A statue of Dale Earnhardt was unveiled in front of Daytona USA last week to honor the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion. Ford drivers Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Rusty Wallace spoke about their feelings for Earnhardt and what he still...
A statue of Dale Earnhardt was unveiled in front of Daytona USA last week to honor the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion. Ford drivers Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Rusty Wallace spoke about their feelings for Earnhardt and what he still means to the sport.
JEFF BURTON --99-- Citgo Taurus
WHAT DID DALE EARNHARDT MEAN TO THIS RACE?
"For so long he won everything but the Daytona 500. He was gonna win the 125s, I mean he just won 'em. IROC races, Busch races and all those things, he came down here and he won. The story for a long time was 'Dale Earnhardt, will he retire before he's won a Daytona 500.' By the time he finally won the Daytona 500, then that got behind him, but you don't think about Daytona without thinking about Earnhardt because he was so good here."
HOW DO YOU PUT HIS LOSS IN PERSPECTIVE?
"You don't lose a fellow competitor, no matter if it's Dale Earnhardt or Kenny Irwin or whomever it is, without him being missed. Earnhardt's loss is real broad because he meant so much to the sport for so many different reasons. He had a lot of influence on this sport that a lot of people probably didn't realize. He really had Bill France's ear because Bill respected him. He had a lot of corporate America listening. He did a wonderful job with souvenirs and making things better for fans and drivers. He had a lot of influence on this sport and none of that is lost. Everybody learned a lot from Dale and has taken advantage of that, but, as a person, you certainly still miss him today. There's no doubt about it."
WHAT DO YOU ENVISION WHEN YOU THINK OF HIM? "Earnhardt was just such an influence. The thing that people don't understand about Earnhardt is that he was a tough guy, he really was. That wasn't just a persona, he was tough. But he could also put a coat and tie on and put his arm around a CEO of the largest company in the world and make that guy feel comfortable and Dale was comfortable doing it. Dale had a wonderful way of being tough as nails on the race track, but he could grasp corporate America and he did that better than anyone else in my opinion."
WHAT'S THE SNAPSHOT YOU HAVE OF HIM?
"That snapshot for me is that he did it better than anyone else had done it before. You could talk about his rough driving and he won a lot of races that perhaps today he wouldn't win because people wouldn't put up with it, but he's the greatest -- it's that simple."
WHAT IMAGE DO YOU HAVE OF HIM?
"My image is him standing besides someone with his arms clinching their neck because once he started to like you, that's what he would do. He would walk up behind you and you would almost get knocked over by this arm grabbing you and pushing you, so that's my image of him. You would have to have an unknown person with him standing there with a hand around the back of his neck, he's kind of got his head turned, and he's telling you the way he was gonna do things. That's what he would do, he'd tell you the way things were."
HAS SOMEONE FILLED EARNHARDT'S VOID AS FAR AS HAVING THE EAR OF BILL FRANCE OR NASCAR?
"I don't know who has filled that void, I really don't. I don't have the personal relationship that Earnhardt had. A lot of people teased Earnhardt because they said he kissed up to France, but that wasn't what happened. I think Earnhardt genuinely liked France and I think France genuinely liked Earnhardt and they related to each other, so because of that friendship, he had the opportunity to talk to Bill about several things. Dale truly wanted this sport to succeed. Obviously, he wanted to succeed as well, but he truly wanted this sport to succeed and I think Dale deserves some credit for how far this sport has come, I really do."
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU CAN DIFFERENTLY TO GET OFF TO A GOOD START THIS YEAR?
"You've just got to race. If you think too much about it, you're in trouble. We've just got to go out and do what it is we know how to do and that's race. You can't worry about a championship right now. You can't worry about where you're gonna finish at Darlington right now. We're at Daytona and we need to worry about how to do the best we can at Daytona, and then the minute we leave here it's over and we go on to Rockingham. That's how I approach the year and that's how I approach every year. I think if you start thinking about getting x-amount of points at this race, I don't think that's the right thing to do. I just think you've got to race the race for what it is."
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO GET OFF TO A GOOD START?
"It's important to have a great year and if that means we've got to have a good start to have a great year, then it's real important. I think you can win the championship without winning the Daytona 500. We go into every race trying to get the best finish we can get. It's important to understand that this is the first race of the year and this race pays the same amount of points as all the other races after it, so, if you put too much emphasis on the Daytona 500, that's wrong, but you have to understand that it is a big race and it does pay the same amount of points as every other race."
CAN YOU GET TOO CAUGHT UP IN ALL THE HYPE FOR THIS RACE?
"I think you can, but we don't. We just don't let it happen to us. We work and we do the best we can for the Daytona 500, but we're also thinking about Rockingham and Vegas. Getting off to a good start is a great thing and a great feeling, but you don't have to have a great Daytona 500 to win the championship."
WHAT MAKES THIS RACE SO SPECIAL?
"It's the Daytona 500. There are big events. Horse racing has Churchill Downs. College basketball has Cameron Indoor Stadium and auto racing has Daytona. It's Daytona and Lemans and Indy and this is one of those places that is special because of the history and the heritage of what's built it to this point. It's not so much that it's just the Daytona 500, it's where it is. The event is so big. This was the first live Winston Cup race to be televised and it's just a big event. It always has been and it probably always will be."
HOW HARD IS IT TO COME OUT OF THE GATE WITH THE BIGGEST RACE OF THE YEAR?
"It's not that big of a deal. It is a little backwards, but once you get yourself into position where you're racing for championships and you're racing for a top spot in the points, you understand that this isn't the Super Bowl anymore. This is a big event determining who is gonna be in the Super Bowl, but the Super Bowl is racing for the championship. So, when you start thinking about it that way, it takes the pressure off of the Daytona 500 and makes it more, from a driver's feeling, just another race even though it's not just another race. We've won at Daytona in the Fourth of July race and that was a really, really good feeling, but it's probably 25 percent of the feeling you get for winning the Daytona 500. The greats of the sport have won the Daytona 500. We've been fortunate enough to win the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 -- some really big events -- so to add the Daytona 500 and Indy to that is something that means a whole lot to me."