Q&A with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
HERB BRANHAM: Dale, if you can just start off and tell us how your first day and a half and gone testing with your new team.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: It's been great. We've had great speed in the car. We've had Casey's car from last year and a car that we built this year, and we're real happy with both of them, happy with the guys and their work ethic and their attitude, and it's went great, it really has. We've been pretty happy with the speeds and the things we've seen the car do and how it's reacted to the changes we've been trying, so it's been really fun.
HERB BRANHAM: You have one Daytona 500 victory. This year is the 50th running of the great American race. Talk about what it would mean to win on the 50th anniversary.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, just to get a win here any time, no matter what it is, whether it's a Shootout or 125s at the Daytona 500, it's a great feeling to go to victory lane at Daytona, and I really appreciate it every time it happens to me. It's going to be – you know, it's going to be quite a spectacle with it being the 50th, so it'll be a pretty big deal. Whoever wins it will get a lot of fanfare and whatnot. I think it'll be great for our team, great for our season to start off like that, and I'm sure we want to win as bad as anybody right now.
Hopefully we're preparing well, and I think we are. I think the cars are – I haven't drafted yet, so I can't really comment. I don't really know how it's going to be, but I assume it'll be all right, probably about like it used to be.
If my car drives around the track and handles the same, characteristics are the same as far as how the car goes around the racetrack it feels like to me, but I heard some things from last week's test that I should be aware of and whatnot, so I don't know, might be a little bit more of a handful than we're used to. But the characteristics of the cars – the problems and issues the guys were having last week were sort of the same old problems, just a little worse, so we'll just have to see over the next day and a half.
Q. Can you talk about your frame of mind and the only contract you're worried about now is when Whiskey River is going to be done as opposed to what you faced coming into last year?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, it's been pretty nice to be able to concentrate on the things that are important right now and testing and working and getting to know the guys. It's definitely – there's a little bit less pressure in certain areas and more pressure in other areas. I didn't have to worry about job security when I was over at my other job, but I've got to worry about that now.
I think if I do what I've been doing, I should be fine. But with being the son of the guy who built the place, you can get away with a few more things than most guys could.
You know, I've got a really good owner that makes me feel comfortable, and so that eases a lot of other pressures, talking to him and hearing from him and listening to his thoughts on what we're doing. It takes away some pressure from that side of it.
But I don't know the guys that well, so I'm just nervous in getting to know them and hoping that they like me and like the kind of driver I am and they're happy that they have me as their driver. That's what you want from the guys working on your cars is for them to be glad you're there and that you're the one that's driving it.
So it's kind of neat. It's really fun to be going through this for me, and I'm enjoying those parts, and even the difficult things or the challenging parts are fun because of the atmosphere and because of the attitude that everybody there has. Everybody at Hendrick is really pumped up and giving me a good vote of confidence going into the test and going into the season, so it really makes it exciting to face all the challenges we're going to face.
Q. The TV ratings have gone down the last couple seasons, and at the same time, maybe not coincidentally, you haven't had a lot of success on the track. Now that it looks like you might be getting into top form again and have a chance to win races again, do you think that will bring some fans back in and that maybe your fans are more traditional fans that maybe have been tuning out?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I don't know. We should probably have some on-line polls or something to figure that out. Those seem to work pretty good.
I can't tell you whether that's why the television ratings are down. It would be nice to think you had that kind of influence, but at the same time, I don't want to be the downfall or the reason for it. If I can get back into victory lane I know my fans will be excited about that, and if they're not tuning in they'll be turning up personally to see it.
Any time I run a Busch race I know my fans get excited about it and they might buy a ticket to see it on Saturday or they might set up a camper outside the racetrack regardless, whereas if we had been in the field – it's just hard to say. I know those comments were made by Brian and taken out of context a little bit, but he referred to it – them two things happening at the same time maybe did have something to do with each other. But it's not – I don't feel comfortable really taking any credit one way or the other.
Q. You used to be the restrictor plate king, now it seems it's shifted over to Hendrick. Do you think this Daytona 500 is the best chance of your career to capture this second victory?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: It's hard to say. I haven't drafted with my car yet, but I know it's going to be pretty good, I'm pretty sure. I'll have a great shot. You know, I think I had some pretty good cars down here in the past, and it's hard to say – hard to really rank them as to which was better than the other. We had some pretty good cars.
The Daytona 500 is – that race, so many things happen in that race. It's like a little mini-series. It reminds me a lot of a season in itself because of the – there's so many ups and downs and you still can find yourself with a shot to win, and if you look back at several things that happened to you during the event, you can't imagine that all that would happen in one race. But it does.
It's a special race, and it carries a lot of weight with me and how I feel about the event. I feel very strong about it and very dedicated to it and very dedicated to winning it every time I show up. I think I've got a great shot and I think I know what I need to do to get the job done.
If I have a car that's merely capable, I think I should have a shot to win every time I show up.
Q. I know you've been in Cup obviously a long time and racing at Daytona a long time, but I'm wondering if it has you feeling any more jitters than normal, or you sort of alluded to a little pressure in some new ways. And if so, is it like any kind of feeling you can compare to any big steps or big leaps that you've taken in your life, whether that has to do with late models or Busch?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: The worst I ever was was trying to qualify for my first race in Charlotte. I was so scared and I wanted to get out of the car but it was too late. I already told them I'd drive it.
We were sitting right there at the – we were like two minutes away from going out to qualify, and I just couldn't – I was so nervous it was painful. It was painful to be that nervous. We ended up qualifying Top 10, and there were other times where I was as nervous or close to that.
Nowadays – I've been doing this for a while, like you said, and I sort of understand what's around the next corner. When we made this decision I knew what to expect and what it would be like coming back to Daytona and what it would be like coming back to – facing the fans, the press and the NASCAR community, and I knew what the expectations would be.
So I guess that sort of prepares you mentally to be able to deal with it one way or another because you've got to focus on driving and trying to do right by your team, and if they see that people's expectations are affecting your ability to make decisions on the racetrack, then you're not a good race car driver.
When I was a rookie and I was scared to go out and qualify for my first race, my fear and my nervousness was affecting my ability to go out there and run good, and somehow or another, we still did okay. But as you get – as things happen to you in life that prioritize everything for you, you know, you go through – you have like some real bad things happen to you and some really, really good things happen to you over the course of seven or eight years and that prioritizes everything in your life.
Right now I'm pretty much set on what I know I need to do. Although this is a high-profile race team and I'm a high-profile driver, I can handle it. With how I've grown up in the sport, I think I'm as prepared as anybody could be for this certain situation.
Q. Certainly there are people that have chased Hendrick here for a little bit. You've been in that role and now are inside the fences there at Hendrick. From your experience and just from what you're seeing now, what do you see that is so different or what's kind of opened your eyes about being at Hendrick that maybe you kind of wondered about when you were chasing them?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: It's hard to say what I see that's different. They have more stuff as far as if it's a CNC machine or whatever. They have more of everything. They're able to mass-produce more, and they have the ability to cover all the bases easier with the amount of personnel and the talent in each individual. I see that.
Otherwise it's about the same. I mean, I really was proud of where I came from and proud of the team that I had last year, and it's hard for me to really put into words without – I'd rather – I choose really not to discuss it that often because I don't want anyone that I've worked with in the past to get the impression that I am in a much better place and much more happier and I've got better people, because it really just comes down to the tools and how you use them.
Now, Rick has built – Rick's deal is bigger, like I said. He's got more stuff, and he's had a lot of the same employees for a long time. When I first started winning races and running good in the Cup Series, the one thing that I started to understand that I should worry about was loyalty, and I see that they have that there. They have a lot of loyalty and there's a lot of pride in being loyal and being dedicated to that team, and there's a lot of pride in people doing it for Rick. You work with people for years and years and you see where some people are – some people concentrate and focus on how to improve their position and improve their – whether it be their way or their title or whatever. I see a lot of people at Hendrick that sacrifice – sort of the opposite, they sacrifice for the good of the company or for Rick or whatever makes that car go faster.
I know I'm just seeing things for the first time, but that's really the initial thing that popped up to me that I saw. You get to know things more and better and deeper and you start to understand it more, and I'm sure there will be more evident things that I didn't – other tools or people or whatever that I didn't realize I had before or didn't use before or that wasn't around at DEI or whatever.
But it's hard to get real specific. DEI builds race cars just like Hendrick does. They build good race cars. I drove them. We won. We ran up front.
I just think you look at the track record that Hendrick has and they're doing something different and they're doing it better. It's hard to say really where it is other than just how large a program it is. They have 20-some CNC machines cranking stuff out all the time, and DEI has nine. Or they had nine. I don't know how many they have now. That's an instance in maybe 150, 200 instances where that makes a difference when you add all that up. That's how Hendrick is so consistently dominant.
Q. I want to ask you, when you made this move you obviously anticipated your life changing to some degree. Now that you've been through it, what has changed? Is it busier? Are there more sponsors, more responsibilities, less time, and is maybe the greatest change a peace of mind?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: There is a peace of mind. I think one of the changes, like I said, has been not being the son of the boss anymore, going to somewhere – me and Tony, Jr., both experienced sort of a little bit of a growth or maturity about just going from one door to the other overnight. You know, like I said, I got away – I grew up over the years, but when I first started you could get away with saying things and get being quoted certain ways and be able to get away with it working for my daddy. I wouldn't be able – my job now is to stay out of Rick's office as much as I can.
We have a great relationship, and he seems to – I mean, he's known me for a long time like everybody else here, and I think everybody gets the kind of person I am. And I think he made the choice to hire me as much as I made the choice to go there, and I feel like it's going to work out and be fine. But it's sort of refreshing to not have that safety net, you know?
I've always talked about trying to get credibility and people to respect you and whatnot, and by putting yourself out on a limb here, it's definitely hopefully going to get me some of that, especially if we can perform and get the job done that everybody thinks we should get done, and I think we will.
Peace of mind, I think the peace of mind comes from probably the same thing, just knowing that I'm taking the risk and it took a lot of guts to do it, so I'm pretty proud of being able to just do it, just to do that. I could have popped out or went another direction, but I went in the best direction and I took the risk to put my career and my credibility on the line to work with a company that has won a lot of races. So that should – hopefully if we win some races, it'll all work out.
Q. Fans are IM'ing, what did he wear today, did he get here early, did he get here late, is he smiling, not smiling, but one of the things that hasn't been addressed is Kyle Busch, whether people can compare you and him or if he does better or you do better early on and are you rivals, and can you sort of address that? Is that a story line that we might see? Is that fair?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: It's up to y'all what y'all write, but I told Rick – when you were talking about what time I got up, I told him I don't like to stay at the hotels right next to the track because these race cars wake me up first thing in the morning. I thought that was funny.
But anyways, getting back to your question, I think that I've got a lot of respect for Kyle's ability, and it's been a little bit of a challenge to not let – for me not to get under his skin and for him not to get under mine, I suppose, to end the season last year, especially after I wrecked him at Kansas.
But I think that we both understand we need to be successful where we're at, where he is and where I am, and that's what our priority should be, and getting to know our teammates and getting to work well and being an asset to the company.
Joe is an amazing man regardless of his involvement in motorsports, but I think Kyle, if he doesn't know that already, he'll understand that and realize how important that is that he does well and represents the company well and is an asset to Gibbs. And for me, too, it's probably the same thing.
Q. A lot of people talked about your relationship with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, but not much is talked about in your relationship with Casey Mears, and since you guys are going to be – your cars are going to be built in the same shop, how is your relationship with him and how do you guys interact?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Me and Casey, you know, I goof off with him because we've hung out before at the racetrack and we were pretty good buddies. You know, he drove for – he drove with Jimmy who was married to my sister, so we became pretty good friends through that. I've known Jimmy for a longer period of time and I've known Jeff for even longer than that, but I've never really spent time around them away from the racetrack. I know how they are as race car drivers and what their work ethic is, and I think we'll be able to work together and be pretty happy that we're teammates.
But me and Casey will probably do more goofing off and take it – I mean, he takes it pretty serious because he wants to do good. Me and him, we'll spend time together away from the racetrack where I might not do that so much with Jimmy and whatnot.
Q. A lot of people are already making predictions about how you'll do this year. Tony, Jr., said yesterday you'd win at least four. What are your expectations for the year, goals, and what would be a successful first season for you at Hendrick Motorsports?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I just like running up front every week. I like going to the racetrack and being in the – being toward the top of the chart, at least on the left side of the page in practices and whatnot.
And in the race I like to run up front. We did that a lot last year, and when I look at – when I take a look at all my seasons, I was better last year at showing up and being there every weekend. We weren't there every weekend, but I had a better car the majority of the season than I had had in seasons past.
That's really all I wanted out of driving race cars. I want to be up front and be toward the front and challenging, and when I show up to the racetrack I want people to expect me to run well, not just at particular tracks everywhere. It was good to go and to do that at some tracks last year that I typically hadn't been able to do that at.
I was hoping that with some of the extra ability that Hendrick has in winning championships and races on a regular basis that that could even improve my finishing. I don't want to sit here and guess how many races we'll win. We'll win some races, and I expect to win soon. I'm a good driver with a good team, and if we don't make mistakes on a Sunday we should have great finishes and win some races.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks a lot for your time, Dale.