As much as we'd like to think the Pepsi 400 is going to be "just another race", can racing at Daytona ever really be the same since the accident? "I don't think it'll ever be the same. 'Cause Dale Earnhardt, ever since I've been a part of...
As much as we'd like to think the Pepsi 400 is going to be "just another race", can racing at Daytona ever really be the same since the accident?
"I don't think it'll ever be the same. 'Cause Dale Earnhardt, ever since I've been a part of NASCAR has been so much of the story of Daytona. It will still be an exciting event. There's no way around that. With the rules the way they are now and racing under the lights just seems to add a little bit more intensity to the race. So much was made over the years about Dale's success at Daytona and the wins that he's had there and never winning the Daytona 500 and then pulling it off in '98, it's always the story there. It won't be the same. There's no way around it."
Do you anticipate feeling any special emotions as you drive through the tunnel and walk through the garage area at Daytona for the first time since the accident?
"My emotions kind of bounce all over the place on a day to day basis. For me to say that I won't feel any special emotions or different emotions wouldn't be true. I'm sure it will be different, I'm sure it will be weird. But, I'm used to dealing with that I'm used to dealing with that every day."
What additional safety devices have you installed and/or are you now wearing as a result of the accident?
"The HANS Device, I'm just really paying attention to every detail. I'm continuously looking at my seat and how it sits in the car."
What seat are you using?
"Lajoie's, the same one I've always used. But it's been updated several times over the years to try to hold me better in the car when I hit something."
Although Daytona and Talladega are similar, they are also very different. Without any rule changes, do you think it's possible to have a caution-free race at Daytona like we had at Talladega?
"Yes, it is possible we can do that anywhere - probable, no."
What worries you the most about racing under the current rules at Daytona? (driver concentration, blocking, speeds...)
"Just too many people trying to occupy the same amount of space. Totally not racing. Just riding around in a glob. Taking whether we are all going to wreck or not out of the picture is no fun at Daytona because there's hardly anywhere to go. It's hard, you can't pass. You can't be passed. Then there are people right in front of you... it's just a big traffic jam. It's real hard to figure out what to do. I think I figured out what to do in the Daytona 500 by coming from the back to the front, before the big wreck happened. In doing that, I had to do things that I wasn't overly comfortable doing - taking guys three wide, looking at going four wide, all because I knew that I needed to get to the front. That's why things go wrong. Eventually, you could realistically finish 35th and be right in the lead draft. If you don't go eventually and so that's the way it goes. But the fans like it."
Do you dread going back to Daytona just a little bit right now?
"No, not at all."
Have you talked about helping each other in any special DEI team effort during the race?
"Dale (Earnhardt) and I talked about that before the Daytona 500 and how we were going to make that work. Steve, Dale Jr. and I haven't yet. But like I said I think the first time that Dale and I talked about what we were going to do in the race was the morning of the 500."
What's the key to picking your battles at that point?
"Don't wipe yourself out, that's the main thing. You can wait another... if it means squeezing into somebody, or cutting someone off...just assume that they're going to hit you, just assume you're going to wreck. Wrecking, you're probably not going to finish 35th. Just understand that there's another lap it's not the end of the world, if something doesn't work early in the race, bounce back and try it again later. That's about all you can do, you just have to be patient."
How special would it be for DEI to finish one-two-three at the Pepsi 400?
"Wow, that would just be the best. It would be such a tribute to Dale. I think the way that we look at it is everybody is going to be thinking about him anyway, so it would be a great for the fans and for this organization. For us drivers to just say we know we're all thinking about you Dale and this is how it wound up. That would be the greatest feeling in the whole world, even if I was third."
Since winning the Daytona 500, it has been an up and down year for you. What seems to be the biggest obstacles you and your team are facing right now... and has your emotional outlook had anything to do with it?
"The biggest thing the team has faced lately is pretty much restructuring. We changed a lot of people around and tried to build our team. Sometimes change is not a part of growth and sometimes it is. It is really difficult as a leader, whether it's Steve Hmiel, Ty Norris or me to say we need to make a change. We don't want to just change to be changing. We want to change to get better as you go on down the road, and so making those tough decisions on what to do on what direction to take those have been the most difficult challenges to make. I felt like we were new and we needed direction and we needed guidance. I was so excited about driving for Dale, it was just the best feeling in the whole world. That I was going to get his attention and his knowledge and his experience to lead our team. I never got it, so that messed with me for a while. But, I'm good now, I think you have get tough and I think that I've been able to do that."
Describe what it would mean to you and your team to win Daytona again.
"I think you can basically refer back to the question about DEI winning. We just need a good race. As a team, we struggled more than I'd like to admit. We get in here Monday morning and try to analyze why we came up short on a given weekend. We don't make excuses; we just try to make our stuff better so it doesn't happen again. The total fact of the matter is that I believe we are closing in on being back to where we need to be and that is the best feeling that I have in my heart right now."
You have a different paint scheme for the holiday weekend - Stars and Stripes. Tell us about it...
"Beautiful. I've never seen a prettier racecar that is for sure. It's just so cool looking. I love my country and I love the fact that we are able to celebrate our independence and that I can honor the people that made our independence possible. Think about it, not many people get an opportunity to do something special on a holiday where we celebrate the importance of our freedom. I get to honor my country thanks to my sponsor NAPA Auto Parts. That's a great feeling. It's always refreshing to do something a little different, plus, it's a natural tie in for NAPA's "We Keep America Running" slogan and Independence Day."