DALE EARNHARDT JR., NO. 88 NATIONAL GUARD MILITARY INTELLIGENCE/AMP ENERGY CHEVROLET, met with members of the media at Atlanta Motor Speedway and discussed racing at Atlanta, contract extension at Hendrick Motorsports, the Chase and other topics.
TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS WEEKEND’S EVENT. “Well we’re just going to come in here and try to run as good as we can. We really like racing at Atlanta, it’s a fun race track. We’ll just see how practice goes – see how the car’s driving and see how much work we’re going to have to do to get where we want to be on speed and drivability and go from there. Hopefully it will be a pretty productive weekend for us. It’s not just to help us along in the Chase but we need to improve on performance as a whole. We’re looking to try to do that this weekend.”
CONGRATULATIONS ON SIGNING THE DEAL WITH HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS, CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT IT? “I’m happy that it happened. Me and Rick talked on the phone about probably five months ago. I just told him if we were gonna do another deal that I wanted to start on it now because I didn’t want to talk about it next year and it be any kind of distraction for me, but if he wanted to wait we could wait. He’s the boss and he can do whatever he wants. I just wanted to put that out there and he was ready to go so we just went ahead and shook hands and let Marshal and Kelley handle the heavy lifting. I’m excited about it and happy that I’ve got a place to work. I’m happy to have Rick’s commitment and hopefully me and Steve can continue to grow and start to do what we want to do on the race track. I’m looking forward to it man, it kind of puts it at ease there a little bit.”
WERE YOU SURPRISED IT TOOK FIVE MONTHS TO GET THE HEAVY LIFTING DONE AND IT DID IT MATTER TO GET IT DONE BEFORE THE CHASE? “I really have no idea what all Marshal and Kelley had to go through and what they had to talk about and what the discussion was about. Kelley would come to me and say hey these are the kind of numbers, and I said I don’t care if you think it’s fair then let’s just do it. I don’t want to talk about numbers and base salary verses percentages and this and that other just whatever you think is fair its fine with me. Maybe because we started working on it maybe six to eight months before you would typically start to address that kind of situation they took their time and just wasn’t in a big hurry. You have to talk to Kelley and Marshal to see if there was a lot of back and forth. Obviously a lot of things happened in that period of time that would put a lot of things on hold which may have had a lot to do with it too.”
AS YOU LOOK FORWARD TO THIS NEXT CONTRACT, TAKE A LOOK BACK AT THE CURRENT ONE AND RATE IT, ASSESS YOUR TIME AT HENDRICK SO FAR. “I would give me barely a passing grade at this time. I’m not content at all and I feel like I’ve been given some really good opportunities there and just haven’t been able to capitalize on it. Haven’t been able to go to the race track and get on the race track and go fast. This year we made a lot of changes in the offseason, I’ve said that damn sentence so many damn times this year, but we had a lot of changes and this year things started to swing upward for me and I started to feel like we might be on the right track and my confidence is up and I feel good about what’s going on there. I like to see how we can do in the future over the next 12 to 18 months, what kind of growth me and Steve have. I really, really like working with him and I’m satisfied with the performance that he has and how he works and goes about running his race team. I’m satisfied with the way his cars drive. We just need to find that little bit extra and we’ve had it at times this year and we’ve had some pretty fast cars at times but rarely do people really recall that. People tend to look stronger at the negatives and our more recent performance which I can understand that but we’ve had some pretty good cars this year. We’ve got to keep our heads up and try to do what we can with this opportunity that we may have going into the Chase. I’m not really answering your question I guess. I’m not nowhere near at all satisfied with what I’ve accomplished so far. I feel like that motivates me to try to go in there and do what I want to do and accomplish what I want to accomplish with that company and that’s why I feel fortunate to have that opportunity with the new extension.”
WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO TO BE A CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDER? “I will tell you I feel personally that we were pretty close to realizing that type of potential with the start of the year. I’m saying we’re close, I don’t think we were a championship caliber team at that time, but we were as close as I’ve been in some time consistently week in and week out. I had top-10 speed, ran in the top 10 in races week in and week out. When you go into the Chase you need to average or you need to consider to try to average a fifth-place finish for those 10 races. I think when Jimmie barely beat Jeff that year, one had a 4 point something and one had a 5.0 or something, someone can easily put together that kind of average in the 10 races so you’re going to have to be very, very good to win that championship. We kind of feel like we’ve fallen off a little bit on our speed and I’ve always kind of struggled in the summer for whatever reason so maybe that really doesn’t concern me that much going to the rest of the race tracks that we’re going to run at but we went to Bristol and we kind of underperformed compared to how we ran there last time so I’m a little concerned and we’re working hard as a team and we’re going to try to do the best we can. I can’t really tell you the exact parameter we’re missing. I can’t put my finger on, and I don’t think you ever can in the sport say we’re missing this piece of the puzzle right here and if we can get that, it’s just so many variables involved. I think that we started the year off great. I took the typical summer slump I always seem to have for whatever reason and hopefully we can rebound and it will cycle back around at exactly the right time. We’re coming up on a couple of race tracks that I feel pretty good about and then all the ones in the Chase I really enjoy and hopefully if we have that opportunity to be in the Chase we just might surprise some people.”
WE KNOW YOU ARE FOCUSED ON THE CHAMPIONSHIP; WILL MAKING THE CHASE GIVE YOU A FEELING OF RELIEF? “Yea, relief is probably the right word. Everyone expects you to make the chase. If you don’t make the chase you get that tag on you. You get labeled when you don’t make the chase and I want to avoid being in that situation. There are only a few drivers that get to make it, it is a pretty competitive sport but if you can be consistent and be smart, I made a few mistakes and a few driver errors that I really wish I could have back now, that I tried to tell myself not to make all year. I did pretty good, then we got along in the middle of the summer there and I started making a couple of mistakes. Blowing the left front tire coming onto pit road in Kentucky, and a couple of other places like that, that took away finishes that we needed. I know that if you can just be smart in the kind of equipment and the kind of team I have I should make the chase. We are plenty good enough to do that, but we put ourselves in a tough position going into these last two races over the summer time with a couple mistakes that I made and I’m sure Steve might stand up here and tell you he made a couple himself too. We just have to learn from those and not do them again. I think I will just be relieved if I make the chase. I want to win this championship and be a champion one day. I think that is what everybody out there drivin strives to do. Making is just something that is expected of everybody.”
YOUR ORGANIZATION, JR MOTORSPORTS IS OBVIOUSLY TIED IN WITH HENDRICK FROM THE NATIONWIDE SIDE OF THINGS, WAS THAT AN INTEGRAL PART OF THIS CONTRACT WITH HENDRICK? AND HOW IMPORTANT IS THE RELATIONSHIP YOU HAVE WITH HENDRICK TO MAKING YOUR RACING ORGANIZATION FUNCTION? “That’s a good question really. When me and Rick first started working together, JR Motorsports was part his, part mine, and that was a pretty important part of our relationship. In the last several years we have split off 25% to Kelley and 25% to Tony Jr. to involve them in the company as owners because those are two people I really cared a lot about. Me and Rick had less to do with the day to day operations, especially Rick; he has a lot going on with a race team and 600 dealerships. That team runs on its’ own with Kelley and Tony Jr. and Tony Sr. and everybody there. Our dependence on HMS (Hendrick Motor Sports) is with chassis and engines and some engineering help but that really is up to Tony Jr and Tony Sr. how much they really want to dive in and get that help. The technical side of it is up to them really. There is not writing on a sheet of paper that says these are the rules and this is what happens. The help is there for them to seek out. JR Motor Sports and Hendrick Motor Sports really aren’t tied at the hip there is no real, I don’t know really what you’re asking me but, there is no real dependency between the two. JR Motor Sports has a big performance advantage being involved with HMS the way we are.”
GOING BACK THROUGH YOUR CONTRACT NEGOTIATION HISTORY, THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF TIMES IT HAS BEEN DIFFICULT AT BEST AND VERY ANNOYING TO YOU AT WORST. THEN YOU HAD TO MAKE THE DECISION TO LEAVE DEI AND GO TO HENDRICK, MIGHT THIS BE THE FIRST CONTRACT OF YOUR CUP CAREER THAT YOU SAY ALL I HAVE TO DO NOW IS JUST GO RACE? “Well, you could say that, and I definitely am at ease. This was definitely an easy extension put together. When we signed the first contract with Rick, it was big news, but we brought a lot of that on ourselves. So we can’t through a pity party for all the attention that was had at that time. Driving with my family was really easy; I did not have to worry about job security. I was around a lot of people that we relatives, long time family friends and that was a very easy relaxed situation. When I drove the red 8 car, ya know if we had a bad race or something, I mean you know you would hear from fans or critics, media would point it out but really you didn’t care too much because your family wasn’t going to talk crap about you behind your back. You just said we had a bad race and we’d go back and race the next week. It was just easier to rebound. Now when I have a bad race, I take it home and it will last a few days till I get over it. I wonder whether the right people are still behind me weather I have given them reason to doubt me those kinds of things. When you are racing with family, you just don’t have those kinds of worries. And the job security thing was awesome. I just wanted to be with a competitive team and I have always idolized Rick. I have always idolized that company, always thought that they were impressive. I never knew what the inside of that place looked like. What it worked like and how they did it. I wanted that opportunity and I am glad that I got it. I feel real lucky and real fortunate to be there and I know I am not just saying that because it sounds like the right thing to say, I personally feel real lucky and real fortunate inside and I’m real thankful for that opportunity.”
SOCIAL MEDIA, SUCH AS FACEBOOK AND TWITTER, HAS REALLY CHANGED THE COMMUNICATION OF LANDSCAPE GLOBALLY. SOME DRIVERS LIKE IT, SOME DON’T WHAT’S YOUR OPINION AND WHAT DO YOU THINK THE FUTURE WILL BE LIKE WITH SOCIAL MEDIA? “Well, it’s a big player I think and the easiest way to get your information. It is awesome that the drivers that are physically on there, like Harvick and those guys, I think it is great that the fans have the opportunity to connect and walk side by side with them through their day, whatever they are doing or whatever they happen to be talking about. I don’t have a personal twitter account, and I don’t have a personal account on any online or any social network, but we use it a lot at JR Motor Sports to keep people updated, give people the opportunity to know what we are doing, and interact with us, get involved with our programs. It has made things a lot easier for the media to get information out, you guys are in here trying to battle to get information out. It has definitely made things a lot better for everyone involved. Like everything, you have to use it in moderation. I think it is a good thing.