Atlanta Kenny Irwin, Mark Martin Interview

Tuesday, November 03, 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup KENNY IRWIN -28- Texaco Havoline Taurus -- ARE YOU PREPARING ANY DIFFERENTLY FOR THIS RACE KNOWING THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR BATTLE IS STILL ONGOING? "No, I don't think the guys have thought too much...

Tuesday, November 03, 1998

NASCAR Winston Cup

KENNY IRWIN -28- Texaco Havoline Taurus -- ARE YOU PREPARING ANY DIFFERENTLY FOR THIS RACE KNOWING THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR BATTLE IS STILL ONGOING? "No, I don't think the guys have thought too much about it at the shop. It's been an exciting year and we're glad to be finishing up at Atlanta because that was one of our very best runs of the year. With the rule changes I know it's made us even more excited about going back."

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR CHANCES THIS WEEKEND? "We feel like we can go back, and I think we're taking the same car back from the spring, so we feel like we've got a good setup to take back. We're not real sure what the rule changes are gonna do to it. Obviously, it's gonna tighten up the car and give it more downforce, but with the basic setup we had we feel like we can go back there and hopefully duplicate what we did in the spring. That would make us very happy, so that's hopefully where we're headed."

AS A FORMER ROOKIE OF THE YEAR IN TRUCKS AND NOW A POSSIBLE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR IN CUP, WHAT KIND OF SPRINGBOARD IS THAT FOR A DEVELOPING DRIVER? "It seems I've come in with very high expectations for myself. When I came into this one of my goals was to win rookie of the year. We tried to be steady all year. You can see the ups and downs we've had over the year, but that was definitely our goal coming into it was to win rookie of the year. We would have liked to have been more consistent throughout the year and had some better finishes, but we have learned a lot this year. Hopefully we finish out the year good at Atlanta and that would make everybody excited about working through the winter to get ready for Daytona."

ARE YOU COMFORTABLE WITH THE SPOILER RULE CHANGE? "It will make it a little different, but I can tell you that it's so easy to take the air off the rear spoiler that I think everybody is pretty happy with what the rule changes are, including our team. We've been bitten a couple times by not being quite tight enough and then when somebody gets right in behind us they pull the air off and we get ourselves in trouble. The extra inch and a half that they give us is gonna be a tremendous help."

WILL THE NEW RULE BALANCE THE FRONT AND BACK OF THE CAR? "I don't have a whole lot to go off of because I've mainly run with the five-and-five rule or in our case 4-3/4 and five. I was talking to (crew chief) Slugger (Labbe) and Todd Parrott and they said it's really kind of going back to how the Thunderbird was a year ago with that much spoiler and stuff. They feel like the balance is definitely going to be better. We've had problems hitting that balance all year because of really no rear spoiler on it and every once in a while we would kind of hit on it in the 28 car and you could really tell the difference. This will probably make it easier to get that balance back because with more rear spoiler you obviously have more rear downforce, so you can work more to the front of the car to get the car turned and so forth."

COULD YOU DISCUSS WHAT YOUR EXPECTATIONS WERE COMING INTO THE SEASON? "Me and Robert talked about how tough this sport was a year ago, actually before he signed me up. And he told me that he had rookies in the car and how tough it was. He had hoped it wouldn't be as tough as what he's had to go through in the past, but I think it was. I think it was just as tough when he had rookies in the car when he started racing. He knew more of what to expect than I did. I went in just thinking that I had a great team and a great car, and I still believe that. I just think that this sport lends itself to experience more than anything I've ever done and I've learned that over the year -- learning these race cars and, more than anything, learning these race tracks. Some of the tracks that I have experience at, you can see that we've run better at those. That's kind of where we are today, still learning these race tracks and learning these race cars. It's just part of Winston Cup. I didn't have expectations of winning three races or winning a race. I came in just thinking that I need to learn everything I can this year, learn as much as I can about the race cars and get a good rapport with the other race drivers out on the race track and just start building my Winston Cup career."

WERE THERE ANY LOW POINTS? "The low point for me was missing the race in Charlotte this year. I know that was the low point for our whole team. How we got through it was that luckily Winston Cup has a race every weekend or just about, so you just look forward to the next weekend and try to get better. We've had a tough year. The rollercoaster has been as high as you can imagine, and, obviously, it's hit rock bottom a couple of times. It's just something you learn how to go through. I've run the open-wheel cars with 60 or 70 races a year, it takes you up and down that rollercoaster, maybe not quite as high as Winston Cup does, but it kind of gets you ready for it."

CAN YOU GIVE US A SENSE OF HOW TENUOUS THE BALANCE HAS BEEN IN THESE RACE CARS? "A lot of it depends on your race car. I know everybody says that, but some weekends I feel like we have the best race car out there and if a guy got up behind me and hit me it wouldn't spin me out. And some weekends you just feel like you can never get a handle on it. People talk about the balance and all this -- when I was at Atlanta for the first time in the spring our car was absolutely perfect. During the race they asked what I wanted to change and I told them I didn't think we needed to change anything. We kept running and the car stayed the same all day. I talked to some guys after the race and they were saying how loose they were and that they couldn't get in the corner. That's just the balance we happened to have that day over somebody else. With the spoiler change it'll bring the balance from the front of the field to the back just a little closer. You'll still have the guys that will run up front that always do, but the guys that don't will feel more secure in the their car. I guess that's one way to say it."

IS THERE MORE ROOM FOR ERROR UNDER THESE RULES? "People will be able to find the balance a lot sooner. Sometimes we could never find the balance in a weekend because of the five and five rule, but it'll just make it easier to get the right setup or the feel they want to find. You think about the fact you're adding probably 30 percent more to your rear spoiler now in comparison to what we had. That's quite a bit of security even in your mind thinking that you've got another inch and a half rear spoiler that you're getting into the corner with."

WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST HUMBLING EXPERIENCE FOR YOU THIS YEAR? "Probably the race at Charlotte and not making it. The reason why didn't make it is because we just flat weren't fast enough, not because we had circumstances take us out of the race it was just because we just flat weren't fast enough."

HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH SLUGGER LABBE DEVELOPED DURING THE SEASON? "From the very start, he worked with me for four races last year, and we've had a very good relationship all year. It's just like anything else, it comes and goes as far as how much we talk but the longer the year goes on, the more we've tried to understand each other and talk more about the race cars and what it takes to run better. It just keeps progressively getting better."

WAS THERE EVER A POINT WHERE YOU QUESTIONED YOUR ABILITY? "I don't think that's uncommon for anybody -- a basketball player, anybody -- to question. Especially when you come into a new arena like I've done this year. But you figure that you've got to keep that mindset of what got you here and what got you to Winston Cup. I just feel like I've raced for 20 years now, actually more than that, and just to keep a good mindset. I believe that's a big part of any sport. If you have the right mindset going into it, it can make you better and help you overcome stuff. But, without a doubt, I've questioned whether I'm doing the right things in the car or am I giving the right feedback and what exactly can I do to help this race team get better. Sometimes I know I've fallen short on my end of the deal and that just makes you want to try and get better and better each week."

WAS IS DIFFICULT TO HAVE ROBERT PUBLICLY QUESTION YOUR COMMITMENT AND HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH THAT? "It was disappointing because I feel like this is the only thing in my life that I want to do or that I have a focus on. It just taught me a lesson that I need to communicate more with Robert Yates and to let them know exactly what I'm thinking. I've been told recently that because I don't talk a lot or communicate a lot that people get the perception that I'm thinking something different than what I really am. It has taught me a lesson that I need to be more open with my feelings and what I'm thinking about."

HE THOUGHT YOU MIGHT NEED TO WORK OUT MORE, HAVE YOU DONE THAT? "I do about the same things I've done all year. It's just a program that I'm on and it's really been about the same all year."

AFTER ATLANTA, DID YOU THINK YOU'D BE ABLE TO TACKLE THIS SERIES AND BE ABLE AT SOME POINT TO COMPETE FOR A VICTORY? "Without a doubt. Anytime you run good that builds your confidence and builds confidence in your whole team, but it's easily taken away the next weekend when you have a bad run. I know as a whole team that we left Atlanta thinking we were coming along and figuring some stuff out. It's not that we've taken 10 steps backwards, it's just the fact this is a tough series to race in. You can be right on one week and miss the race the next, but I do know that after we left Atlanta that I really felt like we could contend for a win this year. I don't think it was unjust, it was just a false sense of really how quick you can come in and be successful in Winston Cup."

IF A YOUNG DRIVER IN TRUCKS CAME TO YOU AND SAID HE HAD AN OPPORTUNITY IN WINSTON CUP, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE HIM? "For him to know where he was at in the trucks. I think you have to have success from where you come from, whether it's in late model stock cars or sprint cars or whatever. It's progressing. You need to make sure that you've had success and you understand where you're at as a race car driver. I would just be sure to tell him how tough Winston Cup is and, obviously, everybody is gonna make their own decisions but I would try to take him through and explain how tough Winston Cup is and what it's really all about. People did that same thing to me a year ago, so it's not like I went into it with blinders on myself."

ARE YOU DISAPPOINTED, HAPPY OR WHAT ABOUT YOUR YEAR? "I would have liked to have had more success throughout the year. I feel like we've learned a great deal this year and I say that as far as the car and trackwise on my own behalf. But I think anybody, however great your year is, there are always races you didn't do well in. It hasn't been the greatest year of my racing career. There have been points in this year that have been the best, racing at the Brickyard has been the highest point in my racing career, but to say this has been the best year of my career, I don't think I'd say that."

MARK MARTIN -6- Valvoline Taurus -- YOU MUST FEEL YOU'RE CLOSER THAN EVER TO HAVING A CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM WITH THE YEAR YOU'VE HAD? "Well, it doesn't compare to any other year I've ever had that's for sure. It's above and beyond anything I ever expected."

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE SEASON AND GOING INTO '99? "There's an awful big to-do made of winning championships, but the first time you ever climb in a race car it's not to win a championship, it's to win. Things aren't that much different now. The only difference going into Atlanta now versus last year is there's a whole lot less stress. The championship is great, that's all great, that's wonderful for the champion. He's the champion. For everybody else it's another year. The same thing on winning races. There's only one winner and the winner is the winner. The rest of them got what they could get. That's what we do. I race to win everything we compete in and we do the best we can. This one has been better than anything I ever dreamed."

IS THE RESTRICTOR-PLATE PROGRAM GOING TO BE AN EMPHASIS FOR YOUR TEAM NEXT YEAR? "Well, you can't help it if we wreck. We don't run good enough there, but that's not why we lost points. We lost points because we got wrecked in 50 percent of the restrictor-plate races. We may have gotten wrecked in three-fourths of them if we hadn't broken early at Daytona where we broke a rear-end gear. Of those races, you can go for 10 races and not be in a wreck and you can go for 10 and be in a wreck every time. It's just a matter of how things turn out and that's why there are no guarantees, ever, on points situations. No matter what position you're racing for, there are no guarantees you're gonna get it because you can put out the performance but you don't necessarily always get the result that you might feel you have earned or deserved for whatever reason. That's all part of it. Secondly, no one's ever had a year like Jeff Gordon and the 24 bunch."

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE RULES CHANGE. WILL IT MAKE THE CARS MORE STABLE OR FUN TO DRIVE? "In one way I'm a little bit bitter about the rules change because they changed the thing in the first place, which we didn't want them to do. Our race team has done a great job with the Taurus, getting it working and making it work on the present rules. Now they want to change them back. I said, 'Why are they changing them in the first place?' And now I say, 'Why are they changing them again?' So, I don't know that it's gonna make the racing any better. The racing's not great because Jeff Gordon won almost everything on the race track that we didn't, so what can we say about that? Between he and I we have won the majority of the races, but changing the spoilers isn't gonna change that very much. I'm all for doing whatever you can do to put the outcome in the hands of the drivers, and putting spoilers on isn't gonna put more of the outcome in the drivers hands. That's just a fact. The more spoiler and the less horsepower you put in these cars, the more every race will be like Talladega. I certainly don't get to make a big enough contribution when we go to Daytona or Talladega. I'm at the mercy of my vehicle a lot more there, so it doesn't matter. Whatever they do will be fine. The same guys are gonna run up front. The guys that were complaining are still gonna run like they were running before. Maybe they do need to experiment with it in this last race and they can decide what they want next year. Maybe they won't change it back and forth on us. I just feel like there's a lot of hand work that goes into these cars. These cars are hand-built and they're hand-built with the rules that you're presently racing in mind. When they change the rule, in order for them to be as good as they can be, they need to be hand-built again to maximize 100 percent whatever the situation is."

NOBODY'S MORE INTENSE THAN YOU. IS IT A MISPERCEPTION THAT YOU SEEM TO BE ENJOYING YOURSELF MORE? "Well, I'm getting older. I know I can't win forever. Before, all I worried about was continuing to do that. Now, I realize that this can't continue forever. It has been the greatest year of my life. Jack Roush has been in the best mood and been the best owner I could ever work with. Jim Fennig is the right man for me and my personality and all the guys that work on the team make it fun for me to go to the race track. That's not always the case with everybody. I've been blessed with this team and with the results we've gotten. You can put out the same effort and not get the same results. We've really been blessed this year. If racing for me can be fun, then this year was probably it and it probably doesn't get any better than '98."

HOW DOES THAT MANIFEST ITSELF? "I'm pleased with the results. I told these guys at Rockingham that they have no idea how much less stress it is to try to win a race with a car that's capable. When you're trying to win races with cars that are marginally capable, that's pretty frustrating for me and pretty stressful."

YOU'RE A PRETTY HUMBLE GUY WHO DOESN'T GET A BIG HEAD, ESPECIALLY WITH THE ADVERSITY YOU'VE FACED THIS YEAR. "I've tried to answer most of the questions that the media asks in reference to racing because that's, basically, what's made me popular and famous enough to be asked the questions. It's by far been the most gratifying and greatest year of my life in that respect. It's been difficult too. The physical pain and the emotional distress that's gone with all the things that have gone on with my back and everything else. That's made it an additional challenge, and I would have to say that if I had experienced these things in any other year, you would have seen a whole different me. I'm pretty proud of the way I've been. I've been less grouchy and more patient and all around happier with the way things have gone in racing. That's 90 percent of my life. I'm either going to or coming from or at a race all the time. I've just been real blessed with those good things and it's made me be able to handle it all a lot better."

HERE'S HOPING YOU HAVE A YEAR WHERE EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT. "I appreciate that. I really mean it when I say this has been a year that has made it all worth it. I guess I've been racing 25 years now and the 24th year wasn't the greatest year of my life and it wasn't the greatest year I ever drove race cars. But I'd have to say that the 25th was, so rather than it getting better every year that I've driven, I'd have to say this has been the one. Jack Roush and Jeff Burton and Jim Fennig are three of the key people in that being what it is, and then we have some really great young people working on my race car -- very young and very good -- and I know that they are behind me when I make mistakes just as much as when I do something really right. We've had a lot of that this year. We've done a lot of stuff right, but I've made some mistakes too and the success that they've been able to have with the program and with me has really made loyal crew members out of them."

HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT TO DO AFTER YOUR DRIVING CAREER IS OVER AND WHAT TERMS YOU WILL WANT TO STOP? "I'll want to stop driving when I'm pretty sure that I'm not able to win races anymore. That will be next year, if I was convinced of it. I don't have an age limit on it. I want to walk away from the thing before I run myself completely in the ground. I saw guys like Jeff Gordon coming along and Jeff Burton -- incredible race car drivers -- and it being hard for me to win in '96 and then me thinking that maybe I was just getting lucky in '97 to come back and win some races. But after working with this team this year, I think that my best years are still in front of me. I hope to race for 10 more years and I will race that long if I think I've got a shot to win races. With these guys, I think that's easily possible. I do stay in better shape than the average guy, and, hopefully, physically and mentally I'll be up to the task. Hopefully, I won't experience any injury that will prevent me from doing that. Beyond driving it will be one of two things. It'll be either I want to walk away from the racing world and watch it on TV from the couch, or I'll want to be involved with Jack Roush in a race team with a young driver that we can go and conquer the world. I don't know which it'll be just yet, but most likely, it'll still be the racing thing. Jack and I are committed to one another for sort of a lifetime. Jack is a good man. We have a good relationship and he has a great organization. I don't have any plans of going into competition against him. If I did have plans of owning my own race team, I'd be partners with him."

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT SINCE WINNING THE TRACK CHAMPIONSHIP AT BENTON SPEEDWAY IN 1975? "One of them was winning at Bristol this last time. That's pretty big in racing. Everything behind me gets pretty foggy pretty fast, except outside of racing I'm awfully proud of the father that I am and the son I've had something to do with in bringing along and bringing up. That's the most pride I have in the world, but in racing winning that Bristol race two weeks after my dad's accident was pretty special."

WHAT IS IT ABOUT MICHIGAN THAT YOU ENJOY RACING THERE SO MUCH? "Because slower cars can't get in your way and hold you back. It's a real race track where the faster car can go on and where you can race side by side. You can run low, middle or high and you can pass and go fast. It's safe and the driver makes a huge contribution to the speed of the car."

WE'RE ALL LOOKING FORWARD TO THE DAY YOU WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP. "I've had a very, very successful career for a kid from Arkansas. I'm real proud of the things I've accomplished in racing and I hope that I win several championships. But, if I don't ever, at least I've made it exciting for a few fans along the way. That's what we tried to do this year and last year as well. We're gonna be prepared to go after them again next year."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Jack Roush , Robert Yates , Mark Martin