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CHICAGOLAND -- Kevin Conway, driver of the No. 34 ExtenZe Ford Fusion, is coming off the best finish in Front Row Motorsports history with his 14th-place finish in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Conway, who is in position to claim the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, has just completed the first half of his season and spoke about what he has learned and what he expects this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Q. HOW WOULD YOU RATE YOURSELF ON THE FIRST HALF OF THE SEASON?
A. I would say it’s a B+. In some areas we’ve got an A and some areas we’ve probably failed, but when we set out at the beginning of the year, our goal was to stay in the top 35 of the owner point standings and to go after the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title. So far, we’ve been the only driver ever to capture the Raybestos Rookie of the Race Award in every career Cup Series start so, for us, we’ve met that goal. We’ve worked really hard with our teammates and the whole organization to make sure we stay in the top 35 of the owner’s points, so, collectively as a group, we’ve been able to do that. From that standpoint, it’s a passing grade. But it’s been really tough getting to some of these race tracks that I’ve never been to before for the first time. You get there and show up and you don’t know where to park, where the bathrooms are – you don’t know where anything is at, let alone what the race track is like – and then you have an hour-and-a-half to figure it out and you go qualify against the best drivers in the world, so that makes it a little bit challenging. I’m really looking forward to seeing how our on-track performance increases and our level of competitiveness increases as we get to these race tracks for the second time and we actually have a race under our belt. Every time we’ve been on the race track we get better and better. We’ve had to make the best with less than what others have sometimes and it’s David vs. Goliath, but we’re out there every single day making the most of what we have to work with and trying to make the most of this opportunity. There are always times where we want to run better. There have been some mechanical failures that have been completely out of our control, and there have been some things like at Las Vegas, where I spun out early in the race and got us in a hole early. At Darlington, I was racing for position with the 48 car and got myself into trouble there, so there have been some things all the way around where I think, from time to time, we’ve all had our issues, so, collectively, as a team that came together in January and as a rookie, I think we’re doing well as a group, but, as an athlete, you’re always trying to be better and never be satisfied with where you’re at, so right now I’m just looking forward to getting through the second half of the year. Our main goal is to continue to learn as much as we can and really start to step up our performance on the race track each week.
Q. DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT CHICAGOLAND SPEEDWAY?
A. I’ve seen it (laughing). I’ve raced at Chicagoland Speedway on the simulator quite a bit, and I really like the mile-and-a-halfs. They seem to favor my driving style a little bit better, and some of the most competitive cars that we’ve had all year have come on the mile-and-a-half tracks, so, for me, it’s a race track that I think will fit my driving style. It kind of compares to Kansas, which I’ve raced at in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and some of the characteristics of Charlotte and Texas, in certain elements, are the same. I love the mile-and-a-halfs and it’s one I have not been to yet, but I’m really looking forward to getting up to speed there and I look for us to run well. At Las Vegas we had a really good race car, so I think we’ll be in pretty good shape with our ExtenZe Fusion.
Q. WE’VE HEARD ABOUT GUYS USING VIDEO GAMES TO DRIVE THESE TRACKS. IN WHAT AREAS DOES IT HELP?
A. I think the simulation really helps in terms of becoming visually acclimated to the race track, but it’s impossible to simulate feel in a static environment. The throttle points are actually pretty close, so the one thing where it’s helped me is if you know you’re gonna run a certain lap time, you know what the throttle points are gonna be to run that lap time. But nothing really carries over from a feel standpoint.
Q. WE’VE SEEN A LOT OF AGGRESSIVE DRIVING FROM THE VETERANS THIS YEAR, SO HOW DOES A ROOKIE LIKE YOU DEAL WITH THAT STYLE?
A. The one thing that I think has been a big learning curve in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is just how aggressive these guys really do race. They get after it hard. I think Sonoma was the most physical race I’ve ever raced in any series in terms of beating and banging and just knocking each other out of the way, but it was also one of the most fun races of the year, too. For me this year, I’ve had to probably do a lot more taking than giving as we earn that respect. Having that yellow stripe on the back of our Ford Fusion is kind of like walking around school with a ‘Kick Me’ sticker on your back. That’s part of the whole rookie process, and you can only take so much before you give a little back just to set some boundaries.
Q. ARE YOU MAD AT ANYBODY CURRENTLY?
A. No, not at all.
Q. IS ANYBODY MAD AT YOU CURRENTLY?
A. I’m sure they are, but I’ve communicated with all the drivers – mostly sign language versus verbal. I’ve probably talked to almost everybody on the race track at one point or another via sign language. It’s cool. They’ll let you know real quick whether they’re happy with a little wave, or, if they’re not so happy, they’ll let you know that, too. I think, all in all, we’ve tried to do a good job of being respectful of the guys that are contending to be in the chase and the guys that we know are running for a championship not to mess them up and to earn their respect by racing wheel to wheel with them. To be honest with you, we’ve got to be there at the end to gain as much experience as we can. As we continue to grow as a team and as I continue to learn more as a driver – as that level of competitiveness does increase and we’re racing the guys that are in championship contention for position each week, I think that same respect will be reciprocated.