Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, met with members of the media at Bristol Motor Speedway and discussed his season to-date, racing at Bristol, his niece’s racing career and other topics. Full transcript:
QUESTION: Talk about how your season has started for your Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: “The season has started off really good. We had a good run at Daytona. Struggled a little bit at Phoenix, but we still got a decent finish out of it. Had a pretty good car last week (at Las Vegas Motor Speedway). We just stayed out of trouble. Some other guys have had some difficulties; we’ve been able to capitalize on that, and get a pretty good spot in the point standings after three weeks. This (Bristol Motor Speedway) is a good track for me. I’ve done pretty well here, and been pretty consistent at Bristol. I look forward to continuing that this weekend.”
Q: How do you feel about NASCAR sharing the fuel injection data information after races and would it benefit your team?
DEJ: “I’d rather not have that. It would benefit to be able to see that. But, I think it is a slippery slope. With the fuel injection it brings in the ability this year to be able to see data that we’ve never been able to see before. I think we should ease into how we use that date, and how NASCAR allows us to use that data kind of slowly not to upset the culture of the sport, or how things have worked in the past. I think if we take this new door that has been opened to us and abuse it; it might not be good for the sport. I think it’s better for competition for everybody to have a few secrets.”
Q: Have you and Mark Martin talked after last week at Las Vegas? Is that over with? What is your mindset this week? Are you happy with all the laps you led last week and the way you ran, or disappointed that you didn’t come away with a better finish?
DEJ: “I think I was disappointed that we didn’t come away with a better finish. We ran good there last year. So, when I got out there and led the first part of the race, I wasn’t as surprised as the rest of the world was. I felt like that was how we wanted to run; could run there. I was disappointed that we finished where we did, because we let a lot of cars that we had out-run all day beat us. That is really frustrating.
“Me and Mark handled our little issue immediately after we got home. I feel pretty good that we got that sorted out.”
Q: Do you feel like once you get that win you have been so close to, they will come faster and help the team?
DEJ: “No, because I felt that way in 2008, and we won one and never won again. I just don’t believe in ‘Man, you open up the flood gates; they are just going to come piling on’. I do know that when you do win a race, your confidence is way up. The team feels really good about itself. A lot of time consistent, good finishes come after that. Opportunities to win, maybe; and maybe more wins. It definitely helps your confidence a lot when you get into Victory Lane. The team sort of feeds off of that for a few more weeks after that win. That can be beneficial.”
Q: Did you drive harder at Las Vegas? Not that you tried harder, but, were you more aggressive as a competitor at Las Vegas?
DEJ: “No, I wasn’t. I didn’t drive, or act, or feel like I did things any different than I always do. I did run into the back of Mark, so maybe that makes that race stand out; or gives you that impression, or whatever, because of that incident that I had with Mark. Even though me and him talked, and I agree that he should have let me have the top, but it’s his prerogative to do what he wants. To run into the back of somebody and put them in the fence for such a…it was a big deal to me at the moment…but overall on the grand scheme of things, it was kind of petty. I put him in the fence for it, and that was kind of foolish of me. I think that in general, we had a good car and we got out front. We looked pretty good for a little while. Then we got frustrated when we got in the back there and got tight in traffic. I feel like I ran probably harder at Phoenix, and was more aggressive at Phoenix because the car was just not working at all. But, you just can’t see and realize those kinds of things. Because when you aren’t up front, nobody is watching you. (LAUGHS). You work pretty hard every week. You can’t take it easy in these things; you’ll get your butt whooped pretty bad.”
Q: Are you a fan of these public Drivers’ Meetings?
DEJ: “I don’t like it. I like the driver’s meeting to be with the drivers and the crew chiefs, and about the race. It has become less and less about that. It has to be cool for a fan to be able to have that kind of access. I think there is probably a way to give them that kind of access without going to the lengths that they went to at Vegas. I couldn’t see those video screens. I really couldn’t pay attention to what was going on. So, the meeting to me didn’t serve its purpose.”
Q: After having conversation with Brian Vickers about not knowing if he would get another chance, does it go through drivers’ minds how fleeting things can be? You can be here one season and gone the next.
DEJ: “Not necessarily like that. But, I know how short life can be. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to not be at the race track, and not be able to come here and work. You can’t imagine what that is like until you are in that position like he (Brian Vickers) was. Kind of difficult for me to understand where he is coming from. I can imagine it is not a great place.”
Q: Talk about Karsyn’s (Elledge, his niece) development (as a driver). Even at such a young age, her results seem pretty promising.
DEJ: “Yes, they are. I’ve seen her race myself. She does really, really good. For whatever reason, she’s got the speed to be competitive, and she’s not scared of it at all. I don’t know how she knows how to go around a dirt track, and drive sideways and all those things, because she is just a little girl. But, she knows. You know, she just knows. I didn’t see it coming, but she is a lot of fun to watch, and a lot of fun to listen to. It has really changed her as a person too. I think the best thing about it is for her to get in there, and do that really matured her as a person. And, made her a better individual to learn how to win; to learn how to lose; and do those things with integrity. At first when she would lose, she wouldn’t do too well with that. She has become a much better person for it. I think it has helped her out tremendously away from the track; in school and everything else. She has done a lot better.”
Q: People might pick out the four-tire pit stop as the turning point last week when your team wasn’t the same. Was it really as simple as that?
DEJ: “Pretty much. We took those four tires there, and we got so many race cars. Our car, when we were leading the race there-out front, it was really, really tight. We needed to work on it, and I was thinking ‘Man, I’m just lucky to be in clean air’. Because, if I was in traffic, even if I was in second or third, we were going to have some trouble because the car was so tight leading the race. I should have talked to Steve (Letarte, crew chief) more about that and said we aren’t guaranteed to come off pit road in first place every time, so let’s talk about what happens if we come out in fourth or fifth. Get beat by a few guys. We came out in 18th, and I knew it was going to be trouble. We pushed the rest of the day really. We worked on the car and improved it. We got really, really close to solving our problem with about 60 or 80 laps to go. Again, I got nervous about freeing the car up more, and we didn’t make enough adjustments those last few opportunities on pit road we had. That costs us a couple of spots. We had the car turning. We had it freed up; with about 80 laps to go we made some adjustments that really hit on it, and we should have kept doing that. But, we didn’t. I take responsibility for that, because I have to be able to tell him what the car is doing; he can’t guess and imagine what is happening from the pit box. He has to get information from me. I need to get a little more aggressive there.”
Q: How can the change from the carburetion to electronic fuel injection change the sport more than what we are just thinking about?
DEJ: “We used to have really strict limitations on being able to see data on a race weekend. Now, with this system, we can look at throttle traces. It is simple things, but it still tells you more than you knew. To be able to share that among teammates, and stuff like that is great. It is nothing that is really going to be detrimental; having that information that information available. For years we’ve salivated over having PI systems (data acquisition systems used during testing) at the race track on the weekends, and being able to get real true, live data from the cars. So, this is a step in that direction, and it is exciting for the engineers, and the drivers, and everybody who gets to use that information. But, what I think has happened to the sport over the last several years is that we have been boxed-in, and limited on creativity. The rules with the bodies; things like that. There’s a lot less opportunity for an advantage created by individuals, and creativity, and talent. So, it all stems down to basically every car is built exactly almost the same. There’s really no areas where you can be smarter than the next guy. Well, this data gives us that opportunity to open that box up a little bit. I think if we start sharing this with everybody where everybody can kind of look at what everybody’s doing; I mean, it takes a lot of the fun out of it.
“It’s kind of like this. If you have got a video game, and everybody knows how to win, how fun is that? Keep the challenge in it without giving away all the answers.”
Q: Can you reflect back on your Bristol win in 2004 and what it meant?
DEJ: “That was a big deal to me because I had seen those trophies in my house all my life. They were the biggest trophies you could bring home. They were bigger than even the championship trophy. I admired the track for how tough it was; and how tenacious the races were; and how hard the driving was; how difficult it was on drivers. It is just such a unique race track. One-of-a-kind.
“I think it has proven its popularity through ticket sales over the years, and its ability to grow and become what it is today. When you look at pictures of it when it was first built, and all through the 70s and 80s even; then see what it is today; it is really amazing the progress, and expansion that this little track in Tennessee has had. I just wanted one of those trophies, really. I was really glad to get one. It is right there in my living room. I don’t have many trophies in my house, but that’s one of them that is there. It was really even sweeter to have the opportunity to sweep the weekend like we did with the Nationwide win the day before.”
Q: How important is it in the Nationwide Series when the regulars like Elliott (Sadler) and Ricky (Stenhouse, Jr.) can go out and get early wins?
DEJ: “I think it is really good. Elliott is trying to change directions for his career. Get to where he wants to be; wherever that is. Then you have Ricky, this young kid, it is a great story how he was struggling, and just about to lose his ride. Then, turns it around, and becomes a champion; and now a consistent winner on the circuit. He has become one of the hottest commodities in the series and a future star in the sport. It is great. We love to see guys come from the Nationwide Series into the Cup Series, and be successful. You love to see guys do well in that series, and keep the talent pool in the Cup Series moving forward.”
Q: Are you worried about restarts here with the new throttle responses? Are you concerned about a big crash on a restart here?
DEJ: “No, not at all. I think we’ve learned a lot over the last couple of weeks with the system. I’m not really worried about it. If it happens, it happens. I’ll chalk it up to poor luck, and move it. If there are gremlins in the future with this system, which I don’t foresee them for our program; but, if they are, you are not in control of who is going to get them, and who is going to have those problems. I won’t be too upset if it happens to me, because it is a learning process. It is a new system; a new deal. But, I feel real confident that Hendrick Motorsports is going to provide me with good equipment every week, and I’m not going to have any problems. I hoping to not run any problems anybody else is having.”