Daytona 500: Pole winner interview

Daytona 500 Post-Qualifying Press Conference
February 13, 2011

An interview with:
DALE EARNHARDT, JR. - Pole winner STEVE LETARTE - Crew chief

KERRY THARP: We have our Coors Light pole winner for the 53rd running of the Daytona 500, and it's Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He has with him his crew chief Steve Letarte.

This is his 10th pole in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, this is his first pole in 23 tries at Daytona. Obviously his first pole for the Daytona 500. It will be the third time you've been on the front row.

Dale, got to feel good about starting on the pole for Daytona next Sunday.

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I feel great. I mean, it's hard for me to sit up here and do all the talking because I didn't do anything today other than hold the wheel. The engine does a large majority of the work, and the body on the car has to be perfectly situated to get the most speed out of the car. Steve here has to plan the car out, get the attitude of the car just right for the maximum speed.

Those three things right there are the biggest players. I'm only maybe, you know, 5/10ths of a percent of what happened today. So all the credit really goes to all those guys that built the car and built the engine, put the car together in the 8/48 shop.

Steve brought the car down here. In practice, we struggled. We weren't first. That's what I would call struggling. We were about a 9th, 12th-place car, something like that. Steve found a little more speed out of it in the last several hours, and that was good. Real happy.

I think we got a pretty good draw as far as when we went out. I wouldn't know for sure, but I'm assuming the wind was a little bit in our favor for a couple thousandths here and there. Overall, it was just a perfect situation for us when we went out there to go. The car felt good. The lap was really, really clean. Felt good about my line. Looking at everything, looked pretty good, so pretty happy.

KERRY THARP: Steve Letarte, congratulations being on the pole for Daytona. Your thoughts about that?

STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think Dale said it best. It's a lot of work that started way back in December. This is the car we had at the tire test in December. It's not the car we had in January. This car has been in the wind tunnel a bunch, proving grounds a lot. A tremendous amount of effort gone into this car. With the new pavement, new surface, I think qualifying is much more relevant to the race. I don't think you're going to change near as much in your car to the race as you would have in years past.

So we're happy. We're happy the car had speed. It's a test of speed. Racing is a test speed. Today we had the most speed.

KERRY THARP: We'll take questions for Steve and Dale.

Q: Dale, you're obviously locked into this spot for next week. You have a really good car. How does that make you approach Thursday? Do you want to watch your step or not?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: No, I won't be more cautious. One thing worries me a little bit. We tore up a really good car in the Shootout that was going to be a good backup. I'm wearing Stevie out about it because that's all I've been talking about since it happened. I'm not sure about really how good the backup car we have now is. Steve is going to go home today and start trying to repair the car we tore up last night and see if we can't have it ready in case it's needed.

I will be a little bit worried. I don't want to do anything foolish and hurt the car that I have right now because it's obviously an awesome racecar.

I think personally when you do lock in a front-row starting spot for the 500, it takes a lot of pressure off. You get to go out there and try to win that race with just as much urgency to win it, but kind of in your own way. You don't feel really handcuffed into getting a good starting spot for the 500. You try to win that race, but you're also thinking at the same time, I don't want to do anything stupid on the last two laps that's going to cost me five rows for the Daytona 500.

I don't have to worry about that. I can go out there and make that move at the last lap that I think might win the race even if it don't. I can do the things I want to do and won't feel handcuffed at all.

Q: Steve, have you had any kind of conversations with NASCAR about any changes they're considering making this week? Does it concern you at all that it could be Wednesday before you really get to implement anything they might tell you about between now and then?

STEVE LETARTE: I guess to the first part of your question, I've had a lot of casual conversations. I applaud NASCAR that the trailer is an open-door policy. I talked to John and Robin Pemberton, nothing very formal, just opinions. I think they polled the garage. We're the guys that are going to have to race it. They don't rule with an iron fist. I think they have their arms pretty open to ideas. They know we are all in the sport together. It's our job to put on a good show for the fans, a good, competitive race.

I do believe changes are coming. As a series, we're going to have to make some changes. What they are, I don't know exactly yet. I'm sure there will be a bulletin out at some point.

I think Wednesday is the best time. It's the perfect opportunity. We all get to go home. I get to go to the shop Monday and Tuesday. We get to run stuff on the dyno, if it's an engine change. If it's a car change, we can work parts and pieces in the shop.

The way Speedweeks is broken up, the most important day of the week, make sure everyone knows this, is the Daytona 500. It's the 150s have to be a way to verify some of the changes, that's what well do. We want to make sure next Sunday way put on a on a great show for a lot of fans that have traveled a long way to come see us.

Q: Dale, although this type of racing will be the most unique of the season, doesn't really translate for the rest of the year. How important is it to get a good start to the season in the Daytona 500, even though it's going to be a completely different style you'll have from here on out?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Right. It's a really good thing when you can come out of here, like last year we came out of here with a second-place finish. It does run you right into Phoenix with a good, confident feeling that you got a good start, you want to maintain, improve. So that's kind of your attitude. Whereas if you do have a bad finish in this race, you're behind the eight ball, feeling more pressure, got to make big gains. A little bit different feeling when you come out of here with a bad finish, for sure.

We want to work hard the rest of the week and learn what we can learn about what the car needs to be doing, what I need to be doing, try to get ourselves the best opportunity to win the race on Sunday.

It's a long, long race. There's a lot of variables and a ton of work to be done. But we feel real confident about our opportunity.

Q: How do you look at testing now since they made changes to the front grill by making the hole 20-by-2-and-a-half inches, changing the pressure release valve, how does that affect testing when you come back?

STEVE LETARTE: I think the first thing we'll do is we'll take all that information and feed it into our dynos. We have engines at home. We'll test our water systems and find out exactly what kind of criteria that will affect the car. We'll come down and decide.

We're going to tiptoe into it. I think we have a lot of practice left. I think the opportunity to run, you can learn a lot with just a teammate, especially when it comes to cooling, the two-car push. So I think we have very experienced driver in the 48/8 building. We worked together a lot in January. We knew our references there. We worked together very good the other night pre-Bud Shootout. We knew what that reference was there. So when we get the rules, we'll apply them the best we can and come up with a very diligent plan for Wednesday, definitely not go into it blindfolded. We will go into it with a specific plan.

Handling I don't think is an issue at all. That alleviates a lot of pressure of what you have to do in that hour of practice. In our mind, I have all the confidence in this car, any of the cars we have, that we'll be to the level that I think can win the Daytona 500.

So we need to work on those details, how the rules will affect them. I don't know. But we'll definitely have a plan come Wednesday.

Q: Junior, Jeff was joking, Are we building towards a Hollywood ending on Sunday. You draw the Bud pole, the lights go out, you win the pole for the 500 now. Is that something you would embrace as people start to talk about, or don't you want to think about that?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Yeah, I wouldn't embrace that. I'm here to race. I understand the situation. I'm looking forward to seeing how my father's remembered and honored throughout the week. I'll enjoy that. I don't really get into the hypothetical, fairytale sort of stuff.

I just want to focus on my job, what I need to do every single corner, every single lap, what's best for me at this moment, what gets me closer to Victory Lane on Sunday. That's all I'm going to concern myself with.

Q: It seems clear that NASCAR does not like the two-car draft, either here or Talladega. I assume they're looking at big picture. Jeff Gordon says it's out of the barn, you guys have figured out how to do it. Is the two-car draft here to stay or can NASCAR do something?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Everybody has opinions about it. I have an opinion about it. It's not here to stay. If we get an opportunity sometime in the future to come down here with some teams and test, they've done in the past. I recall when I was in the Nationwide Series, they had an open test down here with Bill Elliott, my father, a couple other people. They were testing all sorts of weird things on these cars. That's kind of maybe something we need to look at doing in the future to see, to get the package a little better, or get it the way they want it.

But everybody has an opinion and I can sit up here and tell you everything that needs to be done, but it doesn't really matter. NASCAR is going to make the changes they feel are necessary. The racing will be good regardless.

I particularly like 40 cars trying to race each other and me being in control of my destiny. I don't really want to have to make this commitment with another driver to run together for 25 laps and push him in the lead, swap back and forth. I don't want to do that. I want to race my car, pass everybody, take the lead myself, worry about my own self. It's difficult enough doing it for yourself without working with another guy, having to look out for him, too. It's a different style of racing, but as you saw it was still a good race. I thought the finish was really good.

The race was really interesting. It's something new. We'll have a good race regardless of what the package is. And the changes that NASCAR decides to make may change the racing just a little bit. But they're smart enough to know we're so far into the game right now for this particular event, there won't be a big swing at it. But it's probably something we need to look at doing down the road. I'm sure they will. They'll probably get us all together here or Talladega, try all kinds of crazy ideas and see what works. And something will. There's definitely a package out there that will give us exactly what we're looking for.

Q: Dale, I just wanted to ask you about your partnership with Steve. How much were you energized by it when they initially announced that this was going to be the case? Steve, could you speak to that, too? Also, where did the Shootout car rank in your roster of cars? Was it the bullet or the car you were going to use as the backup in the 500?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I've known Steve for a while. I've enjoyed getting to know him better working at HMS over the last couple years, have a lot of respect for him as a crew chief. I've seen him make some awesome calls and do a lot of great things.

I really didn't know him well as I do now today. But everything I've learned I've enjoyed. I really enjoy the way the team approaches their jobs and what their goals are. I sort of like the way they go about business, how they conduct themselves. I'm enjoying everything I'm seeing. It's going really well.

STEVE LETARTE: I guess, the first, Dale and I, I think our relationship's great. I think, like he said, personally, I don't think we had a huge relationship before, so it's definitely expanding as we get to spend some time together.

Professionally I think it's great because we come into it with a huge amount of mutual respect. I think that's where it all starts. He has a lot of confidence in my ability to crew chief. While I'm short on success compared to other crew chiefs in the garage, I have been able to win a few races with Jeff, I feel confident in my ability on top of the pit box. I have all the confidence in the world in his driving ability. I feel there are tracks that I lack confidence we need to go to that he can pick me up, and there are tracks that he thinks he maybe needs to run better and maybe I can help him out.

Change can be for the better if it's done the right way. I feel Mr. Hendrick has gone about it the right way and I think it's going to be marked for an improved season.

As far as the Shootout, it is up there. I don't think it was as good as the car in qualifying today. I have another car that I feel is just as good as the Shootout car. I have a lot of confidence in the Shootout car we raced before.

I can assure you one thing: we will not come down to Daytona without enough bullets in the chamber. We'll have enough to run all the way through Sunday.

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Just in case (laughter).

STEVE LETARTE: Just in case. We are not going to ride either. If you're not going to ride, it means you're going to have to have cars to race.

Q: Dale, you said last night that it was crazy, but it was fun. Now today I think you're saying you don't like the two-car drafts.

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: In the same conversation last night, I did say I prefer the other style better. But, I mean, it was fun last night. I prefer having more choices in my own destiny, I guess. Nothing against what happened last night. I thought it was an exciting race to be in, exciting ending to watch. Completely different than what we're used to.

This is what we're going to have these next several days. I don't think we're going to see much change, not a whole lot. You'll see little things. You guys will pick right up on it. For the most part, that style of racing is going to be what determines who wins this race.

We'll try to learn as much about it as we can. Even though it might not be what I prefer entirely, we'll work all week trying to figure out what we need to know to make the right moves.

Q: Dale, Denny Hamlin was saying earlier today that he thinks that the guys like yourself and Tony Stewart that have become really good at the drafting before the track was repaved, this leveled the playing field. Do you agree with that? Also, what do you think your dad would say about that two tandem racing?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I think Denny is right. You're really making this commitment with another driver. You and him are working together. You and him determine what happens, how good you run. So, you know, that's definitely changed the dynamics of who you might see up front, who might end up battling for the win. Might be some surprises.

But at the same time, you know, if you watched that race last night, Kurt is one of the better restrictor plate racers. Obviously he did win the race. We're not going to debate that. But what he did, when I was watching near the end of that race, he was patient, wanted to stay behind, didn't really try to make a move till the end. Making those style of decisions, knowing that that's the right thing to do, that's what sets guys like Kurt apart from the rest of the field.

So, yeah, it might be a little more level, but still you're going to have to make the right decisions like Kurt chose to do. He probably said, It's probably best to be behind these guys, when they split up to go around each other, we'll have the best run and the best opportunity to win the race. It looks like that was a good choice.

So not everybody is going to know exactly what's right to do. The guys that are smart, like Kurt and Denny, if you want to throw me in there, Tony, those guys are going to make the right choices at the right times. Those are the guys more than likely will rise to the top more times than not.

Q: What would your dad think about that?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I don't want to speculate. I'll let you guess and you'll probably be right (smiling).

Q: Steve, I know you said you really didn't know much about Dale before your new partnership. What maybe had you heard about or thought about that isn't how it actually is? What have you asked him to change and do differently?

STEVE LETARTE: First of all, I've made a lot of bad decisions in my life to learn that I judge everybody off firsthand information. I don't judge anybody off second or thirdhand information. Anybody I meet, it's pretty much a blank sheet until I have dealings with them and I see how they treat me, how they respond to what I ask them to do. I don't know what I was expecting of Dale. I think it's worked out fine.

As far as what have I asked him to change, kind of goes the same way. I don't know what his other routine was. I didn't really care what his other routine was. I know how I like to see things done on the team side and the car side, what I'm responsible for. He has requests on the driver's side that he's responsible for. I think we've kind of laid those out. I know what is of value and what is important to him so I can make his job as not easy but as bearable at times as it needs to be, and he does the same for me.

I'm sure that's changed for him. It's changed for me. What he requests out of a racecar is going to be different than Jeff Gordon. He's not Jeff Gordon. I'm sure I'm different than Lance or Tony Jr. I'm not then. I don't try to be Ray. I don't try to be Robbie Loomis. I've worked for some very talented crew chiefs. I've tried to pull a little bit from each one. I try to run the ship my own way.

While there are times you question that and you want to copy someone who looks to be successful, you have to remember and remind yourself that if you're copying someone else's actions, you'll never be as good as them. You have to continue to do it the way you would do it. That's how we run our race team. I've asked Dale to take part in how we do our business. Man, he's jumped in with both feet. I think it's been a great relationship.

I'm just excited to get it out there and test it. It's one thing to run the racetrack in January, it's another thing to run a fun Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night. I am ready to race at Daytona and go to Phoenix, go to the intermediate tracks, go to the road courses. It's a long season and I'm ready for the week-in, week-out grind.

Q: Dale, with this package being what it is, do you think drivers are going to find some more room to run out there on the racetrack when you get to the 500 as opposed to the old package when you'd see three-wide, six and seven rows deep, not a lot of room to be able to work your way to the front?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I don't really know, man. I mean, it's tough to say. The racetrack is only as wide as it is. We'll try to fill it full of racecars, no matter what the situation is.

We'll be three-wide as often as we possible can. If there's a good run, there's a hole big enough for the car to go in, we'll put it in there.

Q: Dale, describe how bad the visibility is when you're the trailing car in the two-car hook up. How much more faith are you having to put in your spotter at Daytona?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: When I'm behind somebody, I can't see anything. I rely entirely on my spotter at that point. When I'm pushing another car and we're catching another group of cars, he has to tell me when we've caught them or how far ahead of the guy I'm pushing they are. I don't want to drive the guy I'm pushing into the back of them. I need to know when he catches them he might move over so I don't spin him out so I can move as well. 'Cause you can't see at all.

I can see the wall on my right and the infield on my left and then a spoiler, that's about it, spoiler out the front. I mean, if he's up against the wall, I can't see down the left side of his car or around his car on the inside, none of that. It's just a big old spoiler, then what's out the right and left side. You can't see over it or anything. Spoiler, the sky, everything over here (laughter).

KERRY THARP: Thank you, Dale and Steve. Congratulations and good luck next Sunday.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Denny Hamlin , Robbie Loomis