Chicagoland: Winning team interview


July 10 2005


JUNIOR: (ON THE DAY) "When the race started, I was passing people and thought we had a little bit better car than we had at the end of the day yesterday in Happy Hour. As the day went on, it seemed like we just eased further ahead. It seemed like a really long race. It was really hot. Right there at the end, we were pretty happy with finding ourselves in the top five and being able maintain as we ran. We obviously didn't have the best car today. Matt Kenseth had the best car, hands down. But I think with a couple more adjustments and we could have raced with Tony Stewart and maybe with the No. 16 -- he was pretty good too. I was sitting there riding along hoping to finish the race without any cautions because I thought we were fortunate to be in the top five and a top five finish would be great for our team. The caution came out and I asked (crew chief) Steve (Hmiel) what he wanted to do. I said I know a lot of guys are going to take two tires toward the front. If you put me in front with two tires, maybe I can hold them off - maybe it would take a while for those guys with four tires to get through the field and we'll have a chance to get away from them a little bit. Steve agreed and made the call to do it. And we took off there. Scott Wimmer's car was good in clean air and it was tough to get by him. I got by him and then went down into Turn 3 like I didn't know what I was doing all day and missed the corner. He got back underneath me and we raced side-by-side in Turns 1 and 2. That was the deciding factor. I almost blew it for us there. But I got back by him off of Turn 2 and was able to stay in clean air with the car out front, it was way faster and I could keep those guys behind me tight. By the time Matt was clean in second place, I was far enough ahead. But I still thought he would catch me and we would get beat on the last lap or with two (laps) to go. I thought If I could drive it as hard as I could, that was all I could do."

HMIEL: (0N THE TWO-TIRE CALL) "It was no brainer. Matt Kenseth and Robby Reiser and the Jack Roush team had a great car. It was the best car all day. When you have the best car, you come get four tires every chance you get. On the other hand, they beat us all day on four tires, so with 20 to go, we gambled. We were pretty happy to be in the top eight at that point. So we just took two tires and thought we'd just see if we could hold them off. And then we got lucky caution when the No. 24 had some trouble. To be honest, our car was not as good as it looked. Junior drove the wheels off it. I could see how high his elbows were. He was in there wheeling the heck out of his car. That's the kind of thing you have to be able to rely on a driver to do. You can't mess up, you've got to run hard, and you've got to protect your position. Junior knows how to do that and everybody knows that. But the capper about this thing for me this week is that we went to Daytona and ran well. People didn't know we were going to run well at Sonoma two weeks ago because we broke a transmission."

"Things had started to change. We had a good race car. We went to Daytona and that's a no-brainer. Junior is going to run in the top five in a Chevy Kobalt. I didn't really look at that as a huge success on our part. But we needed to come to Chicago and drive a stake in the ground and say hey guys, we're back. And the way we came back was by taking all the resources that Teresa Earnhardt and Richie Gilmore have given us - all the help from our sponsors and GM and the wind tunnel guys and engineering and engine guys and fabrication. This car was in the wind tunnel last Tuesday. Wednesday, it had the whole front end cut off it. Our truck drivers left late Thursday night - it's about a 15-hour ride. This whole company has worked very hard to prove that it's a company that works together. Tony Jr. helps with the set-ups. Tony Sr. is back home building new things and trying other stuff. We would like to be known as a company that has 350 people that work together. Today was certainly a sign that it will work if you do it correctly. But most of the credit goes to Dale Jr. His name is on the building. He's the cornerstone of the whole thing. I tell him he's the franchise and when it comes down to it, he's the guy I want in the seat."

JUNIOR (HOW DOES IT FEEL TO SHOW EVERYBODY YOU CAN WIN?) "The car was really good. We made some changes. We found this one little combination of changes that was just about fixing it just right each time. As the track got a little tighter, this combination seemed to be enough to keep us with the track. At the end, I was worried about it being real tight but the car just took off. Of course when you get toward the top three, you know you're going to see a lot more speed out of your car because the air is a little better up there. We've got to give a lot of credit to the car because we've been beat so bad about how we've been running and we haven't been leading races or up front. As we got closer to the front, your confidence in your equipment gets better. When we don't run good, you don't know what you're going to step in the next day. You feel like you have an idea, but if you weren't very fast in practice you don't know. As the race went on, I think we all felt better about our race car. So the car did a lot of work today and we were able to take advantage of an opportunity to put ourselves in position to win. I've never really won a race like that. I've been beaten like that a lot. So we took a chance. I was amazed it paid off."

(ON PASSING SCOTT WIMMER AND ON HIS DECISION TO TAKE TWO TIRES) "I didn't know how he'd been running all day and I thought it was a good chance for him to try to get a top 10 finish out of something that had been rather dismal. That's all you can do. I was aggravated that he was there because I wanted to be in the lead. But he was doing what he had to do. I was wondering how I would get by him because we only had two tires, not four. I thought we might be tight. But we were able to get around him on the outside of Turns 1 and 2."

(WITH JUST THREE WEEKS SINCE MICHIGAN, ARE YOU SURPRISED TO BE SITTING IN VICTORY LANE THIS QUICKLY?) "I've struggled a little bit here. But I like these kinds of tracks. I won my first couple of races at Texas this one is similar. When Steve came on, he saw a lot of things. And it took three or four weeks for him to change what he saw. Tony Jr. and Steve have a real good working relationship. Tony Jr. and that team deserve the credit. They've been innovative and found a lot of things while we were steadily getting further behind in our predicament the first three months of the season. They were gaining and learning. Steve asked Tony Jr. some questions and applied some ideas. The first time I felt like we were going to the race track with some footing was at Michigan. The car was strong. We had a fast car. We were starting to get some grip and see some improvement and that's exactly what happened. I couldn't believe how good my car was at Sonoma. When we go to practice, most of the time we're making gains. That makes you happy and positive about what you're doing. So I'm not real surprised. Obviously we can all stand here and say this is a fifth place car today. We would have been happy with that. We gained all day. We just made the calls that a guy with this much experience can make. We put ourselves in position to win. Today it paid off."

(ON THE RESTART, YOU TOLD YOUR CREW ON THE RADIO YOU WANTED THEM TO PUSH YOU) "That's exactly what you need. It's just like a jockey on a horse during the last stretch. He's getting all he can out of that horse. That's what I expect out of my team. I like to be calm throughout the day. I don't like to get overly excited. But at the last stretch of the race and they know there's a guy in front of us that's faster, I want them to say, 'Come on, drive it harder. Do something, Let's go'. We don't have many opportunities to find ourselves in the hunt and be excited about it. I wanted to enjoy the hell out of it and get the whip out and see if we could gain another spot. I needed somebody to get me up on the wheel. Not all drivers will admit to that. But it helps. We think we're in there doing all we can, but you never are. There's always more. There's always another gear, another level, another step. There's always harder and harder - until your head explodes or something. I just wanted to be pushed."

(WAS THAT THE DIFFERENCE IN THE RACE..YOUR LAST THREE PIT STOPS WERE REALLY INCREDIBLE) "I'll put my team up against anybody on pit road. They're the fastest. They've always been the fastest. They are just unsung because they haven't had the credit for being as good as they are. They know what they can do. They make mistakes when there is no pressure. It seems like they make them then. As the race goes on and it gets more intense, they seem to perform even better. They always have performed well in the shop and at the race track. I haven't seen one guy take a break or let up. That's how we got here today."

HMIEL: (HOW DIFFERENT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP NOW THAT YOUR IN THE ROLE YOU'RE IN?) "It's no different. I remember Dale Jr. when he was a young fellow and destined to be a race car driver. I watched him come along and was tickled to death when he had all his Busch success. I was glad that Dale Sr. had an interest in me being around Dale Jr. Certainly he didn't need any help driving. It's a matter that 30 years from now I'll look back and say I was pretty lucky that I won some races with Mark Martin and Richard Petty and Terry Labonte and now I can add Dale Jr. to that. And that means a lot because I think he's one of the premiere race car drivers I've ever been around. It's been fun to watch him grow up. He may never mature (laughs), but he's going to grow up. But to be part of DEI as DEI tried to force itself forward into the ranks of Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush, that's the single most important thing. But Dale Jr. is certainly the most important thing."

JUNIOR: (WAS THERE A POINT WHEN YOU THOUGHT MAKING THE CHASE WAS HOPELESS AND HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT IT NOW?) "You try not to ever be hopeless in this sport. But right before Daytona, I changed my attitude a little bit and quit worrying about it. I started thinking more about each lap and each position and being a little more basic about it. It helps. It keeps you motivated. Races like this helps. But even before the Daytona race, I had all the confidence in the world in my team and in Steve. It's been a pleasure to work with Steve. I've always had a lot of respect for Steve. I didn't know if we'd ever really work hand in hand like we are today. We always worked around each other in the company some. But this is a neat experience. Hopefully we can do this more often and be successful. What do I like and what does Steve know about what I like? You have to mold it all into one set-up. I'm optimistic about the Chase. Our opportunity to make the Chase is still there, officially, after the gain we made today."

JUNIOR: (HOW DOES THIS WIN RANK ON YOUR SATISFACTION SCALE COMPARED TO OTHER WINS YOU'VE HAD?) "I don't know if anybody else sees it, but every time we win there is always some circumstance. We've never really gone somewhere and picked up a win and quietly walked out. Today's circumstance for me is obviously winning with this team that has been beat up so bad all year long by the critics. I never expected that. I told them there was going to be pressure when they put the red uniform on, but I didn't think it would be as cruel as it has for them. I've got the easiest job in the whole company. We're starting to figure it out and put it all together. That's the satisfaction of this win. To see what they feel today means more than taking the trophy out and setting it on the mantle."

JUNIOR: (HOW DO YOU MOVE FORWARD FROM HERE?) "This is definitely different for this team. We'll just drive as hard as we did these last 10 laps - we'll drive them all that way and see what happens. We've got to stay up on top of the race car all day long. Steve's got to be up on that pit box ripping the cushion off with his fingers, you know what I mean?"

HMIEL: "You just have to stay consistently pushy. That's been one of my greatest attributes. You want it all. But you've got to show up with good stuff. For example, we have a brand new car that didn't exist 10 days ago going to New Hampshire this weekend. We'll work night and day to build another one like it. The biggest thing that as hard as we have all pushed each other the past six weeks, nobody has gotten mad or stormed off. We've worked together as a team. When it's all said and done, I think we'll be happy about it come September."

JUNIOR (YOUR TEAM MEMBERS HAVE FACED CRITICISM FROM THE MEDIA AND THE FANS, WHICH HAS BEEN TOUGH. WHAT HAS BEEN THE TOUGHEST PART FOR YOU?) "I don't think the 'boos' bother me. That kind of solidifies me in the sport because if everybody cheers for you, people feel like you never pay your dues. So if I'm getting booed a little bit, I'm paying my dues a little bit. So that's okay. This is the honest truth. As bad as some of the finishes are that we've had - as hard as they are to stomach sometimes and to understand - I've had a good time. I've had fun with this team. I never anticipated them being as good a bunch of guys as they are. They all like each other and get along. They don't put me in a bad position by putting me in the middle of a dispute. I feel like part of them. Steve does a good job of leading them. They trust him and believe in what he says. They are all genuinely giving their best. I feel like I can read people real well. They seem like they're giving their best. As hard as it's been to run like we've run, I've enjoyed it and look forward to going to the track. You can't turn your back on it because days like today will happen when you work as hard as you work. There really ain't nothing that hard about it."

HMIEL: (WHAT AREAS HAVE YOU WORKED TO CORRECT?) "The guys have worked hard all winter. They didn't sit on their hands and rely on Junior to carry them to the front. Michael Waltrip's driving style is more conducive to this new tire. Tony Jr. took that with his guys and went farther down that road. Junior had never really shown an affinity for that kind of set-up. You have to move your suspension points around and there are a number of mechanical things you have to do. That took a long time. And it's not like somebody had gone in there and messed everything up. The business changed and it coincided with us making a change with Junior. I had seen a bunch of things from being on the outside looking in that could be made better based primarily on the success that Michael Waltrip and Tony Jr. had."

-gm racing-

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Matt Kenseth , Terry Labonte , Michael Waltrip , Richard Petty , Scott Wimmer , Jack Roush , Mark Martin