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NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., made the Chase for the Sprint Cup this year, and he heads into this weekend’s race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway seventh in points, 26 points behind leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt participated in this week’s NASCAR teleconference, and here’s a transcript:
Q. When you come to Talladega you like to maybe explore a little bit in the infield and elsewhere. What is your most vivid moment or memory at Talladega off the track?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Probably when I was young, I used to love to go around the garage while the race was going on ’cause it was a ghost town. You would just be amazed at the things you would find lying around by the teams, sparkplugs, parts, things that they’d fabricated or thrown off the car, taken off the car. Maybe a couple cars had had an accident, had come through there, they cut the stuff off the cars, load the cars up, go home, leave the debris, sheet metal laying there. Just kind of sifting through all that stuff while the race was happening on the racetrack was something we used to do quite a bit as kids at Talladega.
Q. You would supply Jimmy equipment that way, didn’t you?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: We used to get probably a box. Me and Brad on a couple of occasions would go around, there would be dozens of sparkplugs still in the box laying around on the floor. This was different. Back then, teams would have pit carts. When the race was going on, there was nothing in the garage, it was basically empty. We would get all those sparkplugs. There would be cans of glass cleaner, brake fluid. If it was half full, we’d put it in the box. We would take it over to Jimmy’s hauler. I don’t know what they ever did with that stuff.
Me and Brad thought we were doing something, occupying ourselves while the race was going on.
Q. With the way that the Chase is structured, I know everybody feels like you can have a Mulligan. When you have a mediocre race, guys like Jimmie and Denny run away with it, even Jeff finishes third and can’t make up any ground, how difficult is it to say, All right, we’re still in it, keep your hopes up, not feel discouraged?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I think we feel that this is going to be very hard. It’s obviously a heck of a challenge. And we do feel like we need top fives. We’re going to have to have top-five finishes. With Jeff running up in third, he didn’t gain any ground on those guys, but he has to run third again and hope that they don’t.
That’s really where we are mentally. But we’re not discouraged, yet we know that the hill got a lot steeper over the last couple weeks. We’re trying to catch some teams that are frankly some of the strongest teams in the sport.
The guys that we’re trying to catch haven’t been very inconsistent. You got eight races left. You got to go in there with a good attitude. You got to have the body language and everything where your confidence is high so your team around you feels the same way, and everybody works hard. You got to keep trying.
Even if things don’t go exactly the way you want, there’s eight chances to win some races, eight chances to have some things to celebrate, have some good things happen to you.
Here we are trying to race for the championship, that’s our main focus. But we would love to win some races during the process, and that would give us an opportunity.
Q. I know you’re a big football fan. Were you watching the game last night and what were your thoughts on the call?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I just thought it was consistent with what we’ve seen throughout the year in how the replacement refs have had some problems and some challenges. They faced a lot of criticism. They get a lot of attention. I know they’re probably doing as good a job as they can do, they’re trying as hard as they can to keep the game going, maintain integrity of the game.
It’s not quite working. I think some action needs to be taken to shore up an agreement with the refs to where we can bring them back. Even if we do bring them back, I’m hearing it will still take three or four weeks before that process can be finalized and they can get to the field.
This season has a little asterisk next to it. It’s kind of stained in a way that’s irreparable. It’s frustrating to see this happen because there’s a lot of football fans out there that would rather things be different.
Q. Can you ever imagine if NASCAR, for whatever reason, had substitute refs in NASCAR?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I guess we’re fortunate in that regard that we’re not in that situation. I can’t see anything ever happening in NASCAR that would be comparable.
There are some gray areas. I think NASCAR does a really good job of managing those areas. They’re not easy to manage. They do make some calls that are very tough to make.
But one of the things I do like about it, every call they make, they stand firm on it. You know that’s the decision. There’s no point in wasting your time arguing and you can move forward.
Q. Dale, I wanted to get your comments about Josh Berry who picked up his first championship, and he’s going into the big race at Martinsville. How do you feel about his chances and what he’s done for you this year and last year with the way he’s been able to drive exclusively at Motor Mile?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I think it’s been a great experience for Josh. It’s been fun to watch. That’s why we have the late model team, is to have people have these experiences and enjoy it, see them kind of grow, become better racecar drivers, people with possibilities and opportunities.
It’s been fun in that regard. I’m glad that I’ve spent 15 years putting late models on the racetrack. Finally win a championship, that’s not been the ultimate goal for us. We try to just kind of tutor people along. But winning races and winning a track championship is definitely icing on the cake.
I think Josh will do a good job in Martinsville. He’s had a good car down there the last couple times he’s been and enjoyed the experience. I think he’s learned from it in the past and can go in there with a better mindset and hopefully give himself a better opportunity at trying to win the race.
That whole late model program is just a great way to really kind of give back for what’s been given to me. I was given the same opportunity in late models when I was young. I feel like I owe it to the sport in general to sort of repay that.
Q. Speaking of Martinsville, since that’s been one of your better tracks in terms of finishing over the last couple years, with it being right after Talladega this year, how do you feel those two weeks line up for you in terms of finishing well and maybe finally getting a grandfather clock at Martinsville where you can gain a lot of points and be right back in this Chase?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I think we’ve been to Martinsville a lot with some really good cars and had some good opportunities to win some races down there, and I just haven’t been able to make it happen. We’ve come so close a couple times. Had some really impressive cars.
So I would love to win a clock. I love the racetrack. I love that whole atmosphere. I love short track racing. I love the location. I love the style of the event. It’s kind of a nod to a simpler time and a little different era for the sport.
I really love racing there. I fortunately have fun going around that racetrack and racing. I look forward to the race and we’ll see what happens.
Q. Dale, like you mentioned, there’s still eight races to go in the Chase. Do you feel pressure heading into this weekend to perform well knowing that the there’s only a few opportunities left to get back in the Chase?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I think so. There’s a little bit of pressure. But I’ve dealt with the pressure before. I felt like there was pressure going into Chicago. I probably felt like there was more going into Chicago. That was the first race. You set the foundation for your Chase in that beginning event. There’s probably more pressure going into Chicago, for whatever reason.
But Dover’s a tough track, a track that I don’t have the greatest track record on over the last several races, although we did finish in the top five earlier this year. I got good confidence going in. We’re just going to try to maximize our opportunity on the racetrack.
When we’re in practice, what I think about is, I want to get to the hauler early, I want to know what’s going on with the car. When I get to practice, I want to get on the track, run as many laps as I can run. I don’t want to be taking any time on changes, make quick changes to the car. I want to get everything I can that little time they allow us to practice on the racetrack so I know we tried everything we could try and worked as hard as we could to make the car as good as we could in practice. That’s going to be really important on Friday.
Q. Do you have a specific goal trying to get down to so many points with only a few races left?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I really don’t look at the points. I mean, I know how the points add up. I know where I finished, where the other guys finished. I know I’m behind. I don’t really look at the particulars to where I’m not sitting there doing the math in my head.
I’m going to the racetrack, be smart on the racetrack, use good judgment, try to drive smart and finish the best as I can.
Q. Is it time for you to start taking chances either in the shop, in the pits or on the track?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I don’t think you can take any more chances than we’re taking and get away with it on the track or off the track.
I got asked this same question about 15 races into the season, were we going to take any chances. We were viewed, I think, as a team that was safe and drove conservative, made conservative calls. What that did for us was really keep us in the top two or three in points throughout the year. Being smart, being conservative was putting points on the board, which wins championships. Then we kept getting asked about taking chances, when we’re going to take chances, why didn’t we do this, that.
Once we got locked into the Chase, or felt like we were locked into the Chase, about five races before Richmond, we started taking chances. We started finishing 14th, 15th, 20th, 10th.
Now two races into the Chase, people look at the last eight or ten races we ran and say, You haven’t been that consistent, what’s the deal? Why aren’t you consistent? What are you going to do to get more consistent?
So I think we have to be smart and conservative and use good judgment when we’re out on the racetrack, trying to get the best finish we can get.
If somebody says, Look, man, you can finish eighth today, there’s a one in a million chance that you can pit now and get four tires with 10 laps to go, trying to finish seventh, fifth, whatever, I mean, you just can’t take those — if it doesn’t work out, you’re going to wind up 25th. You can’t take those chances, do those kind of things that are foolish.
We’ll go back to being smart, do the best we can do, what we’ve done the last two weeks. Hasn’t been up to our standards, but that was the best we had that day. We’ll have to work the next eight and work as hard as we can and see what happens in those eight races.
I don’t think we can start getting reckless. Really, I mean, we run as hard as we can run. It ain’t like I can take any more risks on the racetrack than I can take other than see if the car can go through the corner wide open, which I know it won’t, it would be a foolish risk.
We can’t come down pit road and not take tires because that puts us out first on the racetrack. We’d be in 10th or 20th place in four or five laps with everybody behind us on new tires. Those are kind of foolish.
I don’t really know what else we can do. So we’ll just try to be smart over the next eight and try not to get careless. I think that’s the best thing we can do.
Q. You have your two championships in the Nationwide Series. Is there anything that you can draw from that experience back then, when you were battling Matt Kenseth in 1998, or is it a completely different ballgame?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I don’t know if I can because those cars that I was driving back then were really good. I was pretty naïve, didn’t know how to win championships. I was just lucky enough to not screw it up. I was just fast enough to stay out of trouble and not get myself in a mess in a pack.
I don’t know. That was a long time ago. I got confidence that I can win championships. I know how to win championships because I’ve done it before in that series. Competition level was real similar. The racing wasn’t a whole lot different either.
You just have to have all the variables working for you. You have to go to the racetrack, put good cars on the racetrack. Everything has to kind of go with the flow that’s seamless and work smooth. One team’s going to make that happen.
Q. Along those same lines, when you compare the first 26 races to the Chase, you guys figured out a way during the first 26 to take over the points lead. Can you do that in the same way during the Chase or is it a whole different ballgame than the regular season?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I think the racing, to be honest with you, I would not win an argument that consistency beats wins because wins won the championship last year. I know the guy that wins the championship is going to have some wins in this Chase. You got to win races in the Chase. You can’t just finish fifth every week and think that’s going to get it done.
But consistency, yeah, I mean, we got to run better than 13th. We got to do more than we did last week. That can’t even be our worst. We got to do better than that. Our worst needs to be eighth. We need to be better than that every week.
Q. Looking at Talladega over the last few years, different strategies have been employed to avoid the big one. Are you left to the circumstances regardless of where you’re running at various stages of the race?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I think it’s circumstantial. We see at Daytona, there’s wrecks on the last lap coming off of turn four. The only guy that misses those is the guy that’s leading the race or second. You can wait and not get wrecked on lap 30 or wait and not get wrecked on the last lap. It just depends. You’re going to have to get up in there eventually, try to drive through a wreck at some point. I mean, that’s going to happen to you.
We’ve rode around and played it pretty conservative before. That hasn’t really worked out. Last couple times we’ve been racing just as hard as we can race, and I think that’s just about what we’ll do this time.
Q. You have as good a view of Jimmie Johnson as anybody. Is it your sense that despite the strength we’ve seen from the 2 and the 11, that Jimmie is as confident as he’s ever been in a Chase?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I would say that’s a good way to put it. He seems pretty confident. He seems like there’s nothing really standing in his way.
Q. You’ve done a really good job of explaining the dynamics of the Chase. In today’s Chase with points so precious, does chasing the points take on a different strategy do you think? How does that compare to in the past when they first put out the Chase or in the past when there was no Chase?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, that’s a tough question to answer. The whole sport has changed so much in the last 10 years. It’s so, so hard to compare the points system today with the points system before the Chase. The Chase has changed a little bit in the last several years.
But really everything pretty much still adds up the same in most scenarios. It comes down to winning races and finishing well, having a good high average finish, getting a couple wins snuck in there somewhere on top of that.
Q. You’ve been working with the 48 I think the last two years now. Seeing as he’s a five-time champion in the Sprint Cup Series, is there anything in particular he’s been able to share with you that can help improve your program and give you a shot at the title?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, we work side-by-side with those guys. We’re in the same shop. Our guys are side-by-side. All the guys work on the cars equally. If I want to know what’s under his car, what he’s going to take to the racetrack, I can climb under it and look, put it on a piece of paper, compare my setup with his. I can do that throughout the race weekend up to the minute live, I can see changes on his car as they’re making them.
I can’t ask for the book to be any more open and in view as it is for me as far as sharing information goes. If I have a question about what I’m doing with my car, what Chad might be doing with his, I can talk and have that conversation with Chad. I can have that same conversation with Jimmie and his car, the changes they made, how he feels about those. All that is right there at your fingertips.
You have to utilize it and take advantage of those things. Those resources are very valuable. I couldn’t imagine a better position for a competitor of Jimmie’s than to be what I am in right now.
The blueprint to success is in a style right next to me in that shop. We definitely feel good about that and like that scenario. It’s been fun being a part of that program. I’ve been able to enjoy more success because of it over the last couple years, and it’s definitely improved my performance as a driver having been paired into this program and into that shop with Chad and Jimmie and Steve. So I’m enjoying it so far. Hopefully, yeah, we can turn it into some championship trophies.
Q. You said in order to win the championship, you need to get some wins. What specifically, if anything, needs to get better on your team or in your cars for you to be able to go out and win some races?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, the cars have been pretty close, aside from this past weekend. We still finished 13th, but I felt like the car was nowhere near where it needed to be as far as rolling in the center of the corner. When I got in the middle of the corner, the car wouldn’t roll in the center at all, wouldn’t turn at all. The tires slid all the way into the corner. I couldn’t get to the gas as soon as I needed to, exit the corner, get down the straightaway.
We need to recognize and acknowledge those issues a little bit better in practice. I’m telling you, the secret is the practice session itself, how you utilize that time, if NASCAR gives you an hour, two hours, whatever, how you utilize that time to put changes into your car that you need to make, that you need to know what kind of fruit they bear. How you utilize that practice really determines what kind of racecar you put out on the racetrack on Sunday.
I felt like we struggled this weekend on Friday and on Saturday maximizing our opportunities in practice to learn about our car and improve our car. Our car wasn’t perfect. But there were a lot of teams at that race this past weekend that didn’t have perfect cars that worked on them in practice and did more than we did.
They accomplished more than we accomplished in that time. I feel like that’s where we might have stubbed our toe that led to the performance we had on Sunday.
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