Q&A: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Charlotte Motor Speedway
A transcript from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s session with members of the media at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The popular driver discussed his season, running the Shootout and the fan vote, the upcoming race in Kentucky and much more.
YOU GUYS HAVE BEEN RUNNING WELL AND KNOCKED ON THE DOOR FOR VICTORY LANE A COUPLE OF TIMES, COMING INTO CHARLOTTE THIS WEEKEND WHAT IS YOUR MINDSET?
I’m just looking forward to getting on the track and working on the car a little bit mainly in preparation for next week’s race. This is a good opportunity to try some things and work on the car and try to give ourselves the best opportunity to maximize our performance next weekend.
Hopefully, we will hit on some things that will work and give us a successful weekend this weekend too. But again it’s just a great opportunity. We don’t have the ability to do a ton of testing, not as much as we use to several years ago so these opportunities you’ve got to really snatch them up and try to run through some things that’s been on your mind. Some of the race weekends aren’t a great opportunity to try those things.
Changing a setup over on a car it takes several minutes to do it and you can give up a lot of time in practice. This is an opportunity to try some of those things that we’ve been wanting to try. Hopefully it works out for us. Like you said, we’ve got the Save the Music Foundation and are excited to be able to partner with them. We come to this event every year and our sponsors AMP Energy and National Guard were nice enough to allow me to have the hood and basically and one off design of the whole car to showcase something consistent with our foundation and a program in line with the foundation’s mission.
Me and my sister were swapping a couple of emails several months ago about what our initiative wanted to be and what we thought would be interesting and fun to do. I’m a huge music fan and thought this would be a neat opportunity for me to learn more about what VH1 has been trying to accomplish the last several years with the Save the Music program.
You know you hear about it and you see it and it’s a good way to know more and to find out more. It’s a good way to give them an opportunity to platform that maybe they didn’t even consider, so I guess it’s a new opportunity for them too, to sort of see the sport first have so I thought it was fun. I’m glad that we’re doing that. Being that we are putting Save the Music on the hood of the car we asked the AMP Energy folks and the National Guard folks again for a little more leeway to get the foundation logo on the quarter panel and at least get the foundation a little recognition as well and they again were nice enough to give us a little more slack and let us to that so that was pretty cool of them. I have to thank them for that. I don’t know, we’re just showing up and seeing what we can get done this weekend. It should be a lot of fun.
HOW WOULD YOU RATE YOUR SEASON SO FAR, ARE YOU AHEAD OF WHERE YOU THOUGHT YOU WOULD BE AT THIS POINT?
I really don’t know whether ahead or behind, I can’t really say because I just didn’t want to do as bad as we had in the past so I’m pleased to feel like we’ve improved from that. There are days where it’s frustrating because I think that when you show up to the race track, you run all day long, you run 500 miles and then at the end of 500 miles you have a real good idea of what kind of race car you had and what kind of driver you were that day and that combination should have resulted in x finish.
And when I don’t finish there, that’s frustrating. We gave up some spots at Richmond. I gave up some spots at Darlington and Dover. Even though it’s five, eight places or whatever it may be we still finished rather okay at Dover. It was an improvement vastly upon last year’s performance.
The new point system sort of worries you. You don’t know what the value of what a point is and I don’t think we’ll know that until we get further down in the season. You know I don’t want to give up those spots.
That part is kind of frustrating but all in all man we’ve been really quick. I don’t know when the last time I could say I’ve ran the first 11 or whatever races in the season and we’ve been a top-10 car every week.
I can’t be too upset about that part because we’ve unloaded some great cars and the guys on the team are doing a great job. The pit stops have been great. We’re not having bugs and miscues on pit road. Just trying to maximize the performance and like I said at the end of the day where ever you feel like you should have finished trying to get that spot.
AFTER THE DOVER RACE YOU SAID IF YOU DON’T MAKE THE RACE FINE, YOU’LL GO HAVE A BEER AND ENJOY IT ON TV, SOME PEOPLE TOOK THAT TO MEAN YOU JUST DIDN’T CARE, CAN YOU EXPLAIN MORE WHAT YOU MEANT THERE?
I did probably not word that correctly and gave people the wrong impression I guess. I do care about being here. I care about being involved this weekend, being a part of the program. I’m unassuming about my role and accept my fate whatever it might be.
We’re going to go out there and try to run hard and see what happens. The fan vote thing for me is a tricky subject. Having been the most popular driver, several people are assuming that is a lock for us. You just never know what is going to happen. There are other variables about finishing on the lead lap and not tearing up your race car and things like that.
You just never know what is going to happen so I’m not taking anything for granted. I guess I was making the point and going a little overboard trying to help people understand that I wasn’t taking it for granted that I had won the fan vote and I was locked in and there was nothing to worry about because should I not be in the Shootout that won’t be the biggest story but that will definitely touched on probably.
However that works out it might be a little bit of a story. I’m just trying to give people the idea that it’s a fun weekend. The All-Star weekend, it has changed what it looks like over the last several years. It’s a different race than what it was in the mid-80’s but it’s still our All-Star event.
Looking at other sports it’s a celebration of the sport, celebration of what the sport is about, celebration of the characters in the sport past and present. It should be a fun and enjoyable experience for everybody and kind of light.
I know there is a race on the line. There is a million dollars and all that money, but there’s no points, no pressure and that is really what I was trying to convey there. I guess I didn’t do a good job of it.
I definitely didn’t want to give anybody the impression that I didn’t give a damn about whether I was in the race or whether I was even here to run the car because I love driving race cars and I’m excited to have the opportunity to show up somewhere and do that.
It’s just like a couple of weeks ago I was talking to some media and I said I didn’t feel like a win was close and what that meant was I’m just unassuming about it. I’m not going to sit and here and go yeah guys I think a win is two weeks away or I should win next week. I’m just not going to be that arrogant about it and just say look if we keep running good it will happen, hopefully it will happen and we will give ourselves some opportunities and maybe that will happen one day.
Because I got home after I said that and my friends were calling me and emailing me and going you don’t feel like a wins close, what’s your problem. I was that’s not what I meant. I’ll try to do a better job of choosing my words more wisely I guess but I was just trying to be honest. I get a lot of credit from you guys for being honest and I was just trying to keep that up.
WHAT SPECIFICALLY DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THE LAST FEW LAPS IN 2000 AS YOU WERE COMING TO GET THE CHECKERED FLAG?
I do remember, you know we ran the first couple of segments and I would hit the wall and even before we hit the wall we were running as hard as we could to run third. I was just thinking we have a good car but I’m running really hard to run third and I just don’t know how I’m gonna win the race.
Then we had the 10-lap segment and we did take some tires and tires were a little bit more of a factor on the surface back then but still we learned some things that helped the car in practice for the 10-lap segment specifically.
We applied those things and it worked. I just remember catching Dale Jarrett, I was seeing the smoke as he was having trouble with his car and I was catching him at a really fast rate and I remember passing dad and all those guys, Jerry Nadeau, I just remember how fast the car was and just being in panic mode, I’m running out of time, running out of time, I’ve got to hurry, gotta hurry, when I catch him I don’t need to lose my momentum, I need to get around him. If I lose my momentum will he hold me off or how savvy is he going to be. What kind of tricks does he got up his sleeve? Just in panic mode to take the lead, go, go, go.
It was like a huge relief when we went by him in turns three and four and put the separation. I come off (turn) four and looked in the mirror and saw the separation I put on him in just that one corner. It was a big relief and then you start hearing all the noises in the car and wondering what’s going to fall off and what you broke and what’s breaking now and what’s going to break.
I don’t know. It was just panic mode the whole time, just really frantic inside the car.
I JUST TALKED TO (STEVE) LETARTE AND HE TOLD ME THE GOAL THIS YEAR FOR YOU GUYS WAS TO BECOME RELEVANT AGAIN, HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE THAT RIGHT NOW?
Everybody has a different opinion of that. As far as on the race track I wouldn’t say I’ve been too relevant. I think what he wants to happen is us show up and be one of the top-five guys you would run off on a quick list as to who is going to compete today. You look at those guys now and its Kyle (Busch) or Jimmie (Johnson) or Carl (Edwards) and Harvick, the list might be a little different down the line but he wants to be in that group and that’s what I would consider being relevant, just being competitive.
We’re showing up with cars that are capable of running just inside the top 10. We’re showing up with a driver and car combination, I’ll give my guys some credit, that’s capable of running just inside of the top 10.
We want to move that on up. We’ve got to get to another level. We’ve got to find another gear somewhere and get a little more speed. We’ve seen it flashing at certainly particular parts of each race.
There was middle point in the Dover race where we were really quick. There was a middle point in the Darlington race where we were really quick. Just kind of finding that for an entire event and putting that together at least every other week would be really a great accomplishment for us.
A LOT OF DRIVERS CALL THIS THEIR HOME TRACK NOW BUT YOU REALLY ARE THE HOME TOWN BOY AND FROM THIS AREA, CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THIS RACE TRACK AND RACING THIS RACE TRACK AND BY THE WAY YOUR TEAM LOOKED REALLY GOOD LAST NIGHT.
Yeah, that was cool. I enjoyed that experience last night at the pit crew challenge. I think that’s a pretty neat little program. I’ve just been coming here for a really long time and this place has a great reputation, great history.
The things that have happened here from the stunts that Humpy (Wheeler) pulled to the characteristics of the surface. This place used to be so treacherous through (turns) three and four for so long before they repaved it then the repaving job, the grinding job, all the things that we went through with the surface of this race track in such a short period of time.
The condos getting built and what they brought to the speedway. That was a big deal for me because we watched a lot of races up there. They might not be a big deal to a lot of people but there’s little things about race tracks that come and go just like this big screen on the back straightaway, however long it lasts that just a neat addition to the place and just adds to its story.
But I like running here and I’m glad the track is fun, it is a fun race track. The two corners couldn’t be any more different from each other. (Turns) one and two seems like it’s a half mile longer than (turns) three and four. Three and four is real tight and tough to get through, the suns sort of bakes on that corner real bad. One and two is kind of long and fun and pretty drawn out for you.
And there’s great racing here and the walls are yellow oddly enough. There are just all kinds of cool things about this place and neat things about it. The infield as a kid was a lot of fun. Just a lot of memories.
GIVEN THAT THIS IS YOUR FIRST SHOWDOWN AND ALL THE VARIABLES THAT ARE INVOLVED WHAT IS YOUR MINDSET GOING IN?
I think I’m just going to go out there and run as hard as that car can go. I would love to get into the All-Star out right. I’ve paid attention over the last several months and I know how much the fans put into voting for me and should we win the fan vote it would be because of everything they did.
I think they would agree with me that they would like to see me win and go in out right and that’s what I’m going to try to do. I know there is tough competition in that race but we’re going in and we’re running hard and taking all the risks.
The opportunity for us to win the fan vote is definitely in the back of my mind but I don’t think it will affect me at all in how I drive the race. If we’re sitting there in the second segment running fifth I promise you, you can guarantee that’s as hard as I can go, that’s all I can get out of it at that time.
I KNOW THAT PRACTICE TIME WAS LIMITED LAST WEEK AT DOVER, BUT THERE’S SO MUCH MYSTERY AT THE END OF RACES OF HOW LONG TIRES WILL LAST, IT STRUCK ME THAT NOONE REALLY KNEW ABOUT THE TIRES, SO DO YOU TRY TO GET SOME ASSESMENT OF WHAT TWO TIRES ARE LIKE AT SOME POINT DURING PRACTICE IF YOU HAVE THE CHANCE?
I would say you do. If you think that’s a viable option during the race you definitely might want to give that a shot in practice. I can say that because earlier this week I was talking to Steve (Letarte) and we were looking at what people did in between the two 20-lap segments of the shootout last year because you can pit, you cannot pit, you can two tires and a couple of guys didn’t pit, (Martin) Truex took two, the No. 16 (Greg Biffle) didn’t pit I do believe, several took four so he was talking about to prepare for this race we might practice on two new tires, we might put two rights on and see how the car handles without any changes just to know if we do want to take two what adjustments to make to the car.
And I recall doing that in the past, not so much lately because of the tough structure practices that we have now that are so short and you try to cram everything you can into it.
You really don’t have the luxury of trying something so trivial and something that might not really come into play. It’s definitely nice to do when you get that opportunity and you do consider it from time to time.
DO YOU HAVE ANY INTEREST IN WHAT KIMI RAIKKONEN IS GOING TO DO TONIGHT IN THE TRUCK AND WILL YOU WATCH THE RACE?
Yeah, certainly. I would watch the race regardless probably but definitely when something like that happens, a guy like that coming into the sport that goes to the top of your list of interests when you are trying to tune into the event and see how he’s going to do.
I really want him to have success. I hope that he runs well and enjoys his experience. I like to see people come in and get opportunities. I like to really see people that come in and have never seen our sport, heard about it and maybe heard good and bad things about it and come in here and leave with a great impression.
That makes me feel good. That makes me feel proud of being a part of it for as long as I have. I think that he will get a good impression. I think he’ll enjoy what he is going to get himself into.
NOT TOO LONG BEFORE KENTUCKY WITH THE CUP CARS FOR THE FIRST TIME, YOUR IMPRESSIONS ABOUT TAKING THE CUP CARS THERE.
I’m looking forward to it I guess. It’s a little rough, last time I was there was a while ago but kinda bouncy, rough getting down in the corner. That will be kind of tricky on our cars because of the bump stops and how close we try to get the nose to the ground. So it will be a little bit of a challenge.
It’s a wide race track. I think it will put on some good racing. There’s definitely different choices a driver can make getting through the corner which is a lot of fun for the drivers and I think that does make for good racing.
I know there’s a ton of fans excited about our sport coming in that direction and hopefully they will show up in good numbers and let everybody know why they deserved the dates. I think it will be a good success so I’m looking forward to it.
YOU MENTIONED EARLIER THE ALL-STAR RACE BEING DIFFERENT NOW THAN IN THE ‘80’S, HOW DO YOU SEE THE CHANGES IN IT?
I was talking to Marcus (Smith) at the pit stop thing about it, I was like man you know from a fans standpoint I think the first segment is too long. I really like the ’87 All-Star race, the way that race was structured I don’t remember exactly what the lap numbers were but I was thinking something like 25, 10 was a good lap structure.
Make the event a little shorter and make it a little more about the fireworks that the drivers provide in the event. Sort of pack it into a smaller, little neater structure and if you need more racing, more action, if you’re trying to make the day long and the event itself long for the fans bring in other attractions.
Maybe something to do with the Nationwide Series or whatever to give the fans some more racing for their buck but try to take the All-Star race and make it a little bit more a stick of dynamite than a whole long row of 180’s (laughter). I thought Marcus was agreeing with me too (laughing), I don’t know.
It’s a really great show and this format surely appeals to a lot of people that’s just my opinion. I look at this event and I think it should be a celebration of the sport and a celebration of what the sport is about.
Bring in all the guys that made it what it is, celebrate what they did and what they accomplished. You look at the NFL and Major League Baseball they have their All-Star events and they obviously enjoy those events and when you watch them you see everybody there really taking it in and glad to be there, enjoying it.
The players enjoy it. It’s a fun atmosphere for everybody and it’s relaxed. Racing will never be like that, if we’re going to have an event like this, it’s never going to be relaxed and there’s going to be some tension and some battles but I like to see the sport get its due and the people that made it what it is get their due. I don’t know.
When I was a kid it just seemed like it was a little more of a circus than a celebration and a fun time and now that I’m in the event and working and trying to race and trying to win it it’s a lot more pressure, lot more intense but maybe it’s still fun from the other side of the fence to experience. But it’s a lot of pressure for a driver coming out here especially now trying to get through the Shootout and all. It should be fun but I’m looking forward to the experience.
I’m sure I’ll be a better person for it one way or the other.