The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway…

1. Oh, that restart

Kyle Larson’s brilliance behind the wheel of a race car — it doesn’t matter what kind — is the sort of raw ability that every race fan can appreciate. And that was on display for all to see on Sunday.

Larson’s fourth-to-first move on the overtime restart — first slicing his way up the middle, then getting right to the bottom before anyone had time to really counter — was perhaps the best moment of his NASCAR career so far.

Today’s NASCAR is so much about the car and less about the driver, but Larson has shown several times how much the driver still matters. He is willing to try things others do not or cannot, and it provides for quite a show whether the attempt succeeds or fails.

This time, it worked — and Larson completed a week where he forced those who scoffed at his “last true racer” comment several months ago to wonder if maybe he was right.

2. Truex vs. Kyle

In the majority of races this season, the fastest cars have been either Truex or Kyle.

It’s just that the “Kyle” role has switched between Larson and Busch.

Larson was leading the points until he dropped off a cliff recently and tumbled to third with five finishes outside the top 20 in a seven-race stretch. It looked like he lost all his momentum as the Toyotas took over, but questions remained whether that was a product of losing his crew chief to a suspension.

That meant Michigan was going to be a huge test: Would Larson run well on a 2-mile track (a layout which has now generated all four of his career victories)? If not, that would seem to confirm his summer slump.

Apparently, things are just fine. Even though Larson didn’t have a dominant day, he was there at the end and figured out a way to win.

We’re back on the bandwagon now. Pencil him back in for the Final Four at Homestead, along with Truex, Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

3. Kenseth’s nightmare scenario

Matt Kenseth was in a lose-lose situation on the final restart that ended up with the lesser of two evils.

Going into overtime, Kenseth lined up third — on the inside of the second row — behind Erik Jones. His best shot would have been to push Jones on the restart and hope he could make it three-wide, but that could have resulted in a Jones victory.

And that was not going to be good for Kenseth. A new winner from below Kenseth’s spot in the points could have knocked him out of the playoffs (he’s currently holding on to the last spot). Plus, it would have meant helping Jones, the driver who is replacing Kenseth, get his first career win. That probably wouldn’t feel great.

I am not sure what happened and didn’t see any quotes from Kenseth after the race. But on the restart, Kenseth appeared to lay back and try to get a push from Chase Elliott (either that, or he spun his tires).

Ultimately, Kenseth ended up with a flat tire in the ensuing mess and finished 24th. He’s now 31 points ahead of Clint Bowyer for the final spot (see standings below) with three races to go.

The overtime finish cost Kenseth roughly 20 points, which is pretty painful in the battle for a playoff spot. But actually, that wasn’t the worst-case scenario. Because if Jones had won, Kenseth might not have had any points race to worry about at all.

4. Did you notice?

Chris Buescher is having a much better season this year than 2016, when he made the playoffs thanks to his rain-shortened Pocono win.

Buescher finished sixth at Michigan — his best finish of the year — and was right in the mix for a top five on the overtime restart. That was really impressive for a car that doesn’t typically contend there.

Overall, Buescher has improved his average finish from 26.1 to 20.7, already has as many lead-lap finishes as all of last year (11) and picked up his third top-10 of the season.

He’s not going to make the playoffs this season, but he’s trending in the right direction regardless.

5.  Uncertain futures

Bubba Wallace’s victory in the Truck Series race on Saturday was both a feel-good story and a frustrating reminder of the state of NASCAR.

Wallace has been sitting at home for a month, got into a truck for a one-off deal — and won. That’s great on the surface, because everyone watching probably went, “Yes! This will help his chances of getting a ride — and he deserves it.”

But will he get one? Despite being both talented and marketable, there’s no good news yet.

It’s the all-too-familiar problem of today’s NASCAR: Unless a driver personally has money — whether through family or a loyal sponsor — he can only hope the exact right opportunity at the exact right time magically comes his way.

I got another reminder of this on Sunday while watching the race with Gracin Raz (we recorded the post-race podcast, which you can find here). Raz finished fourth in K&N West Series points as an 18-year-old and then was fifth last year. Now 20, Raz has been forced to cut to a part-time schedule running a Late Model he and his dad work on in their garage.

We were chatting during the race and I was asking what the next steps are. The answers aren’t clear, but the solution is: Money. There’s not really much — if anything — Raz can do to jump in a car and prove himself, because that’s not what matters. It’s what money he can bring somewhere to get an opportunity.

Here’s a talented young driver who was just starting his career (and won a K&N West race in 2015), but there’s no pathway forward. The ladder to the top has broken rungs. The same can be said for Wallace, who waits in the same situation — just at a higher level.

It’s a sobering reminder: How many young drivers are there out there, scattered across the country, who could excel if they got the right opportunity?

Sadly, only a lucky few will ever find out — and that’s not healthy for a sport that should be built on the best talents.

———–

PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +62

15. Jamie McMurray +52

16. Matt Kenseth +31

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -31

18. Joey Logano -98

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

Joe Gibbs defends Furniture Row pit crew suspensions

Joe Gibbs gave a simple defense of his decision to suspend two Furniture Row Racing pit crew members who work for his race team.

Why the suspensions?

“Because of their action and what they did,” he told a small group of reporters Sunday morning at Pocono Raceway.

Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew is employed by Joe Gibbs Racing, so Gibbs had the authority to suspend them after two crewmen confronted Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens after the two drivers wrecked at Indianapolis.

Gibbs said the video, filmed by FOX Sports, “didn’t capture everything that happened there,” though he wouldn’t elaborate on why.

“We always sit and we consider our employees very important to us and the way they act,” he said. “So anyway, we felt like we worked through it the right way.”

Gibbs also said he did not consider disciplining Stevens for his role in the altercation.

Why?

“Because everything that happened,” he said. “I think we took everything into consideration and did what we thought was best.”

Was Gibbs concerned about the criticism directed toward JGR and the appearance he was hurting the team’s top competitor?

“People are always going to say all kinds of things,” he said. “I don’t think we’re worried about that. And obviously, (the crewmen will) be back. That’s one of the best pit crews on pit road.”

More: My analysis of JGR’s decision on the suspensions

 

Thoughts on Joe Gibbs Racing suspending No. 78 team pit crew members

It seems like “Only in NASCAR!” moments happen every week lately, doesn’t it? And yet another one occurred Thursday when Joe Gibbs Racing suspended two members of Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew for three races.

Yes, that’s right: JGR issued suspensions to a pair of crewman who pit the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 car — essentially JGR’s top competitor this season.

How is that possible? Well, FRR doesn’t have its own pit crew. As part of its alliance deal with JGR (which supplies FRR with cars), the No. 78 uses a JGR pit crew each week.

So when two of the pit crew members nearly got in a fight with Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens after the Brickyard 400, that was a BIG-TIME no-no.

I mean, think about it: Two employees of a company were screaming in the face of someone who was basically their superior. That would get you fired from a LOT of jobs, to be honest.

But although the suspensions were justified, the optics on this are terrible. Stevens didn’t start the confrontation — one of the crew members taunted the crew chief by clapping as he walked by — Stevens probably should have gotten some kind of public reprimand if the crew guys were going to end up losing three weeks of salary.

Otherwise, the general fan is understandably going to have a “If you can’t beat ’em, suspend ’em” reaction to what happened — no matter how much JGR and FRR try to explain that you can’t get in an altercation with a high-level person from the company that signs your checks.

News Analysis: Erik Jones to drive the No. 20 car

What happened: Joe Gibbs Racing made a long-speculated move official on Tuesday, announcing Erik Jones will return to the team after a one-year loan to affiliate Furniture Row Racing. Jones, a Cup rookie this season, has been a JGR development driver and will replace former Cup champion Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 car.

What it means: The NASCAR youth movement continues. As Kenseth has said, he does not intend to retire despite being 45 years old. It appears he essentially got pushed out of JGR by the desire to give one of NASCAR’s top young drivers a home with the team.

News value (scale of 1-10): Two. This is not a surprise at all, but it is noteworthy in that it’s a driver change at one of the top teams.

Questions: What happens to the No. 77 team at Furniture Row Racing? Will Kenseth be able to land at another top organization? How quickly can Jones become a regular winner at JGR?

12 Questions with Erik Jones

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Erik Jones of Furniture Row Racing. I spoke with Jones on Wednesday while attending a Toyota event in Utah where NASCAR drivers and Olympic athletes interacted.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

Man, it sounds bad to say, but I’d say up until last year it was 100 percent natural ability. And then once I got to the Cup Series, I think we all have natural ability at this level — everybody’s really good, so that’s where working at it really comes into play. I would say this year has probably been 60 percent natural and 40 percent working at it.

It’s definitely a big change for me. Being in Trucks and Xfinity wasn’t easy, but it definitely wasn’t as hard as the Cup Series; I felt like I could really just get a good feel for it quickly and go out and be pretty quick everywhere. At the Cup level, it’s like, OK, everybody’s pretty quick at it, everybody gets it pretty easy and so you have to be really good at all the little things that make up for it for a lot of times.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I think for me, I’m just an average 21-year-old kid. I like to have fun, I like to party and have a good time. You know, go out, work hard and do my job on the weekends and have fun during the week.

Unfortunately, we don’t always get to show that in our sport. It’s hard to really broadcast that side in the world or that side of our lives out to the sport. But I like to just hang out and play a round of golf with my buddies or hang out at the pool and do whatever we wanna do. So it’s hard to really show that personal side. I wish there was a better way or an easier way to broadcast that out.

And I think that has been changing over the last few years and I think you’ll start to see more personality from a lot of guys. You’ve really only seen Dale Jr. come out and really show a lot of personality within the last few years, so hopefully I can figure that out better and hopefully it continues to go that way in NASCAR.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Just the travel for sure. I’m kind of a homebody at heart; I like to be home, I like to be around my family, my friends. In the Xfinity Series or the Truck Series, it’s not so bad. You leave on Thursday and you’re home on Friday or Saturday night and you have Sunday off. In the Cup Series, you really only have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at home and Thursday you’re traveling again. So that’s a tough part.

All in all, compared to an everyday person going to work 9 to 5, we have it pretty good and you feel kind of guilty at times complaining about some of the things you have to do. But it really does take a toll on you traveling that much. It’s pretty rare that we get days off and get to enjoy ourselves and do what we want to do, so that’s definitely the hardest part for me.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, I don’t really have an issue with it. I guess the hardest part for me sometimes is if I’m trying to spend time with friends and family. I wouldn’t necessarily say a restaurant setting, but sometimes you really just want to chill out and relax. But I don’t really have a problem with that — as long as we’re not in the middle of a meal or anything, I don’t really have much of an issue.

It’s not like I’ve ever been bombarded at a restaurant by 10 people. Every once in a while I have somebody come up and say, “Hey, nice to meet you,” and I don’t really mind that all.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I really don’t think that people necessarily understand 100 percent of the work that goes into it from the shop side and the engineering side. I don’t think a lot of people really see how many smart people we’ve got working on these cars. The engineers we’ve got — we have at-track engineers, but we also have engineers who are just working in the shop 100 percent of the time and trying to develop new products and make our cars faster.

Obviously, we can’t share all our simulation tools and all the neat things we get to use to make our cars faster, but I wish people could see that because there’s some really, really cool stuff that I think people would be pretty intrigued by to just check out and learn more about.

Unfortunately, we can’t show every fan in the world 100 percent what’s going on in the shop. I wish I could take everybody on an in-depth tour and show them the process of how these cars are built and how they’re put together, how the bodies are put together, the wind tunnel testing we do and some of the more technical side of things would be really cool to show people.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Geez, I don’t know. Let me pull out my phone. It’s been awhile.

You’re scrolling through all these texts and no driver names are popping up.

Daniel Hemric. There we go. That was on the 12th (nine days ago). It’s been awhile. But yeah, Daniel Hemric. I hang out with him probably the most of any driver away from the racetrack. We have a pretty similar background, so we have lots to talk about usually.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah, 100 percent. I started racing Late Models when I was 13, and it was the first time I’ve ever been on a racing tour. We pulled into the track one day and my first-ever crew chief said, “We’re just kind of the traveling circus. We all roll in, it’s the same guys, we unload, set up and put on a show.”

It’s no different at all at this level. I think we’re there to put on a show, to entertain the fans. That’s what we’re there to do, and I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be considered entertainers.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I’d say it’s changed a lot over the years. Early on in my career I didn’t use it much and then I think I got a little too happy with it and then I had a lot of guys angry at me, so now it’s pretty rare (when) it comes out. The only times I really get frustrated now is racing with lapped cars. If there’s a lapped car you catch and he’s not giving you the lane, that’s pretty frustrating.

I had a guy early on, a race director in Late Models. Every drivers meeting, he’d say, “I don’t want to sound rude, but the lapped cars, you’re a second-class citizen today. It’s not your day. Give these guys the lane, they’re trying to race. That respect is going to come around when it’s the other way around some day.” So it’s really frustrating to me when you don’t get that respect, because it is going to come back around for him some day, and that’s probably the only time you’ll see it out of me.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, it goes both ways. I’ve never really went back out necessarily and just wrecked somebody, paying them back for being wrecked, but I make their lives as hard as I possibly can. Anytime I race around them, they’re not going to get a break from me and there’s not going to be a lot of patience from me either.

But it does go the other way for me, too. If there’s a guy that lets me go early in the race if I run him down, he’s going to get that respect back — at least until 50 to go. I think that’s the time where it goes out the window a little bit, everybody’s racing hard for the position, they don’t want to give anything up.

But it definitely does go each way. Most of the time, a lot of these guys will give you that favor early in the race, and definitely you feel like you kind of owe it to them.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Danica Patrick, I guess, probably. I haven’t really had dinner with like a celebrity of any sort, other than that. No A-listers, Hollywood or anything like that, so I’d have to say that’d be it.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I think it really goes back to one of your first questions there about working at it, the natural ability and the work ethic of it all. It came so easy in the Truck and Xfinity level that I never really learned how to work at it and how to get better at it. I’ve had guys tell me, “You might need to work on this or that,” but I was like, “I’m winning races, why do I need to work on that?” Getting to the Cup level now, I think that’s the biggest thing that I’d like to improve, at least on the racing side, to try and get more proficient in it.

12. The last interview was with Michael McDowell. His question was: Eventually when you do retire someday, what do you think will lead into your decision to say, “I think I’ve had enough?”

That’s a deep question. I think it will go two ways, honestly: Either you’re not capable of performing anymore, you’re not competitive, you’re not running up front and contending for wins — or you just get burned out. You get burned out on the schedule.

I think a little bit of that was with Jeff Gordon. He was still competitive, he was still winning — he made it to Homestead his last year. So I think a lot of his decision was based on he has two young kids and he was done with the grind. I see either one of those two ways.

I think for me, it will probably be that I’m not competitive anymore, honestly.

The next interview is with Todd Gilliland. Do you have a question that I might be able to ask him?

I’m trying to remember back when I was 16 and racing. I would ask him how much pressure he feels to perform, or how much pressure does he put on himself to perform well to try and get that break at the next big level.

Does he feel like there’s a lot of pressure on him, or does he feel like he just puts that pressure on himself? Because I felt like when I was his age, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get those big wins that were going to put me on the map. So I would ask him if he’s feeling that same kind of thing.

Erik Jones shares difficult story of father’s loss

Imagine this: You’re on a rocket ship to NASCAR stardom. After years of your family sacrificing time and money to help you make it, you’re finally close to racing’s big leagues. You’re on top of the world; your dream is within reach.

And then, just when things could hardly be better, you suffer a loss that takes away part of you — the type of loss that can never truly be healed.

That’s what Erik Jones went through last year and is still going through now — at only 20 years old.

Nothing has been easy in the past year for Jones, who lost his father, Dave, at age 53 last June.

“He was really my best friend,” Jones said Friday. “I didn’t have anybody I felt closer with or felt like I could share more with at any time.”

Cancer, that cruel and despicable disease, robbed Jones of being able to share his life’s greatest accomplishment with his father. So you’ll have to forgive him if it’s taken the better part of a year to discuss what he’s dealt with.

Before qualifying Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Jones sat in a room with a small group of reporters and shared his story, baring his soul to strangers.

The pain was so severe after his father died that Jones honestly worried if he’d ever win another race.

“I didn’t know if I’d even be the same person after going through something like that,” he said.

Getting the news

It was roughly a year ago when Dave Jones lost feeling in his arm one day. He went to the doctor, figuring it was a pinched nerve.

It wasn’t. Doctors told him it was lung cancer that would later spread to his brain.

Erik, then a 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver, took the news hard. Shortly thereafter, doctors told Dave he had only a year to live — at best.

Dave had been a central part of Erik’s career despite not having a racing background. After his son began moving up through the ranks, Dave handled the finances so Erik could focus on driving — this after once selling his ’65 Corvette to help fund Erik’s racing.

When Erik had a question or needed advice, Dave “always had the answer,” he said. He leaned on his father’s wisdom and guidance heavily, as any young son would.

One of the most important lessons Dave taught Erik: Never be afraid to see someone. If you’re afraid to see someone, it likely means you have an enemy; don’t have enemies and you won’t have to worry.

“He lived his life and he was never scared to run into anybody,” Erik said. “I always try to live by that same piece of advice.”

After the diagnosis, Erik started spending all his free time in Michigan. He needed to be with his family as much as possible. But hardly anyone outside the family were aware of what was going on.

“I holed up in my house and didn’t go anywhere,” Erik said. “I didn’t talk about it at the time to anybody. Most of my friends didn’t even know he was sick at the time.”

By April, when Jones won the Xfinity race at Bristol, things looked grim. The cancer had spread faster than doctors expected, and Dave was quite sick. Erik placed an emotional phone call to his father from Bristol’s victory lane, then told reporters about his dad’s condition.

Dave lived to see Erik win one more race — a month later, at Dover. Erik returned home after the race and can vividly recall their conversation.

“He was pretty sick, but he was still able to watch the race, and we got to talk about the race,” Erik said, breaking into a smile. “He was just pumped. It was a Dash 4 Cash race, so he thought that was cool we’d won a second one.”

Dave lived only a few more weeks. He passed away four days before Erik’s home race at Michigan International Speedway.

Dealing with a loss

The rest of 2016 was somewhat of a blur for Erik. He was numb at first, then closed himself off. He ignored some things he probably shouldn’t have. There were weekends he didn’t want to be at the track, but went anyway and — to his relief — won two more races.

It’s not like Erik has dealt with the loss and moved on. That’s not how these things work. As his career continues to take off, Erik thinks about his father daily and often sees him in dreams. He feels the absence frequently — like during the holidays and on pit road prior to the Daytona 500.

“I wish he could have been there to take it all in,” Erik said of Daytona.

A gesture from team owner Joe Gibbs helped give Erik some peace of mind. When Dave was ill, Gibbs unexpectedly dropped by the family’s home. Though the deal hadn’t been finalized yet, Gibbs told Dave that Erik would likely become a Cup Series driver in 2017 with affiliate Furniture Row Racing.

That allowed father and son to have a moment of celebration.

“I’m just really happy for you,” Dave told his son. “It’s going to be a great year.”

“It was cool in that moment to be able to sit down with him and say, ‘Hey, we did it. Next year, we’re going to be at the peak, man. That’s it,'” Erik said. “It was special to be able to share that moment; at least he knew it was all going to work out.”

Looking ahead

Though just a rookie, Erik was perhaps the best Toyota driver throughout last week’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He ultimately finished 14th, but it showed once again there’s a bright future ahead.

“There’s definitely times in the last few weeks I would have loved to call him and talk to him about racing in general and life,” Erik said. “I definitely think he’s proud.”

These days, Erik’s most cherished possession is a silver Shinola watch with a leather band, proudly made in Detroit. It’s the one his Michigan-loving dad wore every day after getting it one year as a Christmas present.

After Dave fell ill, he had it engraved for Erik. Now Erik never travels without it.

“It’s kind of the one thing I have that connects me back to him,” Erik said.

Actually, there’s one more thing.

Remember that ’65 Corvette his dad once sold to help Erik’s career? Well, Erik recently found the owner — and bought it back.

12 Questions with Martin Truex Jr.

The 12 Questions interview continues this week with Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing. It is available in podcast form and is also transcribed below.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I guess you kind of get to this level off natural ability. For me, building cars, growing up around racing and learning about it early before I even started driving is what helped get me to this level.

But once you get here, you realize, “OK, everybody is pretty good.” You’ve got to try to find those little things that stick out of how to get better. Obviously, a big part of it is the team you’re with and the ideas they have and how you kind of work together.

It’s definitely a combination of both. You’re always looking for something — that next little thing you can do better. After every weekend, we’re always looking at each other on our team and saying, “OK, what have we got to do to be better?” Whether it’s me or the crew chief or engineer or something.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

Well, first off, I’m glad they’re fans of racing in general. I’m a nice guy. I’m just a regular guy just like most normal people and I drive a race car for a living. I don’t have any crazy sales pitch other than I’m pretty normal. (Laughs)

So if you’re normal and you want to relate to somebody else who is normal…

I’m your guy if you’re just a normal person. (Laughs)

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Meetings. I hate meetings. I sit there for five minutes and I start getting antsy. My foot starts tapping and I start looking at my phone (like), “How long is this going to last? I’ve got stuff to do.”

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

YES! Heck yes! Come on over. Say hello.

Even if you have food in your mouth?

Yeah, it’s fine. I’ll swallow it. (Laughs)

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

Probably all the good things drivers and teams do — charity efforts, things like that. A lot of good comes out of this garage and the people who work in it, and we don’t hear a whole lot about all that.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Our group text has the Gibbs drivers on it, so I was on there. No, I’m lying to you — it was (Ryan) Newman! I was texting with him before practice.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yes. If you’re not entertained by racing, I don’t know what to tell you.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

Somebody pisses you off, you show ‘em the middle finger. (Laughs) Pretty simple. I mean, these days, it’s so common, you don’t even feel bad about doing it anymore. You throw somebody the bird and after the race, you put your arm around them and it’s like, “Hey man, what’s happening? How you doing? You have a good race?”

It’s just a way of showing you’re mad at that guy. It’s not personal. It’s on the racetrack, and what happens on the track, stays on the track.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Absolutely. You remember everything that happens on the racetrack, good or bad. How guys are racing you — you don’t forget things that happened years ago. You definitely have your list of guys you like to be around and you know you can work with and trust on the racetrack, and then you always have a handful of guys that you know you can’t.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Gotta be Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Laughs) I mean, come on. He’s pretty famous. He’s like 10-, 15-time most popular driver? He’s kind of a big deal.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I’ve kind of improved one thing this winter: I like to sleep in; I don’t like to get up early, and I feel like I waste the whole day. So I’ve been getting up earlier. I’m getting a little better at that. Aside from that, I’m pretty happy with who I am.

What do you define as “early?”

Before 10. (Laughs) Nine to 10 is pretty early for me.

12. The last interview was with Kyle Busch. His question for you is, “What does it feel like to get all the best stuff from Joe Gibbs Racing?”

(Laughs) It feels great. We led 1,800-something laps last year, so it feels better than getting the fourth- or fifth-best stuff, that’s for sure.

And do you have a question for the next interview?

You should ask who they think is the team to beat this year.