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Interview with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

April 12, 2006

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Getty mages for NASCAR

An interview with:

JEFF GORDON
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.

 THE MODERATOR:   Dale, give us some brief opening comments. 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  Test is going pretty good.  Just trying to work on a couple things to get the car where it's consistent.  Track is in great shape.  It's pretty cool to be able to test late in the evening where it's going to be more like race conditions.  Track is in good shape.  It's fun to go around.  It's been a pretty good test so far. 

THE MODERATOR:  Questions for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 

Q.  Would you mind discussing your thoughts on the new testing limits. 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  You know, it just doesn't make a difference to me, as long as it's the same for everybody, I guess.  If we weren't testing, we're doing something else.  I think a lot of drivers are apt to test more.  As long as it's the same for everybody, I feel like it's an equal playing field. 

Q.  With a group test like this, will we see the field maybe more bunched together when qualifying comes up here in the first weekend of May? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  Definitely gives everybody a great opportunity to get their cars really dialed in.  You should see a pretty close field when it comes to qualifying and you should see a pretty good race.  I think there's a couple of guys that really have things figured out, will be really hard to beat.  Hopefully we're one of them. 

Q.  No wins so far this season.  Seems like you're a lot more consistent.  Is that one of the targets this year? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  Target is to run as good as you can every week.  Everything else kind of takes cares of itself.  We just go out there and race as hard as we can, take the car we got, do the best we can with it every week. 

Q.  Was Martinsville for you, with everything you had to overcome to get that finish, an example of big-picture racing to get you where you want to be when you leave here in September? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  I think big-picture racing, you'd rather have the fenders on it. 

We just kind of came back.  We got lucky that the car was still competitive after being in a couple accidents.  Like I said, you just take the car you got, do the best you can with it every week, just work really hard and keep working.  When the car's not doing what you want it to do, just keep working.  You try till the very end to get it to do what you want it to do. 

Q.  Are you ready for a weekend off coming up here? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  We had one already.  It would be nice if they were later in the year because the stretch gets pretty tough for some of the teams.  If you're going to run, a couple guys might go run the St. Louis Busch race, that makes about a 26-week straight schedule. 

But, you know, you take 'em whenever you can get 'em.  Take any day off you can get whenever you get it, enjoy it the best you can.  I'm just going to stay close to the house, you know, just relax a little bit. 

Q.  Are you going to get on the lake? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  Lake's too low right now. 

Q.  How hard was it last year to be on the outside looking in in the Chase?  Does that give you a lot of extra incentive? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  Last year wasn't really that hard.  I had a lot of fun.  It was kind of nice to take sort of a break from the spotlight a little bit, kind of recharge your batteries in an immediate sense. 

We were frustrated that we didn't get the finishes.  There was a couple races, a good handful of about 10 or 12 races where we should have finished well, and either I made a mistake, which was probably more often than not, or we had a mechanical failure of some sort or something like that. 

You know, it wasn't that difficult of a season for me.  I enjoyed working with Steve and the team that I had.  A great group of guys.  You know, they made some of the frustration a lot easier to take. 

Coming into this season, we sort of brought some of those guys from that team last year to the new team now with Tony Jr.  A lot of the old guys that were there in '04 are still there with me now.  I just really am lucky to be driving the car that they put together.  They got a lot of confidence, they got a lot of skill, and they build a great race car.  I just really feel fortunate to be in a position I'm in right now. 

Q.  It seems like Hendrick, Gibbs and Yates have caught up to DEI in restrictor plate racing.  How confident are you going to Talladega in a little over two weeks? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  I feel pretty good.  You know, it's really anybody's race now, I guess, when you go to plate tracks.  Nobody's really sort of shown they have the upper hand any more.  It sort of goes in cycles.  For a couple years there, nobody could touch Gibbs.  For a couple years, nobody could beat Yates.  It just seems to go in cycles. 

I think our cycle has passed, and we'll just have to race a little harder to try to beat 'em. 

Q.  Doing a story on etiquette, unwritten rules on the track.  I'm getting different answers.  What in your mind is the most important?  Does that kind of thing exist? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  I guess if they're unwritten, you're definitely going to get a lot of different answers. 

You just have to have a lot of respect for each other on the racetrack.  You know, for example, one of the more common ones is if a guy races you really hard, and it seems pointless at the time, then next time when he's in a position that he needs a break, you don't cut him one.  The guys that do cut you a couple breaks, say if I run down Tony Stewart or he runs me down, if it's not in the last 50 or hundred miles of the race, we're probably going to make it easy on each other because the tires are so crucial, you can't really be racing people.  If you want to continue -- if you're 3/10ths faster than the field, trying to get up through there, you want to continue that type of dominance, it helps to have people helping you out, getting out of your way when you come up to them. 

That's sort of one of them unwritten rules, sort of like a little courtesy on the track goes a long ways, a little respect goes a long ways.  That's sort of the main one that I probably deal with most often. 

Q.  (No microphone.)

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  Mark Martin has a great etiquette on the racetrack, shows a lot of courtesy.  Races really hard, drives his car really hard, but he treats people on the track with a lot of respect.  But when it's time to go, time to race, he can get what he needs out of his car.  You don't want to be giving up so much on the racetrack that you take yourself out of position to win.  You can't just let everybody go by that catches you. 

If a guy runs you down from a straightaway back and a couple laps, it's pretty cool if you let him go because he's probably going to remember that next time when you're in the same situation.  Mark Martin is probably the guy that holds class every week for all of us that are still learning and still trying to understand a lot of the things that are going on on the racetrack. 

You know, all the rookies come in here.  One of the first things that they see that's different from where they were before, whether it be Truck or Busch, the Cup guys race harder every lap.  We run hard every lap of the race.  Everything's really happening a lot faster.  They assume right off the bat that they've got to drive their tail off every second.  They get a little overzealous every once in a while.  When it comes to a situation where you need to cut a guy a break, they're not even thinking about that, they're thinking about trying to impress their team, their owner, whatnot, which is cool and fine, but they'll realize after a couple, two or three years that, you know, it's really smart to play it cool and keep your stuff in one piece and try not to wear your car out to where you're in position at the end to have a good shot at winning the race. 

Q.  I notice you have Mark McFarland, your Busch Series driver.  What is his role in this test?  How is that team doing? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  They're doing pretty good.  I would like to see a little more innovation within the team.  Obviously, it's a brand-new team.  There's a lot of things that we're going to continue to address week in, week out, that needs to be better, different, done differently.  There needs to be a little bit more innovation, a little bit more 'follow the leader,' if you will, what you see happening around you in the garage as far as air pressures, setups, front springs, things like that.  I need them to do a little bit more mimicking of other teams and whatnot as far as the setups go. 

Mark starts to race, this has been pretty much every week, the car's really, really tight.  A lot of the air pressures and stuff that I see them run are sort of ancient history.  I brought him here to see if he could understand some of the things and see a little bit how they're kind of off base on a couple areas. 

He's got a notepad, he's been filling it up.  Hopefully he takes it back and learns something. 

Q.  Seems like there's been a lot of situations this year where guys have had differences on the racetrack, they talk about it via cell phone on Monday or Tuesday.  How important do you think it is for guys to work things out that way the following Monday or Tuesday, to smooth out their differences?  Do you think it might have been easier when you could do that at the track without having to worry about doing it a couple days later? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  Well, I mean, if I run over somebody, make a mistake, wreck a guy, get into somebody, lose my temper, do something stupid, I normally give them a call during the week when we're away from the track, away from the media, away from the fans, away from the hype of the race itself, when everything is calmed down, where you can actually have a conversation about it. 

I think if you fry to confront everybody, whether you're upset or whether you're trying to tell somebody, you're apologizing, I think if you're doing it right after the race, that's probably not the time 'cause the guy is probably still upset, it's not going to get resolved (laughter).  I mean, just by seeing how other people handle things, you sort of get a good idea of how to handle the situation. 


Jeff Gordon
Getty mages for NASCAR

THE MODERATOR:  We're joined in the media center by Jeff Gordon.  Just a quick opening comment from you.  How is the test going?  You have never done it at Richmond.  Jimmie Johnson was in here saying for your team he thought the test was really important. 

JEFF GORDON:  It's a very important test for us.  I think we're learning a lot of things.  We've made so many changes with our race team this year, our race cars, we're just really out there trying a lot of new things.  We're fortunate that we're running decent enough to be in the top 10 in points right now where we can experiment.  But we also know we got to get better than what we are, so we have to experiment.  This is a perfect opportunity for us to do this. 

It's a long test.  It's a lot of hours.  Falls kind of in our off week, which isn't the greatest.  But just looking at the test itself, it's been fantastic for us. 

THE MODERATOR:  We'll finish with questions for Dale. 

Q.  Dale, you answered part of this earlier, but when you see Phoenix and Talladega coming up, there's one track, Phoenix, where you have run well, and Talladega, which has been fantastic for you, even though you say the cycle may have ended.  Last week you were talking about being in the best shape you've been in as far as resources.  Do you look at these next two races and say now we're getting somewhere where we can get back in the groove? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  I mean, you know, I don't really think that.  I want to be in the groove all the time.  We've ran well, we've had great-driving cars every week.  I just want to hope that continues, that we can continue to go to the racetrack, show up, not be scrambling to get in the ballpark. 

You know, we got a couple tracks coming up that we do traditionally run well on.  There's a stretch in the summer where we struggle, like at Michigan, Pocono, places like that, Sonoma.  I'm sort of looking that far ahead really trying to prepare myself and hopefully have a better opportunity and a better finish at a lot of those racetracks that we've struggled on in the past. 

Q.  As far as the new testing rules go, how has it changed the way you test?  Also with so many cars at the track testing, is there more spying going on? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.:  I suppose, yeah.  You walk around, see if anybody's got any springs laying out, just kind of take a look at some of the buckets, the front A frames, see what kind of angle they are, things like that.  You look at their spindles, know what kind of degree spindle they're running.  It's pretty easy to see all that stuff when we're all piled in here pretty close. 

As far as how it changes the way we test, there's just a larger sense of urgency because you know you only got five tests.  Where you might take a little more time in between runs, you're in and out of the garage a lot quicker now, where you're trying to get as many runs as you can, trying to try as many things as you can.  You're doing a lot of things that you may be testing for for other tracks, like Phoenix and other places that are similar to a Richmond. 

Not only are we testing, you know, basically to get a good idea of what we need for this racetrack here, but we're trying to test to learn what we can learn at other tracks we won't have the opportunity to go to. 

THE MODERATOR:  Thank you, Dale.  Looks like you're free. 

Questions for Jeff Gordon. 

Q.  Would you rather be racing this week or does the week off work for you now? 

JEFF GORDON:  Are you asking me if I could pick or choose when our off week would come in, because I want an off weekend (laughter). 

Q.  When things are kind of going well, would you rather go to a track next week versus having an off week or does it make a difference? 

JEFF GORDON:  You know, that's hard to say.  I always welcome the off weekends.  We have very few of them, so we look forward to them.  You know, I would like to see them spread out a little bit differently throughout the year.  I mean, we don't have an off weekend. 

If we were coming back here, Richmond, just prior to the Chase, you know, I'd say we need an off weekend here after the Richmond race, you know, getting ready for the Chase.  Right now, yeah, some guys maybe are in a rhythm, you know, and want to keep that going.  But I think being well-rested can keep you in the groove just as much as actually being at the racetrack and in the groove of, you know, how your team's performing. 

Q.  At Bristol, Matt brought up that Dale didn't get out of his way.  Are there such things at etiquette, unwritten rules?  If so, what do you see as the most important of the unwritten rules on the track? 

JEFF GORDON:  I do think when the leaders are racing, they're in a tight battle in the closing laps of the race, whether you're going a lap down or not going a lap down, I mean, is insignificant, I think you have to let the leaders race.  I think that's definitely somewhat of a gentlemen's agreement. 

But you can't control what guys do out there.  I think nowadays you have lead-lap cars that are fighting to get their laps back, but you also know that they have the Lucky Dog, so they're fighting to be that No. 1 spot for the Lucky Dog as well as trying to get their laps back.  You got guys being a lot more aggressive.  If you're a lead-lap car, you take that into account.  But, you know, closing laps of the race, absolutely, you got to move out of the way of the leaders, if it's 10 to go. 

Q.  Who are some of the best at observing that etiquette?  Who are some guys that maybe need a little work? 

JEFF GORDON:  Well, I think Mark Martin's always one of the best gentlemen-type racers out there.  He's a guy, even when he's in the lead, and he doesn't have the car that maybe the guy behind him has, he's really great at moving over, working on his car, getting his stuff better, then going back after those guys later. 

Who needs work?  I have no idea.  I mean, you know, some weeks guys do a fantastic job, other weeks...  You never know.  Something may have happened to Dale Jarrett that he was just ticked off.  You don't know.  Sometimes things set you off to where you don't want to get out of anybody's way, you're mad that you're a lap down, you're mad your car is wrecked, maybe it wasn't your fault, you're not thinking about being kind to the guy coming up behind you. 

Q.  How do you size up your season's development so far?  Are you pleased?  Satisfied?  Impatient? 

JEFF GORDON:  I'm pleased.  I guess this is what I was expecting of us at this point in the season where we were a better team.  We had better race cars.  Not necessarily the cars being better, but the setups relating to how I like to drive, the comfort and feel.  I think it's given me more confidence.  It's building confidence in the team. 

I knew over the off-season that we were not going to come out of the box as "the best team" and "the team to beat."  I still believe, and probably believe it even more now, that we're still in such a learning curve that by the summer, I think we will be one of the teams to beat.  I think you're going to see some huge improvements out of our performance, of really competing with the guys.  If it's not the summer, shortly after that. 

I think we've got big gains that we still know are out there for us.  I think other teams have -- I'm not saying they peaked, but I think they're at a level I think we can get to and really be up to, you know, being one of the top teams hopefully before the Chase, and then more importantly if we do do that, you know, being in the Chase with a chance to win the championship, not just a team in the Chase. 

Q.  Are the new testing limitations changing the way you do things?  What are your thoughts on the new regulations? 

JEFF GORDON:  Well, I like the fact we've limited the number of tests.  I've got thoughts and ideas all the time about the testing policy.  If it was up to me, I'd get rid of testing altogether and allow us to put telemetry on the car, either the first day we get here or a day early or something like that at least at every track one time a year.  There are obviously some challenges that come along with that from a NASCAR standpoint or a timing standpoint.  It takes a long time to put the telemetry on and take it off.  We can't race with it because we don't like us having wheel speed sensors because they think - which we probably could - incorporate traction control, things like that.  So I understand that side of it. 

You know, I'm in favor of limiting the test.  You know, I like Richmond.  I'm glad we're here.  I wanted to be able to test here, but not this week.  I don't think that we should be testing on our off week.  I think we have so few off days that I wish we were here on a different week. 

But I like the night testing a lot.  Being able to test here under true conditions for what we do here for the race is extremely important and probably some of the most valuable testing that we've ever had here at Richmond. 

Q.  When you look ahead to Phoenix, what is the main priority or top of your list in terms of what you're looking for, especially since this is the first night race? 

JEFF GORDON:  Didn't we race here night last year?  I think first night race of the season, you mean. 

We ran pretty well at Phoenix the last race there.  We're just going to try to build on that, be a little bit better.  I love racing at night under the lights, especially there at Phoenix.  They did a fantastic job with it. 

Obviously, you know, we're looking to come off an off weekend and build some momentum, you know, put some top fives together and hopefully a win.  We want to get to the winner's circle.  We recognize we have to walk before we can run.  We've been putting some pretty good finishes together, especially on the short tracks.  Phoenix is somewhat of a short track, in our opinion. 

Q.  I wanted your assessment of the quality of this year's rookie class. 

JEFF GORDON:  The quality of the rookie class?  It's very high quality, that's for sure.  I think you've got some great drivers with good experience coming out of the Busch Series.  Then you've got, you know, guys that have just solid race teams. 

I think from what I've seen so far, the guys are doing a fantastic job.  We've just been seeing this trend more and more over the last six, eight years of rookies just being able to come in and perform well, win races and put consistency together and also come in with strong race teams. 

You got to give the Busch Series a lot of credit, credit to the young talent that's out there. 

Q.  Your thoughts on a couple recent changes by NASCAR.  Reduction of the fuel cell for the race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and the softer bumper for Talladega. 

JEFF GORDON:  Yeah, the Charlotte situation is very unfortunate.  I was really hoping -- it's a temporary fix because we shouldn't have that problem once we get a couple races on that new surface.  I haven't been on the surface yet, but I hear it's really smooth, got a lot of grip, really fast.  Unfortunately, Goodyear hasn't been able to build a tire that can really withstand the heat that's built up from that track having so much grip. 

Somebody suggested, you know, to NASCAR, you can either throw a caution every 25 or 30 laps or you can run us out of fuel.  I guess that seemed like the best option.  It's going to be -- a lot of that race is going to be won on pit road.  You're looking at probably 16 pit stops if not more.  That's going to be incredible. 

Still going to use up a lot of tires, but hopefully we won't have failures.  Safety issue, you got to look after the safety, especially with what we saw there last year. 

The soft bumper, I'm all for it.  I've been hoping for something like this for a while because I think the bump-drafting has just gotten out of control.  NASCAR took the first step in Daytona by incorporating some penalties.  This is the next step.  I'm real curious how they're going to govern that because there's so much behind that front bumper, duct work, it's going to be difficult for them to really get behind there.  I think there may be some teams that are still trying to hide things back there that they're able to use that bumper. 

I think in the closing laps of the race, the bumper's not going to mean anything.  In that last two or three laps, guys are going to go for the win.  They're going to be -- they're going to be using their front bumpers.  The don't care whether it overheats or not.  The only reason you soften the front bumpers up is so you can't hit the guy because it overheats the engine with the radiator ducting. 

Q.  With so few chances to test, how much more of a sense of urgency do you feel each time you do test, especially at a place like Richmond, knowing this is the last race before the Chase in September? 

JEFF GORDON:  It's a lot like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was saying.  What's amazing, we can now come to Richmond and not only learn about Richmond, but we're actually doing things and applying things we learn here to other tracks, mile-and-a-half tracks, Phoenix, all different types of tracks because of the technology that we have and because of the direction that we're going into with the setups these days, you're able to -- you'll learn a lot from every single track that you go to. 

This is a very valuable test.  We do have to take advantage of the limited number of tests that we do get and take full advantage of them. 

It is a long day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.  Because of the limit on how many tests, we're welcoming it and glad to have that amount of time. 

Q.  Where does this track rate on your list of favorites? 

JEFF GORDON:  Right up there.  I'd say -- I always for back and forth between here and Michigan.  This is definitely one of my favorites.  I like Michigan as well.  Michigan is a two mile in length Richmond.  That's probably why I like both of them.  It's a great racetrack, multiple grooves.  It's fast but yet still has a short track quality to it.  Any track we go to where there's more than one groove to run around the track, I like it.  As far as short tracks go, Richmond is really the only track out there that has multiple grooves. 

Q.  I read somewhere where your style has changed a bit maybe this year, no more Mr. Nice Guy.  Have things changed the way you drive a little bit this year? 

JEFF GORDON:  Well, I don't think so.  I think that my team is just providing me with equipment that in the -- and the passion they have for what they're doing has probably transferred over to me.  I feel like, you know, Steve Letarte, a lot of the new people on the team has sort of rekindled things for us. 

I want everybody to know the passion is there within me as well.  I think maybe because some people questioned it last year with our performance, then bringing some of the new things to this race team, I think those have just gotten me more fired up on and off the racetrack to go out there and perform. 

When you've got a good race going, it only gets you more upset when something happens, like what happened at Bristol.  Every race is valuable.  You need all the points that you can get.  You can't get 'em back, but you have to move on from it as well. 

Out there on the racetrack, I guess I've just been -- the last couple years, to a lot of the guys, especially some of the young guys that have been fast, running good, the 24 car has just kind of been a car that every once in a while runs good, so you catch me and I didn't have a car capable of running with them, they said, I'll stick my nose in here and he'll move out of the way.  I did in the past.  But now I've got a car capable of running with them and I'm not going to do that this year, or anywhere.  If I have a car any year, any time, that's capable of running up front, I'm not going to move out of the way quite as easy as I would if I didn't have the car. 

THE MODERATOR:  Thank you for taking the time. 

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