Talladega II: Earnhardt Jr "wake-up call" interview

Dale Earnhardt Jr., No 8 Budweiser Chevrolet Monte Carlo Was Today's Nextel Wake-Up Call Guest. Highlights of the Press Conference: Earnhardt Jr. has had 13 career wins, which includes four wins at Talladega. In the spring, he started third and...

Dale Earnhardt Jr., No 8 Budweiser Chevrolet Monte Carlo Was Today's Nextel Wake-Up Call Guest. Highlights of the Press Conference:

Earnhardt Jr. has had 13 career wins, which includes four wins at Talladega. In the spring, he started third and finished a controversial runner-up to winner, Jeff Gordon. On Sunday, Junior will start 10th in Sunday's EA Sports 500.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT TALLADEGA AND DAYTONA THAT NOBODY ELSE SEEMS TO BE ABLE TO FIGURE OUT?

"All the credit to how we run here has to go to Richie Gilmore. He won four or five Daytona 500's before he came to DEI. He knows how to work with restrictor plate motors. He's a big credit to our success here. Tony (Eury) Jr., the grandson of the late Robert Gee spent years and years with Robert learning about how to hang a body on a car for different types of tracks. When I watch Tony Jr. sanding on the nose or cutting a seat post off a car to try to make it better, that's exactly what comes to mind is Robert. He lived with Robert for several years and Robert Gee was the best in the business. Those two combinations are huge for the plate tracks. That's probably the top two most important things when you come here is the body on the car and the engine.

"Hell, the chassis could be stock, or a unibody, and still get around here just as good. I was telling my crew for qualifying that any of them could have driven the car and ran as good as I did. It really doesn't take a lot of God-given talent to get around the race track by yourself. I think when you throw yourself out there with the rest of the pack, certain situations can get the best of you whether you lose your temper or there is too much going on to comprehend. But you've got to be mentally tough when you're out there three-wide in the middle of the pack to try to control your car and keep it going where the other guys aren't so you all don't run into each other eventually. There are a couple of times when you have to make some pretty good decisions. But most of the credit goes to the ability of the car to be able to do those things. If I'm mashing the gas and I'm not getting anything out of it, I can't look like magic, do you know what I'm saying? So, it takes a race car to be able to do a lot of the things we've been doing here the last several years."

IN NASCAR SCENE, YOU TALKED ABOUT CHANGING FROM A THREE-DAY TO A TWO-DAY FORMAT. DO YOU THINK THAT'S A REALISTIC CHANGE THAT NASCAR WILL PUT INTO PLACE FOR NEXT YEAR?

"I think everything that I mentioned in the article was realistic. In the end, I said that they are all considerations that have probably long been considered before. And maybe that's from stuff I'd heard in the past or stuff that people (drivers) had told me, opinion-wise, or whatever, and I just kind of threw it all together. But I think it's something that's real feasible in a lot of places - maybe not everywhere - maybe strategically weather-wise with having a rain date or other reasons with the schedule having Trucks, Busch and Cup there might be tough for certain tracks. But at some places we should do everything we can. I don't think we do everything we can. To shorten the schedule is definitely not an option. That's probably the exact opposite of what the France family and NASCAR would like to see. I think they want to see us race more and go other places. They're talking about building two other race tracks already. I'll bet there'll be two other race tracks in someone's mind somewhere before those are even finished. We've got to think about how we can make it a little more convenient for people involved in the sport."

CAN YOU RECAP THE STORY YOU TOLD ON 60 MINUTES ABOUT THE CORVETTE FIRE AT INFINEON RACEWAY?

"It's kind of embarrassing to tell it. There was something really weird that happened that day. I think everybody here saw the piece or heard it from someone else or read the quotes. But, Steve Crisp went with me as kind of my PR guy. JR (Rhodes) took the weekend off. Steve likes the Chevrolet people a lot so he went with me on that deal. After everything happened, and I got back to the hospital, I'd forgotten that I had asked Steve something in the Infield Care Center. So I asked him again because I was really messed up on Morphine and stuff like that for a long time. And it took me about nine to 10 hours to get to where I could even talk. But I was like, man did you ever find that guy that helped pull me out of the car? I hadn't seen any of the footage or anything. He was like man, I told you man there was nobody who pulled you out. I remember being in the Infield Care Center and screaming at him about it because it was as real as the day is long. When I unbuckled the seat belt - it has a twist latch instead of what we normally use in our race cars.

"When I reached to undo that, and I reached up into the rollbar to pull myself out, somebody grabbed me underneath the arms, I thought, and pulled me out of the car. And I heard screaming and people hollering and carrying on about getting out of the car and stuff. But in the footage, there was nobody around. But it was as real as (it could be). It was no dream or whatever. Call me crazy; I don't care. That was an experience that only I know and only I can tell it. I told it to 60 Minutes. Maybe it was something I should have kept to myself because I'm going to have to talk about it a lot now. But it was just something that happened and I didn't have an explanation for it and I still really don't."

A LOT OF DRIVERS ARE AFRAID TO COME TO HERE, BUT YOU SAY TALLADEGA IS SO MUCH FUN. HAVE YOU EVER BEEN FRIGHTENED TO COME HERE?

"I was pretty nervous coming here last year for the Busch race. They had the package on the roof of the cars with the roof rails and stuff like that. It was like putting a gun in a robber's hand and saying don't shoot nobody. It was pretty hairy there for a while. There were a couple times when there were some crashes. There were a bunch of wrecks and it was only like a 10-car race at Daytona with that package in the February race. The July race went better - not particularly for me - but for the field it went better. It was pretty hairy having those blades on the roof.

"In the Cup stuff? No, never. We had those packages in Cup and I think it's just the caliber of the individual and the experience of the field as a whole, not any particular drivers, but just the experience of the field as a whole I never consider it dangerous or more dangerous. It never really changes. Every time we come here, you expect the same kind of racing. You might have a big crash; you might not. You try to qualify well so as not to put yourself in that position - whether it happens or not. I really do look forward to coming here and racing in the Cup cars. I don't think this Talladega race will be on my schedule next year in the Busch Series."

LOOKING BACK, DO YOU THINK THE OLDER YOU GET THE SMARTER YOUR DAD WAS?) "Yeah, I know what you mean. He wasn't a man of many words. There wasn't a lot of advice. You just had to watch and if you were smart enough to pay attention, you got it. If you didn't pay attention, he didn't tell you twice.

"I think I went on observation more than recalling certain things he might have told me. I go to autograph sessions or appearances and something happens that I saw happen in a Wrangler deal he did in '87 or something like that. So yeah, I feed off a lot of that type of stuff. We have had a lot of similar experiences due to the size of the fan base and the type of sponsors we work with."

AS THE CHASE UNFOLDS, DO YOU THINK YOU'LL FIND THINGS THAT YOUR DAD DID THAT WILL HELP YOU BETTER YOUR CHANCES?

"He either went to Atlanta and had to win to win the championship, or he already had the thing sewn up at Rockingham. So for me to have to say I'm going to have to go to this race and I'm going to have to win it. You only hope for that to happen. He seemed like he could do it every time. I think we can go to Atlanta and win, but I don't know about Homestead. We've got to really test really hard. We did test at Kansas and it went really well and I was really happy with the car. Matt (Kenseth) was there and a bunch of other guys. Nobody said his car was really handling great. We were all kind of struggling with things about our cars. They didn't seem to want to turn, or they were too loose. But we were happy at the end of two days."

A LOT OF DRIVERS JUST WANT TO SURVIVE TALLADEGA AND NOT HAVE A DNF. BUT FOR YOU, IS THIS A STEPPING STONE TO START THE LAST 7 RACES?

"The way everything has always happened for me is that I always got the unexpected instead of the expected. So I try not to come in here with too much confidence to try and jinx myself. I just want to basically work on a top 10 all day long and have that in my mind that I've got to leave here with a top 10. It's not going to be obviously more conservative, but it'll be more cautious I think as far as our procedure throughout the race. I want to go out there and drive to the lead and try and stay in the lead all day long. So maybe you won't really notice the difference. But inside the car and inside my mind I'll be a lot more cautious about the moves I make and who I'm working with and who I push in front of me and who I stick around in front of for a while. If you don't think the guy behind you knows exactly what he's doing, you try to get out from in front of him and get somebody else to help you. But hopefully, me and Tony Stewart or somebody like that can get together. It's hard here because ever lap you look up and there's somebody else behind your or in front of you.

"But you try to stick with the same people if you can because it's a long race and there's a big period in the middle of the race where it's just methodical and everybody just keeps running around and around and around waiting on the next pit stop and not making too many moves. I hope that due to the Chase, that this is a calmer Talladega. I know that's not what everybody bought their tickets for, but from the driver's standpoint that's what I'd like to see - an uneventful run to the finish."

ON THE POSSIBLE PROTEST BY A MINORITY GROUP AND WHETHER THERE IS RACISM IN THIS SPORT

"I obviously don't agree. No matter who you are or where you go, you're always going to see differences in opinions. Not everybody is going to like you - no matter who you are. I feel like out of all the places they could have chosen to come to that Talladega (where) it's really crazy and it's really wild and I think that'll get misconstrued as an assumption of what a southern redneck's opinion is or what everybody's actions are. I think it'll get misconstrued and misrepresented on a huge scale. And it's unfortunate. Many years ago there was probably a lot of that around. I'm not going to sit up here an sugar coat the fact that yeah, there probably were 300 percent more Rebel flags in the infield than there are today. I think the sport is changing. Its willingness to change should be noted and appreciated. I think it's just as we kind of turned the corner and started to become more mainstream and more accepted by the wider audience that this type of thing is going to put a sour note on that."

WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP AND WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED IN THE FIRST PART OF THE YEAR THAT CAN HELP WITH YOUR STRATEGY?

"The thing about the Chase is, is that it's hard to really know what to do. You take one race at a time and see where you are and where you stand in the points. You can probably think what your plan is but it's probably going to change every week because everybody is freaking out. All the teams, whether they act like it or admit it or not, is really on pins and needles about not having any engine failures and not having any mistakes on pit road. Four or five of them have already gotten 30th place finishes somewhere and four or five of us that don't. You think that can separate you from the pack - don't have that happen. Everybody is really tense and really nervous about it.

"It's hard to strategize and say this is what will work. You've just got to go from one race to another with an optimistic mind. When I say that, I mean that if we go to Atlanta with the set-up that we used to run and that we ran earlier this year and it's off a little bit, we need to work on it. We need to try to work on it. There are two things you can do. You can freeze up and say this is what won; we'll run this and (we'll) fail or succeed. Or, you can freak out and start slinging everything you have at it. I don't think either one of those approaches are very good. I pick on Tony Jr. (by) telling him he's playing darts instead of trying to set my car up because he slings so much stuff at it some times and we get in the mode where we're not thinking about it. We just try this or that because we only have 15 minutes left. So it's difficult. It's impossible for even some of the best in the business to know what their strategy is going to be over a period of eight races. I think it's just one week at a time."

ON HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH MICHAEL WALTRIP THIS YEAR

"My relationship with Michael is never going to get bad. I don't think we're ever going to have serious problems with each other. The thing about Michael and me is that he was my dad's friend. So when I do some things, he looks at me and says, 'What the hell did you do that for?' And then sometimes he's proud of me. We're not on the same level as far as age or generation. He's more like an uncle in a way. That's the only thing I can think of that fits. We don't pal-around and buddy-around. He was my dad's friend and at times he kind of looks after me and makes sure things are cool there. Other times he's had enough of me."

HOW WOULD YOU FEEL ABOUT A GREEN-WHITE-CHECKERED FINISH AT TALLADEGA?

"I'd feel awesome about it. Having known that once they placed the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon, winner of the spring race) in front, that would have been awesome to have another shot at it. The only detrimental thing I can think about would be that we wouldn't gain the second place amount of points if we didn't win. We might have finished 10th or have ended up going end over end down the back, but I'm willing to take that chance to try to win. Regardless, I think we'd have still made the Chase whether we would have flipped it or finished first.

"I'm not ignorant to the fact that it could get pretty scary and that it could cause a lot of damage and hopefully we don't have anybody get injured in a crash here this weekend. But you know that possibility is always there for anywhere you go, but more so here because you're going so fast that when you hit stuff you hit a lot harder. But they've done a lot of work here with the soft walls and stuff and hopefully that makes a difference. But it's hard for me to talk about that last race because I want to change my opinion. Every time I talk about it, I want to tell you the truth. But I've got to tell you that everything is cool. It would have been nice to have had that chance. If it comes down to it, maybe I'm not second or first. Maybe I'm fourth and we get that chance to win the race."

YOU HAVE A 30TH BIRTHDAY APPROACHING NEXT WEEK. HOW IMPORTANT IS THAT AND HOW DO YOU REFLECT BACK ON YOUR LIFE SO FAR?

"It's really cool. I'm looking forward to it because I don't feel 30 and I don't act 30 so it don't bother me to turn 30. Obviously, the older you get the more credibility you attain from people and the more sensible your actions and thoughts and words are. With turning 30, I look forward to garnering more respect like I did this year and last year. I would really like the day to come to when I can walk into the NASCAR hauler and say something or ask them to consider something and it truly gets considered. They listen to what you have to say, but there are guys in the sport now like Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace who are way up the ladder and that get the considerations and come in there with their opinions and those are the ones they listen to. I'm looking forward to being that guy one day and hopefully the older I get the better they'll listen.

"Other than that, it's just really cool turning 30. I was talking to Matt (Kenseth) last night and he was freaking out when he was turning 30. And I said man you're married and settled and I'm the one who should be freaking out. It was just the opposite I guess. I have to change the bars and clubs I go to I guess, and try to hang out with the more adult crowd. I'm looking forward to it. My sister apparently has a surprise birthday planned for me. I'm looking forward to finding out where it's going to be and who is going to be there."

THE DIRECTOR OF 60 MINUTES COMMENTED ON HOW WELL-ROUNDED AND EDUCATED YOU ARE. IS THAT ANOTHER SIDE OF YOU THAT PEOPLE DON'T SEE?

"I read the paper a lot and watch a lot of news. What's going on every day interests me. I want to know the situation as far as what we're getting ourselves into every day. When somebody asks me or I ask somebody about it, I can talk about it intelligently. I've always read the paper since I was about 15 or so. I started reading the sports and went on from there. I still like to go out on the town. Me and Elliott and Jamie McMurray - I like to call him 'Mac-Murray' - went downtown. I hadn't been downtown Charlotte for two or three years if that tells you anything. They go more often than I do so I just hung out with them. Normally we just keep it close to home and go to a bar real close. I'm still single and don't have anything serious going on so I can kind of do my own thing and it's nice. But I like to know what's happening. My grades in school weren't that great. But I think if you can keep aware of what's going on, you're way better off than walking around without a clue."

YOU ALREADY HAVE A LOT OF POWER AND INFLUENCE IN THIS SPORT. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS TO USE IT AND WHAT IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY ON THAT?

"I'm kind of like the guy who has some old valuable baseball card in his collection that he's looked at for years and doesn't know it. Everybody is always telling me about my position in the sport and how far I reach and my impact here and there. I can't grasp it. That's one thing I wish I knew everything about. I don't know what my influence is. I don't know if I walk into a room, who is listening and who isn't. I can't really tell. So it's hard to know what to take away from certain situations and interactions such as this or one with Mike Helton or one with Tony Jr. or Tony Sr. You try to know what they're thinking or what they thought or what their opinion is, but it's hard. I've got a great relationship with Mike (Helton) and (John) Darby and all those guys. Darby and I have been great friends ever since the Busch Series. But they have a full plate. So I don't really go in there barking my way at this and that and the other. I know that was pretty commonplace with my dad to be up in that trailer every weekend. All the drivers have admitted and said that that was something they really liked about Dad was that he could go up in there and get something done for the drivers. If there was something they wanted done, he was the guy who could make it happen.

"I'd love to be that guy, who wouldn't? Hopefully I can just get smarter and every time I talk I'll know what I'm talking about and everybody will think it was awesome and they'll do it.

"That was part of the fun in writing that (NASCAR Scene) article. Actually that was the second article. We wrote another one but we canned it because it was probably too aggressive. One of my PR guys, Mike (Davis), said that it had speeding down pit road written all over it (laughs). I thought it was funny. That was two seconds before I threw it away. But we wrote that one and that's my problem I guess. I get too emotional about it to where my point doesn't get heard. What gets heard is anger and my emotion so you don't get the point, you just know I was pissed. So we wrote another one with a little bit more optimistic sound and tone to it to where you read it and you took the point instead of how I was thinking or feeling about it. So I'm pretty happy with it and I'm glad everybody seemed to like it."

DO YOU EVEN WORRY ABOUT THE BIG WRECK HERE?

"Yeah. If a guy's got a six-shooter, there's only so many you can dodge. We've missed a lot of wrecks here. We've driven through several wrecks. Two years in a row we were put to the rear after qualifying and drove through two big old crashes. I don't want to have to deal with that this weekend. You don't want to have to deal with it too often. Starting 10th, I feel confident that within the first few laps I'd like to think I can work myself toward the front. I think the safe zone is within the top five and top 10. The action that causes those big ones seems to start anywhere from 8th on back. So I'll just try to stay up front in the top five."

DO YOU AGREE WITH ELLIOTT SADLER THAT THIS RACE WILL MAKE OR BREAK THE CHASE FOR THE NEXTEL CUP?

"In a sense I agree with Elliott, I think. This track has a Bristol survival mentality. Here, Bristol, and maybe Daytona - there aren't many tracks on the circuit that you come in with that little bit of nervousness on your side or tension in your mind. But if you just drive smart and safe, that's all you can do to prevent it. Hopefully those other 42 guys out there are doing the same thing. Hopefully nobody has any flat tires or problems like that like Ryan Newman had and doesn't cause any big crashes.

"You just hope you're not around that stuff when it's going on. You've got to be fortunate and have a lot of luck too. That's one of the things you can't control. We like to control everything. When you have something you can't control like luck or fate, it plays a huge part Sunday. So everybody will be a little bit nervous."

-gm racing-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Jamie McMurray , Mike Helton