Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, met with media and discussed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup career win 12 years ago at Texas, being very close to winning, his suggestion for improving Bristol Motor Speedway, the upcoming race at Kansas, and more. Full Transcript:
QUESTION: You’ve come on like a house of fire in the last few weeks. You’re second in points. You got your first career NASCAR Sprint Cup win here at Texas in 2000. Talk about coming to a place that has fond memories and about running well so far this year.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: “Yeah, we’ve had a good season. Everything has been going pretty good and I do enjoy racing at Texas. It’s a mile and a half, like a lot of tracks we run on in the series, but this track’s got some oddities to it and things about it that make it a lot different than most of the other 1.5-miles. The exits, to Turn 2 especially, is a real challenge. And the bumps and stuff are pretty challenging on the bottom of both corners. The entry to (Turn) 1 is really, really loose in the race; or the entry to (Turn) 3, I mean. The entry to (Turn) 1 is always a lot of fun, really fast and just trying to get the car through the middle is a challenge there. But it’s a unique place and what makes it even better I think, is the energy the fans bring here. The fan base here has always been pretty solid, right from the start. And that’s kind of, in my opinion, rare. The further west we go, we really sort of don’t have that gain in the energy of the fan base. But they really enjoy this race track and really enjoy us coming here and it seems to have a lot of NASCAR fans in this area. So, that makes it even funner to be here when you know that there’s a lot of people that are going to come out and support the track. Eddie (Gossage) does an interesting job; kind of out of the box a lot of time with all the things he does. A lot of credit has got to be given to him and his staff for what the track is today and how well the track does.”
Q: Given how well you’ve been running, did the off weekend lighten things up for you and give you the ability to enjoy it a little bit?
DEJ: “Yeah, absolutely. Anytime you’re going to have an off-weekend or maybe off on Sunday even, you definitely enjoy it more when you run good. If you don’t run good, that’s all you think about really is what you could have done to have run better or why you didn’t run as well as you wanted to. So it’s definitely a lot easier to enjoy the off-weekend of the Easter break with things going as well as they are. So, I definitely got a good break and it just seemed like it was longer than I wanted it to be. It seemed like it took forever for Texas to get here. It feels like I have been away from the race track for a month or more. So, I’m excited to get in the car and excited to go do some laps and get back to work and get back around my guys.”
Q: You just said that it seems like you’ve been away from the track for almost a month. Does that speak to your confidence level right now with back-to-back third-place finishes and being second in points?
DEJ: “I don’t really know if it does. I just really know that I enjoy what I’m doing and I’m enjoying the season we’re having and I like going to the race track with the race team I’m working with. And with the way things are going, that’s my favorite thing. That’s what I want to do. So, when I’m not doing that, that’s what I want to be doing. And taking a week off is always a good time and I always make a good time out of it and have fun, but like I said at Martinsville or wherever I said it, the races just can’t come quick enough for us. I’m enjoying working and racing and I feel like we’re gaining on getting to victory lane and so obviously, you want the races to come as fast as they can come so we can get closer and closer and try to win us a race.”
Q: Texas is a place that keeps raising the game and keeps the facility very nice. What do you think is the next innovation to come to race tracks? What are some of the next amenities that will or should pop-up in NASCAR?
DEJ: “I really don’t know. I haven’t really thought of anything myself or had any ideas myself. There are a lot of things happening with the way the garage where the drivers’ meeting was in Vegas, to how that garage was even built at Vegas and how they’ve done it at Daytona. There’s a lot of things that have happened in the last couple of years that are really cool and great for the fans. I think you’ll see more of that kind of stuff; whatever can get them around and close to us while we’re working so they (fans) can see things happening. It they’re going to be here all weekend, they want to have the opportunity to get up next to the teams and the cars as they’re practicing and see the teams working and see things happening. So I think you’ll see more of that. And it just depends on how much the tracks want to invest it looks like.
“I think a good analogy or situation would be California. They had that one garage area with the frontrunners or whatever they were calling us over there, and they paved and brought that walkway up level with the top of the wall in between the two garages. I don’t know if you noticed that right next to the regional press office and driver’s meeting room; and they only did that in one garage. So that would be something that might be interesting to do in every garage. But they only did it in one garage, you know. And the fans really seemed to like it having that being elevated over at the cars and the teams working and being able to have a great birdseye view on what was going on; even closer than what they are provided at Vegas. And the Vegas deal is probably as big as you could probably go as far as finances and how expensive something like that might be. But Texas has always done a good job and always seems to be ready and willing to do whatever it takes to make it a good experience for the fans; and always coming up with new ideas. They’re pretty innovative. I don’t know. I don’t know what the next cool thing will be.”
Q: On Kansas next week, are you going to take a look at the new casino? Can you compare Texas to Kansas? Will you go to Oklahoma Joe’s? Talk about the fun things you like about Kansas.
DEJ: “Kansas is great. I look forward to getting another race in on that surface they’ve got before they tear it up. I’ve enjoyed racing there. It’s a fun race track. Both corners are really different. Turn 1 and (Turn) 2 to me are kind of flatter than (Turns) 3 and 4. Three and 4 offer a lot more banking; just way different styles of driving each corner. So the track is a challenge and a fun challenge. The area is growing, especially right there at the race track. The area is really growing at a high rate of speed and making the track itself a success and the idea of building the track there a success.”
Q: Will you go to the casino?
DEJ: “Well, I probably won’t be using the casino on race weekends, but I’m sure the fans will enjoy it. I don’t go to the casinos when I’m working. But it’s great for the fans and they’ll enjoy it. I will be going to Oklahoma Joe’s if I can get away. That’s hard to miss being out there that close.”
Q: Can you reflect on your first Cup victory here 12 years ago and what that meant to you and what you remember from it? Also, do you get to be re-united with Tony Eury Sr. for a couple of Nationwide races?
DEJ: “It’s really hard to remember 12 years ago when your first race is a great feeling. I’ve answered this question several times in this room and it gets harder every time just because it gets further away. But you’re just relieved because you want to be able to do this for a living and there’s no guarantees. And when you win your first race and we did it at Texas, which has been good to me, they have used the fact that I’ve won that race in various ways to make me proud of that moment and make it even more special to me. It shows me that it meant something to them that I had won here. So, you’re just really relieved because you want to drive cars for a living and you want to be good at it. You don’t want to struggle your whole life. So winning that first race really kind of cracks that mold away from all of that and gives you a little more clear vision on what your future might be because there are so many unknowns and worry about whether this is something…. You want it so bad and you want to be a part of it and this is what I’ve wanted. I’ve wanted to drive cars all these years and be a part of it like I have. But at that moment and before that win, you didn’t know whether that was going to work out or whether that would happen for you. So, that starts to chip away at some of that and make you more aware and makes that vision a little more clearer to what the future might be for you.
“And, I am excited to be able to work with Tony Sr. We had to make some changes in the shop there and trying to help Cole (Witt) and trying to help Pops and everybody around and just trying to do whatever we need to do to make that thing work and work better. But I am looking forward to working with Tony Sr. and I’ve always enjoyed working with him and I hold him on a pretty high pedestal and we’ll enjoy being able to go to the track. I’m looking forward to going over there today and getting on the race track and hearing his voice over the radio. That will be a pretty good time for me.”
Q: For the last couple of years, the question has been ‘Is this the weekend?’ What’s it been like to have to answer that question every weekend? What is it about this team and this moment right now that leads you to believe that you’re so close to a win?
DEJ: “I think I really haven’t had to answer that question too much. People know I’m not Nostradamus, so they don’t ask me questions about the future. But I feel like we’re six points out of the point’s lead. We’re second in points. We’re a competitive team in this sport. So I think it’s a pretty easy argument to win that we’re better this year than we were last year; and better than the year before that. So we’re getting closer. I feel like we’re getting closer. I don’t really know what the measuring stick is but I think hopefully it’s real close. I’m ready to win and ready to go to victory lane. I’ve been working with these guys and they are working so hard. They are giving me really good cars. They deserve to win races. And I think the team deserves it. I’m ready to make that happen. We’re going to just keep trying. We’re getting closer though; at least that’s the bright spot of the deal.”
Q: Bristol has an upcoming press conference about changes they’re going to make to the track. Have they consulted you or asked your opinion about what you would do to change that track? Even if they haven’t, do you have a suggestion?
DEJ: “Well, they haven’t asked me personally. I’m sure they’ve reached out to certain drivers and obviously they’ve gone back and listened to what the fans have asked for. So, I think there’s only one thing that’s particular to me about the old race track that made it different. This particular thing to me about the old race track made the difference in the track entirely. And without it, I’m not sure how good it can be. But, with the old surface the yellow line around the bottom of the track was about a foot up away from the apron, and the apron was sealed black quite often. And they would seal all the way up to the line. That sealer is grippy. And so there was about a foot of sealer on the very, very bottom of the race track right above the apron; and then there would be the yellow line. And if you were smart and you hooked your left front tire on that sealer and didn’t overdrive the car and get the car up off that, you could find grip and find speed. And if you were smart enough to do that and be patient, you could make speed on guys that weren’t smart enough to use that. And that sort of made the racing look better and made the race funner from a driver’s point of view too. And without that, I think we’ll all just kind of…. I don’t know if that track will be as good as it was. That was a big, big part of what made the track what it was back then. And I don’t know if it gets enough credit but I know if you asked any other driver about it, they’d probably have the same opinion as I have, that it was a unique part that made that track what it was. And without that, and if they don’t do that again and they don’t have that in there, then the track ain’t like what it was. It’s not the same track as it was. That would be the only thing I would insist that they look into.”