THE INDUSTRY HAD A REALLY FUN DAY YESTERDAY (4/8 JIMMIE JOHNSON DAY) OF REFLECTING ON YOUR CAREER IN SOME OF OUR FAVORITE MOMENTS. DID YOU HAVE ANY THAT REALLY BROUGHT BACK SOME GREAT MEMORIES?
“There were so many amazing memories that came about yesterday, it would be impossible to pick just one. The range from drivers that I’ve built friendships and relationships with, use Tony Stewart as an example there, my teammates and the influence I’ve had on guys like William Byron and Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola when we were on baby watch and the doors that opened for him. The crew guys, the bicycle rides that we do on Saturdays, and really across the gamut, even moments I’ve had at tracks, it really was special for me and my family yesterday to click through on various social media platforms and see these experiences and memories and what people had to say, it was a special day.”
YOU HAVE A LOT OF IDLE TIME DURING THIS UNPLANNED BREAK. YOU ARE PRACTICING A LOT OF SIM RACING. HAVE YOU GIVEN ANY THOUGHT TO NEXT YEAR AND MAYBE DOING MORE NASCAR RACING OR POSTPONING YOUR RETIREMENT FROM CUP RACING BECAUSE YOU’VE HAD ALL THIS EXTRA TIME OFF?
“I really don’t have any answer just yet because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming months and if we’ll be able to run the full season or not. I feel like I set out to make 2020 my last full time year, but I’ve always left the door open for other racing and NASCAR and abroad for the future and I feel like I’m still pretty much on that path. I am hopeful that we get our full year in and we can get that going here in a month or so or whatever the latest projected number possibly could be and I that can run the season in its entirety. I really don’t have an answer. It’s up in the air just as so much is in the world right now.”
IN THE MEANTIME, HOW ARE YOU LIKING HOME SCHOOLING, NASCAR SIM RACING AND INDYCAR SIM RACING?
‘I thought I would have much more free time being at home with the world changing as it has, but at least the first couple of weeks where things tightened up and locked-down, have been so busy with work in the various businesses I’m involved with and the impact that this has had on all; and home schooling was thrown in the mix. Chandra has her gallery and the demands and workload that comes with that is another thing for us to focus on, especially for her to focus on, but more stress in the house and less free time around to help with home schooling. So, home schooling rocked our world but we’re a few weeks in now and have a much better flow going on and understand it all. It’s been a nice week this week, honestly. We’ve been able to balance things pretty well.”
WHEN RACING RESUMES, WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE WEEK NIGHT RACING OR EVEN MAYBE MULTIPLE RACING AT ONE PARTICULAR TRACK JUST TO GET THE RACES OUT THERE? WHEN IT GETS BACK, WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE?
“I really haven’t. I can only imagine the balancing act that NASCAR, TV, and these tracks will need to do. Every weekend that goes by just complicates that situation more and more. I feel like many of our contracts and much of the structure that exists revolves around 36 races. And I would assume that’s the highest priority is to have those 36 points-paying events. How that happens for me, I’m totally fluid. I’m totally open. I know we’re in unchartered territory here and I’ll do my part and whatever I can to certainly support whatever decisions are made to try to get in all 36 races.”
ARE YOU STILL INTO 48 NUMEROLOGY ON YOUR CLOCK? HAVE YOU EVER HAD A TIME LIKE THIS IN YOUR CAREER WHERE YOU’VE HAD THIS MUCH TIME TO THINK? HAVE YOU EVER HAD THAT?
“Off-season would be similar in length. I guess we’re not quite through what that length of time would be. But, to have it be a beautiful Spring day and the opportunity to be in the yard with my kids and go on walks or bike rides like we’ve done to stay active; that is totally new and different. In my adult life, I don’t recall having Spring days on end at home with nothing to do (laughs) in a sense. It’s been plenty crazy. But it is different on that front. But, the length of time hasn’t exceeded what an off-season would be yet.”
WE SAW BUBBA WALLACE LOSE HIS SPONSOR THE OTHER DAY AND WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE IRACE. WE SAW FORD NOT ALLOW ITS DRIVERS TO DO A RACE BECAUSE IRACING’S ARCA CARS ARE ALL CHEVROLET BODIES. HOW MUCH OF THIS IS BUSINESS AND HOW MUCH BUSINESS WORK DO YOU AND YOUR TEAM NEED TO GET DONE BEFORE YOU CAN EVEN DO THESE THINGS?
“I think the first race that was done in Atlanta was much less about the business. And then when the TV component came in, it switched to business, absolutely. There’s maybe not pressure from the sponsors, and it’s hard to say what every situation is like, but I can tell you what I feel in my own head is how do I show value for our partners and how to show value for our team and our company and everybody involved in this tricky time. So, I just feel like there is a pressure we’re all feeling if it’s self-inflicted or if its coming from the outside in, but we’re trying to figure out how to create value and how to deliver for our partners. It’s the environment and everybody handles it a bit differently.”
IS IT DIFFICULT FOR YOU IF YOU’RE AT YOUR HOME LIKE OH MY GOSH, THERE’S THIS OR THAT IN THE BACKGROUND THAT COULD CONFLICT. HOW MUCH OF THAT IS GOING THROUGH YOUR HEAD AT A TIME WHEN IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE SOMETHING FUN?
“From my entry point to it was the first race that was on television and I knew then and there that I had to treat it, just instinctively, that I had to treat it a certain way and I have. So, in my head, it’s been pretty straightforward, especially since it’s been on television, how things would go. And, ironically I find that I’m trying to find ways to make sure that I’m on the broadcast. I’m not fast enough in iRacing yet to run up front for the TV time (laughs), so trying to be an in-race reporter or a part of spectacular crashes seems to be the only way I find myself on television right now (laughs).
ON THE NASCAR HALL OF FAME LIST THAT CAME OUT EARLIER THIS WEEK AND IN PARTICULAR THE THREE NOMINEES THAT WERE ON THE MODERN ERA SIDE, DALE JR., CARL EDWARDS, AND JEFF BURTON. YOU COMPETED AGAINST ALL OF THEM. HOW DO YOU RATE THEIR CHANCES FOR INDUCTION, ESPECIALLY WITH THE NEW PROCESS THAT HAS NARROWED THE FIELD DOWN?
“Honestly, I need a little schooling on the new process. I haven’t paid that close of attention to it. Are those the only three names on the New Era side?”
THOSE ARE THE THREE ADDED TO A LIST OF 10 MODERN ERA CANDIDATES. VOTERS PICK TWO FROM THAT LIST OF 10.
“Okay, I see. I don’t know who the other seven are so it’s tough to rank them, but my experiences with them have been very intense. They’re all amazing drivers, and certainly have contributed tremendously to the sport. Without knowing those other seven, I’m out to lunch. Sorry.”
YOU STARTED WITH HERZOG MOTORSPORTS AS YOUR FIRST NASCAR TEAM IN THE BUSCH SERIES CAR. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT THAT MEANT TO YOUR CAREER AND THE IMPACT IT HAD ON GETTING YOU WHERE YOU ARE TODAY? AND, YOU WON THREE TIMES AT KANSAS. KNOW THAT’S THEIR BACKYARD, WHAT DID THE HERZOGS AND THAT EXPERIENCE MEAN TO YOU?
“Yeah, for sure. I, without a doubt, would not be a NASCAR driver if I didn’t meet the Herzogs and we didn’t form our friendship and relationship and move forward. I was able to help bring Chevrolet to the mix. They were looking for somewhere to put me, and I knew that they ran an amazing off-road program, and their racing in the desert series, and also a series in the Midwest, and they lacked manufacturer support. So, I felt like if I could bring that to the table, I could get us together. In our early conversations, that certainly was the goal and objective, but we quickly realized and understood that Bill Herzog, the father, and his two sons, Randy and Stan, that all three had desires of going stock car racing and wanted to end up in NASCAR some day. So, once we all that that common vision, we were able to lay out a plan of attack, and how we could hopefully get to the NASCAR Cup Series. We ran a few years of off-road together and they helped me transition into stock car racing in the ASA Series, and then they purchased the Busch Grand National team that I drove. And we were moving down the pathway and I had offers and discussions with other teams to potentially leave. When the Hendrick opportunity came along, I approached them and shared with them this opportunity. And like the great men they were, because sadly, Stan and Bill are no longer, but all three of them were very excited for me and insisted that I take this chance of a lifetime with Hendrick Motorsports. So, we got close. We made it to the Busch Series and almost made it to the Cup Series like that original vision it was that we shared.”
YOU’VE WON EVERYWHERE, BUT TO WIN AT KANSAS THREE TIMES IN THEIR BACKYARD, DID THAT HAVE A LITTLE EXTRA MEANING?
“Oh, for sure. Without a doubt I spent a lot of time in St. Joseph over the years; mainly in the winter and I couldn’t believe how hard the wind would blow and how cold it could be. Went to a few Chiefs games with them. It being in that area, every time I go there, I just recall being a teenage kid, landing at KCI and freezing my tail off and trying to find my way to St. Joe to have meetings or visit with them. I definitely have that sense that the Kansas area equals Herzog for me. Even racing out at the track, I’ve always had that sense of being nearby and being a par of all that.”
YOU ARE DOING BOTH THE NASCAR AND INDYCAR IRACING. CAN YOU COMPARE THEM? IS IT GOING TO BE COOL TO HAVE DALE EARNHARDT JR AT THE SATURDAY RACE IN MICHIGAN?
“I think he’s going to have a blast doing it. His experience in iRacing I think will help him enter at a higher level than I have so far (laughs). But, the thing I’ve really struggled with on the IndyCar-side, is I’m learning new tracks and a new car. For the NASCAR-side, it’s much more familiar and it’s just learning the game component of it all. There are different challenges that come with it. And on the IndyCar-side, especially running the Barber track, that’s where I had planned to test, and the reason I purchased my IndyCar SIM in the first place, was to learn that trace for the test session I had coming up on April 6th. I feel like in some ways that If I’m able to find an opportunity in the IndyCar world in the future, I’m getting some reps on track so that’s a little rewarding and makes me feel good about the time that I’m putting in. I’m learning these drivers. It’s hard to say that our driving characteristics in SIM will cross over to the real world, but there is some kind of foundation or groundwork being laid on that side if a door does open there for me some day. And then on the NASCAR-side, the ovals are much easier to drive on the SIM. It is interesting to see the personalities kind of emerge there that are similar to the real world. And I’m not sure if you guys can hear the in-race stuff that’s going on, but it’s pretty comical. I’m learning more about my competitors there (laughs) and how they deal with emotions from time to time.”
THERE ARE THREE RACES LEFT AFTER SATURDAY’S INDYCAR IRACE AND TWO OF THEM ARE YET TO BE CHOSEN IN TERMS OF THE TRACKS. SOME DRIVERS HAVE SUGGESTED IN INDYCAR THAT TALLADEGA SHOULD BE AMONG THEM. ARE THERE ANY OVALS YOU MIGHT HAVE MORE OF AN EDGE THAN THE INDYCAR GUYS? ANY OTHER TRACKS YOU’D LIKE TO SEE?
“I feel like Michigan is going to be the Talladega IndyCar race honestly. I’ve run it a few times in groups and first of all, it’s just crazy to go that fast around Michigan, even though it is in the SIM world, knowing our points and how much brake and stuff we need to use in a stock car. It’s just a different animal in IndyCar. But, I’ve not really spent much time driving other tracks. Yesterday, I was driving a little bit on the Richmond track in the NASCAR set-up and I’m like I want to drive the IndyCar on here. I still have some exploring to do. I feel like Talladega would be too big in some respects. I don’t have any kind of experience doing it. And I know I’ve been interesting in the IndyCar-side to learn new tracks. That’s a big part of what’s going on in my head for the future is new experiences. So, I’m definitely more personally more interested in new things.”
WHEN YOU FIRST SIGNED-UP FOR IRACING IT WAS KIND OF AN 11th HOUR DEAL AND YOU STRUGGLED. HOW MUCH HAVE YOU JUMPED INTO IT SINCE THEN WITH YOUR COMPETITIVENESS?
“Yeah, I jumped in head-first honestly. The part has been more eye-opening for me has been how to run and operate the SIM rig and all the third-party apps that tie into it relate and the data that exists there and trying to understand how to calibrate things and make things work correctly and how to even talk in game war to one of these third party apps where you can have a spotter and a crew chief helping you made good decisions. Playing the game is certainly challenging on it’s own, but I had no idea the rest of it that went into it. And that’s really what rocked my world in week one, and even into week two. It was literally five or six days a week, four to five hours a day, just trying to figure it all out and get it set-up.”
THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SEND-OFF YEAR, BUT NOW YOU ARE KIND OF SEQUESTERED, IN A SENSE. WHAT HAS BEEN THE ADJUSTMENT IN THINKING ABOUT EVERYTHING THAT’S GOING ON WITH NOT ONLY RACING BUT WITH THE WORLD IN GENERAL?
“For me in my final year in a Cup car, I feel more for the fans that wanted to see me at their track and experience that and have it. I know where I am and I’m very content and fulfilled with the career I’ve had. Sure, I want to be on track. Sure, I want to go to these places a final time. I feel more for the fans that aren’t having that opportunity right now that I long for myself to experience it and to be there, if that makes any sense. And that’s only a small piece in the grand scheme of things when you look at all the individuals that are affected by the Coronavirus and the families that have been affected, and the economy, and businesses and business owners. This is way bigger than me and way bigger than what was going to be my final time at these tracks. So, that stuff hasn’t really even crossed my mind, honestly, is why I bring it up. There have been so many other issues at-hand to think about and be concerned with, that I haven’t thought much at all about it being my final year and what I might be missing for myself. It’s been more about others and more about the fans and what I see on my social thread, I see people that have been lifelong fans that are sad they don’t get to see me run. So, it’s been about others far more than it’s been about what affect this has had on me, personally.”
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH BLAISE ALEXANDER AND THIS BEING YOUR LAST TRIP TO POCONO RACEWAY, ASSUMING WE GO THERE?
“When I look back on the friendship we had, it wasn’t for a really long length of time. Actually I met him when I was living in Milwaukee running my ASA team. He tried to pick-up my girlfriend at the bar. And that’s how we met the first time, which was an interesting way to meet. And, I respected his courage and we started a friendship that grew and lasted for a handful of years before we tragically lost him. But, his love of life and how charismatic he was and his dedication to the sport and his family and the connection he had with his parents and his siblings, he taught me a lot in a very short period of time and we became really good friends. Whenever I’m in Pennsylvania, I always think of him. He loved the state that he grew up in and loved that area. I think about him often, for sure.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS FAMILY AND IF WE RACE AT POCONO, HOW EMOTIONAL WILL THAT BE FOR YOU?
“At this stage, there’s just a lot of pride. The emotional side, shortly after we lost Blaise, those emotions are different from where they are today and time helps shift things in your mind. I’ve been able to shift that to just all the funny stories and memories. And I do stay in touch with his family. I hear from his dad occasionally and is brother often and his sister I hear from. When we do check-in, it’s always a funny story. I still have a lot of pain, especially for his family, but the conversation is always shifted to funny stories and reliving those.”
HAVE THERE BEEN ANY DISCUSSIONS WITH HENDRICK AND HOW TO MAINTAIN THE EDGE THAT YOU GUYS HAVE HAD OVER THE BREAK? IS THERE ANY CONCERN THAT THIS EDGE YOU’VE HAD MAY BE LOST BECAUSE OF THE HIATUS?
“There’s really very little we can do. We can work on our computers, but Hendrick has been shut down for a while now. There has been an agreement reach where teams aren’t sending employees into work and not only from the NASCAR point, but obviously what the governor has said on the amount of people that can gather at a given place. There are many reasons why none of the teams are working and moving forward in groups and physically working on cars. The world of SIM, and it’s hard to regulate that, I know that a lot of these are ways we advance our cars and physically taking vehicles to the wind tunnel and shaker rigs and 7-Post rigs, that’s also been banned. So there has been a big effort made to kind of freeze the sport. I know our team, much like many other teams, is spending a lot of time on the phone trying to strategize on where to work or what to look at, but we physically can’t go anywhere or do anything right now. So, I feel we really are in a freeze of sorts right now.”
HAVE YOU SEEN A DIFFERENT ALEX BOWMAN THIS SEASON THAN OTHER YEARS? IS HE DOING STUFF DIFFERENTLY ON THE TRACK OR AWAY FROM IT THAT HAS BOOSTED HIS PERFORMANCE THIS YEAR?
“He’s really dug in deep and has asked himself all the tough questions about how he can get better. It’s been really amazing to see him grow and learn. I would say the thing that’s talked about most is the confidence that’s come with all of that. Running good on-track brings the bulk of it in being able to win has fueled that more than anything. But off the track, the work he puts in helps feed that and really shows the dedication that he’s putting into being the best that he can. So, I’ve been really impressed. I’ve watched him evolve quite a bit over the years; especially since his responsibilities were just running the SIM for us, to now having a full-time seat in the car. He’s done a lot of growing and maturing and he’s done an amazing job.”
HOW MUCH TIME HAVE YOU SPENT ON THE SIM RIGS DURING THE POSTPONEMENTS TO GET UP TO SPEED?
“I’ve been probably averaging about five hours per day for seven days a week for probably two and a half weeks. This week has been much less since we’re not doing the Cup race on Sunday. I’ve been able to enjoy a little bit more downtime. And I was finding those hours were taking place late at night after we’d get the kids to bed, I would jump on the rig. And then a lot of these coaches that are available to help me fast track my way in, have day jobs and spend most of the evenings and the night doing their SIM work. I felt like I didn’t sleep for two weeks, honestly, and working around the clock and a lot of the time at night on the SIM rig.”
REGARDING THE SCHEDULE, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT GETTING IN ALL 36 CUP RACES EVEN IF THAT MEANS HAVING TO DO WEEKLY DOUBLEHEADERS OR MULTIPLE WEDNESDAY NIGHT RACES GOING FORWARD?
“I don’t have a problem with it on my end. As a driver, you just want to take your helmet and go. Racing is the most fun we can have. But, I’m just one point of view on that. I quickly think about the crew members that have to get the cars ready and physically move everything around the country as we need to. I know there’s a lot more that goes into it.”
YOU RAN FOR THE HEROGS FULL-SEASON IN THE BUSCH SERIES IN 2001, BUT 9-11 HAPPENED TOO. WHILE THESE ARE VERY DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES, ARE THERE ANY THINGS THAT ARE SIMILAR AS TO WHAT THINGS WERE LIKE IN THE RACING COMMUNITY AT THAT TIME?
“I feel like the Busch cars were already off that next weekend and it was more of an impact on the Cup guys and more of a shift in having that race postponed. Then they came back and raced at New Hampshire after the season was over. So yeah, it is different. But, I feel like there was so much more fear than what I’ve personally experienced. And now I feel like we’ve been able to create a safe place for us at home and just with social distancing and we’ve created a safe environment. I just remember how unsafe I felt and how scared I was, generally, back in 2001 in September and the month that followed.”
REGARDING IRACING, HOW DOES IT FEEL TO PROVIDE A SENSE OF NORMALCY TO THE AMERICAN SPORTS FAN RIGHT NOW, IF ONLY FOR A SHORT WHILE? WHAT WOULD BE YOUR MESSAGE TO THE NASCAR FAN BASE RIGHT NOW?
“Oh, it feels great. And it’s nice to also have a purpose. I’ve spent my whole life worried about going racing each and it’s just every time I have an off-season, a week or two in I get stir-crazy because my habits have changed and I haven’t experienced life in the sense without getting ready for a race weekend. It brought a little bit of structure for me; more than I anticipated honestly, because I was just so far behind in the SIM experience. But to see the viewership numbers and understand how much fun the fans are having watching it, it has motivated me and has me highly interested to keep it going. As we look around and see other sports try to figure out how to virtually offer something for their fans, we were one of the first if not the first, to do it and do it well and break all kinds of records in the process. So, hats off to everybody to pull it though and our partners on the television-side to allow this to happen.”
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR MESSAGE TO THE FANS AT THIS POINT?
“We’re all in this together. Let’s do our part. I think the sooner we can control the curve and push things down, the sooner we can find out whatever our new norm is.”
WHEN WE GO BACK TO RACING, IT’S LIKELY WE’RE RUNNING WITHOUT FANS. WHAT DO YOU THINK THAT’S GOING TO BE LIKE?
“It’s not the ideal situation by any means. I know our sport amongst every other sport out there, is going to be faced with that decision, and if they choose to compete with fans in the stands or not. For me, it’s a real simple answer. There are millions that watch on television, and I don’t want to deprive the greater sum because we can’t have the fans in the stands. And I get it. I want fans in the stands. They deserve to be there. We want them there. There’s an energy that comes with it. But we are in uncharted territory and we’re going to have to do things a little different than what we’re used to. And if we can get back to the track months before because fans aren’t in the stands, and provide our sport to millions and get people back to work and some normalcy going on in our country and our industry, I’m definitely for that.”
THEY TALKED ABOUT THE SCHEDULE BEING VERY COMPACT, BUT AS A DRIVER IF YOU START RACING SUNDAY, WEDNESDAY, SUNDAY FOR A WHILE, HOW DOES THAT UPSET THE ROUTINE AS A DRIVER? WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO PREPARE FOR SUCH A HECTIC SCHEDULE?
“Good question. I, personally, haven’t been through a schedule like that. I think Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell and some of these guys that have grown-up racing dirt are more accustomed to multiple venues in a weekend and tracks and all that kind of thing. For me, I’ve lived through the testing era, where we had unlimited testing and spent a lot of time during the week at different tracks and moving around. They are long weeks. But, I personally enjoyed the physical challenge that went with it. The mental side was a little different because you could only focus where you were at that time. So in some respects, it didn’t give you all week to overthink and over prepare for what you were going to do. It almost simplified things where hey, I’m at X-track now and that’s where my focus needs to be. Dig into my notes and my routine and do the best I can, and move on. So, in some ways it simplifies the mental aspect. Physically will be far more difficult. And then whatever a driver experiences, crew chiefs, crew members, the traveling-side, and even the media, it’s going to be way harder for everybody. The drivers would probably have it the best or the easiest, if you will, work-wise, and the rest of the industry is really going to have to sort out how to manage that physical and mental endurance that’s going to be required.”