“I almost threw up!” says Kelly Clarkson, 24, after a few spins around the Daytona International Speedway with NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson during the Daytona 500 festivities on Feb. 17. The singer and newly named NASCAR ambassador—she will help promote the group’s charities—braked for PEOPLE’s Michelle Tauber.
For a NASCAR rookie, you catch on fast.
My family’s been into it for, like, ever. They’re all huge fans from North Carolina, so I don’t know how I missed that whole train. Then in September, [NASCAR] asked me to be the grand marshal at the California Speedway in Fontana and I fell in love with it.
What kind of a driver are you?
I hate to say this, but I’m one of those drivers who looks down and is like, “I’m going 100 mph—oops!” I live in Texas, and the highways are huge, so you can get away with a lot more than in, say, L.A., where you’re in gridlock.
Uh-huh, I’ve had quite a few. Speeding, parking … I’m not a bad driver. I’m just one of the ones that gets caught.
Your new album is due this spring. What can fans expect?
Everything from very low-key stuff to much harder rock than people are used to. We recorded everywhere while I was on tour—some in Scotland, some in Austin, Texas. It’s a variety of styles.
Have you been watching American Idol?
I have! This is the first [season] I could—during all the others, I was on tour. I like the curly-haired guy with the glasses [Chris Sligh]. He’s funny—very dry.
Okay, name your biggest thrill: winning a Grammy, getting a shout-out in The 40 Year-Old Virgin or racing on the Daytona 500 track.
Oh, the driving. Obviously, since I was a kid I wanted to win a Grammy. And I don’t know why [Steve Carell] screamed my name [while getting his chest waxed] in 40 Year-Old Virgin, but that’s cool! But driving was far more thrilling. I mean, you’re going that fast—honestly, you feel like you could just crash at any moment. It’s like, “Okay, I hope I’m at peace with myself!”