Rockingham - Chevy qualifying notes

Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Automotive Finishes Chevrolet Monte Carlo (pole-sitter): "The temperatures are cool. Goodyear's got a different tire here that just doesn't seem to come in as fast even though it's a great tire. I have felt all along...

Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Automotive Finishes Chevrolet Monte Carlo (pole-sitter):
"The temperatures are cool. Goodyear's got a different tire here that just doesn't seem to come in as fast even though it's a great tire. I have felt all along that the second lap, if you gave up the first one,should be a little better. You should carry a little more momentum. I didn't notice many other guys doing it that way, but I'm glad we just stuck with our own plan. The guys freed the car up from practice. It was just a great lap and a great effort. I'm real proud of what we accomplished here today because the last time I went out there in practice, it wasn't very pretty. Actually what I told myself was that I was going to go out there at the end of practice and make my qualifying run and run real hard right from the start and see what it does. If it was underneath me, then I'm going to go with that. If it didn't feel like it with underneath me, I was going to go with another approach. I had mixed emotions. But it just seemed to work for us."

With four wins here, and one pole '95, this is your second pole. How does that feel?
"We've had great qualifying efforts here even though we've only sat on one (other) pole. We've always been pretty close up there towards the front. Today I think it had a lot to do with something missing when we all got here to the garage this morning. I also feel like there was maybe an extra boost of power behind all of us to do our jobs. My team did a great job preparing us today. We tested here and came back and everything was totally different. The tires, even though we tested them, they just didn't seem to have the grip that they had today. We had been struggling with the car pushing really bad getting into the corners.And we freed the car a bunch. It didn't seem to help during practice, but when I went out there for qualifying and gave up that first lap and went for it on the second lap, got some heat in the tires, got some momentum built up and then the car turned and did a lot of things I didn't expect it to do. It was a great effort and I think there was a little something behind it. In practice, I was not the guy that was going to sit on the pole. That's why I put this No. 3 hat on and let everybody know we're thinking of Dale I want to dedicate this pole to him. It's a great opportunity to let everyone know how much I respected him and how much we're going to miss him."

Can you tell us about a fond memory you have with Dale Earnhardt?
"We weren't great fishing buddies or anything, but he was somebody that I respected greatly and I learned a lot from him -- more than he ever imagined. And probably even more off the race track than on the race track. Actually when we were racing for championships, we didn't get to race together all that much. Even though we were battling for the championship, it'd seem like he'd have a good run and I'd have a bad day. Or he'd have a bad day and I'd have a good run. But we definitely had some good battles at Daytona and Talladega where's he's the master. That's probably where I learned the most as far as on the racetrack. If you beat Dale Earnhardt at Talladega, your whole world would change as far as your confidence level.

"My fondest memory was the first time I was in IROC (Daytona '95) and I didn't know what I was doing but he certainly did. Anyway, we got side-by- side with Ken Schrader coming onto the back straightaway, and Dale was behind me and I thought he was going to push me but of course he took me three wide. All three of us were just right in a line heading down the back straightaway. For some reason, I decided to look over and there was Schrader. He was just looking straight ahead, very focused. He was not going to lift. And then I looked to the left and there was Dale, just beaming and smiling looking over at me. He was having a ball out there. That's the way he was. He was so comfortable in his environment. I also knew he wasn't going to lift and that I was going to have to be the one to lift and sure enough, I was. It was unbelievable to me that the guy who has never even run IROC and who has only been in Winston Cup maybe one year, had to be the bigger man to let off the gas. I guess that was because I knew what I was up against. I'll never forget that day."

How meaningful was it to have Dale Earnhardt toast you with a glass of milk at the Waldorf Astoria?
"I thinking we were toasting one another. Earlier in the he had made a comment and a joke about what they'd do if I won the championship because they wouldn't be able to serve champagne, they'd have to serve milk, I guess. He was a guy that was very intense and very dedicated. He was also a guy who would razz you and have fun and he was the Intimidator, no doubt. He lived up to that name. Whether on the race track or off the race track playing that game of 'What is it going to take to win the championship', he pulled every trick out of the bag to try an intimidate you and get your mind off it. But he was also being Earnhardt and having fun with it. And when it was all said and done, we were able to toast one another.Most of it was me being able to toast him of how much I respected him and what an honor it was for me to be able to battle him for the championship and come out on top."

Did you look up to Dale Earnhardt as a hero?
"When I was a kid, growing up, as I got into the sport, Dale Earnhardt became a hero. I never knew how great he was as a race car driver. I was able to be around him enough to know he was also a very good person. Any race car driver will tell you he's their hero. He was so good with so many thing and so comfortable with the race car."

Do you feel a sense of obligation to take over as the leader in this sport?
"I can promise you I'm not wearing this hat becauseI want to fill those shoes. Dale Earnhardt cannot be replaced. This sport will go on and continue to be very successful. As far as relations go in the garage area, Dale did a very good job at balancing things. He spent time with Mr. France and with Mike Helton. He'd voice his opinion and I learned alot of that from him. He'd encourage me to go up and just sit up there and just listen or talk. I don't know if he knew or felt like that was his responsibility or his role, it was just a part of being a champion that you get comfortable spending that time up in that (NASCAR) truck or picking up the phone and calling people with NASCAR or other drivers and teams. In no way do I feel like I was the second guy in line and now I move to the top. That's not the way it works. I'm another driver out here that's trying to win races and championships. A part of my job is to spend time with NASCAR and talk to them about things that I see -- good and bad -- and I'll continue to do things as I have, no different."

Is this the toughest weekend you guys have ever had?
"I think it's going to be tough. I don't know if I ever expected something like this in my whole career. I never thought he (Dale Earnhardt) would ever even quit, you know. I just thought I'd always be racing Dale Earnhardt and that black No. 3 car. It hasn't sunk in yet for me. I guess it's going to take some more time. Once you get out in there in the race car, you're pretty much focused on driving and on what you've got to do. It's not going to be the same, I can tell you that."

Dale Earnhardt has 50% of the souvenirs, half the audience. Do you feel like it's going to be up to you to carry this sport?
"No, I think of myself as a competitor. I'm just trying to do my job as a driver. Hopefully we can go out there and win some races and battle for the championship. That's what makes superstars is someone that is out there ands competitive every weekend. I think as much as we're going to miss Dale as a friend and a great competitor, there are a lot of young guys coming up that are potential stars. I don't think this sport as ever revolved around just one person. We're all pretty grateful of what that one person did contribute and how much this sport did grow because of a guy like Dale Earnhardt. But all we can do now is continue on and do our jobs the best we can and hope the fans continue to support us."

As a leader on the safety side, will you be checking your belts closer?
"Seat belts,especially my lap belt, are something I've always paid a lot of attention to. But a lot of us take things for granted. We get in there and make sure they're tight and make sure they're positioned right. A lot of us have a lot to do with what goes in the car when you first start to drive for a team. As time goes by, you try to make things better if you know something."

Have you switched from a five-point to a six-point belt?
"I haven't. But Dr. John Melvin, a safety guy with GM,has done a lot of testing. He's a very sharp guy with a lot of great ideas. Alot of his tests have been done with CART and IndyCar and he suggested -- before this every happened -- a six point belt.

Steve Park, No. 1 PennzoilChevrolet Monte Carlo (qualified 2nd):
"It felt fantastic. We gave up one of our Chevrolet Monte Carlos to Michael Waltrip over the winter time, and that's the car we're running. The new car is still sitting at home so this car is a tried and true type car that we've run here before that we've had success through testing and a great engine program. I know you guys all get tired of hearing it but it as a great effort by all the guys back at the shop. But it's a true team effort at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the whole Pennzoil team has worked hard. We had so much fun in the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona) we were hoping we'd get back in it again, so we'll just have to try to get a pole somewhere else."

Did you feel like you got everything out of that lap?
"Yeah, I think so. We ran a little bit faster in the morning practice and we ended up breaking an engine. We ran one lap, broke an engine, the guys changed the engine in like 40 minutes which gave us the opportunity to get out there for two more runs. In the last qualifying run, we ran in the .30's and then the car had a lot of grip and then we ran a .41 and the car had obviously had lost alot of grip just from the temperatures coming up from this morning. The car handled good, I couldn't have asked for better. The car turned good and had plenty of grip coming up off the corner.Maybe Jeff (Gordon) had a little bit of something there, scuffing his tires on the first lap or something. But all day long we were making the runs like we did in qualifying, so we weren't going to change anything at that point."

How good does it feel to be on the track, and how does it contribute to the healing process?
"I think it contributes a lot. We've had along week. I'm tired. I've never done so little and have been so tired in my whole life. It's been an emotionally draining week. We had the opportunity to come here yesterday (Friday) for the press conference and it just definitely feels great to be back at the race track and doing what we love to do. Getting back in the race car I think is the first step in the healing process that we're all going to go through."

Is getting back in the car difficult?
"After a tragedy like we all suffered, it's part of the healing process. I honestly wish I could have gotten back in the race car on Wednesday and got back to doing what we all do. It's my job. That's all I've done since I was10 years old. Sitting around and dwelling on things that have happened in the past and things that have happened this week, really work on your emotions.Getting back in the car doing what you love to do and doing what comes naturally helps heal you mind and is the first step of starting to put this tragedy behind us."

How was qualifying when Dale Earnhardt was still with us?
"Well, usually, when we were fast on the practice sheet, he'd come over and want to know what kind of shocks and springs we have. He typically never qualified well. He'd race you to the end when they dropped that green flag. He's come over if we were running good and, never ask, he pretty much told us, as he always did, to tell him what was in the car and what we thought of it to help him in his qualifying effort. As we all know, he wasn't one of the best qualifiers. We didn't see a glimpse of him (today), and again, that's part of the healing process. But I feel like I'm surrounded by hundreds of family members when I'm at the track and not just my team. We've had a lot of support from all the other race teams and the media. I'd like to take this time in fact to thank everybody -- especially the media. They've done such a professional job from the television to the print, and giving Dale Jr. and Michael and me a little bit of time to reflect on what we've gone through and then to come back here and do our job."

Michael Waltrip, No. 15NAPA Chevrolet Monte Carlo (qualified 7th):
"I know how good it felt to win that race last week (the Daytona 500), but you don't know how good that just felt. Man. I loaded myself up. I lost sight of the goal this morning, and wrecked. I prayed and prayed that it would work out, because making this race was just huge for me. And we did it."

Kevin Harvick, No. 29 GMGoodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo (qualified 36th):
"Not bad for our first time and the conditions we were dealt. I think we did fine. I think once we get into race trim, we'll be great. We got four laps of practice this morning, and we'll make it work."

Jerry Nadeau, No. 25 UAW-Delphi Chevrolet Monte Carlo(qualified 12th):
"When we tested here in January, we were much faster. I'm sure the UAW-Delphi Chevrolet will be better in race mode, but this isn't where I had hoped to be in qualifying. When we tested here, it was a lot cooler and the car was more responsive. Now I can't get I it to do what I want it to. It just doesn't get the bite I want it to in the turns."

Terry Labonte, No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet Monte Carlo(qualified 36th):
"We don't typically qualify in the morning and it's much cooler. The car felt good, it just wasn't as fast as we practiced. I thought we were going to be able to back-up what we did in practice, but we didn't."

Mike Skinner, No. 31 Lowe's Chevrolet Monte Carlo(qualified 44th):
"Our car was extremely loose. We made some air pressure adjustments. We were like 25th in practice and we felt like we needed to improve on that. And we went a full 180 degrees in the wrong direction. We should have went the other way. Just live and learn."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet Monte Carlo(qualified 25th):
"We have a good car. A top ten car. But (in qualifying) the car was not what we practiced today."

-TEAM MONTE CARLO

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Terry Labonte , Michael Waltrip , Steve Park , Mike Skinner , Ken Schrader , Kevin Harvick , Jerry Nadeau , Mike Helton