Team Chevy Racing News |
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS, met with media and discussed the new Chevy SS race car, his history and hopes for performing at Bristol, his start to this season, and more.
Talk about your start to the season and now coming to Bristol.
“We’ve got a good start to the year. I wish we’d have run a little bit better last week. I feel like we had a little better car than 7th. But we just never got the opportunity to really prove it. But I feel pretty good. The car has been driving really good. The guys did a lot of great work during the off-season. Steve (Letarte) and Chad (Knaus) and everybody in the shop just really have a good hold on the car out of the gate. We’re still learning a lot and there’s still a lot of things to uncover as far as what makes this car really run well. We’re hoping we can stay ahead of the curve.
“I like Bristol. I’ve always enjoyed coming here as a kid and watching races here. This is one of the best tickets in the series. It’s an exciting race track and it’s a lot of fun for the drivers. You’re always in the middle of something every lap. It keeps you on your toes and it’s a pretty tough race track. I enjoy the challenge and look forward to hopefully having a good weekend.”
You started the season with three top-10s and yet you still find yourself third in points. In your career, have you seen the competition level change compared to what it was in your rookie year?
“Yeah, the competition level has changed. It gets tougher every year. A lot of that has to do with the way the technical inspection and rules are refined over the years. When you go back to the 1970’s, everything was under interpretation. As you move on through the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, things were a little more uniform and a little more structured. Today, you basically have perfect measurements that the car has to go by from one end to the other and all the components are scrutinized. So that definitely has leveled the playing field and put everybody in a smaller window as far as competition goes. So, it definitely makes it tough.”
To improve the racing, do you think maybe NASCAR should make it more incumbent on the race tracks instead of the teams to make little tweaks and enhance the action like they did here at Bristol last August?
“I don’t know if you could do that at every race track. This place is easy because it’s so small. And really, what they did was just went up and ground the race track a little bit. I didn’t anticipate it having the result; which I liked it as well. I didn’t anticipate it. Really, nobody knew what was going to happen. They were trying to eliminate the top groove and ended-up making it even stronger. And so it didn’t really have the intended result, but it was a good result nonetheless. Everybody seemed to enjoy the race. I did. So, I think everybody needs to put away the pick axes and hammers because we really don’t know what makes a good race track. We really don’t need everybody hammering away at the surface of the race track trying to fix it, because nobody really knows what the result is going to be. I think if you look at Atlanta and you look at Vegas and Texas and the age of that asphalt, it seems like the older the asphalt gets, the more we move around. I think us running different grooves is better for the racing. I think us running in one single groove is not better for racing. I think we all can agree there. It really comes down to the asphalt and the tire sort of cooperating together and working together and working well together. The components on the cars and the cars themselves will have an influence on the style of racing. But the main component is the tire and it connects the car to the track and what the surface condition is. So we just repaved a lot of tracks and you’re going to have to be patient. There’s no way to speed that process up as far as aging that asphalt. Once it does age, I think the durability of the asphalt that we have now it a whole lot better than what we did 20 years ago. So, some of these surfaces, once they do age, will tend to be more durable and won’t need repaving so quickly and we’ll be able to enjoy that style of racing on those tracks a lot longer than we did in the previous paving cycle.
“Everybody has an opinion on what track is a good race track. Every driver is going to have a little bit different opinion on what type of race track they enjoy racing on. The fans like different tracks for different reasons. Everybody’s got a difference of opinion. I really did enjoy racing at Bristol last time and I know they were trying to push us all down the race track and get us to run on the bottom like we used to run here, but that didn’t work out. It was still a good show.”
When people are grumbling about the racing, it's a fix-all when they get to Bristol because they like the beating and banging. Does that make this a big weekend for NASCAR and for this car?
“I think every weekend is important; especially with the new car and the season being really early. But we all just need to sort of be patient, I think. At each race, there’s a variable that controls whether it’s a good race or not. I think in Phoenix, the newness of the surface handicapped us a little bit. But that was to be expected in my opinion. And I knew that going it. But when we went to Vegas, I knew we’d be all over the place. I had a blast racing there. We were moving all over the race track. I think that the best race is still yet to come. This is probably going to be a solid weekend. I’m not really worried or concerned that we won’t have a good race or an exciting weekend. Bristol always provides some kind of spark; whether it’s the last lap and what happens there or the overall race itself. But I think the rule changes they made to sort of cleanup what we were doing to the back of the cars and the rear-end houses is really going to make the racing here a lot more interesting. I’m expecting it to be a good weekend. I’m expecting it to be the same old Bristol.
“We haven’t ran into each other with these cars yet on a short track, so I don’t really know what to expect. The bump-and run, you were going to use that no matter what kind of bumper you had on there. If you want to win at Bristol, it doesn’t matter what kind of bumper is on there. You’re going to try to get the guy out of the way.”
Because of the way last year ended with you missing those races, how important was it to you to get off to a good start this year – even more than usual?
“Well, I felt pretty confident in the off-season because I was able to run a couple of races at the end of the year. So I really wasn’t worried. The stuff from last year, I had put that to bed because I was able to come back. That’s just me, personally. I was able to come back and get the car and drive and I felt good; so I felt like I could close that chapter and not have any concerns. I just really put a focus on the first 10 races because it’s important to the Chase. I think if you get behind, you’ll be in that battle at Richmond and then all that stuff is big distractions. So last year we were able to get a good 10-race start to the season and not have to worry about the points deal. We were comfortable in the summer and we could worry about our car and think about other things and not be stressed out about our points situation. No mater how good a race tea, you are, if you get behind, it’s a battle all the way to Richmond. And we don’t want to be in that situation. We’re just real fortunate that we’ve been able to put together a couple of good races. We’ve already got a good cushion on some guys that we feel like we’ll be racing to get a Chase spot with, and hopefully we can keep that going the next couple of weekends.”
You've had an average finish of 11.8 here. Do you think the bump and run will be back because of the new car or not? What do you have to learn here to be even better at this track?
“I think the bump and run really never left. It’s just if you can reach the guy on the last lap and be able to get an opportunity to get to his bumper. And it depends on the mentality and personality of the two drivers involved in that situation.
“Fortunately we’re running good enough that really you can’t put your finger on we’ve got a bit problem here (or there). I think if we come out of the pits first on that one pit stop at Phoenix, we got a shot to win just because of the style of racing there. I think if we did what Matt (Kenseth) did at Vegas and didn’t take tires and come out of pit road first there; we might have had a win there. We had a good enough car. We’ve got cars that are competing well and running well and showing great speed. We’ve just got to do a few things right during the race as far as needing to be able to contest a spot or two better and put ourselves into that strategy to be able to do what some of those guys do to put themselves in position to win. I don’t want to put it on anyone’s shoulders or point the finger at any one thing, but it just comes down to us and me doing a better job and Steve (Letarte) doing a better job and all of us just kind of stepping it up a position or two and we’re right there.”
Regarding the upcoming Fontana race, you finished third there last year. Have you figured something out? Does the new race car alter that a little bit?
“I seem to like this car and feel better and happier about driving this car than the CoT, so I’m looking forward to all the races every week. I like that race track. It’s really one of the tracks that has good old asphalt. And we use all the race track up. You can run the bottom, You can run on the apron. You can run on the top. It’s a very run race track to drive. And so I’ve got a good attitude about it. I think Steve (LeTarte) is going to give me a good car. We ran good last year because Steve gave me a good car. So, I think if we go in there in the ballpark, and are somewhat competitive off the trailer, we’ll have a good weekend. I do enjoy racing there and look forward to it.”
Your last five races here, no top-10s. Last nine races, no top-fives. Do you feel like you're struggling here or has this just been circumstance? What can you do about it?
“Yeah, I feel l was accustomed to coming here and running in the top 10 on a regular basis and we fell off about five positions. We were sort of sitting right outside the top 10; running 11th or 15th and things like that. We had a little trouble speeding on pit road last time, which cost us a top 10. I think last year; maybe that’s happened a couple of times here, I can’t really remember. But we run all right here. But, we’re still sort of have yet really found that magic that you look for trying to get around the corner here. So, we had a pretty good car the last trip; better than most, so I feel like we’re at bit on the upswing and as a team, I think we’ve gotten better. So, I’d agree with that. I think we’ve struggled a little bit over the last 10 races as far as what I’m accustomed to running here. But not badly; just five or six spots difference as far as how competitive we are on average.”