVERYTHING GOING ON, BUT WHAT’S IT LIKE TO GO INTO YOUR MUSEUM WITH ALL OF THOSE HISTORICAL PICTURES ON THE WALL AND MEMORIES FROM PAST YEARS? “It really kind of keeps you sane. I come over here a lot at night just by myself and walk around. We’ve got a lot of my dad’s replica cars. We’ve got Pearson’s Mercury and one of Trevor’s cars sitting right here behind me. You just look around it’s like, ‘Wow.’ This is pretty cool.”

MATT DIBENEDETTO, No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Mustang – WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS RACING AT BRISTOL TOMORROW? “I’ve always been excited as soon as they said it was at Bristol. Obviously, I’m biased because I’ve had a lot of success at Bristol and I love that place. It’ll be a lot of fun. Now that we’re a day out we know where we’re starting and everything we have our work cut out for us. It’s not gonna be easy. We’re starting 10th. There are a lot of really good cars in front of us and that race us super-short, so we’ll have to work hard, but as fast as our cars have been lately I have pretty good confidence in that, for sure.”

ARE THE RULES DIFFERENT FOR THIS RACE? CAN YOU PUNT SOMEBODY WITH LESS REPERCUSSIONS? “Yeah, I think in a way that there’s gonna be a little bit more of that, I don’t know if you want to call it understanding, but everyone is gonna have that same mindset of when it’s a non-points race and you have everything on the line and you’re trying to race for a million bucks, the fact there’s no points involved makes it where it’s basically and all-or-nothing race. It doesn’t really do you much good if you don’t win, so it’s the same in the Open trying to race your way in. That’s why these races can tend to be more aggressive or maybe more dirty moves to try and advance or win a stage or win the All-Star Race, whatever it is, just because there’s not quite the repercussions of a points race.”

HOW DIFFERENT IS THAT ON A SHORT TRACK VS. AT CHARLOTTE? “It’s way different because at a big track like at Charlotte, with the way the rules packages – not knocking it, but this is the way the big track racing is versus small track now – we literally cannot get to somebody’s bumper and move them out of the way or anything at a big track because of the dirty air fact and such. You could see aggressive moves on restarts and things, but Bristol a short track with the low downforce package and stuff you can definitely get to somebody’s bumper, so that could make it extra exciting for the fact that we’re doing this on a short track and people will be extra aggressive.”

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE NUMBER PLACEMENT ON THE CAR AND THE CHOOSE CONE? “Yeah, I can’t wait to get at it and see if we can race our way in. Those couple of things you hit on definitely are different. The number placement stuff. I’m an old-school kind of traditional guy, so I wouldn’t want it to be a permanent thing by all means, but for the All-Star Race if they choose to try something different, I mean, that’s fine with me. It’s not totally my preference, but it’s no big deal either way. It’s the All-Star Race so different stuff is fine, and then the choose cone, though, I’m really excited about that actually. I know Austin Dillon pushed pretty hard for it and at some of these racetrack we go to, especially like these mile-and-a-halves and even some of the short tracks, your lane choice can dictate your finishing position by like 10 spots, and it can absolutely kill your day. You can run great all day, have an inside line restart at some of these tracks and finish 15th or something. It’s like, ‘What in the world?’ I’d say that’s more extreme at the bigger tracks due to the way the rules package is now, but even at the short tracks just lane choice is such a big deal for these restarts, so the choose cone kind of puts the fate in your own hands. If we can execute it well, that’s my main thing. I’m excited about the fact of being able to choose where you restart and maybe jump a couple rows and if you want to go in the row that’s not preferred, but you can pick up a couple lanes or whatever, that’s kind of cool and exciting. Hopefully, we execute it well and it goes smoothly because it would be really nice for a lot of other places.”

WHAT ABOUT THE GLOWING LIGHTS UNDER THE CAR? “I’ve seen more Fast and the Furious memes in the last few days than ever (laughing). I think it’s funny. Again, it’s one of those deals where it’s the All-Star Race, so they try different stuff. It’s okay. My personal thought is it’s a little bit, I don’t know the right word, it’s a little funny. It gives me a little bit of laughter more than anything, but my main thing is I’m curious to see how fans would react to it if there’s maybe like young kids that like it, then I guess that’s a good thing. As long as we’re racing and we’re at Bristol on a short track and we’re going fast and we have low downforce stuff on there, I’m gonna be having a good time no matter what.”

WHAT’S THE MINDSET GOING FROM A FUN RACE LIKE BRISTOL TO A POINTS RACE AT TEXAS THIS WEEKEND? “We’ve been having a lot of fun lately as far as our car speed and stuff, so that’s been great. I’m excited to continue to get to Texas and hopefully continue on this roll that we’re on where we’ve gotten stage points in the last eight stages in a row, so that just shows we’re running in that front group consistently from start to finish of these races, so that’s awesome. I’m excited. The All-Star Race, that will be just fun and hopefully we make our way in, but then back to business at Texas. I mean, I’m excited to hopefully keep this roll going that we’re on and it’s exciting when you know the strength of your team when we’ve really been building and getting better and better and now that you’re running up there in that front group consistently from start to finish in a lot of these races lately, that makes it more exciting because then we’re continuing to get more and more points, climbing up there, catching guys in front of us and then that puts us in a good position where if we keep running consistently up there that puts you in a position to have a shot at winning one of these things.”

DID YOU THINK THE TEAM WAS CAPABLE OF MAKING THE PLAYOFFS? “Going into this season that was probably goal number one. You kind of enter the boxes you want to check and knowing the strength of the team – we had some work to do, we’re a new group working together and we don’t practice or qualify or any of that, so we’ve had to work real hard on our communication and learn some stuff together, but, yeah, knowing the strength of our team going in that was probably goal number one was making sure to make the playoffs, which is never easy. Making the playoffs in itself is tough, but knowing the strength of the team I knew we could work at it and do it, especially now that we’ve been on this good streak lately of having a lot of speed and racking up stage points and obviously another good finish here this past weekend, a third, I think there’s a lot more of that to come, which is real encouraging for the rest of the season. And as we keep building and getting better as a team and a group working together, we not only want to make the playoffs but when we get in them we want to make a splash and then keep going as far as we can into them. If we keep improving like we have been, I think we can turn a lot of heads.”

ARE YOU READY AS A DRIVER TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS AND MAKE SOME NOISE ONCE YOU GET THERE? “Yeah. I have to give credit to my past experience in the Cup Series of what’s prepared me so well for this opportunity. Driving for teams like when I started with BK and then driving for Go Fas Racing for a couple of years and then the 95 team last year, driivng for some of those smaller teams in those different stages of opportunity is what’s made me a much more well-rounded driver and person. It taught me, really, everything. It’s taught me how to make the most out of your team and out of your equipment, your race car and all that, so that’s why I have so much confidence now in myself and my team and that we are showing that we are obviously playoff contenders here that I think f we make it into these playoffs like we plan to do, I feel really good about the fact that we could not only just make them and contend through them because of the strength of our team. As far as me personally, I’ve learned so much. Even though it’s kind of new territory for me being in this amazing of a situation and a ride opportunity, I feel very comfortable and really experienced. This is my sixth year full-time in the Cup Series and I’ve never felt more ready and prepared just based off of everything that I’ve learned in the past to be a better person and a better driver.”

CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT YOU AND GREG WERE TRYING TO DO BEFORE POCONO TO IMPROVE YOUR COMMUNICATION? “That’s good that he kind of pointed that out. We had to really work hard on a lot of different things in our communication as a whole, as a team because we aren’t having these practice sessions and things where we would normally learn, ‘Oh, okay when I say this I mean this,’ and you figure each other out. We’re doing it in the races, so I’d say the main things we had to work on is we were having some races, we’ve always had speed. Honestly, every track we’ve been to other than Darlington we struggled a little in general, every other track we’ve had tremendous speed or bursts of speed or whatever, but there were a lot of races where we didn’t execute to our fullest potential. Maybe we’d be real fast for a run and then we’d get behind on adjustments or we’d get off somehow and then we’d be way back further than we should, and then we’d try to rally back at the end. It was just too up-and-down of races, so we really put a lot of emphasis on our communication and fixing and addressing one thing each week and learning a little more about each other, and I feel like we’ve kind of dialed it in, especially here recently and it’s just through trial and error and learning in the races, unfortunately, just with the way the circumstances the way they are today. We’ve just really honed in on our communication together and how do we put together a smooth race from start to finish and, like you alluded to, making the most of your race car and understanding you’re not gonna have a winning car every week, so just making sure on my end – something I’ve had to work on is make sure, ‘Okay, we go out there how do we make the most of our car?’ If it’s a fifth-place car, so be it, you make the most of that fifth-place car or an eighth-place car or a third, or whatever. Some days you don’t want to get caught over-adjusting and trying to be like, ‘We’re so close to the leader. What do we do,’ and then you can dial yourself out and hurt yourself more than you helped, so just being smarter about our races and things like that have helped us a lot.”

IS IT TANTALIZING FOR YOU NOW THAT YOU’RE RUNNING UP FRONT TO WANT IT EVEN MORE BECAUSE WHEN YOU’RE RUNNING 25TH IT’S HARD TO FINISH 10TH SO YOU’RE NOT FOCUSED ON THAT TYPE OF THINKING? “I think I’m lucky to have learned all of that in my past of just how to make the most of your race car and your team and how we can all execute and do the best job we can together and make the most of your day. That’s been my whole career, really, what I’ve had to do and learn and it’s been different situations. So this is different in the fact of you’re trying to make the most of your car and your day, but now you can see the leader and you’re really close or run up front and you have tremendous speed, so it’s a little easier to be tempted to be like, ‘We’re so close to that guy right there,’ but I’ve worked real hard on making sure, no matter what, to just focus on our car and our day and how to make our car the best it can be and not really worry too much about where we’re running because then that’s when I think you can get yourself, ‘Oh man, we over-adjusted, now we’re too far back,’ and you can make your day too up and down versus having a smooth day and then that can put you in positions to have a shot to win like we just saw this past weekend with Cole Custer winning the race, just if you do a good job, make the most of your car and you put yourself in position to be around that front group, things can work out your way then.”

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE DAYTONA ROAD COURSE? “I think it’ll be fun. I like it. I think the Daytona road course is obviously a really cool, historical place. I always enjoy watching the Rolex 24 Hour race there and all kinds of stuff, so I think it’ll be fun. Like you alluded to, I love road course racing. It’s my favorite thing to do. It’s just a nice change, super-fun. Stock cars on a road course are, in my opinion, the most fun thing you can drive, so I think going there blind is definitely gonna be a challenge. Some people may have an advantage if they’ve been on the track before or raced there before, but, for the most part, most of the people are in a similar situation, so I think it’ll be good and fun and I’m glad we’re replacing a road course with a road course most importantly, so we can still go up there and put on a good show and have some fun and it’s good learning for the future. I think it can put on a great race.”

THE LAST TIME THE WOOD BROTHERS WON THE ALL-STAR RACE WAS 1996. WERE YOU IN KINDERGARTEN AT THAT TIME? “Yeah, actually that would be around that.”

DID YOU EVER THINK YOU WOULD END UP RUNNING FOR AN ICONIC TEAM LIKE THIS? “No, it’s crazy. We were talking about that today. The opportunity is insane. I’ve had a dream my whole life of obviously just racing in the Cup Series. We accomplished that and then my goal and dream is I’ll do anything, sacrifice anything, lay it all on the line to have an opportunity to drive for a top tier team where I can go contend for wins in the Cup Series, and then my dreams and goals got exceeded by a million times by the fact of not only did I get to do that, but I get to do that driving the 21 car for the Wood Brothers, who I’ve been a fan of my entire life. It’s way, way past surreal, so that’s the coolest part. So going to contend and hopefully make this All-Star Racing and doing it in the 21 car is pretty special, so I hope first off we can race our way in. It’ll be tough, but I hope we can do that and then, obviously, if we can get a shot at a million bucks for the team and driving the 21 car on top of that in the All-Star Race at Bristol for the first time, that’s gonna be a neat opportunity.”

DID YOU RUN AGAINST BRAD SWEET AT ALL GROWING UP? “A little bit. We were mostly in different divisions because I was younger, so I was usually a class or two below him because I was pretty young. I was just getting started out.”

WHAT WILL IT BE LIKE WITH 30,000 FANS IN THE STANDS AT BRISTOL? “Thank goodness. All of this time has made us appreciate all the little things and, goodness, we miss that energy. It’s just so quiet around the racetrack and so different, so it’s gonna be really nice to have some fans – 30,000 fans there cheering us on and having some energy for a big race. It really plays a much bigger part than they know and I hope they know how much we appreciate them and can’t wait for them to be back, so that’s exciting.”

HOW DOES THE STRATEGY CHANGE GOING FROM THE ALL-STAR RACE TO TEXAS WHERE ONE IS A NON-POINTS EVENT AND THE OTHER IS A POINTS RACE? “I think in the All-Star Race, like in the Open race, just trying to make it in and then in the All-Star Race itself you’ve got no points on the line and things like that, so you’ll make moves in a race like that that you wouldn’t in a points race because everything is so important, every point you get is so important, so this is just kind of go and do whatever you have to do to try and make it in and have a shot to win, or in the Open have a shot to make it in the All-Star Race you do really whatever it takes. You’ll make moves that you normally wouldn’t and then you move on to Texas and it’s kind of back to business as usual, where you’re really focusing on putting a smart race together, a solid day and trying to rack up good points and be in a good position at the end to have a shot at it. You’re racing a little bit more, I don’t know what the right word would be, tactfully, I guess, where you’re trying to put together just a great, solid day from start to finish and focus on consistency, where the All-Star Race is pretty much all or nothing.”

IN THE PRESEASON THERE WAS SO MUCH TALK ABOUT TOYOTA VS. CHEVY, BUT FORD HAS BEEN THE DOMINANT MANUFACTURER THIS SEASON WINNING FOUR OF THE LAST FIVE RACES. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE FORD PROGRAM THAT HAS MADE IT SO STRONG AND DID IT HELP THEY WERE UNDER THE RADAR THIS SEASON? “That never hurts. It’s been awesome to see the strengths in the Fords as a whole and the entire program. I think that comes from obviously Ford giving tremendous support to all the teams. I mean, it’s huge. It’s bigger than what people realize, so that’s amazing in itself with all of these teams being really strong and the Fords working together. I was glad that even in the race the other day I locked bumpers with another Blue Oval with Cole Custer and pushed him up there toward the front on a restart, so it’s a lot of things. The engines from Roush Yates Engines, everyone knows how strong those dang things run, so that makes our life a lot easier when you’ve got that much power under the hood, so, as a whole, Ford is nothing short of the best and it’s showing this year. I’m so happy to be back in the Ford camp and the Ford family. They do treat me like family and obviously we know the Wood Brothers connection and tie with Ford and how close that is, so it’s been a lot of fun to be part of such a successful manufacturer. And I’m driving my Mustang right now. I don’t know if you can see that, so I’m having some fun in that on my trip up and back to Stuart, Virginia.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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