Ford Performance NASCAR: Daytona Media Day (Cindric and DiBenedetto)

AUSTIN CINDRIC, No. 33 Verizon Ford Mustang – CAN THE 50 MINUTES OF PRACTICE BEFORE DAYTONA 500 QUALIFYING BE OF HELP TO YOU? “Yeah. You’ve got 50 minutes to figure out how to get into the Daytona 500. That’s not easy. That will be my first time in a Cup car. My first time in a speedway Cup car, a lot of different things going on and obviously a lot of things to go through. I mean, even simple procedural things like trying to get used to the digital dash on pit road speeds and doing hot pit roads and obviously figuring out how the cars work in the draft. There are a lot of things I’m gonna have to figure out in 50 minutes, so it’ll be information overload. I’ve got great teammates that will be able to help me through some of that process. I’ve done a lot of prep work so far to try to nail down the small details, but nothing is simple as, like I said, pit road speed or procedural things inside the car is what keeps us out of the race. So, I’ve tried to be as diligent as possible on those things, but it’s the things you can’t control that make you lose a little bit of sleep thinking about it. The easiest way to make it in is on time and our guys at Team Penske are trying to give me the fastest Verizon Ford Mustang possible to do that, so I’m excited. It’s gonna be a great challenge and I think everybody in this position is embracing that task because there’s a lot of great cars that are trying to go for a spot.”

HAVE YOU SPENT TIME FAMILIARIZING YOURSELF WITH HOW THE DASH WORKS? “I’ve honestly probably spent too much time. I kind of geek out on stuff like that, so I think I’m well prepared, at least as much as I can be without making a lap on the racetrack. The cool thing is you can integrate that dash into the simulator, so I can kind of get used to looking for things and understand where the alarms come on and all the small details for kind of worst-case scenarios. It’s definitely different for sure.”

DO YOU HAVE AN ESTIMATE OF WHAT IT WILL TAKE TO QUALIFY IN ON SPEED? “I think that’s a fantastic question and one that I definitely don’t have the answer to. I’m not sure anyone has the answer to that. I will say the factor that’s different this year as far as I’m aware is that we’re qualifying at night, and that makes things a little different. I think the qualifying goes off at 7 o’clock is when it starts, so that adds some different factors – air temp and air-pressure and so on – so it’ll be different. For me, my job is to get up to speed as quickly as possible and hold it wide open and hold a really pretty wheel. Other than that, I’m not sure about the lap times. We’ll have a better idea of that after practice, definitely planning trying to figure out what single-car speed looks like compared to others. I hope it’s enough.”

WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO IMPROVE ON IN NXS THIS YEAR TO GET READY FOR 2022? “I’ve never approached racing as looking to prove something to somebody else. For me, I’m just a competitor. I want to go out and win and for us coming back as the defending series champion is fun. It’s a new experience for me. I’m looking forward to embracing that, but also stepping up my game. We’ve got great competitors I that series and I don’t think that should be taken likely. I think there’s potential for this year to be even more competitive than last year, so I’m excited for having some new faces in the garage area and new cars and putting our best foot forward. I feel like Saturdays put on some really great shows last year and I wouldn’t expect that to change.”

WHAT CAN WE ANTICIPATE IN NXS THIS YEAR? ANY THOUGHTS ON COMPETITION? “I think competition-wise you definitely expect Justin Allgaier. He’s a veteran in the series and I think Harrison Burton did a really great job at the end of the year last year. As far as speculating what other drivers in new cars will be able to do, AJ has been really competitive in the races that he’s run, so you have to expect that he’s gonna do a great job. He’s a long-time veteran of this sport, and as far as anyone else I think there’s a lot of potential in the series and I think it’s gonna be really fun for everyone to watch and see who rises to the occasion.”

DID WINNING THE TITLE HELP YOU SHED ANY OF THE PRESSURE OF BEING TIM CINDRIC’S SON? “I’m not sure (laughing). For me, I guess it’s not up to me to figure out what other people think. I’ve accepted that and I feel like it’s probably been a good lesson for me to accept early in my career. Otherwise, it’s just about me doing the job. I’ve got a lot of people that have a lot of confidence around me and that’s built throughout the last three years racing for Team Penske and I think I’m in a really good spot. I’ve got a team that believes in me and a shop that can back it, so a lot of people doing a lot of things for me this year as well. It’s pretty humbling as I kind of looked at rosters for this year and kind of realizing that there are two full teams that are dedicated to me and my competitiveness and what I get to do this year. It’s pretty cool to have that support. I feel like that adds more pressure than anything else. Forget about who my dad is, it’s having that many people dedicated to helping me win races, so I’m excited for that. I’m excited to have another group of people to work with and learn from, and have teammates in the Cup races that I do. That’s something I haven’t had in a long time, so looking forward to being able to learn at a quick pace.”

HAVE YOU WORKED YOUR WAY THROUGH EVERY SCENARIO FOR MAKING THE 500? “I think anyone who makes plans at superspeedways do it because they’re nervous because there’s no way to prepare for these races. There’s no way to prepare for those scenarios. Qualifying is significantly important for both of our opportunities to make it into the race, but also where we start in the Duels. I think we’ll play it as it goes. I’d be extremely unlucky if I didn’t have a Penske-affiliated car with me in the Duels, so that would be nice to have and nice to have teammates. If I get in the race, hopefully I can help those guys get stage points and try and fight for a race win and get a Penske car and a Ford into Victory Lane for the Daytona 500. There’s a lot of work to still do, but there are definitely a lot of different scenarios and a lot of things you have to prepare for and sometimes it will come down to the small details and hopefully it doesn’t have to come down to missing big wrecks and the things you’re accustomed to seeing in speedway racing, but you definitely have to be prepared for.”

DOES IT CREATE AN ODD RELATIONSHIP WITH MATT DIBENEDETTO FOR THIS YEAR KNOWING WHAT 2022 IS GOING TO LOOK LIKE? “No, I don’t think much, honestly – not as much as you’d expect maybe. Last year, I think he and I developed a really good relationship and we talked pretty much on a daily basis, whether it was sending each other stupid pictures or communicating about racing stuff. I’ve enjoyed my relationship with Matt and we’ve joked about it. We’ve talked about it, even throughout the process of not really knowing what next year in 2021 or 2022 looked like for either of us. We used each other as sounding boards as far as what’s going on, but as far as him I think I fully expect him to be the guy that delivers the Wood Brothers their 100th win. That’s something they’ve been looking for for a lot of races now, a couple seasons, and I think he’s the guy to do it. I fully expect to be racing for triple digits by the time I get in the car, so I look forward to seeing him do that and prepare for that. They’ve built a great team between him and Greg and looking forward to stepping into that program and putting my best foot forward.”

DOES IT SEEM STRANGE TO BE WITH A TEAM THE CALIBER OF PENSKE AND HAVE TO RACE YOUR WAY INTO THE 500? “It’s gonna be different. I wouldn’t say it’s the first time in my career I’ve had to do it. When I raced the 2 truck in the Truck Series for BKR it was kind of the same scenario – we had to qualify our way in – and if there’s a rainout we don’t get in. So, I’ve been in that position, but at the highest level for the biggest race of the year, yeah, it’s completely different than what I’m used to. There’s a lot of people in that boat. You’ve got guys who have won the race that are having to qualify their way in, so it’s definitely a challenge and it’s unique to this race. I think it gives fans something to be excited about on Wednesday and Thursday, a reason to watch the Duels probably more than any year before, at least in recent years. I’m excited for that challenge. Hopefully, we qualify our way in and I don’t have to lose too much sleep at night on Wednesday night, but, otherwise, every bit of my effort so far has gone into figuring what it’s gonna take to qualify in in those Duels and put our best foot forward.”

DO YOU FEEL ANY MAKE OR BREAK ASPECT AS FAR AS YOUR CUP SCHEDULE ON WHETHER YOU MAKE THE 500 OR NOT? “No, I don’t think so. I think I’ve come to peace with the reality of it. I think our sponsors also understand that it’s a pretty big challenge to try and do this, so I don’t feel pressure. I don’t feel like it’s gonna be out of the realm of disappointment. Obviously, we’ll be disappointed if we don’t qualify our way in, but I’ll be at peace with it. I’ve also got a job to do on Saturday, so that’s where our season starts and that’s where my number one priority is, so I’ll know that before I even sit in my XFINITY car. It’s definitely different, but I look forward to the idea of doing double duty and hopefully being able to learn as much as I can and apply it to years in the future.”

DO YOU VIEW YOUR CUP SCHEDULE AS MORE OF AN ELOGATED TEST SESSION FOR 2022? “I think in my head I’ve kind of compartmentalized Daytona 500 is a separate program than the rest of the races we’re gonna try and run. That schedule is still to be determined, but for those races with no practice that we’ll try to run, if we’re able to get in, those will be a challenge. I think the first challenge would be probably starting at the back and trying to not go a lap down before the first caution. You try to learn as much as you can and hopefully be able to squeak a result out of it either way. I feel like I’ll be able to have a great gauge of my strengths and weaknesses moving forward into a full season in 2022, and I think that’s the number one goal is to figure out where I am in those regards. Otherwise, for Daytona it’s a challenge for sure. In that 50 minute practice session we’re gonna have to be really, really efficient. A red flag could really screw up our day, our prep work, or at least make it a little bit more blind. I’m hoping for a green 50 minutes and being able to use it as efficiently as possible.”

DO YOU VIEW THE NEW ROAD COURSES AS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A GOOD RESULT SINCE SOME MIGHT BE NEW TO A LOT OF DRIVERS IN THE FIELD? “I’d certainly like to. That would be a lot of fun. That’s the highest level and the best drivers, so we still haven’t figured out what races those are, but I would definitely like to do some. The great thing is a lot of those road course races this year will be some races with practice, so I think that gives us a better shot of contending higher up in the field, but I’m not gonna put any pressure on myself or expectations to be able to go out and do that. Like I said, it’s the best of the best, so take it as we go and see the speed we have and more forward, but I think number one the thing is to just learn as much as you can.”

ARE THE PLAYOFFS A GOOD WAY TO DETERMINE THE CHAMPION? “It’s definitely different. I think it’s format-oriented for the entertainment because when it comes down to one race it’s high stakes. You’ve got to do everything perfect and you’ve got to showcase that. From the standpoint of the Cup Series last year, or even in all three series, in the Truck Series and the Cup Series the regular-season champion did not go on to win the championship. In our case we did, so that’s kind of cool. We also scored the most points, so in any format we would have been the champion last year and I know that, so I can go to bed knowing that either way we did the best job we possibly could compared to our competitors. Otherwise, it’s a different format and everybody has to play in the same field. Everyone knows what the challenges are, so I don’t think it changes if someone is a legitimate champion or not. I think it’s whatever the challenges are. In basketball if your three-point shot was five feet further back, some guys would probably miss it more and if it was further forward some guys would probably make it. It’s just a different challenge and everyone knows it and everyone has to prepare for it.”

CAN YOU GIVE ME A SENSE OF THE PROGRESSION YOU’VE MADE ON THE SUPERSPEEDWAYS? “From my first race at Talladega in the Truck Series, in the 2 Truck, to where I am now, I definitely have a greater understanding of what to expect. A lot of that is your relationship with your spotter, and I try to do a great deal of prep work into these races and trying to understand how runs are generated and how you can do your best to stay out of trouble because that’s the number one thing to start with. At Daytona, I have not done a very good job at staying out of trouble, whether that’s my fault or not, but either way I look forward to trying to continue to improve on that. We’ve set some goals as a team earlier this year and I would say one of my extracurricular goals is to try to win a superspeedway race because at the end of the day the biggest race in NASCAR is a superspeedway race and whether it be for a confidence boost or understanding how to control the pack. That’s something that I feel like has been my biggest challenge to understand because you don’t get a lot of time to lead, and to win a race you’ve got to know how to lead a race, so I feel like I’ve grown a lot to understand where those runs come from and the mindset you have to be in and how that changes from being in the middle of the pack to being the pusher and how you get yourself there and how you stay there. It’s definitely a fine art and there are some guys that do a really great job at it, and it all starts with the prep work.”

HOW WOULD YOU EVALUATE YOURSELF AS A DRIVER NOW VERSUS WHEN YOU WERE DRIVING THE 60 CAR A FEW YEARS AGO? “I would look further back than that. It always surprises me when I go back and do a different type of racing how much more comfortable I am around other cars. When you’re racing in IMSA you qualify and qualifying is extremely important and you want to establish your track position and then execute a perfect race from there, whereas in NASCAR it doesn’t really matter where you start and try to figure out how the track changes and how observant you can be to be ahead of the game on that. Even when I go back and do some of those races the moves I can make, the comfort I have it’s completely a different type of driving. I feel like driving in NASCAR it really kind of expanded my horizons as a driver and helped me progress to being a professional probably a lot faster than any other type of racing has, so I feel like I’ve grown a lot in a lot of different ways. My NASCAR career has been I wouldn’t say under a microscope, but you’ve seen all the mistakes I’ve made because they’ve all been on TV, so from my first race in the truck to my last race in the XFINITY car I’ve learned a lot of you kind of don’t know what you don’t know and that’s the same way I approach the Daytona 500. There are a lot of things that I don’t know right now about how to drive one of those cars and how to prepare for this race, so leaning on a lot of experienced members of our team, whether it be my crew chief or my teammates and applying that to trying to make it in the Great American Race.”

WHAT ROAD COURSE ON THE CUP SIDE DO YOU THINK YOU COULD RACE ON THIS YEAR AND SURPRISE EVERYONE? “I can’t really speculate on that, but I can tell you the one race that I definitely want to do it the Fourth of July race at Road America. I’ve said it because it’s gonna be an awesome event. That place at that time of year is already a party in itself, and that’s an incredible facility and something I think is gonna be a staple of the Cup schedule for a long time for those reasons. It’s an historic racetrack, so I hope to be able to get to do that event because it’s gonna be cool. It’s gonna be the first one and, like I said, I think it’s gonna be the first of many, so I’m excited for that event. Hopefully, I get to be part of it, but otherwise I think if I’m driving for Team Penske I’ve got a great shot at every race that I go to, so I don’t think it would be a surprise, but it’s definitely racing against the best of the best and I don’t know what that’s like yet. I’m excited to see what that challenge is like and learn from those guys and hopefully represent ourselves and our sponsors as well as possible in those scenarios.”

IS THERE AN UNDERDOG YOU SEE IN THE DAYTONA 500? “You’ve got to look at who is left. That’s the hardest part about this race. If you’re still in it, you’ve got a shot. We’ve seen races in year’s past where there are four or five guys that will have damage. If you don’t have damage, you’ve got a shot to win the race and that goes from if you’re a top 10 car to a top 30 car. I think that’s the number one goal for most people is just to stay in the game. For us, we’ve got to be in the game first to stay in the game, but I think you’ve got a lot of new guys in a lot of different cars that are gonna be learning a lot of things for the first time and I think those would be great stories for first time winners or guys in new situations, so I think that’s what makes this race exciting because there is a lot of newness to it because it’s the start of the year, a lot of new faces in new cars, but definitely a challenge for everybody as far as just getting to the end.”

ARE YOU GLAD TO NOT JUST BE CONSIDERED A ROAD COURSE RINGER AND DO CUP DRIVERS NEED TO START PAYING MORE ATTENTION TO YOU? “I’m not sure about everybody else, but I definitely feel like I’ve always wanted to be described as a race car driver because I want to do different things. I want to drive race cars, but I’m definitely focused on NASCAR racing, so in a sport that races primarily on ovals, I feel like you have to be good at them to be successful, so, yeah, to cross that bridge is great. For me it’s about what’s next and for me what’s next is trying to figure out how the best are the best and how to be the best of the best. That’s probably gonna be a longer road than winning on an oval, so I’m excited to have a sneak peak at that this year and be able to get a taste of what that’s like, where my strengths and weaknesses are and being able to go out and replicate or try and do better and add something to our program.”

MATT DIBENEDETTO, No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang – ARE YOU ABLE TO BUILD ON YOUR LAST SEVEN RACES OF 2021 WHEN YOU HAVE FOUR TOP-10 FINISHES? “Yeah, 100 percent. I’ve talked about that a lot lately because last year with COVID and everything and no practice and all the variables that we had to overcome being a new team working together, it felt like the last half of the season – especially the last third of the season – is where all of a sudden it really clicked for us as a team. That’s why you saw us clicking off top 10s consistently, running up front, competing for wins because I felt like we were getting to where we needed to be as a team. Yeah, that 100 percent that momentum I feel confident is going to carry directly over into the season just because we have all that time together, we have all those notes together and that’s where it’s really coming together, so I’ve been pretty pumped about this season because of that exactly.”

YOU’VE DRIVEN FOR SOME SMALL TEAMS BEFORE. WHERE THERE EVER TIMES YOU ASKED FOR SOMETHING FROM A SAFETY STANDPOINT? IF SO, WHAT WAS THE REACTION? “I’ve always felt really good even driving for small teams when I was at Go FAS and BK. I always felt really good about my safety in the race car. I think NASCAR has done such a good job at that to where it may sound silly, but I feel safer sitting in my race car going 200 miles an hour than I do driving my street car down the road. Just being with other people on the racetrack the cars have just gotten so safe nowadays that I feel very good about it.”

DO YOU ENTER THIS YEAR FEELING YOU HAVE TO WIN? “I don’t know. That’s a tough question to answer because I try to focus on executing to the best of our ability as a team, which we were doing finally toward the last third of last season – last half, last third, whatever you want to call it of last season. That’s my main focus is making the most of our race cars and executing. As far as winning, I think we are ready to win now would be the best way that I could answer your question. We are ready as a team. The first bit of last year I don’t think we were ready to win because we had a lot to learn, we had a lot to learn about each other, and then it finally clicked like I was talking about and then I felt like we were ready. On top of doing everything perfect things have to fall in your favor and fall properly. You have to have good luck on your side to close one of these things out. The best car doesn’t always win, so I think we are ready to put ourselves in position consistently to win and I think that’s how it’s gonna come for us and I feel like this year is definitely our year if that answers your question.”

IS YOUR FUTURE UNCERTAINTY OFFSET BY THE FACT YOU HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY THIS YEAR TO CONTEND FOR WINS? “Yeah, 100 percent. It may sound crazy, but this is the best I feel about it because I have such a good team behind me and especially because we had all that time last year together where we were really rocking and rolling the last part of last season. So going into this year even with the uncertainty you can call it about 2022, I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my career going into this year even without knowing my plans for next year because this is all I can ask for is to have the seat time that we had last year together, to have the speed, have the equipment behind me, all the things that are lined up for success for this year and if we go out there, we win, run up front consistently, compete in the playoffs – hardcore – all the things I know that we are 100 percent capable of doing this year more than ever, the rest will take care of itself.”

WHAT WAS THE DETERMING FACTOR TO KEEP YOU IN THE 21 CAR THIS YEAR? “I think there’s just a lot of different people that go into the equation of driving the 21 car. Not only do you have the Woods, but it’s not ultimately completely their decision. We have a lot of great sponsors. We have Motorcraft and Quick Lane and Menards and all their vendor partners, and then we have our alliance with Team Penske and then our relationship with Ford, which is obviously everyone knows how great the relationship is between the Wood Brothers and Ford. Basically, what I’m getting at is all those people have to be on the same page and knowing a plan for the future and also with Ford and Team Penske having Austin Cindric in their lineup how does this work for everybody? That’s basically what all of them were trying to work on and they knew and understood that we were just getting rolling the last second half of last year, so they didn’t want to just sweep the rug out from underneath us, especially when we made the playoffs and I felt like we were just barely even getting going, barely scratched the surface. So there were a lot of people involved in the decision-making and that’s why this was kind of the best fit for everybody and kind of worked out for everyone moving forward.

HAVE TALKS STARTED TO FIGURE OUT WHAT YOUR NEXT MOVE IS GOING TO BE? “My whole career has had an expiration date. I’ve thought it was over 1,000 times, so it don’t even phase me. I’m pretty mentally tough at this point. There hasn’t honestly been any talks. I haven’t even hardly thought about 2022 just because my whole focus is on 2021 and driving the 21 car. Clearly it’s a sign that it’s our year. It’s ’21, so that’s been 100 percent my main focus, just knowing that all we need to do is go out there and kick ass and perform and the future will take care of itself, so I haven’t had any talks with anybody moving forward, but I’m still under contract with the Wood Brothers and with Team Penske as well. I think it will all just play out later in the season when it comes to, I don’t know, July or August – somewhere in that area.”

HOW HAS BEING PART OF AN ALLIANCE WITH JOEY AND BRAD MADE YOU A BETTER DRIVER? “I was just talking about this yesterday. I spent some time with the whole Team Penske group of drivers just recently and every time I’m around them, whether it’s in a competitive setting or even on personal time when we all went out to dinner together or whatever it is, I always come away just so blown away by how great of leaders all of them are, and not only that, but how positive of an environment it is. All you guys know. You interact with all the different drivers in the garage and they are all so positive, don’t have any negativity in them whatsoever. They’re always looking at how we as a group can be the best we can be, be great leaders for our team and not negative and not whiners or anything like that. They all, and myself included, appreciate our jobs so much and what we do, so that attitude carries over to the entire organization. When you have that as your driver setting a great example, it affects the entire organization at Team Penske and Wood Brothers with us having that alliance, so it’s really an incredible place. You guys probably see how respectful all the Team Penske drivers are. I hope you like me too. I feel like I’m not too bad of a guy (laughing), but it’s great to have those folks to lean on and to have and to go to for advice and to continue to want to get better and we all lean on each other.”

DO YOU STILL FEEL LIKE YOU GET TO SPEND PERSONAL TIME WITH THEM TO GET STUFF FROM THEM WITH ALL OF THESE RESTRICTIONS? “Yeah, I think even if it’s just simple stuff like we’re all in a group text together – all of us drivers. Austin Cindric, Ryan Blaney, Joey, Brad and myself and even some of us just lighthearted. We were playing a card game We were playing rummy together and even if it’s just talking about that stuff and laughing we have that kind of a great relationship with each other to where even if it’s not in person, we’re so comfortable with each other that a text or a phone call is no big deal for any questions I’ve had. And for coming into this camp, the Wood Brothers camp and our alliance with Team Penske it’s been great to be so comfortable to be able to lean on them to make sure that I feel like I’m doing everything to the best of my ability coming into this camp and doing the best I can for our team.”

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEING IN THE CLASH AND HAVING THE RACE BE ON THE ROAD COURSE INSTEAD OF THE OVAL? “I still look at it as a great opportunity because, and actually probably the best opportunity this way because I felt like our road course program last year was where we needed the most improvement. That was probably our weakest area last year, not that it was terrible, it just needed some work. So I’m actually glad that the Clash is on the Daytona road course because that was probably one of our weakest races of the year, but we know the things that we need to work on, so I still feel very good about our chances when we go there here next week. I’m glad it’s on the road course, so then we basically have a race to evaluate what gains that we’ve made and how to continue to get better at those places because you guys saw that our speed on the short tracks, on the intermediates, on those places were excellent, especially the last bit of the year. We were really flying at those places, so glad we get an extra opportunity at the Clash to go out there and try and see what we’ve gained on and go try and win.”

IS THE RELATIONSHIP WITH AUSTIN CINDRIC WEIRD AT ALL? HE SAYS IT’S NOT. “No, not at all. Actually, Austin is a great friend of mine. We text, snapchat. We literally snapchat each other every single day, so if that explains to you our level of friendship. We get along excellent. I love hanging out with Austin. It’s not weird at all. This sport is a business and everyone has the same goals. Austin grew up his whole life and wanted to be a winner in racing and in NASCAR and he’s doing everything he can to perform and accomplish those goals. I have the same goals to be successful and win races and championships and everything and be around this sport for a very long time, which I know that I’m gonna be here for a long time. I’m confident, especially with the opportunities I’ve been given, so, no, it’s not awkward at all. It’s just part of the business and things work out the way that they’re supposed to, and I think there are gonna be great opportunities for me in the future and I’m just pumped about this year. I’ve been through so much to where I’m just super pumped to be driving the 21 and with our seat time that we had last year and our experience and all the momentum we have, to go out there and have the opportunities to go win and kick butt this year that’s all that I need and the future will take care of itself. So, there’s nothing weird between me and Austin. He’s a great kid.”

WILL YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL NOT TO LET THE OVERALL PICTURE CREATE SO MUCH PRESSURE THAT WHEN YOU ARE IN A POSITION TO WIN THAT IT OVERWHELMS YOU? “I think going back to a little bit of what I said earlier is my whole, I think people understand a little bit of my path to get here and the struggles and the pressure and everything that I’ve overcome. I mean this in a humble way, it’s humbled me to an extreme that I couldn’t possibly explain, but it’s also made me so mentally tough, and I’m thankful for that because it’s made me who I am today to where I don’t even think about that type of stuff or the pressure. I more look at it as great opportunity and I would have done anything my whole career to be sitting in this position where I’m really establishing myself in the Cup Series driving the 21. We have all this momentum to go out there and have what I feel like will be the best year of my career by far, so, no, to answer your question. I’m pretty mentally tough at this point and I’m thankful for that and it honestly doesn’t even pop up in my brain. I’m just excited and focused on the competition side and the opportunity we have this year to go kick some butt.”

DO YOU THINK THE NO QUALIFYING LAST YEAR HELPED YOU GUYS MORE THAN IF THERE WAS PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING? “No, actually I think on the flip side it actually hurt us more than most because of us being – me and Greg Erwin, our engineers and our team being new to each other – the things that we would have normally learned in practice and maybe qualifying in some instances, but mainly that we would have learned in practice like, ‘Oh, Matt likes these shocks at these places and this type of feel. Matt likes his cars to be a little tighter or this or that.’ We’re learning them in the race to where you really can’t change it and then you’re learning it by trial and error in races versus in practice, so that’s exactly where I felt like it took us a little bit to get going. It’s because we had that stripped of us, that valuable time of practicing, figuring each other out, what I need in the race car, how I need to best communicate with my guys, all that. We’re doing it cold turkey in the race, and driving the 21 car for the Wood Brothers and kind of being a standalone team we have such excellent support from Ford and from Team Penske that our equipment is great. Our race cars are super fast. I’m driving a Ford with Roush Yates power. We’ve got it all, so I’m just glad we kind of got that trial and error mostly out of the way to where we feel really confident about our setups and our communication and all that momentum we have going into this year.”

IS THE JULY/AUGUST PERIOD THE LATEST WINDOW YOU’D LIKE TO KNOW WHERE YOU WILL BE DRIVING, AND IF YOU WIN A RACE WILL THAT LIFT A WEIGHT FOR 2022? “Yeah, winning takes care of it all. That’s the best goal, so that’s goal number one. I think those talks and all that stuff start popping up around summertime. Most people have deadlines in their contracts, I think mine is like September 1. I have two multiple contracts with Team Penske and with the Wood Brothers, so probably around that last summer is when the discussions or you hope to kind of have an idea of what’s going on. You’ve got to be willing to kind of go with it and let it all happen as it’s supposed to. You can’t control everything. You’ve got to go out there and just perform and sort of let some things take care of themselves, which is nice that I’m in that position where I have the team and the equipment to do so.”

IS THERE ANY PLACE YOU HAVE YOUR EYE ON? As far as specific places, I felt really good the second half of last year about pretty much everywhere. The superspeedways are fast because everyone knows the Fords just kind of fly on those anyways. They’re really good. Our mile-and-a-half program got excellent. The cars were super fast. The short tracks were excellent Road courses needed some work, but when we’re that versatile as a team and we got to where we were fast at all the different places we’re going to really makes you extra excited about this year. I’m not circling off Bristol or Martinsville. I’m like, ‘We’ve got pretty fast cars about everywhere.’ That’s why the last bit of the season we were getting tons of top 10s at very random different racetracks, which is a great sign.”

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO WIN, ESPECIALLY WITH THE NEXT ONE BEING #100 FOR THE WOOD BROTHERS? “It’s huge and you’ve got to win and perform. That’s everything, but we’ve been so dang close to them now that it’s painful. I mean, that’s a good sign is that when you have that momentum and you’re that close and you’re in position as many times as we have been now, and then knowing that we’re going into this season with the momentum that we have, I think we can do it much more consistently. If you keep putting yourself in position to get that win, that’s when it has the ability to come. You’re not always gonna win every one of them that you’re in position to win, but you have that opportunity, so I’m excited about that. Also, from a personal standpoint I so badly want to get the 100th win for the Wood Brothers because they are family. Anyone who knows the Woods knows when you drive for them you’re not friends you’re family to them. They are family and I want it so bad for them and for the whole entire family, so that would be an amazing accomplishment there. We’ve got to go out there. Now that I know we are ready as a team, I feel the last bit of last year and going into this year I feel we are 100 percent ready to win. I’m honest. Early in the season last year I did not feel like we were ready. We had a lot of thing we had to work on and you have to be perfect. Your team has to be excellent to win, so I did not feel like we were a winning team at the beginning of last year because of the circumstances. We had the people and the equipment and all the things, but we needed time and we got that now, so going into this year I think it’s our time and the goal is to win, to run up front, to compete and to compete all the way down to the end because I know we can do it.”

HAVE YOU TALKED TO LEONARD WOOD ABOUT THE DIRT RACE AT BRISTOL? HE WAS AROUND WHEN NASCAR RACED ON DIRT PREVIOUSLY. “The ingenuity and the support from the Wood Brothers as a whole, and the stories and advice that they can give in general because they have been around this sport far longer than I’ve been alive – a lot longer than I’ve been alive. It’s always super useful and it’s useful in many different aspects. One, they’re amazing stories that you just enjoy hearing. Two, the positivity and the support that you have from them and then the experience that they have that they can pass along. That’s excellent. I’m looking forward to that Bristol Dirt Race for different reasons. One, because I grew up dirt racing. Loved it. Anytime I’ve hopped in a dirt car it’s still been like riding a bike. It comes right back to me naturally and I love it, so that part is fun. And then also super excited because the reaction from the fans and friends, the amount of text messages and calls and comments I’ve gotten about the Bristol Dirt Race, you get ones a lot about the Daytona 500. That’s coming up, so I get tons of stuff about that knowing our car is fast at that. And then the Bristol Dirt Race has been another one where I felt like, ‘Man, that’s amazing to see that kind of excitement for those couple races.’”

HAVE YOU TALKED TO LEONARD ABOUT IT? “Not about that specifically. Actually, I talked to him recently about he built me an RC car – nitro-powered RC car handmade – and it has a plaque on it, handcrafted by Leonard Wood. That was actually the last conversation that we had was how much that meant to me. That was my Christmas gift, but with COVID and stuff I haven’t been able to actually go up there to their shop as much as I would like to, but we talk more about casual stuff. But I’m sure I’ll get some good stories about that since Bristol dirt is coming up, so that’s on the agenda.”

IS IT AN ADVANTAGE TO RUN THE CLASH ON THE ROAD COURSE WITH THE ROAD COURSE RACE TWO WEEKS AFTER THAT, AND DOES THAT MAKE UP FOR NOT BEING ABLE TO GO HOME AND RACE IN CALIFORNIA? “I’m sad that we don’t get to run out there in Fontana because it’s a cool racetrack. I love that aspect of it and the fans out there are great. I could look at it both ways. I think it’s an advantage for us that we get that race of the Clash to evaluate where we’re at with our road course stuff. I’m excited about that and then having that race and all the extra laps and track time, but you can also look at it in the different fashion of a lot of your field is in that race as well and a lot of extremely competitive, good race cars. So, they’re getting that track time as well. It’s pretty much still a level playing field, but where I’m excited about it for our team to have that since I thought that was a point we needed to work on a little bit last year that we have that race to go out there and see where we’re at.”

THOUGHTS ABOUT RUNNING THE CHILI BOWL SOME DAY. “I’m working on it pretty much as we speak. I’ve been in conversations already about maybe running a couple of races that work out with our schedule this year to get maybe two races under my belt or something like that to get a little seat time in a midget. Knowing that our schedule is becoming more diverse it’s making me look into different things because our schedule has seven road courses on it, we have a dirt race now. I’m looking at it like, ‘Oh, man. I think I need to start exploring different opportunities to continue to hone my skills.’ I always want to be the best I can possibly be at what I’m doing, so I’m gonna try to get a couple of races in. Stay tuned. There might be more info on that pretty soon, hopefully. I’m working on it. I don’t know the details yet, but I’m looking to work on that and hopefully get a couple races and then run the Chili Bowl. I’ve always wanted to. I grew up dirt racing. Larson has told me do it and work on it, so I’m like, ‘All right, now I think is the time. We have a dirt race on the schedule. I want to keep honing my skills and get better at everything.’ Then we’ve got the road courses, a lot of road courses on the schedule, so I’m looking at ways to try and get more track time on road courses in different kinds of cars, things like that. So it’s pretty exciting that the schedule is becoming so cool and diverse.”