Las Vegas Preseason Thunder - Earnhardt Jr press conference

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES PRESEASON THUNDER AT LAS VEGAS -- DAY 1 LAS VEGAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY January 28, 2008 DALE EARNHARDT, JR., NO. 88 MOUNTAIN DEW AMP/NATIONAL GUARD IMPALA SS met with media at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during preseason testing...

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
PRESEASON THUNDER AT LAS VEGAS -- DAY 1
LAS VEGAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
January 28, 2008

DALE EARNHARDT, JR., NO. 88 MOUNTAIN DEW AMP/NATIONAL GUARD IMPALA SS met with media at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during preseason testing and discussed his new affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports, the importance of the Daytona 500, how he was introduced to Jeff Gordon, his race fans, and more. Transcript follows:

THE MODERATOR: We have Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with us, driver of the National Guard AMP Energy Drink Chevrolet.

Dale, first off, just kind of talk about the morning session, time on the track with this new car, how that has gone.

DALE EARNHARDT JR: It was good. The car was real good right off the trailer. You know, we're just kind of working on some things. We ain't really had a whole lot of laps out there because of the weather.

Real happy with how it came off the trailer and how everything feels and how everything drives.

THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions for Dale, Jr.

Q: (Question regarding the difference between the old and new car.)

DALE EARNHARDT JR: Just trying to get a car where it wants to be as far as the splitter. The splitter gets on the ground, goes up the racetrack. So you got to get that splitter off the ground but as close as possible to get the maximum downforce that you can get from the car.

So it's a real fine line right there trying to adjust those two things, having them both. It's hard to have one without losing the other.

So, you know, the other car, it traveled what it traveled. You sort of had an average number that you looked for or average three, three-quarters on the right front, four inches, four and a quarter on the right front, and that's what you shot for.

If you got close to that you were happy, the car is fast. That's all that mattered. Now you got that splitter, it don't go nowhere, you can't grind it off. You need to get the car traveled down as much as you want, but the splitter touches the ground and it's terrible. Blows the whole corner, so it's kind of a challenge.

Q: (On communicating with the new team)

DALE EARNHARDT JR: I don't really know. I think communication's going good. Me and (Tony Eury) Junior, he's got my cars prepared good and they drive good. I think he's got a lot more information now to be able to fix any kind of complaints or problems we might have with the car and how it goes around the track. So I think everything's going great there. Should be business as usual for us.

Q: (Question regarding driving for Hendrick.)

DALE EARNHARDT JR: I don't really know yet. It's pretty new. It's nice sort of being -- it's nice being on kind of the same playing field. It's definitely evened things out for me amongst all my coworkers and the people. We're all trying to work together.

I think that they know there's no favoritism so they don't -- those things just aren't a factor anymore. Those kind of concerns or curiosities about what kind of perks come along with being the son of the boss.

You just got to really mind your own business, do your best job you can do, try to keep the people you're working with happy, try to keep the complaints about you or anything you've done to a minimum and just do your job and do it as well as you can, you know, put a good effort in.

I was doing that before. There wasn't any problem. I didn't really have a complex about it before, but it's just different. It's a different feeling. I'm okay with it.

Q: Dale, I was curious to know, before you made it into Cup, what was your impression of Jeff Gordon? Did your dad give you any indication about how good a driver he was before you actually started racing Cup races?

DALE EARNHARDT JR: Well, I met Jeff Gordon, the first time I met Jeff, I was at North Wilkesboro practicing for a Late Model race I was trying to qualify for. We happened to be there the same weekend as the Cup cars. We were trying to make that race. I was out on pit road doing something with my car, whatever.

Dad walked up and introduced me to Jeff. Jeff was sitting on pit wall. That wasn't the first time I met him. I'd met him before. Dad introduced me to him when he was in the Busch Series. Jeff was driving for Bill Davis. He introduced me to Jeff. Jeff was sitting on the pit wall at Charlotte one week. I was really young, probably 14 or 15. Maybe older than that.

Anyways, he introduced me to him again at North Wilkesboro. Dad, you know, I don't know, he never introduced me to people. So for him to be doing that, I figured there was something important going on, some reason I needed to know this guy.

He introduced me to maybe -- I can't -- the people that he introduced me to in that sort of a situation, in that context, he'd only done that maybe a dozen times. I felt like it must be pretty important. He must have felt like Jeff was really talented and gonna be around for a while, so...

But, you know, Jeff was winning championships when I was just kind of getting started. And I think indirectly he has a little bit to do with guys coming into the sport at the age they're coming in now, because to see him in there challenging and winning races and beating guys five, ten years older than him, it drove a lot of people that were really young.

It drove a lot of people harder. It drove them harder to get there sooner. People were sort of -- had a pace about getting into the Cup Series. Whenever you got there. However old you were, that's how old you were, you know. You just got there however you could.

I think Jeff, being as young as he was, I think he was 26 or so when he started really getting really some good results, you know, that drove a lot of guys, like myself back then, to thinking that we should -- I thought I should already have been in the series and that I was a late-bloomer, got a late start.

I was sort of upset with myself that I didn't push myself to be in the sport quicker and apply myself sooner. When I was in my early teens, to try to apply myself to racing sooner instead of goofing off so much. And I think that's what you really see today.

Q: Dale, a little bit off topic here, but this 50th anniversary of the Daytona 500 coming up, is there any way for you to summarize what the history of that race, that track, has meant to racing in general?

DALE EARNHARDT JR: Yeah, I mean, I've always felt like Daytona was a special place, more than any other track. There's great things about other tracks and whatnot, but Daytona just has a certain, you know, feeling about it. When you get there, there's a feeling it gives you. I don't know. You just know you're around a lot of history and you know you're in a special area that's seen and witnessed a lot of things.

How lucky were we for the way the 1979 race turned out? It really put Daytona on the map. It really put the sport on the map. Ever since then, we've really sort of focused and honed in on the Speedweeks aspect of our sport. We sort of glorified it so much so that any other facility and any other race in the season will never obtain that sort of credibility, that sort of honor that we have for the Daytona 500.

I like it that way. I love Daytona. I love the routine and the layout of Speedweeks. I think it's a great way for us to make a big splash. It's a great big flag we're waving to the rest of the world that we're starting our season. I think it's awesome how we do it, and I'm proud of it. I'm proud of it every time I go down there, to be there and to be trying to make that race. It's just a great feeling.

So hopefully it maintains that credibility and that prestige, that dignity that it has, because it's pretty important to the series as a whole to have it, have a place like that that's so historic.

Q: (Question regarding winning Daytona.)

DALE EARNHARDT JR: I get asked all the time to explain what it feels like to win in that race, and you struggle really hard. That's probably one of the hardest questions to answer for me, because there aren't words to describe that feeling.

I got an average vocabulary when it comes to Moorseville, North Carolina. I feel like I do pretty good (smiling). It's hard to answer that question. It is hard to try to tell someone that hasn't ever been there what it feels like, 'cause it's just the craziest things. It's a great, great feeling. You ride that for days and days. You know, it's just amazing.

I've won races, and by the next Sunday, you practiced, qualified, things have happened, to where you're back to zero. The emotion and the high is gone. You're proud, but the high is gone. You're just back to zero, trying again.

But when we won the Daytona 500, I carried that feeling for months. I didn't even have to try. It's so hard to win. There's so many great drivers that never won it, that deserve it. So the wave of relief was apparent.

But, you know, the feeling that you have and the gratification that you have -- because we try really hard. I don't know why. You know, the races in the season are so important at every stop. You tell me why we focus so much on that race and why we test so hard and why we massage those cars more than any other car that we'll race the rest of the year.

I mean, spend hours on them damn things, and it don't make one bit a sense that it's more important than the other races. But it is, and it always will be.

I give Brad Keselowski one small piece of advice that went down there to test the Busch cars. His cars is one of the fastest cars down there I've seen in a while. You always have one guy that just stands out above the race when he's practicing and testing. That guy's got the best car. There's no question, and Brad has that car.

Number one, to own it I'm pretty damn proud of it, but that's not the point. The point is that Brad -- I told Brad, I said, you got the fastest car. He's all excited. Really? Yeah, you got the fastest car down there, man. You play your cards right, you got a shot at winning. You got the best car.

But the real - he can't worry about this - but the real situation now becomes what happens when he tears it up. You know, the guys busted ass and spent months and months working on that car to get it right, more so than any car in the garage, in the shop.

Now if he goes down there, gets in some senseless wreck that always happens at Daytona, they'll be so disappointed.

That race means a lot. Those cars they take down there, they mean a lot. You know, I don't know. It's just how it is. I don't think I know quite enough about the history of the sport to really know exactly why the race has become what it is today, but it's a fun spectacle seeing the celebrities and whatnot.

The race itself, being there, having raced in it when -- first Daytona 500 I saw was the first one I ran in. I was in the fourth row. Blew my mind in the qualifying race because we run fourth. I couldn't believe it. I was running behind Skinner and these guys. I didn't have a big amount of respect for Skinner because my dad really didn't, but I was proud enough to have run with him. You know, I'm with the top Cup guys, and there I am as a rookie.

When I started that race, the first one I ever saw was from the race car itself. That was intimidating. It was like being in a fraternity. It was like being in a small, small group of people. 43 guys in the world. 43 guys let alone in this country that get to do that. I was pretty proud to be part of it.

Q: With everything that has gone on in your life over the last 6 to 12 months and everything that's gone on through the off-season, has this seemed like pretty much the longest off-season of your life so far? Are you ready to get in the car and take the green flag for that first race?

DALE EARNHARDT JR: Well, I'm not necessarily in a big hurry for the race getting here. I'm having fun testing, doing work. I just want to be working, doing something. The guys have been preparing and preparing for the season, getting the shop and the cars ready. It's good to be here testing. It feels good to be working, driving the car, talking, giving input, being an asset. You know, that's really good enough for me.

The season is very long and it will get here when it gets here. I don't rush the season to get here. I rushed it when I was a rookie, the first couple years. I ended up burning out. Just got so amped up, excited about the season starting. Just coming there with guns ablazing.

Sort of like that drive to Vegas. You're all pumped up at the start. Halfway through you're sort of losing your steam. Then you get to the end and it wakes you back up.

Yeah, I found a way to be able to keep a real steady pace throughout the year, take it one week at a time, one day at a time. So it can get here when it gets here. You guys know what a grind it is. You really just have to take it all on the chin when it shows up.

Q: I know you answered this last week. You have such loyal fans. I have a hundred emails in my box about the media tour last week. Would you go into detail a little more about where you want your fans to go see your stuff, if your merchandise isn't being sold in certain places, and if you have anything to say to your fans? They're on a letter-writing mission.

DALE EARNHARDT JR: Yeah, I mean, everybody's got their own -- everybody has different ways of doing things. There's no real right or wrong either way. I don't take it personal that you can't find much of a trace of us over there.

Didn't really bother me because I deal with it and I'm all right. But it hurt my -- I got to thinking about it, and it sort of hurt my feelings. It's sort of a -- even the guys that are still there that worked on that car, to not see the accolades, any sort of appreciation for the work they did, that they're still there. And the Tony, Juniors, the guys that aren't there anymore, that had something to do with the Daytona 500 win, that had something to do with the Busch Series championships and stuff.

But I ain't going to spend any more time on it, because there's just better things to worry about and occupy your time with. Maybe I should have a better, in-depth knowledge of where my fans could go gather up all the merchandise they want. I don't know where they can get it other than the website and at the racetrack. Shoot, they probably know more than I do about that.

I keep telling the same stories over and over, but I don't really have any better way to explain it. But when I first started racing, I worried that you could lose the fans on a bonehead move in any race. You could get fans to trade drivers on just one mistake. You know, you get the emails; you get the letters of people that are with you no matter what. They don't care whether you win another race, a championship, whatever. They just have fun following you. They enjoy who you are and what you do. They have fun pulling for you. They enjoy it.

What I like about it is there's a lot of 'em. I could see where I would enjoy that, you know. If I was a fan, I would have a lot of different guys I pulled for, but I would want to be in the mass of a guy that was just like me, you know, a guy that I could relate to.

It would be fun to go to the race and look around and have a lot of people with that in common. You know, I think that's why they enjoy it. I think the reason they really enjoy it is because they look around and they see a lot of other people. They probably have, you know, a lot of fun being together and cheering as a group.

I don't know. That's too much to worry about. There's a whole lot of reasons why we got race fans. But they are loyal. You know, they stuck with us even when we did things necessarily they weren't wanting to go along with or wanting to do. They've always stuck beside us.

Q: (Question regarding tires.)

DALE EARNHARDT JR: The tires feel good to me. You know, the car itself is the 800-pound gorilla now, you know, in the room. That's just gonna take a while for us to science out and understand. So I think the tire, Goodyear, could probably take a rest and enjoy it (laughter).

You know, we're just hard on Goodyear because we expect them to be perfect. You know, maybe that's more than we should ask for. But we just expect that side of it to have no variables, not to be different. So they take a bad rap a lot. It's real easy to blame the tires when you didn't have a good day.

Q: Going back to Daytona. When you roll up the mystery and the magic that is Daytona, the history with your father, how much that meant to your dad, how much of that has filtered to your perception of Daytona?

DALE EARNHARDT JR: It had a lot to do with it. It scared me to death that I would be racing for 20 years still trying to get the win. How many times will you have the opportunity, be in good cars, to be able to do it? I always worried that I would lose all the Daytona 500s in the cars that I should have won it in. That's kind of how it went for him.

The 1990 Daytona 500, when he cut that tire on the backstretch, that was one of the hardest things to understand. I was a sophomore in high school, old enough to really kind of understand what was going on around me. I just couldn't believe that -- I know there's worse things that can happen to you, and there's people that deal with worse, people that have it hard.

But, dang, man, I wanted that race so bad. That was such a rough way to go. I didn't know what kind of person he was going to be when he got home, whether my daddy was going to be different the rest of his life.

You know, he dealt with it. That made me admire him more. You know, that made me hopefully a better person just experiencing that and being that close to him and watching him go through it. When I deal with those type of things, when you deal with losses, when things don't go your way, maybe I'm better off having witnessed him do it.

But, yeah, I mean, I went into my first Daytona 500 with a pretty decent car. After that we just kept getting better. I think I've had cars that should have won that race about every time I've been in it. That would have been frustrating. That's what I was scared of, that I would look back over 20 years without the trophy saying, Dang, I had 18, 15 opportunities, 15 cars that could have won it, and I didn't get it done. That would be hard to live with.

So when I won the race, that was the emotion. You know, the emotion for me was, I got that done. Now I can move on to the next thing that matters. You know, I enjoyed it. I'm proud of it. I brag about it. Winning the Daytona 500 is a tough thing to do, and I'm proud to be part of it, proud to be in that list.

But, I tell you, I didn't think I was gonna win it. I damn sure didn't think I was going to win it in my fifth try. That's crazy.

Q: Being the new guy in the Hendrick garage, do you find yourself listening more? Do you find yourself more as a leader? Where do you fit in?

DALE EARNHARDT JR: I'm just taking it in, man. I mean, I'm just listening to what they're saying and trying to find out what kind of drivers they are and how serious about their work they re. Listening to the crew chiefs. I'm just trying to figure out how serious they are about their jobs, what the temperature is, you know. Sort of how to be or how to act around them, what they want from me, what they'd like to know from me and get to where we can get to some kind of routine that's working for everybody.

I ain't had any problem just standing over there being myself. They don't seem to have a problem with that either. You know, I'm just working and doing like I've been doing. Seems to be going pretty good.

You know, I definitely never really was the kind of guy that's a stand-up leader. If I end up leading, that's fine. But I never really try to take those type of situations under my own control. I mean, I think every other week there's going to be a different guy that's sort of helping run that deal, being at the top of it, as far as drivers go. Hopefully we're all sort of enjoying some of that.

THE MODERATOR: Thanks for coming in, Dale.

-credit: gm racing

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Brad Keselowski
Teams Hendrick Motorsports