Daytona practice notes 96-02-09

NASCAR WINSTON CUP SERIES PRACTICE NOTES -- Friday, 2-9-96 DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY BRETT BODINE (No. 11 Lowe's Ford) -- (On fire in morning practice.) It was very unfortunate. We had a fuel line failure. As I was coming into the third ...


BRETT BODINE (No. 11 Lowe's Ford) -- (On fire in morning practice.) It was very unfortunate. We had a fuel line failure. As I was coming into the third turn, the car caught fire. The fuel line failure caused the fuel to be exposed to the exhaust system leading to the header pipes, which immediatley engulfed the front of the motor and then the entire motor and hood. As the car went down the race track, and before I could get to pit road, the heat and the flames burned up the brake lines so fast I had no brakes. I couldn't stop the car. I immediately pulled the fire extinquisher to extinguish the fire, and when I did that, I couldn't see where I was going because the car filled up with the chemicals from the fire extinguisher. I tried to get the car slowed down by putting the car in reverse and locking the rear wheels, but before I could get that done, I had gotten into the wall. Fortunately, that's what slowed the car up and the car came to a stop so they could put the fire out and I could get out of the car. It was pretty bad inside, heat-wise and the fact that I couldn't breath. No burns, I just took in a lot of smoke and chemicals. (Was this the first fire he was ever in?) Absolutely. It's not a very good experience, but fortunately, nothing happened. We're all right. We can fix the race car. We're going to carry that car back home this evening. They're going to get it in shape, get it fixed up and bring it back, so that will become our backup car. That will be back down next week, in case we need a backup car. Our secondary car is a real good race car. It has never really qualified that well, but once it gets in the race it runs real well. Hopefully, we'll race our way into the 500 on Thursday (in the Gatorade 125-Mile Qualifying Races).

MICHAEL WALTRIP (No. 21 Citgo Ford) -- I'm just glad to be with this team. They're a great bunch of guys and they're working real well together, looking forward to the year. We're going to win this race. We think we can win it, and we're looking forward to trying. Our car's competitive, and that's all you can ask for.

BOBBY LABONTE (#18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) -- Basically, we got some things different than what we came to test with. We thought we would be better, and we're trying to make that work on the car. We're excited about starting second in the Busch Clash -- especially with the No. 4 car right behind us. That ought to be good, and the outside line ought to be good on the first lap. We'll just have to wait and see, but I think it's a good start.

WALLY DALLENBACH (No. 15 Bud Moore Engineering Ford) -- The car feels quite a bit looser than when we tested here. We haven't changed a whole lot -- we came back pretty much the way we tested, and we didn't have to do any work on the car since we came back here. I'm here on a one-race deal. We think we will have a sponsor for this race -- we're not sure yet -- and we're looking for a sponsor for either a limited season or a full season.

RICK MAST (No. 1 Hooters Pontiac) -- We had a little help with our fast lap of practice. We were pretty quick, though. The car's quick. It wasn't so quick when we tested here, but we picked up half a second at Talladega. Coming to Daytona, we feel we have a shot at the top 10 in qualifying, and that's what we're aiming at. It's been so long since I ran good at Daytona, this is going to be a pleasure, I hope. Sometimes, you just need a big change. We got a different sponsor, a different car and a lot of the personnel in the shop moved around. We just had so many things go wrong the last couple years, maybe all these changes are what it takes to make things go -- I hope so! GOODYEAR PRESS CONFERENCE NOTES

ROB BOEHLEFELD (Chief Engineer, Product Development) -- We have a NASCAR radial tire data book which will indicate all the different tire codes to run at the race tracks throughout the year. The teams use these books as a reference. If you compared this to what we used last year you would see a big change. In the past, we had a different tire setup for each of the tracks to optimize performance. We've put a lot of effort, energy and planning to standardize our tire lineup based on general durability and performance requirements. As an example, for the 18 Winston Cup tracks we used 36 different tire codes. The code is a unique combination of tire mold, construction and compound. We've condensed that down to 17 different, unique tires for the short tracks, road courses and superspeedways. If you're wondering why we do this, it makes our business simpler and it makes the team's business simpler. When they go out to do a test -- a lot of times in the past we were changing tires so rapidly that we didn't have the proper tire to test on -- the tires they were going to race on. This change allows the teams to have a more productive test. It also reduces the number of obsolete tires both in our inventory and the teams' inventory. By using this data book, the team knows what they are going to run at tracks where they can carry inventory over. Although we are standardizing, we are still doing quite a bit of testing in 1996. We've got some plans to confirm the tire choices that we've made. In particular we're going to Dover and Michigan. We're also going to Nashville, Pocono, Milwaukee and Indianapolis. All those tracks already have new pavement or have it going down. We need to get to those tracks to decide what tire they are going to race on. For Daytona this year we've got a new tire. Daytona is one place where we don't standardize. The track is unique. It's got non-standard performance requirements. The keys here are the sustained tire loads, the sustained speeds, the track layout and the track surface conditions. We have a unique tire for Daytona. The engineering details of the tire, such as the dimensions and the pressures we run, are contained in the data book. We chose this tire based on all the information we've gathered here over the past five years in tire tests and during the races. We think the best information on a race tire comes from racing. It's not always based on tire tests. We put together what we feel is the best combination of mold shape, tread compound, internal construction and stagger. Our expections this year are improved tread wear, more consistent race performance over 50 laps and safe, trouble-free handling. The feedback we've gotten from the month of January has been very good. Obviously, we get our report card a week from Sunday in the Daytona 500.

PONTIAC NOTES AND QUOTES -- (from Brian Hoagland) Busch Pole Advance -- 2-9-96 -- Daytona International Speedway

BOBBY HAMILTON (No. 43 STP Pontiac Grand Prix) -- I think it will take a 47.50 or better to win the pole. We were at the shop and we said we thought we'd be pretty happy if we ran a 48.30. We rolled off the truck and ran a flat, so we're pretty happy with things. Rick (Mann) does a good job of tuning the motors up for qualifying, so we feel like that's going to pick us up. We think we'll run about three or four tenths better than where we're at now. We're pretty happy. The speeds are about where I expected them to be. I know we did a lot of work on my car after we left here after testing. They really had their ducks in a row. They really learned a lot in testing. They went back and massaged the car and made it better. The engine shop picked up some. It doesn't surprise me we're running quicker than what we ran in testing. Robbie (Loomis) was saying if we just turn a decent speed we're not even going to think about qualifying again. We couldn't afford to do that last year. Now we're getting ready to draft. I think it will take a 47.50. I might be wrong. I'm usually wrong on things like that, but I think it will be a .50 or so. I look for Sterling Marlin or Earnhardt to win it. Maybe Rick Mast will sneak in there. I don't think they're showing all they've got. That would be good for him. I'd like to see him do it. I can breathe a little bit easier this year going into qualifying. We were hurting in car owner points last year.

RICK MAST (No. 1 Hooters Pontiac Grand Prix): I honestly don't have a clue of what it will take to win the pole. The times are all over the place. There are a lot of cars out there and everyone is picking up some draft off of other cars. I don't know what we can run. I really don't. I felt like coming into Daytona, and I still feel like we can be among the top-10 qualifiers here. If we can do that it will really help because then you don't have to worry so much about the qualifying races. I haven't been in that kind of shape here in the last two or three years. I used to run good here. I feel good about it. I think we'll be in good shape. I think Ernie Irvan is going to be real tough, Sterling Marlin, and us.

FORD MOTORSPORT NOTES AND QUOTES -- (from Wayne Estes) DAYTONA 500 ADVANCES -- ERNIE IRVAN Daytona International Speedway, 2-9-96

ERNIE IRVAN -28- Texaco Havoline Thunderbird -- We didn't test here at all. We did all our testing at Talladega. But we're excited. Just the atmosphere coming through the tunnel makes it exciting. I'm excited being back here, and excited to have a clean slate. I'm excited to have a great team with me and about the new season. We've only run three laps so far. It's just so crowded out there. Everybody's trying to get a nice clean lap in and be able to see what they've got. WHAT CAN YOU LEARN IN THREE LAPS? As long as you run a clean lap, you can learn. You can learn what your car has and how fast it can go. When you get here, you could line up an qualify. Everybody's got what they have. Everybody's tested a lot.

We tested at Talladega and everybody else tested a lot at both places. We'll give it our best shot and if it's fast enough, that'll be great and if not, we'll have to go work harder. WHAT DID YOU DO TO GET READY FOR YOUR FIRST HIGH-SPEED RACE TRACK? Atlanta's a fast, fast race track. As far as me getting ready for the Daytona 500, Atlanta's as close as you can get. Again, that doesn't mean you're totally prepared for the Daytona 500. I don't know that anybody is. I'm real excited about how we did in Atlanta and felt we were batting a thousand and when we came here to Daytona, we came pretty confident. As far as my comeback, that's behind us and we're looking forward to a new season.

ANY SPECIAL EMOTIONS WHEN YOU ARRIVED AT THE TRACK TODAY? That happened yesterday when I went through the tunnel. The biggest emotion was just coming here. Our Texaco Havoline Ford was sitting there with my name on the door. I was excited about that. It was neat going through the infield care center and seeing those people and passing all the tests you have to pass. So, that was the exciting part of yesterday. Today, it's exciting getting ready to qualify. Tomorrow, it's another adventure getting ready to make our first lap in competition in the new season.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEING PART OF A TWO-CAR TEAM? I think the two-car team is 98 percent all positive. You can always look at something and pick it apart, but me and Dale, our relationship has grown to be really good. He's been able to teach me a lot. I've taught him a lot. I've always said our sport has to show the sponsors that we can help them get more revenue for their money. How can we get more money to do the things we need to do? Winston Cup racing is very expensive, and racing two cars is less expensive. If you run two cars, you don't have to have as many people. You have so many people for one team, and you don't have to double that for a second team. Those are things that have enabled us to get some key players and get some more knowledge.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR EYES? They did eye surgery on me right before Christmas -- muscle surgery. To put it in layman's terms, my eye was toed-in a little on the left side. I like to talk like it's racing. My eye was toed-in a little bit. Probably the only problem we have now is an acumen problem. Let's say both tires are turning left on the car, and the left front turns more than the right front, so I have a little bit of acumen problem. I can turn about 18 or 20 degrees and hold my head straight and turn 18 or 20 degrees before I have any kind of double-vision. You never really do that in a race car. Your head swings. If my head was strapped to the roll bar, I'd be in trouble, but luckily you don't do that. That's basically what they did. They got 'em lined up and I don't have to wear the prisms in the lenses anymore. I've still got correction in the lenses, like a lot of people do. The left one's not as good as the right one, but when I went through the eye test here at the race track, I was 20-15 on the right eye and 20-25 on the left eye. That's definitely good enough to see what you need to see. WHAT ABOUT THE EYE PATCH? No patch. I wear the glasses all the time.

WHAT ABOUT THE RULES? YOU AND RUSTY HAVE BEEN VERY QUIET; WHY? There's a lot of things -- I like to worry about things I can do something about. There are some things in these rules that I may not think are right, but NASCAR does a great job trying to govern the rules. The biggest problem is, do we have stock cars or do we have actual race cars? They confiscated our car after Atlanta; they confiscated Earnhardt's car after Atlanta. The wind tunnel told the story. As far as whether our car was as good as Earnhardt's as far as down force, who knows where that would have played out? Does it mean we would have out-run Earnhardt at Atlanta? We don't know that. There's unanswered questions there. All we know is the more down force you have, you definitely go faster. You pay a price most of the time, because most of the time when you get down force, you get drag. The Chevrolets have more down force and less drag than the Ford Thunderbird. A lot of that is because of their 'homework,' what they presented to NASCAR with the tail of the car. They said for 'safety reasons' they needed to widen the tail of the car for more down force. It's about five to six inches wider than the street car. Our Thunderbird is about the same as the street car. We could get into some major conversations about that and it's real hard to say who's right and who's wrong.

WHAT ABOUT THE EYELID SURGERY? We're hoping to do that April 2. We ran out of time. They wanted to wait six to eight weeks after the muscle surgery to make sure all the swelling was down. The only reason to do the eyelid surgery is to get the eyelashes, so that you don't have to look through the eyelashes. In the last two weeks, the swelling has probably gone down a hundred percent and now I don't really have any hinderance with the eyelashes at all, but they still want to do it a little bit.

HOW VALUABLE WAS IT TO RUN THOSE RACES LAST YEAR? Man, I'd hate to think about coming back cold right now. Just what we got to learn on the races we got to run -- as far as everybody being a part of me running those races. Everybody worked hard and made sure that we were doing the right thing. Probably the biggest thing I had in my mind was that I was ready last year to run the Daytona 500. Maybe I was. Who knows? But we took our time and we were patient.

We made hurdles and jumped them. Now when we start the Daytona 500, no matter what happens, we'll know we did everything we could do -- if I win, wreck or whatever -- we're all happy we took our time and confident we made the right decisions.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST COMMUNICATION WITH EARNHARDT AFTER YOUR RACE AT PHOENIX? Probably the Winston Cup Preview, so it was quite a while after that. He harassed me a little bit about leading the most laps. I said, 'Why would that bother you?' He said, 'Well, I was trying to get the most points.' I said, 'So? I don't take you to lunch everyday, so I'm not going to give you the most points.' He just laughed about it. He knows what my mission was and I know what his mission was. Thank gosh it didn't affect who won the championship. He led the most laps at Atlanta. I didn't lead any.

DO YOU FEEL AS COMFORTABLE NOW AS YOU DID BEFORE? I feel as comfortable or ready as I was two years ago when I lined up for the Daytona 500. There are some answers we'll never know. I feel like I'm ready. The only way to look at things is to look at it halfway through the season and see if we're as good, and maybe better.

DO YOU THINK YOU CAN CONTEND FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP? There are 40 drivers in the garage and every one feels like he can win the championship. Our goal is not to win the championship. Our goal is to do the best we can. We'd like to get to August, the point where I got hurt, and say, 'Man, we're as good as we were two years ago. We're running for the championship and now we'll have to play our cards right and contend for the championship.' We could spill you a lot of beans about how we can win the championship, but basically, we just need to do the best job we can. Hopefully that will be good enough that come August, we'll be in the hunt.

RACE DRIVERS ALWAYS SEEM TO COME BACK; DID YOU ENTERTAIN THOUGHTS ABOUT GIVING UP RACING? I never entertained thoughts about giving up. I can't speak for any other drivers because I was never around any drivers who got hurt and came back. Kyle Petty a little bit, but he broke his leg. Now, we've got to figure out what is a maximum amount of injury that you can sustain. I love motorsports, but the main thing is God saved me for some reason. Who knows what reason? He's enabled me to do this again. And we're real excited about it.

HAVE YOU REFLECTED ON YOUR RACE WITH JEFF GORDON IN THE BRICKYARD? Not really. Last year was last year and two years ago Jeff and I had a great race at the Brickyard. Who knows how it was going to end up. Well, obviously we know; Jeff won the race. It's just like if we look up at the run we had with Earnhardt for the championship. We could always go back to our truck and say we'd have won the championship. Only one guy won it -- Dale Earnhardt. A lot of things affect the championship -- flat tires, wrecks, whatever it may be. You have to take it a day at a time. WHY TEST AT TALLADEGA INSTEAD OF DAYTONA? That's the biggest question I've been asked. A lot of it is that everybody came to Daytona. The only test our cars made here was the very first one and there were only about four or five cars here. They could get all the testing in that they wanted. We did the same thing at Talladega. We're really fortunate that the Talladega track and Daytona track are so similar. It's not like these tracks are places where you try to make your car handle. You try to figure out how to make it fast. Talladega was the best place to do that. Basically we were there for a couple of different reasons. One, we could pull out on the track every time you went out there. That's the number one reason. We didn't want a bunch of traffic out there. That's the number one reason. The second is that we could stay more focused on what we were trying to do. We were fortunate to be able to go down there and focus on what we needed to do. When you come to Daytona, everybody wants to talk about the hype of the Daytona 500. At Talladega, there wasn't a whole lot of talk about that. We were just trying to get our job done and we thought down here there'd be more distractions.

WHEN WAS THE DECISION MADE TO HAVE THE EYE MUSCLE SURGERY? They knew about the muscle surgery a year and a half ago. But they had to make sure the muscles were where they were going to be. A lot of times they do it three months after an accident, and three months after the surgery, the eye changes again. That was what the doctors kept saying. They could have done the surgery two days after my accident, but they waited until it got to a point. This car is definitely going to draft better than what we had last year, and I think it's going to handle better than what we had. I don't know why some of our teams were so concerned and beat themselves up about how they thought they were going to run here. We've got this car, we helped design it, and all of a sudden some people like it and some people don't. We know what we've got to race with so we're going to make the best out of it. We'll be able to answer a lot of questions after Thursday when we get in the qualifier. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised.

So far, so good. We knew that going to Rockingham and places like that we were going to be real good. All of us came to Daytona not knowing what to expect and we still don't know what to expect. When we run in the Busch Clash we'll have a lot better idea then of where we stand and what we need to do. I know we're the only Pontiac in the race, but we'll share information with the other teams. By Thursday afternoon, everyone will pretty much know where they're at. The good part about it, whether we run real good or real bad, it won't really matter. That's because we have more devloping to do with it at tracks like Daytona. There's more to be found in the car. That's the good part about it.

FORD MOTORSPORT NOTES AND QUOTES -- (from Wayne Estes) DAYTONA 500 ADVANCES -- DALE JARRETT Daytona International Speedway, 2-9-96

DALE JARRETT -88- Quality Care/Ford Credit Thunderbird -- HAVE YOU HAD ANY CHANCE YET TO EVALUATE WHETHER YOU CAN REPEAT AS DAYTONA 500 POLE WINNER? Well, yeah to a certain extent, but it's hard. Every time you go out, it seems there's a bunch of cars on the race track. Obviously that's why we come here and do so much testing, because that's when you find out if stuff works or not. We're trying to find out what we can do, and most of the time you run one lap before somebody pulls out in front of you and then there's no reason to run out anymore. Obviously, it's going to pick you up two- or three-tenths getting the help from the other car and that's not what you need to know. But we've had a couple of clean laps and feel the car is pretty good.

It seems the slower NASCAR makes these cars with the rules, the harder they become to drive, because of the things we have to do to them to gain the speed back and to be competitive. It makes the cars worse. They're really a handful. They're two or three miles-an-hour slower than last year and you'd think they were easier to drive, but the things we do to gain that speed back makes the cars not drive good. For two laps, you've got to hold on and make them go as fast as they can. That's not a deal of Ford-Chevrolet-Pontiac. That's just the way the cars are. That part of it is pretty much universal. It's not like you're getting ready to wreck, but it's funny. You'd think as the speeds come down, the cars would drive better, but that's not the case. And anytime we come back here after the 24-hour race, the track changes, and that's the case this time.

CONSIDERING YOUR TEAM HAS EXPANDED, EVALUATE WHERE IT IS RIGHT NOW? Way ahead of schedule. For no more time than we've had at the race track together, we're way ahead of schedule. We've got a lot of cars done, and as far as me and Todd Parrott and being able to communicate, Todd and I hit it off right from the start. That goes for the other guys we hired. They really work hard and really enjoy being around each other, and therefore they accomplish a lot.

EXPLAIN TO READERS WHY THE CARS ARE HARDER TO DRIVE: It's not secret that the way people have made these cars go fast is by softening the springs in the car and that gives more travel to the car, and whenever you do that, the car moves around a lot more. When we used to run fast, and we'd get maybe three-and-a-half inches of shock travel in the back; we're getting maybe five inches of shock travel in the back. So, the car's moving around a lot more, and that's what makes it more difficult. It's up and down and side to side.

WHO DO YOU EXPECT TO WIN THE POLE, AND WHAT SPEED? I expect to win the pole. I'm going to say that's it's going to be somewhere around a 47.60 to 47.70 -- the pole speed. I don't know what that is in miles-per-hour. It's really hard to say. Even a different day tomorrow, if the wind changes directions, it can affect the speed. But I would say it's going to be in that range and that's about a second slower than I won the pole last year.

HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO PEOPLE WHO THINK YOU HAD AN OFF-YEAR LAST YEAR AND THAT YOU CAN EXPECT NO BETTER IN THE 88 CAR? I usually don't, but everybody's got their opinions. I feel like everybody else that didn't have the year they expected to have last year. You put the very best team and equipment together that you can and 1996 is a new year. The cars are going to be better and we all know more and I'm a better driver this year than I was last year. You surround yourself with equally good people and even better people. There's no reason that we shouldn't run well, and there's no reason we shouldn't run better last year. We had our moments, but certainly not what anybody thought we should've been doing.

WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT TRAVEL, ARE WE LOOKING AT A DIFFERENT DAYTONA 500, OR IS THIS JUST SOMETHING FOR QUALIFYING? We get back to race set-up after Saturday and things will be back pretty much to normal. You can't do that for the race. We do this for speed down the straightaway, get them closer to the ground, which helps them go a little bit faster. Once we put the race set-ups under them, they'll be driving fine.

SOMETIMES YOU HEAR PEOPLE SAY THEY QUALIFY WITH THE RACE SET-UP. THAT'S NOT HAPPENING HERE THIS WEEK? They'll be going home if they try that here. The rules to slow us down have dictated that we become a little more creative in other ways. Obviously legal, because Gary and his people have so many templates, there's no way around those. We know that everybody is so close to the same thing there that there's nothing to gain, and they've got templates for the spoilers, so there's nothing to gain there. You've got to find another way, and the chassis is the way to do it. And I'm not giving anything away. Ninety-nine percent of the people here know that. All you have to do is walk down to the corners and see the bumpers drag the ground and you figure that something's changed.

WILL LARRY BE A PART OF YOUR TEAM THIS YEAR? Larry McReynolds is the general manager of both teams and he oversees everything we're doing. He listens to us on the radio and he comes over and sees our notes, and like after this practice, he came over and sat down with me and Todd and we discussed what they did and what we did to our car and what direction we needed to take there. He'll be a big part still. That's the reason to do another car -- to have another team to gain information from it. Another driver, another crew chief and another group of team members to get more ideas to learn faster and gain an advantage.

WHAT WILL LARRY DO DURING THE RACES? He's Ernie's crew chief, so he will be in the 28 pits calling the shots there, but his radio has the capabilities, so he will be listening to us, also, and talking to me, if need be. But he will be in the 28 pits.

HAVE YOU SHELVED YOUR PLANS TO OWN YOUR OWN TEAM? It's definitely still on my mind, but I am in a good situation right now, and if things go as I think that they will and hope that they will, there's no reason to leave a good situation. I've got good association with two of Ford's major divisions, and I like the idea of that. I plan on being here for a while. My fans want me to quit moving around so they don't have to buy many souvenirs anyway.

CONTRAST YOUR COMFORT LEVEL TO LAST YEAR: I've stated that I'm probably more excited at the beginning of this season than any other. Not that last year was really uncomfortable, but I knew I was only going to be there for a year. Here, I've got a situation that I know I can be there for a long time, if I want to be. The people that we've hired to come on board and be on our team, they came knowing they were going to work for Dale Jarrett. It wasn't a deal where they didn't know who the driver was going to be. So it's a good situation for me, the best I've ever had. I am excited and hope to be around with Robert Yates and Todd Parrott for quite a while.

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO BE ON THE FRONT ROW? It does a lot for the team as far as morale goes. It's obviously good to start this race up towards the front, but I started up front and didn't stay there very long, didn't even lead a lap. It doesn't make that much difference in that respect, but still, I think I settled in like fourth or fifth and ran there. That's a good position, and it's good for exposure for your sponsor and that part of it's important. You don't have to worry about finding drafting partners in practice, because everybody knows you're fast, so that helps out, but it is a big boost. Certainly in our situation where we have no provisionals, we need to run a fast time tomorrow. If we can get on the front row, that's better yet, because it allows us to use Thursday as a real test and not use any unnecessary chances there.

IS THE TRAFFIC PROBLEM THAT YOU GO TOO FAST OR TOO SLOW? You either have to go around and slow down, but usually the rule of thumb is, if you can see a car, you're getting some kind of help. But you have no way of knowing just how much it is -- half-a-tenth, a-tenth, two-tenths -- because the draft will pick you up. You know as you get closer, you get faster.

EVERYWHERE TODD PARROTT HAS GONE, HE'S HAD SUCCESS... You can see a lot of Buddy Parrott in Todd. He's learned well from his dad. He handled people really well and I'll give him a lot of credit. He was never put in position as crew chief at Rusty's but he had a lot of responsibilities. He learned well from that. He has a lot of notes and a lot of good idea. He's been ready for this position and I'm certainly not surprised. We knew what we were getting when we got him, but he's been even more than we expected. I know in just the few races he worked with Ernie last year that his strategy was really good in the pits. Buddy has always been one of the best in pit strategy and Todd has learned well. I'm really excited to have him and I think before too long you guys will be ranking him in the top of the crew chiefs out there.

TALK ABOUT YOUR RUN OF SUCCESS LAST SUMMER: It was amazing there for about a month, I'd learned how to drive again. Certainly, it helped the team as much as anything. I felt like I knew how to drive and what we needed to do. But it's a lot to ask of your guys when they're doing all they can do and you as for more. But when we won at Pocono and finish second at Talladega and third at Indy, with a shot at winning after starting so far back, that gave the guys confidence, and that's what they needed. They needed to have confidence in you, and you've got to have results along the way. You can only say for so long, 'We really had a good car today, if we'd only had the chance to show it.' Sooner or later, you've got to show it. That carried us through the rest of the year and made it a lot more fun to race.

DID YOU EVER GET OVER BEING A CARETAKER DRIVER LAST YEAR? I don't think it made for any problems. I couldn't imagine them working any harder than they did for me, but it was a difficult situation and they got close to Ernie and wanted him back. They'd had a lot of success. Who wouldn't want that back? I don't think that ever took away from the job they did for Dale Jarrett. My job was to keep that together, keep the people there so that when he did come back, that was still there. I feel like I did accomplish that. Nobody left. That was what we intended to do. In turn, Robert has rewarded me with the good situation I have now.

ARE YOU AMAZED WITH ERNIE'S RECOVERY? I'm totally amazed. Not from the standpoint that we didn't think he'd do it again -- it's just how quickly he's been able to come back from such serious injuries. It just shows what kind of talent that he really has. It's amazing how good he really is and how he's able to still go through the small difficulties that he still has from the crash. He didn't even test here. He hasn't seen this race track since -- 1994? He hasn't seen this track since July 1994 and he's one of the five fastest cars. That says a lot for him. I'm a big fan. I can't imagine going through what he did and coming back that quick.

THE IDEA THAT ERNIE IRVAN GETS BACK IN A CAR IS UNBELIEVABLE. IS IT ANY LESS SO FOR A DRIVER? No, I think we find it hard to believe, too, but he does it. And I'll back that up saying that I think we all feel very comfortable being out there racing with him. I don't think anybody's hesitant. Last year, it just built up with faster tracks, but Atlanta showed what he could do. I'd have to say he does a lot more with the vision he has in one eye than most people do with supposedly good vision in two.

Y'all make sure all those quotes are right. I get in trouble some times.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Ernie Irvan , Dale Jarrett , Kyle Petty , Sterling Marlin , Rick Mast , Robert Yates