Photo Credit HMS

THIS YEAR YOU HAVE A NEW CAR NUMBER AND A NEW PRIMARY SPONSOR. TELL US ABOUT THE CHANGES THAT ARE IN STORE FOR YOU AND YOUR TEAM IN 2021.“It’s really exciting for all of us. I think all the guys are really excited to be working on the No. 48 car. The No. 48 car means a lot to Greg (Ives) as a crew chief. For me, I’m just having a lot of fun with it. Working with Ally so far has been a lot of fun. I think the paint scheme looks great. Obviously, it’s been an interesting off-season just with how the pandemic has affected everything. I haven’t been in the shop as much as I normally would be. It’s kind of been an odd feeling in that sense. But I’m just excited to get to work and excited to go to the race track. Obviously, driving the No. 48 is a really big deal. Hopefully we get it back into Victory Lane and get Ally their first win.”
WHAT’S THE DYNAMIC LIKE THERE WITH KYLE LARSON IN THE LINE-UP?“That’s a tough question to answer just because we haven’t really done much yet. Obviously, I’ve known Kyle for a long time. Kyle and I have been friends and raced against each other and have somewhat of a similar background in a sense. I think it’s going to be really good. But I just don’t know yet. We haven’t had competition meetings or the weekly things we roll through. The little bit we’ve done so far has been really good. You’re not going to replace Jimmie Johnson in those meetings. He was a great leader for us and just a great person and a good guy to be around. We all know how Jimmie is. I think each one of the drivers brings something to the table and have their own unique strengths. At the same time, we have so much depth in our organization and have a ton of really smart people. So, I think it will still be really good.”
WITHOUT JIMMIE JOHNSON THERE, IS THERE AN OPPORTUNITY FOR SOMEONE TO STEP UP AND BE A LEADER. DO YOU WANT MORE OF A LEADERSHIP ROLE?“Yeah, for sure. Somebody is going to be a leader I feel like. We all looked at Jimmie like a leader, but he was never that guy that like stood up and talked over everybody like took charge and like really was that leader. He just acted like we were all the same even with his accomplishments. We all know how humble he is. He acted like everything was equal. So, I feel like there’s not like somebody needs to do. I feel like the way we all work together will continue to work well. But yeah, I think there’s definitely opportunity for that. Chase (Elliott) just won a championship. I’ll put the pressure on him for that one (laughs).”
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT QUALIFYING AT DAYTONA? DRIVERS ALWAYS SAY IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL AT DAYTONA, BUT WHAT COMES TO MIND WHEN YOU THINK OF QUALIFYING AT DAYTONA?“You’ve just got to floor it. You can’t lift. Qualifying at Daytona is really about the guys back at the shop and all the hard work that each person that has touched that race car has put into it. As a driver, you can really only screw it up. Your launch is really important. And then just not turning the steering wheel; really small input just trying to keep it straight and get your shifts right. But it really comes down to the race car that the guys have built back at the shop. At Hendrick Motorsports, especially with our team, we’ve been on the front row for a couple of years here and it means a lot to Greg. So, I’m really excited to have another shot at that and hopefully get a pole for the No. 48 car right away.”
DO YOU THINK IT WILL FEEL UNUSUAL AFTER HAVING NOT DONE IT FOR A WHILE?  OR DO YOU JUST SNAP BACK INTO IT?“I don’t really know. It might be a little unusual just for the fact that we’re going to be in five days or whatever is unusual compared to what we’ve been doing. But at the same time, it’s a little bit more normalcy, so that’s good to see. I’m just excited to get back behind the wheel of the race car.”
HAVE YOU SEEN ANY DIFFERENCE IN CHASE ELLIOTT SINCE HE WON THE CHAMPIONSHIP?“I don’t really know. I’d say the difference that I’ve seen is that he’s been racing a lot. He did Chili Bowl and the 24 hours at Daytona and has done all those things. I think he was going to do that whether or not he won the championship. That’s a tough one. I’ve obviously been around him a little bit at the race track, but I haven’t really been around him at the shop or at meetings or anything like that. I don’t really think much has changed. Chase is really plugged in. He does a really good job, especially for somebody who doesn’t live here, right? He does a really good job of being able to balance it and be a big part of the team. I wouldn’t say much on that No. 9 team is going to change, maybe a little more confidence. But they’ve been really dialed-in for a really long time. I think that’s just going to continue.”
LAST YEAR WE SAW HIM GIVE KYLE BUSCH THE BIRD. WE SAW HIM THEN DO THE BOW. THOSE ARE MAYBE SOME THINGS WE HAVEN’T SEEN FROM HIM AS FAR AS AN OUTWARD PERSONALITY-TYPE. WAS THAT NEW TO YOU AS WELL, OR HAVE YOU ALWAYS SEEN THAT?“I think Chase has always been really confident, especially on the race track. He’s definitely a really confident guy. I think last year our race cars were much improved over what they’ve been for a while, so it gave probably all of us a situation where it was a little easier to be confident in an outward manner at the race track.”
WITH THE NEXT GEN CAR COMING OUT NEXT YEAR, THERE IS TALK ABOUT A PLATFORM THAT SETS US UP TO GO HYBRID SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THAT?“I’m all for it. I feel like that’s a little way off, time-wise. I think it would be cool. I’m all for new and cool things. New cars, new race tracks, new drivetrain stuff, like whatever it is, I think new stuff is cool. And having to adapt to those things and the challenges they present are things that I really enjoy. I’m sure when and if that happens it is going to present its own challenges and I’m looking forward to being able to adapt to that and seeing what it does. But I think it would be really cool. It’s been cool to watch that coming to other forms of motorsports and it would be cool to be a part of it.”
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT THE CHANGES IN THE SCHEDULE? WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE TRACK YOU’RE LOOKING FORWARD TO?“That’s a tough one. I’m just excited to see how the Bristol dirt race works. I’ve been around dirt racing a lot and I feel like I have as not as much experiences as like (Christopher) Bell or Larson, but at least some. I’m excited to lean on that and go to the race track. But I’m excited to see really what the race track does and how the racing is and how the cars react, all those things and how the event works. New road courses are going to be a lot of fun with good opportunities to learn and improve my road course skills.”
HOW WEIRD IS THAT NEXT ZOOM COMPETITION MEETING GOING TO BE WITHOUT JIMMIE JOHNSON?“For sure it’s definitely going to be different. My favorite part about Jimmie on Zoom meetings is technical difficulties and like calling in from some exotic place in Colorado and not being able to hear us and all that fun stuff. I’m going to miss that for sure. Really, the first things I’m going to miss is every aspect of not having Jimmie there. He’s been a really good guy and just a good friend over the last couple of years. As a teammate I’ve learned a lot from him. We can all learn a lot from him as a person. It’s going to be an honor to drive the No. 48. I’m definitely going to miss him being around.”
WITH COVID-19, A LOT OF THINGS ARE VIRTUAL NOW. HOW MUCH HAS THAT CHANGED THE DYNAMIC BETWEEN TEAMMATES?“It’s definitely changed it quite a bit. Most notably, we used to all have a big meeting after final practice and all sit together and talk about our race cars with four drivers and four crew chiefs in the room. You have a lot to talk about and can really bounce ideas off each other and talk about what our race cars are doing. We don’t have that anymore. Obviously, we don’t have a lot of practice to talk about. We don’t have that 90-minutes of sitting together and talking. It’s just different. We still have some in-person competition meetings around here, and a bunch of Zoom calls. Zoom calls are my favorite. It’s still been really good. I feel like we all still talk. It’s just different, for sure.”
YOU’VE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO DRIVE LEGENDARY CARS IN NASCAR LIKE THE NO. 88 AND NOW THE NO. 48. WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A PART OF THOSE LEGACIES?“It’s been really cool. To step into the No. 88 and really have everything happen in a crazy set of circumstances and have a lot of support from Dale (Earnhardt, Jr.) to get that ride and end up taking a year off and then ending up in No. 88 car full time for Hendrick Motorsports was really cool. To get that car back in Victory Lane and have the success that we had with it was amazing. And then to try to fill another set of big shoes and go to the No. 48 is going to be really fun. I was definitely nervous when Mr. Hendrick first told me. You never know like working with a new partner and how it’s going to be but working with Ally has been so much fun so far. I’ve really enjoyed it. I just want to get on the race track and do my job. I’m just ready to go.”
WITH ALL THAT TOOK PLACE DURING THE OFF-SEASON, HOW HAVE YOUR INTERACTIONS BEEN WITH RICK HENDRICK?“I haven’t seen the boss since Phoenix. I’ve been on some Zoom calls with him, so I’ve virtually seen him, but haven’t seen him in person. I miss seeing him around, for sure. But I’ve talked to him on the phone quite a bit. He calls me like super late at night. At Chili Bowl, one of the nights that we weren’t racing, there was a phone call there that I remember bits and pieces of; but it’s been fun to stay in touch about the open-wheel side of what we did over the Winter. He would question me on why my race cars weren’t faster and then just the regular day-to-day Cup shop stuff, as well. It’s fun to be friends with him. He’s a really good guy and I just really enjoy driving for him.”
DRIVING THE NO. 48 IS SUCH A HUGH THRILL, BUT COMES LOADED WITH PRESSURE & EXPECTATIONS AT THE SAME TIME. WHAT’S YOUR MINDSET ON DEALING WITH THOSE NEWLY FOUND EXPECTATIONS AND EYES WATCHING YOU?“The biggest thing for me is there’s not a car number or situation in the world that’s going to put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I feel like all race car drivers are selfish but I’m really selfish. I just want to win for me. Obviously, I want to win for Hendrick Motorsports and for Chevrolet and for Ally and for everybody that makes this deal possible. But more so than any of that, I want to win for me. I put a ton of pressure on myself each and every week to go do that and to run well and to run how we should. I think outside situations don’t really add to that. I probably put too much stress on myself and too much pressure on myself at times, but it’s all from me because I care about how we run and because I want to run well. It’s not really because somebody is saying oh the No. 48 has to go win or needs to go win a championship. It’s because I want to win and because I want to win championships.”
YOU PUT ON A GOOD SHOWING LAST SEASON. HOW CAN YOU BUILD ON THAT SUCCESS AND WHAT’S THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU TOOK AWAY FROM THE SEASON AND RUNNING UNDER UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES?“For me, it’s really been the same thing for the last two years. We just need to be more consistent. We were able to do that during the Playoffs. It was great. But throughout the course of the season, we were really hit and miss, hot and cold. We didn’t have the Summer that we needed to have and that put us way behind on Playoff points going into the Playoffs. If we had the Playoff points, we probably should have, and ran the way we did, we would have made the Round of Four. So, we really just needed to do a better job over the course of the season in being more consistent. That was the same going into last year. We know that’s what we need to do better. We just need to run how we should all year. If we can run how we did in the Playoffs all year long, we can make a lot of noise.”
ON THE UPCOMING CLASH, EVERYBODY WANTS TO LEARN SOMETHING FROM IT AS WELL. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?“Yeah, it’s really a big test session for us, right? We’re going right back and it’s going to be a points race on the road course there. We really just need to do the best job we can at knowing what our race car does in that race and knowing what we can do to improve our race car after that race. Also as a driver, the way that the Daytona Road Course went for me last year, we started in the back and had a tire issue. Like every restart I was buried in the back. I drove through the field like three or four times that day. While we still got up to the top 10 before kind of getting run over on the last lap, I never really felt like I had a great idea of where like max braking points are fresh tires were; and really had to maximize lap time there. So, for me, it’s great. I can get more laps there with less cars and more quality cars and really be able to learn those max braking zones and really try to figure out how to chase down Chase Elliott a little bit.”
WHAT ABOUT RACE DAY WHEN YOU STRAP INTO YOUR CAR LEADING INTO THIS PARTICULAR DAYTONA 500? HOW DO YOU MENTALLY STRAP INTO THAT ONE?“I think the Daytona 500 is probably the only event that all that stuff going on outside of the race car, you really notice it more just because of the magnitude of it. The Daytona 500 is huge with so many people and so much going on. So that’s obviously going to be very different or somewhat different. But to me, once I get in the race car none of that other stuff really matters. I just turn everything else off and go do your job. I don’t think much has changed as far as my mindset. I’m excited to get going and really excited to see how our race cars stack up. There’s a really big unknown going into the season, just like every season when you don’t really know how your car is going to be until you get to the race track.”
DO YOU TRY TO CLEAR YOUR MIND AND NOT OVER-THINK THINGS?“I’ve got to think as little as possible (laughs). If I try to think too much, I don’t have the brain capacity for it. But now, I think once I get in the race car nothing else besides that race car matters. I don’t know if I clear my mind if that’s what you want to call it, but it’s always been that way for me. Outside things or whatever is going on quits mattering once you strap-in and it’s just your job to maximize what you can get out of that race car.”
YOU’RE NOT THE OLDEST DRIVER AT HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS, BUT YOU’VE BEEN AROUND HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS THE LONGEST AHEAD OF CHASE ELLIOTT AND WILLIAM BYRON AND OBVIOUSLY KYLE LARSON. ON LEADERSHIP, DO YOU HAVE A SENSE OF HOW DID I BECOME THE VETERAN IN THIS GROUP OF DRIVERS?“I think Chase has been here a little longer than I have but it’s been really cool to have this time at Hendrick Motorsports and I hope to be here for a really long time. The group of drivers we have is great. And I think everybody works together really well. I haven’t really looked at it like I’m the veteran. William and I kind of started at the same time, at least in a full-time sense in 2018. It’s been really cool. I might have more starts than they do with running all the way back in 2014 with some smaller teams in my rookie year which was the same as Larson’s in that sense. I feel like we’re all about the same on the experience level. I think we all have our own strengths and weaknesses we bring to the table. But I haven’t looked at myself as the veteran. Larson is a little bit older than I am, so at least I can point to somebody else as being the old guy.”
IF YOU STOP AND THINK ABOUT THE TURNOVER IN DRIVERS AT HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS, DO YOU MAYBE LOOK AT THE GUYS WHO CAME BEFORE YOU AND GET A SENSE OF THAT THERE’S A STANDARD HERE? DO YOU THINK YOU NEED TO TAKE THAT STANDARD AND RUN IT UP A LITTLE BIT HIGHER?“I think anytime you walk through the front door at Hendrick Motorsports you know there’s a very high standard here. The expectation is to win a lot of races and win championships. I’m glad that as an organization we were able to do that last year and go win a championship. I wish it was our team doing it. We’ve had some wins but not nearly enough. So, we just need to go win a lot of races and win championships and let that speak for itself. I think that’s what’s expected of any driver at Hendrick Motorsports. Mr. Hendrick gives us all the tools we need to go do it. We’ve just got to go make it happen.”
DO YOU STILL HAVE ANY NO. 88 MOMENTUMS OR HAVE TO TRIED TO GET RID OF EVERYTHING BEYOND THE CAR YOU WERE GIVEN?“I didn’t really have a lot of No. 88 stuff, I guess. I have the side off the car, the first one that I drove in New Hampshire in 2016, and some little stuff like that. Obviously, there’s a race car in my shop. I don’t really know what I’m going to do with it (laughs). But other than that, I really didn’t have anything, so I didn’t have anything to get rid of. I had to change my social media handles. Who puts their car number in their social media channels? What a genius idea that was. Some things have changed but it really feels normal to me. I hope I stop on the No. 48 pit sign because everything else feels the same.”
GIVEN THAT OTHER MOTORSPORTS LIKE INDYCAR AND FORMULA USE A SEASON-LONG FORMAT, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT NASCAR’S PLAYOFF METHOD OF DETERMINING THE CHAMPIONSHIP?“I think we all have the same box to play in, right? We’re all racing under the same point system. So, for us, it’s like everybody has the same opportunity to go out and get points. Yeah, sometimes luck does become involved in it but I think the Playoffs have been really good. We’re not announcing the champion a couple of races before the final race like some other series do and like we had to do before the Playoffs started. I think it’s good for the sport. I think the Playoffs work well. Sometimes the guy that dominated the season has a bad Playoff run in a certain round like you saw last year, but that’s just part of racing. Racing has always been that way and stuff happens.”

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