|Kurt Busch is 20/1 to win Daytona 500.|
Has Ford lifted its game overall this year? Do you anticipate things being better?
“I think having a year under our belt will help things. That newness stage is gone and those meetings have productivity and not people stepping on each other’s toes. I like it. I like the way it feels. Mark Rushbrook is now the director of Ford Performance with our group and there is an enthusiasm still there. We just needed to find a little more rear aero last year. This new system, where they will be scanning the cars in tech inspection, should help us close the gap.”
Was there any work in the offseason on the engine or chassis that can help the Ford group?
“There isn’t a big new PR announcement or rollout of a new car, but there is always development. There are always new things. I can’t talk specifics about the engine, but we have improved in the areas that Penske, Roush and us at SHR all demanded. Doug Yates listened to us and applied that. That is exciting news (with) all the 1.5-mile and short-track stuff. We believe we have the elite superspeedway engines right now. The aero side, with the new Hawkeye scanning system in tech, that will be a whole new game that the teams have to learn and play within. We have hired four guys already just to try to help perfect that system for us at Stewart- Haas.”
Has it been good to get to Florida and distance yourself in the offseason in order to be fresh for Daytona?
“It has been good and the weather is great down there. I came back a few days ago and I feel stuffy already. Jimmie Johnson goes to Colorado and does a lot of skiing and high-altitude training. When I am down in Florida, I love the weather and love to support my wife’s polo team. It is great to be down there with her in the offseason because she gives so much to be on the road with our race season. For me, I work out twice as hard down there. I have one of those altitude masks that help raise the altitude level. At sea level, the air is really good down there but, as soon as you get the season started and go to Atlanta, that isn’t too bad. But Vegas and Phoenix are high altitude and dry, dirty air out West. That is why I like Florida and like to train down there.”
How often do you think about the 2017 Daytona 500 and what happened?
“It was an amazing win. The prestige, history and value of that race and just being part of it over the years was special. Now, to go back there as the defending champion of the Daytona 500 gives me that much more motivation to do it again and make sure nobody shares in all the glory. It was a huge day. With Monster’s CEO there and announcing the entitlement sponsorship and, for us, getting back together for me with Ford. I couldn’t have written more of a fairy tale-type of race. Daytona, I think about it all the time. Once we get past that race and it is on to Atlanta and we don’t win, 2017 Daytona 500 winner is done. We have to find other wins.”
What do you think of the new pit-road rules?
“I like the move. It will create a safer environment with one less guy per team out on pit road. What it does now is put more responsibility on the jack man and tire carrier. Yet it is just the evolution. We used to have seven guys on pit road and we thought taking the catch can man away was going to be big, but it didn’t change the game much. Now, we are down to five guys. Will it change it much, I don’t think so. What I like to do is always change it up (during practice). The car doesn’t stop in the same spot each time. I will come in there nosed-in, nosed-out and juke up a lot of our sequences so they can adapt.”
Have you had conversations with Billy Scott and the No. 41 team about strategies you may incorporate due to the new pit-road rule?
“There is the new pit-road rule and also tires that continue to be limited as far as our quantity every weekend. I think we saw at the spring race at Richmond, guys were gluing up old scuffed tires, which is a no-no, and now you have more of a tire management sequence. I think it puts more variables on pit road by having fewer guys, fewer tires and the stages and when yellows come out and how many heat cycles are on your tires. I think that is what NASCAR wants. More variables to create more opportunities for guys.”