NASCAR News

Q and A with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

January 11, 2006

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PLEASE GIVE US A QUICK OVERVIEW OF YOUR COMEBACK TO DAYTONA AFTER THE BREAK?

Yeah, I was just looking forward to getting here, getting testing, seeing what our cars are like, seeing what all the hard work in the shop the guys are doing ,and how that is going to pay off, taking time off in the off season to enjoy myself and now look forward to getting back into the car and doing what we like to do.

DO YOU FEEL LIKE EVERYTHING IS GOING IN YOUR FAVOR?

First of all, when you say we comprised the best of the best from the 15 that's not really the case. There were a couple of guys that went to Martin's team that I would have loved to have kept. There was, like I said last year, the group I had last year as a whole were really talented, across the board and it was very hard to settle with just getting a couple, and it's hard too.

One thing you learn in racing is that people come and go, crew chiefs and guys you get used to working with, guys you get a good rapport with, friends, and relatives. This work changes so fast from one year to the next, so Martin got a couple of the good guys. Both teams are pretty much full of experience and knowledge and both will be formidable to compete next year. I think we will work really well together.

We already have the relationship because of Tony Jr. and Bono, having been across the alley from each other, working together, building the Busch team. That relationship is already there and will work pretty well together.

It feels good working with Tony Jr. It feels good to go into the shop and talk to him about the cars, and know when he is talking about his cars, he is talking about my cars too. It feels good and I'm looking forward to getting some races under our belts, getting into victory lane as fast as we can, and start knocking off some wins.

HOW ARE THE MOTORS THIS YEAR? DO YOU HAVE AN EARLY READING ON HOW YOUR HORSEPOWER IS?

Yeah we sure do. We had two cars here today, obviously. One of them is a lot better on acceleration. I'm real pleased with what I felt under the hood of that car. Itís only a 10th faster, but I don't know. It has a little more acceleration under the gears, 2nd and 3rd gear is real important on the qualifying run, your acceleration and being able to run up and get a good run. It accelerates down a straight way a little bit better.

The car that is a 10th slower, feels a little like our '04 stuff and '05 stuff and I think they have worked real hard on it all season and found a few things. They need to take some things like that, that is what I'm feeling on other cars, and I'm pretty pleased about that.

AFTER THE SEASON YOUíVE JUST HAD, DO YOU HAVE TO COMMIT TO ANY MORE TESTING DAYS? MORE BUSCH RACES, OR IS THAT TIME YOU SPEND PRETTY MAXED OUT ALREADY?

Well, I don't really understand your question, but I think that I would like to run more Busch races. Normally we run like 4-5 a year. I would like to run 10 if I could. I think it is really fun to run the Busch races. But at the same time, it was a great idea when you planned it 6 months ago. But when it comes time to do it, you kind of think 'Man, I already got a lot of things going on this weekend'. Especially, like Richmond races, when youíre practicing both cars all day long and you qualify and you race and you qualify. By Friday, you're slammed if your going to run both shows. So I don't really think it sounds like a whole lot of fun to me and not really a blast, but I do know for sure.

Running more Busch races is better for your performance and your knowledge and preparation towards your Cup car on Sunday and also with tires changing every year, every race, for that matter. You got to be out there as much as you can. So that would be cool to do more of that. I've talked to Budweiser and they understand that view point, and we are working towards doing that, maybe putting together more races.

Testing? I don't want to do more of that than I have to. When we come back here for the Busch test, we will be here for three days and I will probably stick around for three days because I got my other car out there, the Navy car, and that will be a reason to stick around.

Three days is a long time to be out here testing, it gives those guys time to get it figured out. I think two days is plenty if you're running under the rule book. Testing is important. I like this new format as far as limiting the testing to certain tracks.

I mean, you can go to Michigan and basically get a good baseline set up for Vegas and California, but you can't take that from my experience because I don't run good at those places. But, you can really take a Dover setup and go to Darlington and run good with it, and vise versa. So itís good they limit the tests, even though it's gotten harder for the drivers.

But honestly, we have it easily out of the bunch. The guys that are working on the cars or back in the shop are trying to get things ready. The schedule from going to the east coast to the west coast back to west coast for testing, then Speedweeks, then going back racing out there, and having a weekend off then going back racing out there again, it's not real easy for most of these teams.

I think it's good that they cut the testing back and I guess we can to go Kentucky and run and run and run.

DID MISSING OUT ON THE CHASE TELL YOU ANYTHING ABOUT YOUR DESIRE TO WIN? DID YOU LEARN ANYTHING ABOUT YOUR HUNGER?

It's not comfortable territory for me to describe myself too often, but I learned a lot personally that there were certain events, specifically the first Bristol race, a couple of the races in there, that I got more out of the car and myself that I knew I had or was capable of .

I have good confidence in myself, but I don't know if I have realized my potential- personally. I don't know if I've realized exactly how capable of driving a race car I am. With that said, I still feel like I got pretty much most of the field covered, but I still think there is a lot more to it and a lot more to learn. There's a lot more to know exactly what I'm feeling and how to get that to go around the race track as fast as I can.

Me and Tony Jr. were talking about this the other day, from (I might be wrong) but as far as I remember or can recall, there wasn't a lot of change in the sport (aside from the regular tire coming in). In 1981 they went to the smaller bodies, different spoilers and the rear decks were different, but there wasn't a lot of change. Pretty much every year I have raced we have had a different spoiler, a different tire, we have had something changed on the car and now they are bringing in this Car of Tomorrow.

It's hard to try and get any footing and you feel like you can't build off of last year because youíre starting over every time as a driver because it feels different every time you get in a car because of the different things we have each year. Not a whole lot of changes this past off season. That hopefully goes well for everybody and not just myself, but I think that if we just chill out for a while and run with what we got, the cars are pretty cool the way they are now.

They drive pretty well. The racing is pretty good for the most part. I feel like when it comes down to it, I've learned a lot over the last year. I learned more than I could sit here and talk about, because I don't have that much time, but just dealing with the people and dealing with Tony Jr. That's fixed, hopefully (laughter). I feel like we both treat each other with a lot more respect. I think that will clear up a lot of issues we had in the past.

Working with Steve Hmiel was a huge learning experience for me because he gave me a lot of 'atta boy' and 'you did good,' 'good jobs' when I did not hear that in the past and it sort of re-inspired me as a driver. I'm not as quick to question myself or as curious as to my ability. I feel like we work real good together and have a lot of respect for Steve. I already had respect for him before we worked together. I was fortunate to be able to work close with him because of his experience and knowledge in the sport. I'm a big, old school buff and it was cool to go and talk to him about that stuff and spent time with him and try to understand what the sport was like. I had a good time last year and I know we didn't finish like we wanted to but there was probably 80-90% of it I wouldn't trade.

BASED ON WHAT YOUíRE SAYING ON SOME OF THE THINGS YOUíVE LEARNED FROM LAST YEAR, WHERE DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU NEED TO IMPROVE THE MOST? IN THE CAR, OR OUT OF THE CAR, TO HELP MAKE THIS A STRONGER TEAM AND A BETTER SEASON?

You can always improve as a driver. I make mistakes all the time in the car. You try to minimize a mistake and the ones where you taken too much risk and it bites you. I have a huge commitment and I think my determination and drive is solid. I think what I have to look forward to this next season I won't have a problem getting up in the morning and getting in the race car. I never did in the past. It was just hard sometimes.

Some tracks you didn't like and I would have skipped New Hampshire there for a couple of years if Daddy would have let me. We figured it out and got it to where I like to go around that place. I know that personally I've got a lot to learn and I've always got some areas to grow and improve. The sport changes so you never can tell what curve ball you are going to have to figure out over the next season.

We have a new body, nose and tail piece and hopefully that won't give us and change-ups to have to adjust too. Just trying to be a better racecar driver and be better at communicating and try to communicate on my crew chiefs level is one of the things that I continue to work on. You can get real good at it, but you can always be better.

With the limited time we'll have with testing and practices, even though we're cutting back with the impound stuff, you have to be quick to be able to get what you want and debate with your crew and your crew chief. He has to be able to understand it and decipher it quickly enough to get it back on the racetrack. Those are the things I would like to work on.

YOU MENTIONED NEW HAMPSHIRE AND NOT BEING THRILLED ABOUT IT AND YOU LIKE IT A LITTLE BETTER NOW. WHAT DID YOU NOT LIKE AND WHAT DID YOU HAVE TO FIGURE OUT?

When we first went there, we struggled to get the car to turn. Being competitive at a flat track like that is very difficult to pass and if you're not one of the better cars you're basically in everybody's way. It can get pretty rough out there, on that racetrack in particularly, where we eventually figure out how to get our car to turn in the middle of corner and be able to knock off some good lap times.

Whether it was something Tony Jr. did or just a stroke of luck, our long run setups were real good to where we were able to eventually get up there and battle for the lead after 30 or 40 laps where a lot of guys would fall off and our car would continue to work. We started getting some good finishes there and that track is an important racetrack as far as the Chase and points concerned. It's very important to be able to run there. It's very close to one of the last races in the 26 races to the Chase. It's a fun racetrack when you can get around there pretty good. We've evolved there over the past several years.

HAS YOUR TEAM TALKED ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF GETTING OUT OF THE BOX FAST BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO GET IT TOGETHER BY THE ATLANTA RACE?

You can have a bad Daytona 500. That doesn't put a huge damper on your opportunity to be in the Chase. A string of 15th or worse for about four or five weeks will definitely put you in a hole. The only thing about it is there is so much change in the sport that a lot of the guys will struggle and you won't be facing a steep incline and you'll find yourself back in the Chase or back in the opportunity to be in the Chase.

Luckily, some of the tracks that we run well at are spread over the first 10 races and if we do struggle again at Vegas or California, we still feel about 10 races in we should be battling or beating on that door to get in the top-10. I'm fortunate that we run well like we do at Atlanta and places like that to be able to cover our tail until we get Vegas and California figured out.

DID YOU SPEND MOST OF THE OFF-SEASON JUST SHUTTING IT DOWN OR WERE YOU THINKING WHAT YOU NEEDED TO DO GET BACK?

I spent most of the off season giving this Bud team a good idea of what my take on our future is, about the upcoming season and how I feel about it. Also starting up the Busch team, it has taken a lot of attention and focus.

As soon as I go over and spend a couple of hours just touching base with everybody and answer questions that they have, I go over to the Cup shop to see what they're doing. By 4:30-5:00pm I'm back at the house just sitting on the couch. I spent most of the off-season at home and I even had my sister and mother and everybody come over to my house for Christmas instead of me going over there so that was fun. On New Year's, I sat at home just trying to relax as much as I can. You don't get a lot of time and I'm looking really forward to working really hard this year and putting a lot into it so I took every minute I could this off-season.

LOOKING BACK ON YOUR REUNION WITH TONY EURY JR, DO YOU THINK THINGS SHOULD HAVE BEEN SHAKEN UP PERSONNEL-WISE IN THE FIRST PLACE?

Yeah, it's real easy to sit here now and think, man what a mistake and what were you thinking? It's bigger than anything that you guys know about. It's bigger than the sport and my success as a driver. It was about me and my cousin not getting along. That was more important to me. It wasn't about trying to be more successful or winning more races or being a champion. I didn't want to get to the point to where I couldn't stand my cousin anymore. That would be hard core.

I'm proud of him and I feel honored that we grew up together and that he's been able to accomplish what he's accomplished and he's going to be one of the best crew chiefs in the business. He'll be on that list 50 years from now. I just didn't want us to have a falling out and I felt like we were getting real bitter toward each other.

The company wasn't gaining anything by the situation as it imploded, so we needed to make a change. We didn't have any success. We could have maybe done it differently to have better success on the race track, but I'm glad to be where I am now. If me and Jr. wouldn't have stepped back from each other -- regardless of whether we thought it was right or not at the time -- it put us in a great position now. Fortunately, at the same time, while either one of us got our situation straightened out, the company as a whole stood beside us.

We've got everybody pretty much on board and we're focused and looking forward to next season. That was one thing I was worried about was the company losing sight of what was going on and losing hope on the fact that we could turn it around. I think we'll be strong and be able to complement each other now. We've worked hard and improved. Our motors have improved. We've worked really hard in the engine shop. We've studied these new noses and tails over the last six months really hard and tested a lot of that stuff. This is where we start to climb back up the hill. Hopefully in two or three years we can be proud of ourselves and what we've been able to accomplish.

DID YOU AND TONY JR. EVER SIT DOWN AT ANY POINT AND HAVE A SIT-DOWN TALK TO PUT ALL THIS BEHIND YOU?

When we didn't talk at Homestead in '04 at the end of the season during that practice at that last race, it was bigger than racing. It was not about practice anymore. I got to change. I've got to get away from this. It'll do him some good. I was just scared to do it. I was scared to be the one to make the change or the decision to do it because a lot of people wouldn't understand it and a lot of people didn't understand it.

But about three-quarters of the way through the '05 season, we got together on one occasion. I asked him point-blank if he wanted to work with me ever again in the future. Not just '06, but anytime? And he said, 'Yep.' And I asked him when he wanted to do that. I said we could do it next year if he wanted to. And he said, 'Yep, it sounds good to me.' He said some things that he normally wouldn't say and one of them was that he really had a lot of -- I don't want to over-quote him here -- but that he really had a lot of confidence in my abilities. That's something he never even said before.

When I was coming up in the Late Models, he had a Late Model too and we were real competitive. If he stayed after it, he could have been as good or better than me as a driver -- coming from a driving family and whatnot. He'd have had the same opportunities."

And he can build a hell of a race car, so there we wouldn't have had a problem with his equipment. We basically confessed our intentions as far as I wanted to work with him and he wanted to work with me, we wanted to do it as soon as we possibly could. We felt a lot better about each other's appreciation and respect for each other and how we thought a lot of each other's abilities more so than we had in the past. That was sort of the defining moment if there was one.

I think we were at Richmond. I don't know, maybe that's wrong. Maybe it was Dover. I can't remember. We were inside the bus, so I don't remember what track it was.

THERE'S BEEN A LOT OF DEBATE ABOUT YOUR CONFIDENCE LEVEL. HOW'S YOUR CONFIDENCE LEVEL? WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM LAST YEAR, INSIDE?

A lot of times it's just real easy to settle or just take what you get. There were a few races when we refused to do that and ended up getting a pretty dang good finish with it. Those were some times when my confidence improved a lot and made me feel a lot better about myself. Tony Jr. can build a great race car and about anybody in this garage can drive it to the front. I never really had myself tested before, and last year I was tested pretty good on a couple occasions and I was able to do what I needed to do. It was a good feeling.

Not only was I aware of it, the people that I was working with were aware of it and they would tell me that, so that was a good feeling.

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