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Defending Iowa Corn Indy 250 winner took time away from hanging out with his new son and adding to his 300-plus pair shoe collection to talk to me. Here’s what he had to say:

Can you defend your Iowa title with this team?

I think so. The biggest thing this year is when you look at the competition, it’s incredibly important to when you can roll off the truck fast. When you do that it gives you the ability to work on the racecar and really perfect it. You can fine-tune the racecar. It sounds like obvious things to do, but if you don’t roll off the truck with a really good package it takes some time to really get it the way you want it. That being said once you’ve done that you can perfect things. We seemed very competitive in the last race at Texas in practice, but for whatever reason we didn’t carry that over to the race. I seemed to do well in traffic. But just given the outright pace we didn’t quite have the same pace. That’s something we’re working on.

What’s the biggest difference from this team to the Ganassi team?

It’s a much smaller operation and I think certainly going into the season I was under the impression that we’d be working on just one car but we’d have a budget to be where they are. But for whatever reason it isn’t quite there. In terms of development and the little things on the racecar we’re certainly not at their level yet.

How much different is Panther racing since last time you were there?

It’s always very difficult to judge after only a couple of races with a team. I was very new to IndyCar. Back then they were competing for championships and working with Penzoil. But I think when you get to the budget they were working on then. But then you compare them to the Penske team, I don’t think you can compare them right now. But the ethics of the team is great. The work ethic of this team is really good. There’s a few of the people left from when that team then.

At Indy did you have car to win?

At Indy the quickest car doesn’t win. It’s about execution on pit stops and strategy. But if you compare my car to Helio’s it obviously didn’t have the speed at the end of the race that he had. But we adjusted our car to work well in the end. When you compare my car to his, I don’t think it would’ve been that much different. We actually struggled in the month at Indianapolis we had a big imbalance. But for carburetion day and for the race we certainly helped it, we weren’t quite there but we really helped it. At Indianapolis it just seemed to be track position, which Ganassi had and Penske had. But when those Ganassi cars got in the back of the pack they couldn’t overtake. That was the theme for that race. Without track position it was pretty difficult to overtake.

What’s the biggest challenge about Iowa?

It changes so much. This will be the third time we’ve been here. The first time it was really comfortably flat out. You were able to run as low of a line as you possibly could. That was comfortable, but passing was pretty limited. It was pretty much in the pits and on restarts. Last year we went back and the second lane opened up and it was sometimes quicker or at least as quick as the low line. But it was about getting your car to work well in between turns 1 and 2. If you can do that and continue to run that low line. If you can do that as your fuel starts to burn off then you can keep pace there.

Is it a fun track?

Absolutely it’s fun. I wouldn’t say, it’s definitely a different race track there. They all have slightly different challenges. Iowa it’s getting the car to work over the big bumps in turns 1 and 2, and then as the track sort of falls away off of the exit of 4 you have to make it shorter in the rear. But if you’ve got the car working for you it sure is a fun track. I don’t think we’re quite pulling 4 G’s at Iowa, but I think Richmond is the track where we carry the most G’s. It’s a very very fun race track and I always like to go there.

Can you pass on the high side?

You certainly could last year. I have to say when you look at the races that we’ve been part of this year it’s been incredibly difficult to overtake. Going on last year I would say certainly that it’s going to be one of those races where you can overtake on the high side. But the big thing is the track position. When you look our last race at Texas, which is typically a side-by-side racetrack, there wasn’t much of that. So I would certainly hope that would be the case. Certainly from last year that would be. But it’s probably not going to be as easy as last year just because of the rules that are.

Have the rules tightened the teams up this year?

I think it’s a variety of things. I think obviously with the competition level. I think Brian Barnhart is in a very difficult position. I think a couple of years ago when we were in side-by-side racing we were trying to, I think his job basically was to try to spread the field out because people complained about how dangerous the IRL was with how easy it was to go flat out. It’s a very difficult position he’s in because now it’s almost gone the other way. There obviously are changes that he’s made that have spread the field out. I don’t think we expected it to be like this year. But I know he’ll do a fantastic job in the future. That’s what the IndyCar Series is about it’s about entertaining side-by-side racing. And I think we just haven’t had that. But I think personally it’s down to a variety of things.

What did you think of last year donating and helping?

It was something that needed to be done. My wife and I we drove from Chicago to Iowa and seeing that devastation of the floods, it was the very least we could do. I’m in a very fortunate position to do what I love and to make a lot of money to do it. I think it was the least that we could possibly do. Don’t forget that Scott Dixon did it too and Chip Ganassi was part of it. I felt that it was something that before the weekend started it was something that we could do to give them all the money. It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen the devastation of a flood, it absolutely blew my mind. There’s a lot of people that lost everything there. It was the least that I could’ve done. I know it was a very small amount. I was just grateful that I could do my small part. I think that we could make some people smile. I think the race last year the race was incredibly entertaining in difficult circumstances, but if that took their mind off that, I think that was awesome.

Why the success on ovals when your background is on road courses?

It’s one of those things. I would say this year it has been on the other way around. It depends on how you can get the racecar to work for you in the different situations. You’ve got to work incredibly hard with your engineer to get a feel that you’re 100 percent confident, particularly when it’s so competitive these days. I performed well on the road courses, not as well as I would’ve liked. But this year it’s sort of the opposite. I think it depends on the package that you have and the amount of time to get the package to your liking.

What do you think of Jenson Button’s success?

I think it’s great. A lot of people wrote Jenson off in the last few years. And I think it’s great that he’s got the car to show that. He’s the same driver he was last year and he didn’t even win a race and didn’t even feature. But this year he’s won six out of seven. So I’ve known Jenson for an incredibly long time. I’ve got an immense amount of respect for him. We’ve raced together since the age of 8. I couldn’t be happier for him. I really couldn’t.

You’ve never won at Nashville, you’ve finished second a couple of times, but if you ever did would you smash your trophy guitar like Kyle Busch?

No. Absolutely not. I’ve tried really hard to win that race because of the guitar. I have a couple of guitars in my house. So I wouldn’t have smashed it. I didn’t know that he smashed it. That’s crazy. I would’ve bought it off him. I would’ve offered him a lot of money to buy it. I finished second there a few times and I was bummed because I didn’t get it. If I’d have known he was going to smash it I would’ve offered him some money before. But he’s a fellow NOS driver. We’re sponsored by the same energy drink and maybe he was hopped up on NOS or something.

Do you have a favorite pair shoes?

I don’t have one. That’s why I have so many.

Any other superstitions besides tapping the car three times before you get in?

That’s about it, really. I think tap the nose on the right front. But nothing too exciting. It’s little things drivers do. It’s more being repetitive than superstition. That’s the main one, patting the car on the nose.

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