Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan: There is a little bit of pressure

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, met with members of the media at Michigan International Speedway, and discussed his June win at Michigan, National Guard sponsorship renewal, his new Chevrolet dealership, heading into the Chase and other topics.

Talk about coming back to Michigan, site of your last win: “Just anticipate getting on the race track and seeing what kind of speed the car’s got, and how comfortable the car is. They changed the tire a little bit, so just anticipating going to work and trying to find good comfort and good speed. Going to try to put a good effort in this weekend.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Adriano Manocchia

How do you figure out what is fair market value when hiring a driver? Is there an easy formula for that? “I think it is just probably different for everybody. I’m not sure how to figure it out at the Cup level because the numbers are so big, and I don’t really deal with that end of it. At the Nationwide level, it just depends on the driver’s experience, and obviously his performance - if he’s had any performance in the past. You number crunch throughout the year, and your ability to draw off certain numbers per race depends on track, the market. For stand-alone races, it is quite difficult to find sponsors. But, for companion events, they like to be where the NASCAR Cup guys are. They like to be at the bigger events. It just depends on the tracks themselves.”

Are you relieved on the National Guard front (that they have re-signed as sponsor), or are you more focused on the driving? “I was real happy to have The Guard sign. I expected them to be a part of the program. We’ve had a real positive relationship, and they’ve been excited about what we’ve been able to do. We have some great ideas coming up that we just started implementing this past week where we are going to visit high schools, and talk to the kids and the parents, the principals, and giving The Guard the opportunity to have more access at that level. We are doing some good things. That was a lot of fun. That was the first time I had been to a high school and talked to a group like that. I enjoyed that. I think it is good for our team, and good for the sport. We’re excited they are ready to be onboard for the next season.”

There has been talk that the legislation could pop-up again, do you have any sense? Is it good for next year? Is it still hanging over your head? Or do you feel like you are set for next year? “I feel comfortable that we’re set and we can move forward. I think that the legislation will always be around. The opposition to that will always be there fighting the fight. It is part of their job I suppose. But, I feel pretty comfortable with the agreement. I think it is pretty concrete.”

What is it like to come back here as the winner of the most recent race here at Michigan? “It doesn’t really feel any different than going anywhere else that I haven’t won. The only thing is, there is a little bit of added pressure to go back out and have the same performance and run the same. I know that is not always likely. We go to Pocono in a rather short span of time, and you run quite differently each time you go, even though they are only about a month apart. The car will have a little bit more speed at one of the two events than it will the other. There is a little bit of pressure I guess because people know that did you did so well the last time that they are going to focus on you a little bit more during the weekend. I feel pretty comfortable we will be fast. We should be able to go out there and compete for the win. If we don’t, I’ll be pretty disappointed.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo by: Adriano Manocchia

What was your strategy last time, and do you have one this time? “I don’t really have a strategy. You just go out there and try to lead. Get to the front. If you aren’t in the front, get to the front and pass the guy in front of you. Pretty simple. You run as hard as you can every lap. The tires held up really well last time. The track is really smooth. You just run as hard as you can every lap. There’s really not much to it. You don’t have to save tires, or do anything. It’s pretty much laid out there for you. I think the track should be in great shape. The (NASCAR Camping World Series) Truck guys have been out there burning it in for us and getting it ready to go. So we should be able to hit the track right off the bat and feel pretty comfortable that the track is real similar, closer to what it will be like for the race on Sunday that it was the last trip here. We really had a pretty green race track when we showed up. It changed throughout the weekend as we laid rubber down. The track is a lot closer. A lot more rubber on it today; a little bit closer to what it will be like on Sunday. We shouldn’t see such a big swing in the balance of the track and how the track changes throughout the weekend as we did the first trip.”

With different tires and different rear Swaybar rules, do you expect what worked in June to work this weekend? “I expect our setup is pretty much the same. All we did was wash the car. I don’t think we even touched it since then. That is what I was told. I expect our setups that we used to work just as well. We’ve learned some things since the last race here that I think will help us, and find us to be more competitive. I think we’re a better and faster team even than we were in the trip here the first time.”

It’s been 17 years since a driver has been able to sweep both Michigan races. Is there an explanation for that beyond how competitive the series is? “If I had to guess, or add something to it, I would say that the track is really competitive; really wide. It allows for quite a bit of passing so it is hard to dominate the race. There are a lot of variables that come in. More cautions and stuff like that come in so racing strategies change. Back when the races used to get swept, it was more about engines. Ernie Elliott and Yates building power plants that would just come down here and whoop everybody all year long. You don’t see that quite as much. All the teams are quite equal. There’s not a car out there that is dominating under the hood like they used to back when.”

Did the win here in June make a big different on how you feel about what you can do in the chase? “Yes, absolutely. Getting over that hurdle; getting that first win does a lot to relieve you. It reassures you that your team can win. I think if we were still windless, we would still feel a bit snake-bitten, or somewhat cursed I guess in away. That might mess your psyche a little bit. Mess with you mentally. But, once you do break through that barrier, it definitely gives you a reason to believe that you can do it again.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

You became an automobile dealership owner this week. What your goals for that? Are you planning on being actively involved? “Me and Rick (Hendrick) had talked about this for a long time. Quite a lot. Extensively. We were just waiting on the right opportunity. Dealerships are challenging and quite fickle. Depends on the market. We knew we would have an opportunity if we were patient. This one is kind of a turnkey deal. We are going to do a little bit of remodeling, but otherwise all the employees that are there and everything, the thing is working as designed. So we’re not going to have to go in there and turn everything upside down. It is something I’ve had an interest in doing. That was going to be my profession if I hadn’t been a race car driver I was going to work in a dealership as a mechanic or something. That was what I did to pay my power bill for four years, so that was what it was all about for me at one point. It was pretty weird standing in the service department talking to all my employees when I used to work in one myself. I never imagined that day would come. I am excited about it. I will be hands-on; be involved quite heavily. Through the experiences I had with my Dad owning the one in Newton, I am excited to sort of carve my own path and enjoy that same experience he enjoyed, and make it successful.”

You mentioned at Charlotte that you didn’t believe the senator from Georgia, Jack Kingston, who is against military sponsorships maybe hadn’t even been to a NASCAR race. Has there been an effort from your camp to maybe get him to a race to see the program at work? “I guess someone from Hendrick Motorsports has been in touch with them trying to lure him to an event. It would be a good opportunity for him to get a good glimpse of what the program is about and how it works at track. Most of our efforts are starting to gear toward other venues and getting me involved in other way trying to get more attention and more awareness for The Guard. He is welcome to come out. Laura (Scott, HMS public relations representative) back there says we have been reaching out from Hendrick. That is all we can do I guess.”

Is there anything you feel like you and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) still need to do to show that you can win the title once the chase starts? “We want to win more races, that’s missing. We need more bonus points so we can lead the points going into Chicago. That gives the team a lot of confidence. We feel like we’ve been so strong this year, we are just a little shy in the win column for how we have performed throughout the year. If the wins want to wait, and come in during the Chase, that’s fine with me too. We want to win every opportunity we get out on the race track. We don’t show up to lose. That’s one of the things I think we’d like to have happen at least once before we get to the Chase. It might give our team a good boost; good momentum going in.”

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About this article
Series NASCAR-CUP
Article type Interviews
Tags chevrolet, earnhardt, michigan, nascar-cup, national guard

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