Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ponoco interview

The weekly NASCAR Winston Cup teleconference features Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet Monte Carlo and his crew chief, Tony Eury Sr. Earnhardt Jr. is currently 8th in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings. He...

The weekly NASCAR Winston Cup teleconference features Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet Monte Carlo and his crew chief, Tony Eury Sr.

Earnhardt Jr. is currently 8th in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings. He has eight top-ten finishes and one win this season, and his best finish at Pocono Raceway was 13th at this race last year. The following are highlights of the Q&A session with the media.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
On improving his finishing positions at Pocono

"At the first race this year at Pocono, we ran in the top three. Near the end of the race, I think we had a car that was good enough to finish fourth or fifth. But we had a real problem with gas mileage. It was running us anywhere from five to 10 laps shorter than everybody else. That got us caught a lap down. But I look forward to going there. It's a tough racetrack. It's a lot of fun. The shifting and downshifting that we do, the total turns and probably one of the more respected corners on the NASCAR circuit make it a unique racetrack."

When you do well at a certain track, how much does that help your level of confidence when you return to that track the following season?

"In the Busch Series, we'd go to tracks and we'd win and then when we'd go back again, we'd go in there expecting to do well. But sometimes you wouldn't. It's not necessarily that you adapt better to certain tracks, you just have to hit the setup that day. I learned that pretty quickly. If you go somewhere like Texas, and dominate, you really can't expect that every time. There is so much technology and other things that we're learning on a weekly basis, by the time we go back the next time it can be a totally different race. And the competition's different.

"The first year we ran at Texas, we really dominated the race with a car that was as competitive as we were. And then we go back there this year, and had to really race hard just to keep up with Dale Jarrett and Steve Park. It really teaches you right there that you can't take things for granted."

What do you do for fun and relaxation these days?

"Well, I built some sort of a shop in my backyard. It's 60 x 100 foot. We keep my bus back there, but it ain't been here in a while. Actually we're just kind of making a place to tool around with my vehicles and turn some wrenches and stuff like that. It's turning out pretty good. Other than that, I've been traveling here and there. Most of my Budweiser appearances are pretty enjoyable - we've been going to All-Star Games. We did a Winner's Circle program at Watkins Glen and we played laser tag. That was cool. I threw the first pitch out at the Rochester / Redwings game for Budweiser. My appearances seem to be getting more enjoyable."

Do you play with the band anymore?

"Actually, no. I've really disconnected myself from that deal. I helped those guys about all I could and am kind of letting them do their own thing now. They're changing members and stuff like that. I haven't talked to them in a while."

The series moves to Indianapolis in a couple of weeks. Does it mean more to win on some of the tracks, like the Brickyard, than others?

"There's an unspoken few races throughout the year that you might put a little more emphasis on. You might massage the racecar a little bit in the race shop, just paying a little more attention to detail. We try pretty hard on our road course cars even though it might not show in performance. But when it comes to loading up a Bristol car or a Martinsville car, there's not a lot of attention that you can really put into it because the car's normally going to get beat-up and banged-up. But when we go to some big races like Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, or Indianapolis that we put a lot of emphasis on and really concentrate on preparing the car."

Compared to last year at this time, do you feel like you've grown up a lot more this year?

"Yeah, I feel a lot different. Last year seems like five years ago almost. It was a really hard year. Our team was just adjusting to Winston Cup. It was a lot tougher transition coming from the Busch Series to the Winston Cup Series than I anticipated. I'm getting more accustomed to what it's like to be in the Winston Cup Series and what the demands are for a Winston Cup driver. That's going to take a couple more years to really feel a part of it, I guess. This year, it seems like it's easier to take things in stride and to be able to concentrate on the next day or the next project."

Does heat in the cockpit really play a big factor?

"That's a good question. We have heat shields we put over the exhaust that go right in between the car and the exhaust. And it's supposed to deflect some of the heat in the car. Sometimes we'll go to a test, or during Happy Hour or qualifying, the guys won't put the heat shield on and you can tell a big difference. We were at Indianapolis (testing) and we put a sensor inside the car - right about waist-high in the seat, near the shifter - and it was about 126 degrees constantly while I was out there on the racetrack. And it was about 115 or 110 degrees just while the car was sitting in the garage. So it was pretty warm. It's not that bad if you get in the car to drive 300 miles, if you're in there constantly, you get accustomed to it. The toughest part about the heat in the car is when you're in and out of the car. To get out of the car in normal temperatures like 75 or 80 degrees, and then have to climb back in the car and it's 110 degrees, it's just not very comfortable. That's really where perspiration comes into play and you have to make sure you're not draining your body of fluids.

"When I ran Late Model cars, I think the heat was tougher then. I raced at Myrtle Beach and it was real humid down there. I was kind of worried when I raced there in the Busch Series that I wasn't going to be able to make it - that it was just going to be too hot. But it was a lot better and a lot more comfortable than I thought. In Winston Cup, I've never really had a problem where it was just too hot. There have been some races where you feel like your face is stuck to a frying pan on the stove, but it's never been so bad that you want out (of the car)."

Are some tracks worse than others?

"Yeah. Any track where you run a side window is pretty rough because then the air doesn't move around in the cockpit. You can go out around Talladega or Daytona and actually see the dust particles floating in the air in the cockpit of the car and they're not moving around. So you know you're not getting any air floating around in there. It's all just kind of sitting there boiling. Those tracks are kind of tough. Daytona, Talladega - tracks like that where you just have the pedal to the floor all day long, your foot really gets hot. But there are things that we can do like the heat shields, that get the heat to dissipate somewhere."

When you have problems at a track trying to get a feel for things, who do you go to for help to make changes?

"I can go to Steve Park. If I have run out of options or the team has run out, we have a head engineer at DEI, Dave Charpentier, who will normally have an answer that we can try. If not, I can go to Steve Park or Michael Waltrip - the drivers themselves - and talk to them about what their car feels like or what its doing. If not, I can go to Kevin Harvick - or I can probably go to any of the veterans. But we've gotten to the point now where we've broken into the top 10. We're getting to be competitive almost every week. You can't always rely on those guys to want to have any information available about their set-up or anything. It's kind of tough."

To get a good lap at Pocono, which turn do you really concentrate on the most?

"Turns three and four are really important because you're coming on a long straightaway. If you can't get down that straightaway, you're entire lap is not going to be very good. To exit off that corner fast, is important."

Is the race at Pocono too long?

"That's a good point. I think that's something that NASCAR could look into. A lot of the races seem too long. I thought the Chicago race seemed quite lengthy. This (past) weekend's race (at NHIS) was not that bad. It was only 300 laps. It's not to say that you get tired or wore out, I think that for the fans it may be more exciting to watch a shorter race. It seems like there's a lot of things going on and a lot of action during the race, but it sometimes can get lost in the lull of those 100 or 200 laps in the middle of the race that can seem like they're there for no reason. If you're a racecar driver, and you're running 8th, and you feel like you need just one more adjustment on your car to be competitive, you want that extra 100 laps. You wish the race was a little bit longer. I'm not really sure where I stand on that, but it's something I've been thinking about.

"I remember driving in the Busch Series and they (the races) just seem more action-packed and more exciting because they were shorter and quicker sprints. I think that sometimes the Winston Cups can be a little bit long."

Do you think your team has been running better since winning in Daytona ) "Well, we were doing that before. It was about eight to 10 weeks before Daytona where we were running at the back of the top 10, if not inside the top 10. That kind of surprised me. We had four, five, or six top 10's in a row. After California, we moved up from 26th to 10th in the points. We stumbled around from ninth, 10th, and 11th and carried on. We're inside the top 10 now. Last year, we put such emphasis on being in the top three and we felt like we should win every week and that was probably one of the reasons why we failed so often. Now, we've concentrated more on trying to finish closer to our points position, and just maintaining our points position. And that's just being consistent. And I think consistency pays off in the points. Winning races is great, but I'd really like to get on stage in New York this year."

What do you think of the one-lap qualifying system this year?

"I like it. They're only using it at tracks like a mile or bigger. Sometimes we don't even use the second lap because we'll tape the car off so much that the car will get too hot to run a second lap. We've done that a time or two and I think NASCAR saw a lot of competitors doing that. It puts a lot more pressure on the teams and the drivers and that's what it's about. It makes the weekend shorter and it's a lot less work for the crews. I like it."

Has the talk died down about the Pepsi 400 being "fixed"?

"Yeah, I figured it would after we ran the race in Chicago and everybody had something else to talk about and maybe put their attention elsewhere. It wasn't fun. It wasn't a bed of roses, I'll tell you that. I was disappointed because some of the same people who are your "buddies" when they need a story or want to talk to you about something, are the same ones who were making a joke out of it. That was kind of upsetting. But I found out who my friends are, I guess."

Have you talked to any of the drivers who made negative comments and did any of them apologize?

"Yeah, actually Johnny Benson came up to me and he was really upset because he felt like some of what he said was taken out of context. But (Jimmy) Spencer pretty much blatantly said what he said. You find out more everyday how people are and what they think. Jimmy (Spencer) is a racer. He's a hard competitor. But it was a tough thing to swallow."

Have you talked to him since?

"He came up to the car during practice in Chicago and apologized."

DEI was a "Mom and Pop" operation in '96. Can you talk about how far this team has come and what the key things have been in its success?

"The biggest key thing is just having the right people, the right personnel. You never really can put a price on having great people around you. We've got key people in great positions. With my team, some of the guys we've brought on in just the last six months have really improved our team. My dad always said that you just can't go through hiring and firing people to try to make your team better. You've got to utilize the people you've got and utilize their talents. And that's true. But one poor mechanic or one bad apple can spoil it for the whole bunch. And we found that out over the last three or four years. So that's been the key to really making that place the best it is. It's just getting people in there who care and who are dedicated to working for you, and that don't have one eye on their job and that are looking for a two-dollar raise somewhere else. It surprises me. Sometimes we get so greedy and so concerned with success that you forget where you came from. I think if you step back and look at it, it's a pretty surprising feat to have built the company into what we have today."

With the attention you've always received in this sport, how do you manage to stay grounded?

"I just look at racing maybe a little bit different than other guys do. There's nothing better and nothing I'd rather do than be going around the track in a racecar. That's something I've fallen in love with and don't want to give up for a long time. But I also had just as much fun working in a dealership changing oil and going to lunch with the guys and attending Christmas parties and stuff like that. So I can take things or leave things, you know what I'm saying? I don't really take a lot of things that seriously. I don't know why. But it seems that it's a lot easier to deal with it that way because things change, and it's easier to let go of stuff if you don't get too attached to it, I suppose."

Do you see NASCAR making the race weekends shorter?

"They've tried to do that with one-lap qualifying. Last year, we'd have an hour practice in the morning and an hour in the afternoon for Happy Hour. But now we get two 45-minute sessions on Saturday before the Busch race, so the garage closes at 3 p.m. It cuts the guys workload in half by a day. These guys work seven days a week. Tony Jr. and Tony Sr. take one day off every once in a while. You're asking these guys to work seven days a week. They've got wives at home, and kids that they never see. They never have time with them. It's hard to fathom that they even have functional marriages with all this going on, but they do. That's probably the hardest job in itself is just trying to maintain who you are back in town or back at the house. So they have made them shorter. And I don't know where you can cut any more off the weekend to make it any shorter than it is. I'm pretty comfortable with the way it is. Before, we were going into town on Thursday morning or sometimes even on Wednesday evening for race weekend. I think they've given us a good 12 to 14 hours more during the week to work on cars or have a day off."

Would it ever be possible to run a race in just two days instead of three?

"Yeah, we could do it. One thing that you've got to worry about is weather - rain and things like that. If it was just the Winston Cup Series at the racetrack and it rained, we could just start on points. But most of the time you have the Busch Series or the Truck Series there and you really can't place Winston Cup over everybody else and cancel their race. They've got to get their qualifying in and their practice in and their race in. If we tried to go to a two-day weekend, more times than not somebody's going to end up running on Monday because it rained on Saturday or something like that."

Do you think the racing schedule itself is too much, too long?

"Yeah, it's long. It's awful long. But what else are we going to do. When you're not racing, you're just sitting at home. They're talking about adding two more (races) and I wish they wouldn't. But I'm not running the show. NASCAR has got to take themselves seriously on issues like that and look at where it (the series) can carry itself to new audiences. They've got solid, concrete reasons for making the season longer - other than just because drivers would like a little more time off. And yet I feel like I race too much now. But when the season's over and we're four weeks into the off-season, I'm dying to get back into racing again. So, I don't know."

What military academy did you attend?

"It was Oakridge Military Academy, and that's somewhere near Greensboro, North Carolina."

Have you had an opportunity to talk to Teresa Earnhardt since your win at Daytona?

"I talked to her and she said that she was extremely happy. Actually a few people that I know had seen her the next evening and relayed to me exactly what her emotions were. That was cool. I'm glad that she enjoyed that because it was just as important of a win (for me) as it was for her to enjoy that."

Comments by Tony Eury Sr.

How does it feel to be in the top 10 in points?

"We're feeling pretty good. Our goal was to be in the top five by Daytona, but we had a couple of problems in Michigan that kind of set us back. But with the problems we had, to be in 8th right now, the whole team is pretty pumped up and ready for the rest of the year."

What's the difference, if any, in preparing a car for a 4-hour race vs. a shorter race?

"You pretty much go through the same routine. You might not have to run a practice motor during the week. A lot of times we'll run a practice motor and then put the race motor in on race morning. On the shorter races, you might be able to put the race motor in and run Happy Hour on it to get your fuel mileage and everything right. But really, everything is pretty much the same other than that."

Having just raced Loudon, what changes if any would you make to the track?

"I don't really know what they could do up there. We've been going there since it was built - with Dale's dad and Dale - and it's one groove. The bottom line is the quick way around on a flat track. If you get up top, you're going to get freight-trained just because there's a faster line on the bottom. But the sealer did come up and created a problem because the outside groove just got littered with debris. It would be real hard to come up with a solution for that. You go to Las Vegas, and it's pretty flat but it's got a little bit of banking. You'll see a lot of three-wide racing. But it'd be hard to fix that (NHIS)."

Are you planning to change your car set-up for the second Michigan race?

"We'll probably go with the set-up we had there last time. We'll maybe try a couple of sets of shocks and go over some things that we learned and things that happened during the race and try to improve on them. But that's one of the tracks that we had a problem with (engine, finished 39th) and we're looking forward to going back."

With all that's gone on this year for Dale Jr., are you surprised at how he is handling everything?

"It's pretty amazing. I think a lot of us at the shop kind of feel the way he does. I mean nobody can feel exactly the way he does. Every weekend they have some sort of tribute (to Dale Earnhardt) and you're asked 50 questions on how you feel about the situation. To be having a much better year that we had last year is pretty remarkable. Just like last year, he's pretty booked up and has something he has to do every day. He's doing a real good job of staying focused."

-GM Racing

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Dale Jarrett , Michael Waltrip , Steve Park , Kevin Harvick , Johnny Benson , Steve Park.