First off, how are you feeling after a bout with COVID-19?
“I feel fantastic. I’m finally out of the house. The toughest part of the whole ordeal was the mental aspect. I truly feel for people who struggle with depression and have to deal with COVID-19, because this thing is tough. You literally get stuck in a location by yourself. Fortunately for me, I had my puppy. I missed my two children tremendously. But it’s amazing now because we live in the age of the Jetsons that we can pick up a phone and look at their faces. And I learned things that I could do. I could get in the car and drive around. I didn’t have to just sit in the house. Advice to other people is if you do get it and have to isolate, you can still get yourself out and isolate and not endanger others. It was very difficult for me because as most people know, I don’t sit still well.”
What did you have to do to get cleared by NASCAR to race at Daytona?
“NASCAR has a protocol. I needed to get two negative tests more than 24 hours apart, which I was able to do. Then, of course, get a doctor’s note saying that I was cleared to go back racing. And that was it. As long as I’m negative, they are good with it. They still have their protocols in place, so when we get to the track we are all still separated. The drivers don’t get to mingle with the teams right now. NASCAR has done a phenomenal job with it and they have been able to stay open for business while having very, very minor effects from this.”
Your original plan was to race at both Daytona races and both Talladega races, but that was before the Daytona road course was added to the schedule. What spurred you to add the Go Bowling 235 to your schedule?
“Well, first it’s still Daytona, so it technically counts. We said all of the Daytona races, so it still counts. What happened is that as soon as it got added to the schedule immediately my mind went, ‘Wow, I would love to race the Daytona road course.’ There’s very few of us Cup drivers that have experience on that race course. And with no practice and no qualifying, that gives about 10 of us a very large advantage over the field. So, I was immediately enticed by it. And then you know how much I always speak so highly of Richard Childress Racing. Richard called and said, ‘Hey, come on man, you know you want to do it,’ and I kind of chuckled because everyone knows I love my road racing. I talked to the Beard family and said, ‘Hey, you want to add a race to the schedule?’ It wasn’t in the budget. It wasn’t planned originally, but the Beards were on board. They are in the same boat as me. This is a retirement year like me and they are having the same fun I am. They went, ‘Ooohh, we can do well there.’ So we called Richard up and he built me a brand new Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet Camaro from RCR that we were able to rent for Beard Motorsports to go race.”
You’re one of a handful of drivers who has some actual experience on the Daytona road course. What’s the course like to drive and is any of it applicable to what you’ll be doing in the Go Bowling 235?
“Some of what I’ve done on that course will absolutely be applicable to this weekend. I already know the line that I need and some other things. Now, I need to remember that the last time I raced there in an LMP car, I could lift at the ‘1’ sign going into the chicane on the back straightaway. Now if I lift at the ‘1’ in a Cup car, I will end up at the airport. So I need to remember that I’m going to need a little more braking zone room. But you basically already know the line and you know where you want to be. You know the feel of the place. You know where some passing zones are. You kind of know how to run that race, which is the big advantage that comes with it. Having a car built from Richard Childress means that I don’t have to worry that its’ going to have parts and pieces that aren’t any good. And I still have Darren Shaw, my crew chief, who I’ve been working with at Beard Motorsports. We’ve still got our guys working it and our guys doing it, so I kind of have the best of all worlds here. And there is an advantage for people that have been there. I also gave myself a little bit of an insurance policy. I offered to sponsor Andy Lally in the Xfinity race. To me, Andy Lally is the premier sports-car racer in America. I don’t think anybody can argue that there is anybody better than Andy Lally. So, I offered to sponsor Andy because he’s racing Saturday. I told him he has to stay over Sunday and do some driver coaching and give me his notes. Not only do I have experience on the track, I will have notes from a stock car on the track from the day before.”
In your road-course experience at Daytona, you’ve driven a Porsche GT3, an Oreca FLM09 and aMultimatic/Riley LMP2. How do those cars compare to a 3,300-pound NASCAR Cup Series stock car?
“They are nothing like it. The only one that would be somewhat similar is the Porsche. The Porsche, at least, is a heavier car than the LMP cars. You have the most similarities between the Porsche. It’s a stock body, which is what NASCAR technically is. That’s the most similar of any of those. Other than that, there are no similarities between an open cockpit LMP car to a Cup car. They are diabolically different.”
Specifically, can you explain how you have to take care of the brakes in a stock car compared to a sports car, and also how different the braking zones are between a sports car and a stock car?
“The biggest thing nowadays compared to when I grew up in NASCAR is that braking systems have come a long way. If you go back to the late 90s and early 2000s, you had to save your brakes at a place like Martinsville and hoped that you had them at the end of the race. Brake systems have come so far that, nowadays, you really don’t have to try to save brakes anymore. They work so well that you can abuse them for a whole race and get away with it. Now, the problem at Daytona is there are two braking zones that are going to be so ridiculously fast. When you go into the chicane on the back straightaway and when you go into the chicane that they built on the front straightaway – we are going to be pushing upward of 170 mph. There is no road course you go that fast on. So, you’re definitely going to need to make sure that you do save your brakes. I’m going to have to be somewhat patient to make sure I can save some equipment so that at the end of the race after we’ve made some pit stop strategies, I can hopefully be in contention. The nice thing is compared to normal Daytona for us, I don’t have to ride around and wait for the end of the race. I get to race right from the start. So I’m going to use my stuff early to get easy spots. I’m going to use the strategy to try to get through it – to save my brakes so that at the end I have a Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet Camaro that’s in perfect condition to go race for the win.”
You’ve enjoyed a good bit of success when it comes to road-course racing, for in addition to a win in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, you have an Xfinity Series victory at Road America. How satisfying were those wins, especially the Xfinity Series win as you were the only driver and you had to hold off a veteran road racer in Alex Tagliani?
“Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the country. I’ve been racing there since I was 16 years old. What that racetrack is in the road-course world and what it means for me, personally, because of my long history there – it amazes me. I passed Chase Elliott. I had let him have the preferred line and was able to pass him. I was able to hold him off on wet tires. There were just so many things that we did well that day to win that race that it was kind of a complete race for us. That race will be cherished in my memory for a long time.”
From sports cars to stock cars, even back to your days racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, you’ve competed on road courses. What’s the mentality you need to have to succeed?
“What people don’t realize in the stock-car world is I’ve been racing since 1991. I grew up racing and teaching sports-car racing. That’s what I grew up doing originally before I came to NASCAR. So when I came to NASCAR, I was really bummed when they took the road courses out of the Truck Series. I was all excited to go road-course racing. So when I finally got to the Xfinity Series and got to go road-course racing in Cup, I was all excited. I remember during my rookie year in 2004, I was leading near the end of the race at Watkins Glen when I choked. I flat out admit that I choked. I always loved my road racing. I grew up doing the old Trans-Am Series and going to Skip Barber, Bondurant – that was part of cutting my racing teeth growing up. As far as the mentality to succeed at road racing, you have to have a mindset that you know how to do things right. I came up in the era of human transmissions and you had to learn how to shift where they didn’t want to. You had to learn how to not zing a motor because they couldn’t handle those RPMs. Nowadays, you can get away with murder. I remember when I drove the Porsche in 2010 at Daytona – the team looked at the data and they laughed because I was double-clutch, heel-and-toe downshifting for every shift. And they looked at the data and said, ‘Wow, you do that really well, but you realize we don’t need to do that.’ It’s become so much easier than it was back in the 90s and it’s made people a lot better road racer because of that. You have to have that mindset to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing this so long, I can double-clutch, heel-and-toe downshift if I need to.’ These 18-year-olds don’t even know what that is. And you have to have that mentality that I am better than them because of it. You always have to have that mentality that you think you are better for a reason, and road racing is something that I’ve always felt that I was better at than other people.”
Can having a negative mindset about road-course racing doom your race before it even starts?
“Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be a road course. It can be an oval. If you come in and think that you don’t know how to shift well, or you think you’re going to have a problem matching revs, or have a problem downshifting and wheel-hopping into a corner – then that’s all you focus on. Any sports psychologist is going to tell you that if you focus on the negatives, you’re going to have negatives. That was my problem at Richmond. It’s not my problem at a road course.”
With no practice and no qualifying, how important will experience and an open mind be to performing well in the Go Bowling 235?
“Experience is going to be key, especially early. Knowing the people I’m racing around and knowing I’m going to have to come from 40th – that’s the bad news for the No. 62. I’m going to have to come from the back, so I’m going to have to work my way around a lot of people that may have a negative attitude or maybe do struggle with road racing. So, I’m going to have to be careful. I have to keep that Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet Camaro completely clean early on. No need to do some damage early because that will make for a long day. I’ve got to be careful, pick and choose my spots, but get as much as I can early because that’s when we are bunched up the most.”