'It's a really emotional thing.'
With five laps to go in the Pocono 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was able to make the winning pass in his No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS when Brad Keselowski (Ford) yielded while attempting to clean debris from his front grille. Although he only led 11 of the 160-lap NASCAR Spring Cup event at Pocono Raceway, Earnhardt Jr. was there when it counted most.
“He (Brad Keselowski) didn’t want to let me by, but I don’t know if his motor was going to make it,” Earnhardt, Jr. said in Victory Lane. “That is unfortunate for him. He had me beat I couldn’t get to him. It is just real hard to pass here. But I have lost some in some strange ways so it feels good to win one like that. I want to thank National Guard, Diet Mountain Dew, Kelley Blue Book, Chevy and Sprint and all our partners. Thank Rick and Linda (Hendrick), my team, what a great bunch of guys. We always have to thank those guys, but man when I talk about my team I really mean it. These guys are a hell of a group; obviously Steve Letarte and everybody back home watching. I don’t have much to do tomorrow so tonight is going to be a long one.”
The win was Earnhardt Jr.’s first at the ‘Tricky Triangle’ and second in 2014 after putting Chevrolet SS in Victory Lane at the season-opening Daytona 500. This was the 21st time in his career that Earnhardt, Jr. has captured the checkered flag, and his first multiple win in a season since 2004.
Chevrolet celebrated today in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Winner’s Circle for the fourth consecutive time in the past four weeks. Likewise, it was the fourth consecutive win for Hendrick Motorsports. Further, it marked four in a row at the track with three turns for Chevrolet; which was also the 29th victory for the Bowtie Brand at Pocono. The win increased Chevrolet’s advantage in the Manufacturers’ Cup standings to a 30-point lead.
With his second victory of the season, Earnhardt, Jr., is guaranteed to be among the top 16 winners after race No. 26. He now needs only to finish in the top 30 in driver points after race No. 26 and attempt to qualify for every race to officially clinch a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
It was a banner day for Chevrolet bringing home eight of the top 10 finishing positions. Kurt Busch, No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS finished third followed by the top finishing rookie of the year contender Kyle Larson driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet SS coming home fifth in his first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway.
Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s/KOBALT Tools Chevrolet team once again proved they are in championship form overcoming a pit road accident to rally and earn a sixth-place finish. Ryan Newman, No. 31 WIX Filters Chevrolet SS earned his fifth top-10 finish of the season coming home seventh.
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet SS finished eighth, but regains the points lead by 16 markers over Matt Kenseth (Toyota). For the second week in a row Martin Truex, Jr. piloting the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet SS earned a top-10 finish taking the checkered flag in the ninth position. Jamie McMurray earned his fifth top-10 finish at the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway ending the day in his No. 1 Cushman/Cessna Chevrolet SS in 10th.
Brad Keselowski (Ford) was second and Denny Hamlin (Toyota) was fourth to round out the top five finishing order.
The Sprint Cup Series travels to the backyard of Chevrolet next weekend at the teams and drivers take on the superfast 2-mile Michigan International Speedway next Sunday June 15th.
DALE EARNHARDT JR., NO. 88 NATIONAL GUARD CHEVROLET SS – RACE WINNER, POST RACE PRESS CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT:
LAURA FINLEY: We are now joined by the winner of today's Pocono 400, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet. This is Dale's second victory and ninth top‑10 finish in 2014. It's also his first multiple‑win season since 2004, when he had six victories. Dale, congratulations. Why don't you talk a little bit about how the race unfolded for you today.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: We had a real good car in practice yesterday, felt pretty comfortable. Throughout the race we had a pretty fast car. We were mired in fifth or sixth place for the most part of the day, but I knew that our speed was good, and it just really come down to who was going to be leading on that last restart. That guy was going to be the guy that was going to be hard to beat. It's real hard to pass here, and I knew that dirty air was going to be a big challenge for anybody, so if you can get that clean air like Brad did, he was going to be hard ‑‑ that was what was going to win the race.
You know, I tried as hard as I could on those restarts to do anything that I thought could give me a shot to get by him, but he was very strong entering the corner especially, so it was hard for me to do anything on restarts. He would get clear pretty easily.
But with about eight laps to go, Steve said he was complaining about his temperatures. He had a lot of stuff on his grille, and I thought for sure he wasn't going to do anything like he did in Turn 1. I thought he'd just go ahead and motor on and just hopefully the engine made it.
But we got down into Turn 1, we went up the race track to chase that lap car and try to get that stuff off his grille. I don't know what his temperatures were, but they must have been very, very hot for Brad to do that. I knew right then when he did that, he was so slow, I thought we were going to pass him, we're going to take the lead, we're going to have four laps to go, and if I just run tidy corners, he would have trouble. He would have trouble with the dirty air and wouldn't be able to get to us.
I probably ran ‑‑ I probably under‑drove the car a little bit there at the end, but I just wanted to make sure I didn't make any mistakes because if he did get to us, it was going to be challenging because I think he had a little better car there at that particular point. I just had to keep him in dirty air and keep him back there, and he wasn't going to get within a couple car lengths I don't think.
Q. This is your first multi‑win season since 2004 and your first non‑plate victory since 2012. How difficult has it been to get back to being competitive on the weekends for races?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: It's elusive, man. For any team it's hard to get that competitive to where you can win races, and we see teams really kind of ‑‑ we see teams that get that strong and they'll maintain that like Jimmie and Chad when they get together and they sort of ‑‑ Chad is really good at putting the right people in the right places to keep that team competitive and give Jimmie a lot of chances to win races. Our group has been working together for quite some years now, and each year we saw a progression in performance and we've seen ourselves get better each year. So this makes sense to me, what I'm seeing us do and how I see us run makes a lot of sense to me, and it was the logical next result in my opinion for this team as we've gotten better and better throughout each year.
We've been fast every week. We kind of started that around the middle of last year, toward the end of last year. I think we have not peaked as a team performance‑wise, but we're certainly at our highest ceiling. We're doing some of our best work certainly right now. We should ‑‑ we have a lot of passion and there's a lot of emotion, considering this is Steve's last year, and I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can.
So that can be dangerous, I think, for everybody else if we win to get better. We're still not the best team. We can always improve, and there's areas where we can improve. The 4 car is so fast, and he's been ‑‑ if they really get the luck thing figured out and just sort of start putting races together, they're going to be tough, and there's other teams out there that are really competitive. But we're doing some great work, and I feel like what we do is really dependable. I think our team is very dependable and mistake free, so hopefully we can maintain that.
Q. You completed a milestone today. You're the fourth Hendrick driver in a row here to win at Pocono. I didn't see Mr. Hendrick here today. What does it mean to you to be that fourth driver?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I don't know. You know, I just wanted to win at Pocono. I've never won here and I've came so close, and we've had so many opportunities slip away. We've been so close. It feels good to finally get to victory lane here. I really enjoy racing here, and I used to come here as a kid because it was a summer race. Just always wanted to win at this place, so it feels so good to finally do that. I told Rick this morning, he texted me and said he wasn't going to make it, he'd see me in Michigan, I said, well, I'll drink one for you after it's over with, so we were able to hold up our end of the deal. Hopefully he makes it to Michigan and we can try to get a win there.
We've had some good cars here, so it just feels good to finish the deal.
Q. You mentioned about the team a few minutes ago. Do you think that the 88 is the new 48?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Easy now. (Laughter.)
They just come off of two straight wins, and everybody was about to crown him the champion. You know, two weeks before they were wondering what the hell was wrong with him, and then two weeks later he's the best thing on the block. We just got to keep everything in perspective. Jimmie is an awesome teammate. We're successful because of their success and vice versa. I think we really work well together.
They're the 48 and we're the 88, and I don't want to be the new 48. I want to be the new 88. We'll definitely try to continue to work hard and try to win some more races and try to leave our own mark and not a mark similar to anyone else.
Q. And what do you think about winning back‑to‑backs since your record is so good at Michigan?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: That would be awesome. I haven't done that since the Nationwide days back in '98 or '99. We won a couple there back to back, I think. That's a really good feeling. Puts you right on top of the world. A win gives you a lot of confidence, but you know and realize how difficult those are to come by and how competitive this garage is, but man, when you win two in a row, man, that sets you apart a bit from your competition. That would be a great thing for us.
Q. One of the things you said after the win was that you were having the best time of your life right now, and you thought that a lot of your crew would say the same thing. There has to be more that goes into that than just winning twice. What is it? What are some of the things that make you say something like that?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: When I go to the garage or when I go to the shop and visit with them and talk to them, my car chief, Jason Burdette, brings his son over to my property to run around our little go‑kart track, and Steve and I have a great relationship off the race track. I let his son into our clan, in Clash of Clans a couple months ago. That's been a thrill for Tyler.
But we had to clean up the language a little bit, but he's having fun.
We do a lot of normal things together, and there's a real appreciation for each other individually as people. There's a great ‑‑ we're real fortunate because there's not a guy in that group that's hard to be around. We're all easy going, and everybody really gets along. We set aside our flaws and really enjoy the relationship and working together, and we've done that for a couple years now. But now that we're having success, it makes it a lot more fun. But the fact that we can get along when things weren't the best, I mean, that team had just ‑‑ Jeff and that team split up and we all knew what kind of talent he is, and so the way they wrapped their arm around me and put me under their wing and made me feel comfortable and made me confident and made me feel worthy of the opportunity to work with them was great. They've been just genuine, genuine people, Burdette and Kevin Meander and all the guys are just so genuine. They're real. Their feelings and relationships are real.
I'm enjoying that. I said it out there in victory lane. Winning races is great, but it's nothing unless you enjoy who you're doing it with, and when you can do something great and it's with people you enjoy being around, man, it really adds to it, so this is why it's so special right now.
Q. Dale, I do want to ask you, what's the difference in getting multiple wins this year? You guys have run well, had streaks where you've run well over the last couple seasons, but you couldn't get multiple wins. What's different or is anything different and why this year do you have two or the potential for more wins when you were running really well at times and couldn't get those?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I think it's the difference between running fourth at the end of this race and running second. It's a very small thing, but in years past when it was someone else seizing that opportunity from Brad and we were running third or fourth watching it happen, whereas we've improved our game a little bit and we're getting a little faster and the company has gotten better. The company is really moving along great right now.
And Steve has a great strategy for races like this. I don't know how he has the vision and understanding of where he wants to be 200 laps ahead or whatever. It just amazes me that he can see how he wants it to play out and he just picks and chooses his pit stops and what fuel mileage he wants to create for the car, and here we are running second at the end of the race, if I can get a good restart and maybe get by Brad we win.
I mean, he just delivered that to me wrapped with a bow. The rest of our competition was mired ‑‑ the guys that had been running up front all day, the 14, all those guys were mired in traffic where we weren't. That's Steve. That's all Steve. That's a big part of why ‑‑ I think he just gets better and better and more confident in himself and his choices, but the cars are improving all the time, and like I said, two years ago or a year ago we were running third or fourth in this particular situation and someone else gets the luck of the draw and wins the race, whereas today we're good enough not to be leading and dominating but there when something strikes the leader, and I understand and keep it in perspective that Brad had the race won had he not had trouble.
But a year or two ago, we weren't running second to seize that opportunity, and now we are.
Q. You just said when you couldn't get by Brad on that last restart, had you resigned yourself that I'm going to finish second today, and what was the reaction or the mindset once you hear over the radio from Steve that, hey, he's having a problem with his temperatures, go after him?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I kept telling myself under the caution laps just to drive ‑‑ I kept telling myself under the pace laps that we weren't beaten, that if we did something right and worked hard on the restart, maybe he slips, maybe he makes a mistake, and we get by him. I just kept on trying to be positive and work hard on the restarts and be diligent and try to hope for the best instead of mentally forfeiting the race.
I think the confidence that I have in the team and how hard they work and how well we're doing gives me a bit of a more fighting spirit in that situation than I've had in the past. And even when we were sitting there running, I had nothing to lose by continuing to try to put pressure on him. He was moving, driving away and putting some distance on me, but I was working our car as hard as I could to try to stay within distance of him if he had to stumble on fuel or something because they were maybe a little close on fuel. I didn't know how close, but I knew he had to save quite a bit to make it to the end.
I just could not believe that he was going to do that when I saw him go up the racetrack behind the 10. I thought, I cannot believe he's going to do this. This is going to cost him a huge amount of momentum and we're going to go right by him, and I just was like, man, his temp just had to have been super hot for him to make that choice. That had to have been the toughest choice for him. I felt really bad for Brad to be honest in that particular instance to see him in such a situation that he had to be that desperate, but the temps must have been incredibly high for him to do that, otherwise he's the kind of guy that would have just put his foot in it and tried to make the motor last, but apparently it was just more than he could ask for the engine to do.
At the same time I felt bad, I knew we were trying to seize an opportunity to win and knew once we got in front of him that we were going to be in good shape. I had a little temperature in my engine, had a little debris on the grille but my temps weren't going up that fast but I knew we were in no trouble. If anything the debris might help the car on downforce.
Q. Following up on that, you and Brad are good friends and he was in here pretty dejected, beating himself up. The motor didn't blow, the debris never came off. Can you put yourself in his shoes and empathize with him?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: You know, we are good friends, and you hate to see a guy have to lose a race in a manner like that, but I'm excited that we won. I know that he would have definitely rather lost it to me than a few other guys out there that he's not best of buddies with, and we're competitive ‑‑ as we race year after year, we become more competitors than we are friends, and that's just the natural cycle of it.
But I still felt bad for him, and definitely he had it won. We weren't going to get to him. He was in good shape, and that had to have been a very challenging decision to make. Like I said, that temperature must have been really high because knowing Brad, any other ‑‑ if it was 270 or 280 he keeps his foot in it and just races it on out. And now, hindsight is a little different, knowing the grille ‑‑ the debris didn't come off the grille and he made it to the end, that can be hard on him and he can beat himself up. He's young enough, good enough, he's going to have plenty of opportunities to get his wins and enjoy more success in this sport. He'll get over this one over time, but yeah, it's got to be pretty difficult, I'm sure.
Q. With two wins locking you now into the Chase, does that change your approach for the rest of the season?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Oh, yeah, we started out the season when we won at Daytona, man, it made the rest of the year a lot more relaxing, a lot easier, less stress and it makes it fun, because you can just go to the race track and just race and not worry about points. We went to ‑‑ we used to ‑‑ last year and every damned year we would test at those road courses, Road Atlanta and here and there and work ourselves to death trying to figure out how to go faster at a road course, knowing damned good and well I wasn't going to run well because I don't know how to drive them. But I can run okay at the Glen every once in a while, but Sonoma, it's embarrassing, man, I haven't finished in the top 11 there ever. We just decided not to work that hard and just go there without a test and wing it, and we got teammates to test it and we'll see what they did and liked and we can go there with an attitude of it's not ‑‑ we don't have to dig and gouge for every single position and we don't have to worry if it's a total disaster or if it doesn't work out, if we get spun out on the last lap. We can just go have fun. Driving around the track and running that particular race, it is fun, but at the end when you get run over or you don't finish well, you're so pissed off, and it's such a long way home. It's a terrible trip home when you don't run good at Sonoma. We don't have to worry about that now. We can go to Michigan confident, happy, and a track where we really run well at and we can have fun this summer knowing those two wins have got us good and locked in pretty good.
It definitely made a difference in Daytona, now having two wins is going to make it even easier, a lot less stress, a lot less stress on the team, and I think that could be a good thing going into the Chase. I mean, not only are we able to relax right now, but what does that do for ‑‑ that's got to be positive for our composure and psyche going into the Chase, not having to stress all the way through into Richmond, you know?
Q. You've been selective on social media. Are you going to have time to interact with your fans on Twitter and can you give us a preview of what that first tweet might look like?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I took a picture of myself over at the pylon and I'll tweet that out later once I get to my phone. I really enjoyed that. I joined in February at Daytona, and I underestimated just how enjoyable that could be. That interaction is unlike any other, and I get as much out of it, I think, as the fans that are following me. I've enjoyed it a lot, and wins like this certainly make it a whole lot more fun for everybody, especially when things are going good.
But it's been a positive thing for me, it really has. It definitely has some sort of a small effect on your personality a little bit, to have that kind of support directly right at your fingertips, knowing everybody is behind you 100 percent every day. Just to send out a tweet in the morning, like hey, man, I'm ready to race, these are my thoughts, and everybody goes, hell yeah, go have a good day. That's the kind of stuff you want to hear. You want people behind you and pushing you and motivating you. It does a lot of positive things for me.
Q. You're talking about Junior Nation and how they lift you up. To the detractors, you have now your 21st win in Cup. What do you say to those who say Dale Jr. is overrated?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I don't worry about that as much anymore. I'm turning 40 this year, and the overrated talk is way behind me. That used to bother me when I was younger, but when you get old you don't really care anymore about those kind of things. You just kind of go along and do your job and enjoy what you're doing, and I've got to really maximize what's left of my career and have as much fun with it as I can, try to enjoy it as much as I can. I took it for granted, and don't take anything for granted anymore when it comes to being at the racetrack and working with my team and how hard it is to get good and get competitive and how hard it is to get the right people in the right place.
I feel like I'm such a lucky guy to have this second opportunity almost to be competitive again, and so I don't really worry about the detractors. I really enjoy ‑‑ I have a lot more fun actually kind of reading that stuff on Twitter than I do a typical normal joke. Some of the stuff the haters say is the funniest stuff. It's really funny.
So I kind of get off on that. But I don't feel like I've got anything to prove. I've been given another opportunity working with Steve and these last five years or so have been a blessing, and I feel like I've made a good account of myself, and I think we've got more we can do.
Q. What do they say?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I mean, it's not memorable, but ‑‑
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: No. I guess if I remembered it, it bothered me. I don't know, just there's ‑‑ the real short ones, like "you suck." Those are the best ones.
Q. Do you ever tweet back to them?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: No, I just favorite them and block them. It's so much fun.
Q. I was wondering, how bittersweet is it to be on a roll and it be the last year with Steve with the team doing so well?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, it's a really emotional thing. You know, he's just ‑‑ primarily, man, I'm real happy for him to be able to do this thing. You know, racing is an important thing, an important part of our lives, but it's not the most important thing, and he's going to be able to go do this job. He's going to be financially set, he's going to be able to spend a ton of time with his kids, play as much golf as he wants to play. He's getting a steal compared to what he's doing right now. So I'm happy for him in that sense.
And also at the same time I remember when I talked to him in Homestead after the race, he said, I've got to tell you what I'm doing, and I broke down. I mean, it was the hardest thing to have to hear, but at the same time, I thought, well, we've got one year together, and as much fun as we have and as much ‑‑ as good a friends as we are, I feel lucky to have one more year. Hey, man, he told me at this particular point, I was one of the first people to know, that meant a lot to me, and he's letting me understand that we've got one more year together, let's have some fun, and then I'm going to do this thing. I'm going to do it, and be happy for me. So I am. I'm thrilled for him, and I'm glad we're winning. I'm glad ‑‑ it would be very disappointing and sad if this was his last year and we struggled. But we've won two races, and I won my first Pocono race, he won his first Daytona 500. It seems a bit storybook, and we're having a real thrill. We'll continue to be such great friends after working together this year. I still have him as a big part of my life, and I think that'll continue to positively affect me in whoever I work with in the future. I mean, you want to be around people that do that, so I'll work hard to continue to maintain a great relationship with him because he has such a positive effect on me, and I still think even though we aren't working together next year throughout the rest of my career together, he can still have that effect on me and still do things for me that help me on Sunday even though he's not there.