I like the competition and I enjoy what comes with the competition. I think a lot of people think, aaah, you're a race car driver so you're an adrenaline junkie. Some guys might be, but for me, I'm just very competitive and racing was the thing I could be very competitive at.
"Saturday Night Live" in 2003 -- a big crossover moment.
The funny thing was, I got an invitation and I turned it down. I was like an idiot: "I'm a racecar driver, I can't do Saturday Night Live.'' A friend of mine from New York, I was telling him the story, and he said, "Are you crazy?'' A couple of months later I got another invitation and I did it. I'm so glad; it was one of the most enjoyable experiences, even thought it was nerve-wracking!
There are stereotypes of NASCAR fans just as there are stereotypes of opera fans. How much is true and how much isn't?
Some of it's true. We drive race cars for a living, and NASCAR was born in the South and still its strongest fan base is in the South. But when people come to a race they see the avidness, as well as the mass numbers -- they think of the Super Bowl, but every week it's like the Super Bowl. And they see the higher-end aspect that comes from sponsors, and I think people are pretty amazed. [They] see that this is a major business that we run to provide these race cars, to get these cars to the track every weekend, and the hundreds of people it takes to do it and the millions of dollars that are spent.
And did you see "Talladega Nights''?
Unfortunately, yes. I love Will Ferrell, and we have a sport that's easy to make fun of. I like "Days of Thunder'' better, I'll put it that way.
Do you choose your sponsors? Are there some that you'd say, "That's not a good fit for me"?
Let's be honest, in recent years, with the economy, you can't be too picky. I've been very fortunate [that] a company like DuPont took a chance on a young rookie, and they were with us for 18 years. I've been getting razzed a little about the AARP and the AARP foundation [sponsoring his car as part of a "Drive to End Hunger'' initiative], but when you see what we're able to do, the sponsorship is very cool.
But you're a long way from retirement.
Driving on a competitive level in the Cup Series is not something I'm planning on doing until I'm 50 or 55, but who knows? If I can stay healthy and competitive, I enjoy it too much to just walk away for no reason.
You've also got your foundation to help sick children.
I've always wanted to help kids, but being a parent, that's taken it to a whole 'nother level. I can't imagine what some of these parents have to go through. We have a children's hospital in North Carolina and over the holidays, I had my daughter [Ella, 3] go with me and hand [gift bags] to children at the hospital. I thought the first thing she'd want to do was open up the bag and look inside, but she didn't; she handed it to them and told them she hoped they'd feel better. That was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
What do you make of the controversy in Congress over the Army spending $7 million to sponsor a NASCAR car?
As somebody who was sponsored by the National Guard for a couple of years, when you see the military presence that comes to the racetrack every weekend and you spend time with the troops, I got to see what goes on behind the scene, when it comes to marketing [and] recruiting. We don't want to have go to war, we don't want to have to send troops out there, but it's been part of our country since its inception. I see [the military] sending kids through school who otherwise might not have gotten their GED or job opportunities. There's risk involved, but I see the other side of it as well. The military, they have marketing budgets just like corporations and that's part of how they do the recruiting and part of how our military works. So when somebody tries to attack it, I feel it's somebody who isn't fully educated on everything that goes on.
People think they can write just because they own a computer. Are there people who think they're NASCAR material just because they can drive?
Of course! When I was in high school and I was racing, I had other kids going, "Hey, I could drive that race car. Put me in there and I'll show you,'' and I'm thinking that until people get in that position, it's hard to tell whether they can do it.
Have you driven an electric car?
I've actually driven the new Volt and have one on order. The only problem is that you don't know if it's running! The technology is incredible, and I'm a big supporter of things that are better for the environment. I'm loving the things going on with biofuels, and we're getting into that in NASCAR.
You pay attention to gas prices?
It makes me feel old when I look at gas prices; I'm like, "Wait a minute -- when I was 16, filling my first car up, it was like a dollar!''
What's the weirdest thing anyone's asked you to autograph?
A prosthetic. The technology has come a long way. They have these "wraps," a picture image wrapped into the prosthetic. I've seen my car, my face, my car number on a prosthetic arm or leg. It's pretty cool!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.