Day one of the UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour hosted by Lowe's Motor Speedway kicked off on Monday. Appropriately enough, it started with the driver who has made the biggest headlines since last year's Daytona 500, no other than Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Along with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. teammate Kenny Wallace, Earnhardt, Jr. fielded questions about his team's previous success, his future expectations, and of course all the usual questions that have followed the team since the tragic death of his father and team owner Dale Earnhardt as the team prepares for the Daytona 500.
"Going back to Daytona and running the 500 will drum up some attention on my father's death," said Earnhardt. "But once we race the 500 and we pull out of Daytona and carry on with the rest of the season, there'll really, really be closure. If there ever was, that will be the day."
Earnhardt Jr answered the media with honesty and
"I'm looking forward to it. I dealt with everything back in July, getting reacclimated to the place, and getting used to being there again. Everytime we go to Daytona will be special for me, it's a great race track. I've dreamed of running there since I was a little kid, making the field for the 500 in my rookie season was probably was one of my proudest moments. Everytime we pull through the gate on the front straightaway, I just get the chills, because it's just such a beautiful place."
Earnhardt and Wallace were one of several teams who participated in a recent test session at Daytona, getting used to the new rule changes being tested by NASCAR. Earnhardt is considered one of the favorites to win the 500 this year, after finishing second to DEI teammate Michael Waltrip in the same race last season, and winning the Pepsi 400 at Daytona last July.
"I'd like to think I would be the favorite or one of them." Earnhardt said. "I don't even really know if NASCAR has decided which plate they're going to run or not, or how that will effect everything."
"We're one of the cars, if you could pick five favorites, we'd definitely be in that group."
Wallace will be driving the #1 Pennzoil Chevy for at least the first few weeks of the 2002 season, in place of regular driver Steve Park. Park is still suffering from injuries sustained in a crash at Darlington last year, most notably, double vision. Wallace will also attempt to run a full season in the Busch Grand National series for Innovative Motorsports. Wallace says he's ready to give the driver's seat back to Park whenever he's ready.
Wallace keeps the Pennzoil ride at least until Steve
Park is on the mend.
"My total approach to the whole season is this - if Steve Park doesn't get back, I've got to win a race while I'm in it, I might not get an another opportunity like this." Wallace said, "On the other hand, I've got this Busch Grand National ride that is a complete full-fledged effort. My car owner got the car totally full of sponsors, so the car is ready to run for a championship."
"I'm not worried about when he comes back. He can come any time he wants, he can come back tomorrow, because I've got this Busch Grand National ride. It's not like if Steve comes back I won't be racing, I'm going to be racing whether he comes back or not."
After finishing 7th in the point's standings in 2001, Earnhardt, Jr. is again favored to be one of the driver's competing for the championship in 2002.
"Winning championships, that's the ultimate goal, that's what we all put these programs together for." Earnhardt said, "It depends on whether we can run good every week. We can put four out of six races together that are pretty good and the other two are awful, if you want to run up front every week you got to have 22 top five finishes."
Jr finished 2nd to teammate Michael Waltrip in the
Daytona 500, but won at Daytona in July.
"I've always said the first five or six races are a tell-tale sign of who's going to be the champion and who's not. If we can get out of the first five races and be somewhere near the top ten and not have to climb up through the points like we did last year, we'll have a better shot at it."
Earnhardt has done much to promote NASCAR in the past year. He has helped introduce a whole new generation of fans to automobile racing and is now being seen as one of the drivers to represent the sport, much like his father once did.
"I've been hearing a lot of talk about representing the sport and whether I'd be one of those guys to do that. I might not represent the average mold for a NASCAR driver" Earnhardt said, "Walking around in a pair of Addias is pretty cool to me, and I want everyone to know that that's who I am, and if you don't mind that guy to represent the sport wearing Addias and a hat on backwards then that's fine."
Earnhardt, Jr. and Wallace also took time out to send their support to the men and women in the armed forces serving in Afghanistan with a surprise conference call to the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The drivers answered questions for about 45 minutes from several sailors serving on the Roosevelt, which has been on duty in the Arabian Sea since September.
The two drivers answered questions as well as give praise to the sailors for their dedicated service.
"Junior, I just wanted to let you know that your Dad is still my number one race car driver," said sailor James Harris, a Kannapolis, NC native. "I guess I'll let you be number 1-A."
Lowe's Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler offered free tickets for the upcoming Busch Grand National race at the speedway to all 5,500 sailors on the ship.
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