DALE EARNHARDT JR., NO. 88 NATIONAL GUARD AN AMERICAN SALUTE/DIET MOUNTAIN DEW CHEVROLET met with media and discussed running out of gas and missing the win here last year, Memorial Day weekend, Danica Patrick, and more.
YOU ALMOST WON THIS RACE HERE LAST YEAR. YOU WON THE SHOWDOWN PLUS ONE OF THE SEGMENTS IN LAST WEEK’S ALL-STAR RACE. YOU’VE GOT TO BE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT SUNDAY’S 600-MILE RACE “We feel good about getting started this weekend. It’ll be a little bit different; but variables like weather and how much rubber is on the race track and things like that. I’m just ready to go get in the car. I think we’re going to work on qualifying trim today. I don’t think we’ll do any race runs, so we won’t really know exactly what kind of race car we’ve got until Saturday. But, I’m just ready to get the weekend going so we can get closer to the race.”
GIVEN THE SUCCESS THAT BOTH YOU AND JIMMIE JOHNSON HAVE HAD THIS YEAR, HAS IT STARTED MORE OF A RIVALRY BETWEEN THE TWO OF YOU? OR DOES FINISHING AHEAD OF JIMMIE MEAN THE SAME AS FINISHING AHEAD OF ANY OTHER DRIVER? “No, me and Jimmie don’t have a rivalry going. We’re good teammates. I think we work really well together. I think we complement each other. The two teams complement each other quite well. They’ve been together for a couple of years so there’s a real great bond in that shop. It’s kind of like one whole group. It’s really hard to see the line between the two teams.”
CAN YOU JUST LOOK BACK AT LAST YEAR’S RACE AND TALK ABOUT THE EMOTION YOU FELT COMING THAT CLOSE AND THINKING YOU HAD IT AND RUNNING OUT OF GAS AND WHAT THAT WAS LIKE? ALSO, WOULD IT BE EXTRA SPECIAL TO WIN IN YOUR HOMETOWN? “Yeah, it would be awesome to win at Charlotte and give me a trophy from here being that it’s close to the house. It was tough to come so close last year and not win the race. My initial reaction was that I was happy that we actually rolled across the finish lane in seventh or where I think we finished. I was really relieved that it wasn’t worse than that. And then after a while you start thinking about oh yeah, we really came close to winning a race. It was really unfortunate there wasn’t just a little bit more gas in the car or whatever to get us to victory lane because that would have been a great way to cap-off a pretty good weekend. So it was a bit frustrating over time. But we ran good and we came here. I feel like, I’ve said it all year long, that I think we’re a little bit better team than we were last year.
“And every time we come to the race track this year, I feel like just judging on the performance at that particular track the year before that we’ve been better, faster, and have had more speed. And I feel like I got that again this past weekend at the All-Star race. Had a good judge of how much better of a race team we are. So, I feel like we should come in and compete this weekend and we’re fortunate and do the right things as far as pit strategy goes, to put ourselves up toward the front like we did last year, we hopefully have enough fuel to get to the finish line.”
CAN YOU ASSESS DANICA PATRICK’S NATIONWIDE SERIES PERFORMANCE THIS YEAR AND CLARIFY IF SHE IS GOING TO RACE AT ALL NEXT YEAR FOR YOU? “I really don’t know what her plans are for next year aside from her deal with Tony (Stewart). We haven’t talked to her and don’t know about her interest in running any Nationwide races or whether Tony wants her to or whatever. That’ll all happen down the road, I guess.
“I think she’s had a difficult season this year and she obviously wished she had finished better or run better. But I think she just needs to buckle down and try to learn everything she can. She’s really trying to get a four-year degree in a short amount of time. She’s trying to learn a lot in just a little amount of time and I think she just needs to concentrate on what she can learn and what she can improve on and she’s going to have a bigger challenge next year. And she needs to look forward to that and try to prepare herself the best she can for that.”
GOING BACK TO NARROWLY MISSING A WIN THERE LAST YEAR, DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE ‘UNFINISHED BUSINESS’ TO TEND TO? “I think so. You definitely feel like one got away; or when you come close to winning a race like that, you definitely think about what you might have could have done different; or, if only this or if only that. You don’t think about that too much. You can get distracted and not really be thinking about what you’re trying to do that moment. If the car is good enough and we’re good enough and do everything we need to do, we’ll be right there with an opportunity to win a race and that’s what you have to concentrate on.”
THIS IS A LONG RACE. DO YOU EVER TRY TO EAT ANYTHING DURING THE RACE? BACK IN THE DAYS WHEN YOU CAME TO THIS RACE, DID YOU EVER SEE A DRIVER EAT SOMETHING DURING THIS RACE THAT YOU THOUGHT WAS CRAZY? “No, not really. I’ve never really known drivers to eat too much during the races. That’s not something that I’ve done in the past. It’s just another 100 miles. It’s not a big deal; and if you prepare yourself throughout the week, you should be able to get through it, no problem.”
FOLLOWING A GOOD ALL-STAR LAST WEEK, DO YOU HAVE MOMENTUM GOING INTO THIS RACE WEEKEND? “I think we’re confident. We’re bringing back the same car so we know what kind of race car we’ve got. We know what kind of potential we’ve got I guess and we’re all kind of expecting to improve on some of the things we did last week. We had some things that we learned and we think that we improve on that and even be better than we were last week.
“So, that’s (crew chief) Steve’s (Letarte) job and his group’s job to get together and try to squeeze a little more speed out of the car and I’ll just try to have to communicate the best I can to give them information. But I don’t need to get complacent with how we ran last week. We need to try to work harder to go better and go faster.”
WHAT DOES MEMORIAL DAY MEAN TO YOU? “Well, it’s a great time to acknowledge what sacrifices that the military and the personnel make for us. It’s a great time for them to really get some recognition and get some acknowledgment. We’re running a special paint scheme this weekend. A lot of drivers will be involved in doing programs like that. The sport itself does a great job of acknowledging and recognizing the military and its involvement in our sport has always been pretty huge. So, it’s always centered around Charlotte. I remember that since I was a little kid, back when Humpy was blowing up plywood tanks and all sorts of stuff. So, it’s always been part of this weekend and it’s sort of schooled into your thought process about the importance of the military and the importance of recognizing them and acknowledging them and giving them credit for their sacrifices.”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HOW YOUR STRATEGY FOR THE 600 HAS CHANGED OVER THE YEARS? GIVEN THE FACT THAT THE TEAMS HAVE HAD TIME TO WORK ON THE CLOSED FUEL-LOOP SYSTEM, DO YOU THINK IT WILL BE AS MUCH OF A FUEL MILEAGE RACE AS IT WAS LAST YEAR? “Yeah, I think all the races have great chances of becoming fuel mileage races because the tires are so good and the tires aren’t that important anymore at a lot of these race tracks, so you don’t see as many guys coming down pit road to get four tires to come out and beat everybody at the end of a race. Most times at these race tracks, the tires are doing such a good job that guys are going to stay out you know; they don’t want to give up track position because when you get back in the pack with new tires, you really can’t go anywhere. So, if that’s how the racing is, then what you do as a crew chief is your strategy is geared toward what you might see at road courses, where as soon as you get inside the pit window, you’re going to come in and get the fuel. And the first guy to come in and pit has the advantage because as it cycles around, he should be toward the front.
“So, a lot of guys stretch it and put it right on that envelope or right on that mark of being just a lap short or a couple laps short and they’re counting on some caution laps to get them there. They might not be able to run a green-white-checkered. Those guys are going to take gambles. All our races have potential to do that. You could see that happen. It just depends on really where and how the cautions fly and at tracks where tires are really, really important, you don’t really see that much because the guys are going come down and get new rubber and not sacrifice the speed.
“But at a place like this, tires are just as quick when they’ve got 30 or 40 laps on them as they do when they’re brand new, pretty much. And if you’ve got 20 guys on the lead lap and you’re in the top 10, man you’re not going to come down pit road and give up that track position if you’ve only got 20 or 30 laps on your tires. To me, it’s not a negative or a positive. You line-up cars to race and that’s how the race goes and that’s a race, you know. That’s the way it ends and you can appreciate it for the strategy and whoever plays it the best.”