Ford Performance NASCAR: Daytona 500 Media Day (McDowell, Keselowski, Almirola)

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

MICHAEL MCDOWELL, No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang – WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE ABOUT THE 2021 NASCAR SCHEDULE?  “I think that’s tough.  There are so many logistics in it.  I’m not trying to avoid the question, but I know how hard it is to get four kids to school and hobby on time, so planning a whole race schedule would be pretty difficult, but I love road courses, street courses, anywhere you can bring the action close to the fan and they can see the speed and just the thrill of our sport in a little closer matter I think is good.”

YOU HAVE BEEN IN POSITION TO WIN THIS RACE BEFORE.  YOUR THOUGHTS GOING INTO SUNDAY?  “I think over the last four or five years we’ve put ourselves in that spot to be in the top 10, top five at the end of these races and I’ve sort of had this motto like if you put yourself in that spot enough, eventually you’re gonna get the push, you’re gonna get the right lane at the right time.  Last year we were close and we just have to do the same thing.  We have to put ourselves in position.  You have to be in that first three or four cars coming the white flag to have a shot at it and that’s the first goal is to get yourself positioned at the end and then hopefully everything goes your way.”

THOUGHTS ON JOHN HUNTER NEMECHEK JOINING FRONT ROW AS YOUR NEW TEAMMATE?  “It’s always hard to speculate on that.  You want to give the answer, ‘Well, he’s got a lot of experience, he’s a good guy, works hard.’  Those are all true things, but I don’t know what that dynamic will look like.  We did a few races last year together, but not having David Ragan there, a veteran also a close friend of mine, and it’s probably the first real teammate dynamic that I’ve had in my Cup career where you didn’t feel like you’re just trying to beat that guy.  You always feel like you’ve got to beat your teammate to keep your job and with David I didn’t feel that.  We just worked really hard on making our race program better and real transparent, so I hope to continue that with John Hunter.  Obviously, he’s a rookie and doesn’t have a lot of experience, but he grew up in this sport and he grew up around great people and a great family, so I don’t like consider him your average rookie.  You look at guys like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney and even though when they came in they didn’t have a lot of experience when you’re here every weekend and that’s your life, you know a whole lot about this sport and about how it works and the people and just from the small things of listening on the radio and just being around it your entire life you have a lot of experience.  So he’s very mature.  He works hard.  He’s got a good work ethic and I think he’ll do fine on the race track.”

HOW DOES IT FEEL TO HAVE SOME CONSISTENCY FOR YOURSELF WITH FRONT ROW?  “I’m super-excited about that.  That’s probably been the hardest thing for me in my career is I’ve always felt like I’m just barely hanging on, just barely keeping the job or just barely able to stay in the sport.  So when you go from team to team you don’t ever get a chance to build that and cultivate that culture and that environment and I feel like this is probably the first time that I’ve had consecutive back-to-back, full-time, running all the races, doing all the things to be able to build that and we were able to do that over the offseason.  I feel really good about the group we put together.  Drew Blickensderfer did a great job when we went from three cars to two at Front Row there were a lot of great people to pick from and we sort of hand-picked our group and feel really strong that this will be the best we’ve ever been.”

BRAD KESELOWSKI, No. 2 Discount Tire Ford Mustang – HOW DO YOU FEEL AFTER SPEAKING WITH JOEY?  “I think I’ve been pretty consistent and verbal about the blocking on the race track, so I don’t really have anything that I feel differently about with respect to that.  As far as the comments specific to Joey, I’ll keep those between him and I.”

PEOPLE WILL VIEW THE COMMENTS YOU MADE ABOUT JOEY AS A RIFT AT TEAM PENSKE.  WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THEM?  “I’m glad you all have something to talk about.  You want to sell papers and drive clicks for NASCAR.  Again, the comments between Joey and I specifically I’ve said what I wanted to say and anything further than that I’ll just keep between he and I.”

WAS LAST WEEKEND ANY INDICATION OF THE PRESSURE YOU’RE UNDER BEING THE LAST YEAR OF YOUR CONTRACT AND A CREW CHIEF CHANGE?  DID THAT CONTRIBUTE AT ALL?  “I don’t know, I’m probably a little bit stuck in the forest to see it from the trees, but with respect to that I hate losing races that I feel like we were in position to win, so I hope that never changes regardless of team dynamics, contract dynamics and so forth.  I think most people would tell you that’s a good thing that you want to win and you hate losing, so certainly we were in position to win that race and I’m proud of that and we weren’t able to capitalize on it through no fault of our own, which is frustrating whether it’s here or anywhere else.”

DOES THE CREW CHIEF CHANGE INCREASE COMPETITION AMONG THE DRIVERS AT PENSKE?  “I don’t know.  Again, that’s kind of the forest from the trees and I’m really in the thick of it, so it’s hard to have good perspective on that.”

WAS THAT AS BAD OF A WEEKEND YOU’VE HAD AT DAYTONA?  “Oh, no.  I think the last five or six I’ve wrecked out of everything here.  Was that good?  No.  Was that the worst thing that ever happened to me at Daytona?  By far no.  The 500 is what matters.”

0-FOR-10 IN THE 500.  WHEN DOES IT START TO WEIGH ON YOU?  “I don’t know if there’s a specific number that I mind.  I look at the real chances I feel like we’ve had to win it where we didn’t get crashed out or we didn’t have things happen that we couldn’t control and that’s the real number to me, and I think there’s really only been three of those races of those 10.  One of them I made a mistake and the other one we just weren’t fast enough and the third one, I think, we blew up in, so with respect to that it’s frustrating to not capitalize on the three opportunities I’ve probably had to win this race, but I am confident based on the way we ran the last four or five times here that we’ll have that opportunity again really soon, so I feel like this car that I have here for the 500 is one of the better cars I’ve ever had here.  I’ve had great cars here the last three or four years and this is right up there with them, but at the end of the day I can’t control everyone else’s moves and in the last four or five years I’ve been caught up in that and you just kind of raise your hands and say, ‘we did what we could do.’  Whether that’s the 500 or anything else, so that probably makes it not sting so bad, knowing that we’ve been crashed out and things that were completely out of our control and other drivers’ bad moves.  It doesn’t make you feel good about it though.”

WHAT THREE ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?  “The three that stick out, really, in sequential order are ’14, ’15 and ’16.  I think we had a car close enough to Dale to win in ’14 and I didn’t execute at the end.  In ’15 I think we had a shot where we were running up front and blew up and in ’16 we were just slow all weekend, so those are really the only three that I haven’t been crashed out of.”

ARE THE ODDS LESS THAN 50/50 YOU CAN FINISH THIS RACE?  “Yeah, I’d say the current odds of just being able to finish the race, not that I’m a Las Vegas bet maker, but they’re less than what it is crashing out of it.  I think you probably will get a 75 percent chance of crashing on Sunday and if you don’t crash, you just hope that you can make something of it.”

THERE WERE SOME PICTURES ONLINE OF YOU WORKING ON THE CAR.  WHY WERE YOU DOING THAT?  “I was just trying to be a resource.  I’m not the body man that the guys we have at Team Penske are, but I just wanted to be there for them.  Clearly, I made a mistake and I just wanted to own it the best I could and make sure we’re all pulling the same direction.”

YOU WOULD THINK THE FIRST PART OF THE RACE WOULD BE CALMER, BUT WHAT ARE THE ODDS WE SEE A CLEAN FINISH TO THE RACE?  WOULD THEY BE ALMOST ZERO?  “Yeah, I would say that’s pretty fair.  I don’t know how you couldn’t know, but it doesn’t seem to change the behaviors, which is mindboggling to me.  You can’t win races that you’re not running at the finish of and when you’re making double and triple blocks with the closing rates that the cars have right now someone is going to the care center, more likely than not it’s gonna be the car that started the block.  So it seems strange to me to make a move that had almost 100 percent certainty of not working, that everyone can see.  The same moves are being made over and over again and it’s the definition of insanity, but it is what it is and as it affects us, we just try to survive it and not be the one to cause our own demise.”

WHAT IS YOUR GAMEPLAN FOR THURSDAY?  “I feel really good about Thursday and Sunday.  We didn’t qualify like I thought we would, but the car drives really, really well and with the way the draft is working right now you don’t really need to be fast.  You need the car to handle well, so that’s a good sign.”

WHO ARE SOME OF THE DRIVERS THAT CHALLENGE YOU IN THESE TYPE OF RACES?  “I think Denny does a phenomenal job.  There are a lot of drivers that are good at this type of racing.  I think Denny is certainly right up there.  I think Denny shows a lot of promise.  I think Clint Bowyer is really good.  My teammate, Ryan Blaney, has really excelled of late at this type of racing.  He just won Talladega and he’s led a lot of laps here at Daytona, but it’s really hard to pick just one driver.  I think there’s about a half-dozen drivers.  Kurt Busch I would add to that.  I hate to even list because I’m gonna leave somebody out unfairly.”

HOW DO THEY CHALLENGE YOU?  “They make good moves and they fill good gaps and seem to be able to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.  That’s what good plate racers do.”

DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU WORKED WITH JEREMY BULLINS?  “I think the first time I met Jeremy was in 2012, December of 2011 or January 2012 when he had just taken the job at Team Penske on the XFINITY side.”

WHY DO YOU FEEL THERE WAS INSTANT SUCCESS BACK THEN IN XFINITY?  “That’s a good question.  I’m not sure I completely know or understand it.  I think he’s a smart guy, a good team leader.  He’s constantly reinvesting and very focused.  I didn’t know him as well then as I do now, but the result of that has been a strong, focused team that strives for excellence.”

IS THERE ANOTHER LEVEL FOR YOU IN TERMS OF WAYS TO EXPRESS YOUR FRUSTRATION?  “I don’t know.  It’s so obvious what the issue is that it’s kind of like if you can’t see it, you’re never gonna see it.”

WE SHOULDN’T BE TALKING ABOUT IT, IT’S SO OBVIOUS.  “Yeah, so if there’s another way, I don’t know what it is.”

LAST YEAR ON THE WEST COAST SWING TEAM PENSKE JUMPED OUT STRONG AT VEGAS AND FONTANA.  WERE YOU SURPRISED TO HAVE SUCH AN UPPERHAND?  “Definitely Team Penske fired off really strong in the west coast part of the season last year, but there were some good decisions made on the cars.  We probably rested on our laurels a little bit too much over the summer and paid for that in the playoffs, but I think there’s a good fire under everyone’s butt to get started here in 2020.”

DID EVERYBODY FIGURE OUT THE RACING LAST YEAR?  “I wouldn’t say everybody figured it out.  I’d say Gibbs did a really great job of adapting and keeping up with it as the rules continued to evolve.  They just found a way to get ahead.”

HOW HARD IS IT TO SET UP A PASS WITH THOSE RULES ON A 1.5-MILE TRACK?  “I think some tracks are certainly easier than others.  It’s very situational dependent.  What line is fast?  How many laps do you have on your tires?  There are a lot of dynamics to it that sometimes make it easier than other times, so I’d say some weeks it’s pretty easy and a lot of weeks it’s really hard.”

ARIC ALMIROLA, No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang – WHAT HAS JIMMIE JOHNSON MEANT TO THIS SPORT?  “Jimmie has meant a tremendous amount to this sport.  He’s been incredible for our sport.  He’s been a great champion and a great role model for any young racers growing up.  If you could do it like anybody, you’d want to do it like him.  Not only has he won seven championships, but he’s done it with such class.  He’s just such a classy guy, so humble and down to earth and just a genuinely nice guy, and that’s what I tell people when they ask me about Jimmie Johnson.  The guy is just a winner on and off the race track and that’s hard to come by.  A lot of people that have success it goes to their head and they become super-arrogant and that’s just not Jimmie.  Jimmie is just such a classy guy and yet he’s a seven-time champion.”

WHO DO YOU FEEL CAN FILL THE VOID AS THE NEXT FACE OF NASCAR?  “I don’t know.  I don’t feel like Jimmie has gotten the credit he deserves as a seven-time champion.  I don’t even think you would classify him as the face of NASCAR, so from that standpoint I think it’s unfortunate.  At the same time, I think NASCAR has done a really great job of spreading out that role.  Ever since Dale Jr. left it’s been about trying to attract fans of every driver and making sure that everyone is plugged in and trying to create that stardom out of each and every one of us to try to carry the banner.  From that standpoint I think every one of us has a role in representing our sport and doing it well and in a way that is authentic to us.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE CREW CHIEF CHANGES AT SHR?  “I think that was more of an organizational thing just trying to be better as an organization.  I think we obviously have the 4 car in the same four walls at our shop and they perform at a very high level and so after two years of me being there we performed good, but we weren’t great so just looking to try to be great.  That’s really what it boils down to.  The goal is to have four Stewart-Haas cars in the final four at the championship and if it’s not the case, then we need to reevaluate, so for us as an organization Zippy and Brett Frood and Tony and everybody in management thought that it was necessary to shake some things up and move some personnel around to try to get the most out of what we have as an organization.”

HOW WAS IT WITH JOHNNY?  “I really enjoyed working with Johnny.  Johnny and myself were great friends.  We got along really well away from the race track and did a lot of things together.  Our families got along, but at the end of the day it’s a performance-based business and we ultimately need to perform better.  This change is in an effort to do that.  We’re making this change in an effort to perform at a higher level and hopefully we do that.  I feel very good about working with Mike Bugarewicz.  I think the guy is tremendously talented.  He’s built race cars in the same shop as us.  I’ve watched his work ethic and the guy is relentless and I love that about him.  Just in the two months I’ve already worked with him just his passion and his emotion and the amount of work he puts in is incredible, and I really feed off of that energy.  I’m excited.  I’m looking forward to it.  I know Buga and all the guys are fired up and I think it’s gonna be a great year for us.”

KEVIN IS GOING TO RACE WELL INTO HIS FORTIES.  WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT HIS LONGEVITY?  “He’s doing a phenomenal job in staying not only competitive, but focused.  You see a lot of guys when they get to that point they start getting into other adventures and other business ventures and it distracts them, and I think Kevin has done an amazing job of really eliminating a lot of distraction.  From what I see being around the guy, he cares about his family and racing.  He doesn’t have a lot of distractions, so he’s really focused and he’s competitive.  I think as long as he’s competitive that keeps the juices flowing and keeps him excited about coming back to the race track every week.”

WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS FOR THE RACE THIS YEAR?  “You just don’t know how the races are going to play out.  You’ve got to go race and put yourself in position.  People are gonna block.  I’m gonna block.  We’re all gonna do it.  We’re all gonna make aggressive moves.  We’re all gonna do everything we can to try to win the race.  That’s what we get paid to do.  Sometimes the block or the move is risky, sometimes it’s calculated, whatever you want to call it, but we’re going 200 miles an hour inches apart and mistakes happen, accidents happen.  The unfortunate part is when accidents happen here and Talladega, they usually cause a big mess.”

WHAT DID YOU LEARN LAST YEAR?  “I learned last year that just hard work is not enough.  Hard work and preparation and dedication is not enough.  You have to have everything go right.  It’s hard to explain, but you can work equally as hard as you did the year before, and we did at Stewart-Haas Racing, and not produce the same results as 2018.  As a company we had a stellar year in 2018.  We had something like 17 wins as an organization.  It was crazy and then turn around and follow it up with three or four wins as an organization and it wasn’t the same.  The effort was the same and, if anything, worked harder, so I think that was one thing that was eye-opening for me last year was it’s more than hard work and dedication and preparation and all those things.  You’ve got to hone in on exactly what you need to be successful and then do everything you can to maximize that.  When you don’t have that, you’re scrounging and you find ways to be resilient and scrappy and I think those times really build a race team and build character in a race team and help you learn about prevailing.  I think this will be a big year for us on how well we learned from 2019 and if we can come out of that a better, stronger organization.”

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO GET HELP AT SPEEDWAY RACES?  “When it comes to speedway racing there is strength in numbers.  The more cars you get together, the faster you go and so you try and help each other, you try and work together and help each other.  In speedway racing there are opportunities to help each other and you try and do that, and I think Ford really started this whole working together as a manufacturer as One Ford.  Of all places to do that, Daytona and Talladega are the two places you can accomplish a lot together.  When you pull out to make a pass or to make a move, eight times out of 10 you need help, you need cars to go with you to pull off the pass or to make the bottom lane work or to make the middle lane work.  If you make a decision, you want to know that you have the help and support of the guys behind you, so when you start teaming up as a manufacturer, it makes it a little bit more methodical as you make moves on the race track and things, knowing that you have the help and support of your teammates driving the same manufacturer car.”

CAN THE SECOND-PLACE CAR GET AROUND THE LEADER WITHOUT HELP ON THE FINAL LAP WITHOUT HELP?  “I don’t know.  I think there’s the potential to find out Sunday night, I really do.  I think two cars locking together, we saw it at Talladega last year at the end of the year with Clint and Keselowski, and we’ve seen it here in practice and I think it works.  It’s risky and pushing in the corners is the riskiest part.  You’ve got to be careful in how you do it, but if you can stay locked together you can go really, really fast and you can separate yourself from the field.  So I think there’s the potential for that to happen.  The other thing that’s questionable is the pack was only a few cars right there at the end of the Clash, so I don’t know if that’s a fair test, but I think the tandem will come into play.  I think it can work and I do think the second-place car can get by the first-place car, but when you’re coming to the checkered for the Daytona 500 I can promise you that the first-place car is not gonna let that happen easily.”

WHAT KIND OF SKILL IS NEEDED TO BE THE LEAD CAR IN THE TANDEM?  “There’s some technique that comes into play when you’re the lead car and you’re getting pushed.  You can’t just run your normal line and you can’t just drive and steer wherever you want.  You’re trying to be conscious of the guy behind you and keeping him attached because what happens is as long as you’re together and locked together and the guy behind you is pushing, you’re going really fast.  But the moment you become unattached you slow down tremendously and if the pack is behind you, they start sniffing your draft and they will just blow your doors off when they catch back up to you.  So, yeah, there’s definitely an art to it.”

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