What makes you so good?
This sport is about the relationships between the people on the team. NASCAR is so regulated – the cars are virtually identical, there are all these crazy rules you have to abide by – so it all boils down to the communication between me and the team, how we make the car more comfortable to drive.
Comfortable? What exactly do you mean?
There are a couple of things inside the car that take place. When you’re zooming around the track, you have to be relaxed and calm enough to feel what the car is doing. You gotta be sensitive to the car. I break down every corner into segments: the entry into the corner; the turn; the banking and the way the transition into the banking affects the car; and the way it handles coming out of the turn. These all create different handling sensations. Each dynamic means different adjustments in the race car, so I have to recognize where those points are.
So you’re like a car whisperer.
Except that I have to verbalize to my team how the car is responding. My crew chief, Chad Knaus, and the engineers have to decide quickly – within the adjustments we’re allowed to make – what will make the car more comfortable. The worry is that since there are so many adjustments you can make, if we’re not careful we can tune ourselves out in just one pit stop during a race.
So it’s not just about being loose or tight?
We use those terms as generalizations. We don’t have time during a race to belabor the point and make long explanations because we’re making quick calls out there.
You take a lot of heat for winning so much – sort of like the Yankees. Does that bug you?
I’m developing thicker skin. When Kevin Harvick, who finished third in last year’s standings, says no one wants to see me win another championship, that’s just him doing what he’s good at. He and I have been friends for years, even though I’ve had moments where I wanted to kill the guy. Enough time goes by and you have a beer and hang out.
You were an off-road truck racer and motocross champ before NASCAR. Do you miss it?
I miss getting dirty and being airborne. It’s the ultimate form of freedom. Maybe when I hang up my NASCAR helmet I’ll get back into it. The thing I love about off-road racing is the pride in how abusive it is.
Motocross legend Travis Pastrana is coming to NASCAR this year. How will he do?
He’s going to get his butt kicked at first, but he’ll be fine. The fact that he doesn’t have a lot of car experience is probably going to work to his advantage. You watch some of these open-wheel people come to NASCAR and they’re used to a car that has so much grip that they just can’t drive a stock car. Travis’s racing has been on the dirt, with very low grip levels, so I think he’ll adapt a lot quicker.
You adapted pretty quick.
Buddy, I crashed a lot of cars in my early years. If Travis’s sponsor is patient and lets him wreck some cars, he’s got a great chance.
Any advice for someone who’s never watched a race and might want to get into it?
Go see the show in person and rent a scanner, which allows you to listen to the driver and the back-and-forth with the pits. In what other sport can you listen to exactly what each player and team is thinking? Do that and you’ll leave with the NASCAR bug.
What can NASCAR do better?
Right now, every sport is wondering where the viewers are. I think we have the best product on any racetrack the world has ever seen. But there’s something on the appeal side that we have to work on.
Like that drivers aren’t rednecks anymore.
It’s unfortunate that we’re still fighting that misconception.
For instance, Red Bull driver Brian Vickers was valedictorian of his high school class.
Aw, he’s full of shit on that. I want to see the documentation. I know he missed his prom, but there’s no way he was valedictorian. I think he pulled that out of a Cracker Jack box.
See also: Inside Jimmie Johnson’s Man Cave