DALE EARNHARDT JR. HELD A QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION IN THE CHICAGOLAND SPEEDWAY MEDIA CENTER BEFORE THURSDAY'S PRACTICE SESSIONS. HERE ARE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF THAT SESSION: "We went straight to Seattle after the race (for the All-Star Game)...
DALE EARNHARDT JR. HELD A QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION IN THE CHICAGOLAND SPEEDWAY MEDIA CENTER BEFORE THURSDAY'S PRACTICE SESSIONS. HERE ARE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF THAT SESSION:
"We went straight to Seattle after the race (for the All-Star Game) and got to hang out with all of the baseball players and do some things like that. I haven't really got to enjoy it yet, you know. I know it was big, that it was a big win for me and for my team. But I really haven't been able to fit it where how big it is and what it really means to me and what it will mean to me down the road.
"You guys know that was where I lost my father. To go back in there and win that race, I was just blown away. I couldn't believe it.
"I went to the track that Tuesday afternoon. Nobody was out there but some people who work there. I kind of just drove around. I sat down in turns 3 and 4 down there for a while and kind of thought and looked around and soaked it all in so when I got to the track and got ready to get into the race car I could get in the car and be confident to go out there. That kind of helped.
"We were real fast in Happy Hour and that really helped my confidence going into the race. I felt like we had the fastest car in Happy Hour. On race day, I was more worried about getting into a crash or something. Once the race stared, I kind of waited around for everybody to chill out. Once everything sort of calmed down after about 10 or 15 laps I was trying to move up a little bit and see who I could work with. Then we got into the lead and I just had this strange desire not to give it up."
OBVIOUSLY, QUESTIONS HAVE COME UP ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY THAT THE RACE WAS "FIXED" SOMEHOW AND YOU'VE REACTED TO THOSE. HOW DIFFICULT HAS IT BEEN TO GET THROUGH ALL OF THAT?
"I couldn't believe. I was in Seattle and I was doing some interviews with the baseball media and this guy asked me like, "What do you think about people saying the race was fixed?" I literally cocked back just to knock the hell out of this guy. I didn't know what he was saying. It didn't register.
"It really bothered me pretty bad, it upset me. That was the biggest race of my career, my biggest win. Aside from the wins I had when my father was there, that's going to be the day that I will always remember. For somebody to question its credibility, to question my credibility, I feel like that's a slap in my face, a slap in my father's face and a slap in (crew chief) Tony Eury's face. Those guys busted their butts to build a great race. They probably worked harder on that racecar than on any other car they've ever worked on. I never drove harder in my life. I went out there and got the lead. I was blocking all night long and making the moves to stay up front. We won the race so convincingly that it raised questions. It's a shame and it takes a lot away from.
"In my mind, if they would do something like that, why would they? They've got so much to lose and so little to gain by doing something like that. NASCAR is just now getting into the markets and the areas that they want to get into to. Why would they want to take a chance and risk everything they have?
"I haven't even talked to Teresa yet or had a chance to enjoy her comments or her feelings from it and what she got from it. This is probably what we're going to end up talking about. I feel like everybody I talk to about the race I have to prove to them it was real. It's a shame. I don't know how it will go away or what will happen. It was a great moment in NASCAR history and it got kicked in the (groin)."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU LEARNED FROM WATCHING YOUR DAD RACE ON RESTRICTOR PLATE TRACKS?
"If you watched the past two or three restrictor plate races that I raced with him, we were competitive and we ran up front. I learned a lot from him and I know how to drive in those races. I learned how to work the air on the cars and how to get by people by yourself without help and things like that. I kind of learned how to do that. In those races I always kind of got toward the front and then it was always him who was the one pulling the tricks on me that made me fall back.
"I felt real confident. I saw him do things that I knew why he did them. For some reason, when we ran the Shootout or the 500 or the 125s I felt real confident in the car we had and the cars were fast and capable of running up front. But I was always worried about where he was. I knew he was going to be racing for the lead side-by-side or have it all to himself.
"Without him in that race this past weekend, I felt invincible. I had everything that he had, knowledge and confidence, what he had and what he took to those races he had. I just felt like I couldn't be touched."
WHAT WERE YOU THINKING BEFORE THE LAST RESTART WHEN YOU WERE IN SEVENTH PLACE?
"I was kind of worried. I told Tony over the radio, "If we don't win this race, we should have. I'm sorry." I knew if I made the right decisions we would win and if I made the wrong decisions we don't. I felt like it was really resting on my shoulders. I knew the guys in front of me didn't have any tires. It was almost a second a lap old tires vs. new tires. I felt like the only thing I had to worry about was people behind me who took tires. I didn't want to get bogged up behind guys with old tires and let Rusty Wallace or somebody get by. I got by those guys as fast as I could."
THIS IS YOUR FIRST DAY AT CHICAGOLAND SPEEDWAY. WHAT ARE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS? HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT ADJUSTING TO A NEW TRACK?
"I got here yesterday and kind of tried to look at the track and where the groove is and think about where you'll let off the gas and pick the gas up. But you really don't know until you get out there and that's the excitement of going somewhere new for a driver, being on the race track and being on the track, finding out where the good places to pass are and where your car is going to work better than the other guys'. How far away is the wall? What does the back straight look like? Where's the flag stand? You have all of those things going through your mind. You want to get a picture of all those things so you can go sit in the truck and think about it and get a mental picture of it your mind."
WINNING AT DAYTONA HAS PUT YOU BACK IN THE SPOTLIGHT MORE THAN YOU'VE BEEN SINCE YOUR FATHER'S DEATH. HOW HAS THAT BEEN FOR YOU?
"Nobody has really overstepped the boundaries. I can't think of anything. We've just to be real tasteful about it. Of course with my father's tragedy a lot of people have called or have come asking questions wanting to know this or that or wanting you to do this or that. It's really overwhelming sometimes. You don't know if it's right or wrong or if it's tasteful. It might sound good to me, but is Teresa going to like it? Is it going to upset Kelly? You're just thinking about everybody in the family and you want to make the right decisions and say the right things and not say the wrong things. I've just tried to be real careful about what I've said or did and try not to appear to be like I was taking advantage of a situation.
"Daytona offered me his coach lot spot. I said I would rather it stay empty. Little things like that, they're small but they're big, too. You're making a lot of decisions right now and you just hope you make the right ones."
A LOT OF FANS WHO PULLED FOR YOUR FATHER ARE NOW YOUR FANS. DOES THAT CHANGE THE WAY YOU DO OR THINK ABOUT THINGS IN ANY WAY? IS THAT AN EXTRA BURDEN?
"It's not an added burden at all. It's undeserved a little bit. I really hope I can make them proud. I want to be able to go out there and win this weekend and win next weekend and win whenever I can to be like an Earnhardt. I want to make the Earnhardt fan feel like he can cheer as much as he has in the past.
"When we won The Winston and they had victory lane on the front straightaway, it was just an awesome feeling to be that close to the race fans. It really allowed me to enjoy the victory; it really showed what the victory was, how big it was and how important it was. When you're in victory circle you're disconnected from all of that. It's very uniform in victory circle, things happen one after another - pictures, hats - you really don't know what you've won. To get out there in front of the fans, they will tell you just exactly how important that race was. That's what I did. I wanted to get out there and see what they thought about it. I jumped up on the car and I was very determined to win that race. I wanted them to know that I was really happy.
"No matter what controversy you have or questions about the race being fixed or whatever, that initial reaction is the one I will always remember. That's the one I will always be able to take with me. Those people knew then and there it was real and that it was genuine. I feel like I will always have that."
TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THE WAY THE FIRST HALF OF YOUR SEASON HAS GONE.
"We've run really well the last 12 or 15 weeks. We've got some top 10s. We were third at Michigan before running out of gas and the engine blew. We were third at Pocono and ran out of gas. We've had good, competitive cars each week. Our goal is to finish in the top 10 in the points and get on the stage in New York. That would be a really good thing for us as a team, that's a reachable goal. We may possibly be able to get as far as sixth or seventh in the points. We don't want to go lower than 12th, if we fall lower than 12th I feel like we will have really let ourselves down.
Every time we've been on the track this year we've had good driving cars. I have been able to get on the track and be able to race people. Last year I would just have to hang on. We ran like crap beside the races we won. This year we've been able to race with the leaders the majority of the races we've been in."