Dale Earnhardt Jr. discussed past success at Daytona

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., No.88 National Guard Chevrolet SS, met with members of the media at Daytona International Speedway,

Dale Earnhardt Jr. discussed past success at Daytona

TALK ABOUT YOUR OUTLOOK AND HOW THINGS ARE SHAPING UP FOR THE TEAM: “We have a good car. This car has a ton of preparation and time put into it compared to even the backup car. Hopefully we can get through qualifying race without any problems and get through the rest of the practices so we can deliver this car to the starting grid on Sunday because I think it gives us the best opportunity to win the Daytona 500.

So just sort of going through the processes this week, trying to learn what we need to learn and trying to find what we can out of the car for additional speed. We were able to do a little bit of that yesterday in practice and in the evening. But otherwise, it’s been pretty uneventful.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Covy Moore

THE RESULTS OF WHAT WE SAW YESTERDAY IN PRACTICE, WAS THAT THE RESULT OF SIDE DRAFTING AND WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS? “I wasn’t out there in the accidents that we had. Obviously I think Cole (Whitt) cut a tire on something that came off of another car and that created the first accident. The second accident was just a product of the side draft and these cars getting stuck beside each other a whole lot easier than anything we have ever driven down here, ever since I have been driving down here. Whether it’s the fenders being flared and the wheel wells not sealing up to the tires, but there is something going on with these cars. We had it last year and we first noticed it last year when we raced them at the plate tracks where they kind of get stuck beside each other.

“You just have to sit there beside someone until someone pushes you by and when everybody kind of gets jammed up behind a couple of guys that are stuck beside each other, you have what we had in the second accident. Just about 12 cars packed up really tightly behind a couple of guys that are sitting there drafting side-by-side without any help and a couple guys were trying to get out of the draft. I think Parker Kligerman said he was trying to get out of the draft, and a couple of guys are trying to get in the draft with the 5 and the 27. So it’s just a challenge in practice and you have cars pulling out of the pack and you have cars blending into the pack and it makes things a little bit challenging sometimes.”

WITH YOUR RECENT SUCCESS HERE AT DAYTONA DO YOU FEEL FRUSTRATED THAT YOU HAVE HAD SUCH A LONG DROUGHT SINCE YOUR LAST PLATE WIN? “I don’t have time to do that honestly, and I have run second in three of the last four Daytona 500s. Neither one of them were a win, but that is nothing to be ashamed of. I still feel like that we run well enough at these tracks for me to continue to come into them with confidence, and just in myself regardless of the car.

“I still feel like I do restrictor place race well, understand how the draft works rather well, and enjoy racing at them. You know, I hope that is always the case. It’s a different challenge every time you come back and that makes it enjoyable. The packages may change and maybe the package doesn’t change, but the dynamic weather and this track surface always changes, so the way you draft is always different no matter what.”

WITH PACK RACING AND THE ACTION IN PRACTICE YESTERDAY, IS THAT A PREDICTOR OF A WILD RACE ON SUNDAY? “I hope not. I think that the qualifying races have me a little nervous because they are at night and just running at night is going to be unique and new for everybody. You just hope everybody realizes that we have got the Daytona 500 to run on Sunday and this isn’t for all the marbles yet.

“So as much fun as it is to run and win a qualifying race and set the tone for your team, you definitely want to go out and try to win those races for your team, but you don’t want to be pulling out a back-up for the 500 if you don’t have to. You definitely want to start your primary car because of the preparation, time, and development put into the primary car is vastly superior to the back-up. It gives you the best opportunity to win on Sunday.

“I think just saying 500 miles changes everybody’s demeanor, and everybody’s approach to that race. Those wrecks in practice definitely surprised me and surprised a lot of people and I hope it’s just a product of a lot of cars just trying to get out of the draft, cars blending in, and cars put in a bad position that they could not get out of.

“I think definitely this package and the way it drafts is bringing things a lot closer together and making things where guys are racing double file more often. That is good and we need that and we definitely didn’t race enough in the Daytona 500 last year….you couldn’t race because you would just go to the back and couldn’t risk pulling out because you just didn’t know and going to the rear was a likely result. So we really won’t have that this year and won’t have to worry about that because the bottom seems to be able to put together runs and that is going to make for a better race.

“We have been able to race side-by-side here forever and I think we can do it Sunday without any trouble and put on a great show.”

IT SEEMS LIKE YOU HAVE THE ABILITY TO ADAPT AT THESE PLATE TRACKS WHEN THEY CHANGE THE RULES. DO YOU FEEL THAT GIVES YOU AN ADVANTAGE ON SUNDAY? “I definitely try to keep an open mind and try to understand how the packages and the changes, whether it be a little bit of spoiler or opening up the plate or closing the plate up, and how that does change the draft and the way you get runs and the way the car is going to react to runs.

And so you sort of pre-determine and pre-estimate what’s going to happen out there as you’re driving around the track. I feel like I do that well. And I feel like that’s been a part of my success at these places. Just trying to finish off the job has been a little bit difficult in the last several years, but we’ve still had some good runs and have been able to maintain our good track position throughout the races. When we’ve gotten good cars, we’ve been able to put them toward the front.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Covy Moore

“You just have to have an open mind. What you learn when you first start racing at these tracks is important, but how it works is always changing and you’ve got to be ready for that. You can’t expect it to react at the exact same time every time you come back here. And how the car’s side-draft; they side-draft, for lack of a better word, they are a little more frustrating to side-draft with now. You used to use a side-draft as an offensive move, where you would get up on the guy’s quarter panel and stall him out and it would give you a boost and you’d pull away like jumping a boat wake and get out away from him so he could not do the same thing to you and you would make a pass. That was how we used to use that with success. But now, there’s an extreme stall when you side-draft a guy and it really kills his car. But before you can get out and get away from him, it starts to kill your car and you sort of sit there and just fight on each other’s quarter panels until somebody tucks-in behind one of you and pushes you through. So that’s more frustrating. You’d rather just make the move on your own and move on to the next guy. But you’ve got to be open to those things changing. And when the do change, recognize it and understand it.”

IS THERE ANY MORE CONCERN AMONG THE DRIVERS WHEN YOU SEE CARS GETTING UP IN THE FENCE? DOES THAT INCREASE THE AWARENESS? “It doesn’t. We’ve seen accidents, bad accidents; but as a driver, we’ve seen that in the history of the sport for as long as I can remember and before my time. But as a driver, your gut feeling to your core is that you’re as safe as you’re ever going to be in that car. And that you worry about driving your race and doing what you need to do and you’re not going to be in that situation. So, I feel like there is still a lot to be learned as far as how to protect the spectators and how to do some things with the catch fence that can prevent things from going into the stands. And I think that NASCAR understands that and we’re obviously always learning and trying to learn and trying to improve.

“Unfortunately, those types of accidents give us some of the best knowledge that we can get to improve that situation. But as a driver, you don’t worry about that. When you see that happen, that’s just man, that’s unfortunate for that gut. And that’s a rare occurrence and that’s not going to happen to me. So, that’s how I feel about it.”

HAVE YOU NOTICED A DIFFERENT VISION PERSPECTIVE IN THIS CAR VERSUS PREVIOUS CARS? “I don’t feel like I am struggling to see, or struggling to understand where cars are around me more than any other time down here. I don’t feel like these cars are any different than the C.O.T. or even the generation before that. There is nothing about the A-post, or the B-post or the C-post that really annoys me as far as being able to see out of the car. I am pretty satisfied with my vision out the front and out the back of the car, and what my spotter is telling me.

The thing about it is that one of the things I hear from people who watch these races, and that I see myself and my spotter sees is a car will get a run out of nowhere almost seemingly. We’ll be running along in the pack, and somebody in the middle of the pack will just find something draft-related that will just shoot their car up into a hole. You always could pre-determine what lane was going to move; how they were forming; how close they were together and you could almost pre-determine where you needed to be by seeing how people were lined up around you.

“But with this car, and the way we sort of get stuck side-by-side in the side draft, guys are sort of finding big gaps of air, and their cars and just getting theses boosts out of nowhere and they’ll come running up on you. The other day in the Unlimited, I never knew the No. 9 (Marcos Ambrose) was on the outside of me or trying to go to the outside of me. I wasn’t really paying attention n to him because I didn’t think that him pushing me was keeping his car connected to mine. I didn’t think he had enough power to push me, and then pull out and go around me.

“That just isn’t something you really see that often. You can underestimate the runs these guys are getting around you, and you’ll be three-wide more often than you know. I think there were definitely three-wide in that second accident in practice, and I think that a lot of those guys didn’t know they were three-wide because it was inches just the way these cars are getting runs. But I can see fine out of my car. I’m not concerned with the vision at all.”

IT SEEMS YOUR DRIVER CHASE ELLIOTT TAKES A LOT OF FLACK FROM OTHER DRIVERS IF SOMETHING HAPPENS ON-TRACK. WHAT IS IT ABOUT IN YOUR OPINION AND DID YOU HAVE PROBLEMS LIKE THAT EARLY IN YOUR CAREER? “I think Chase is going to be under a microscope a little bit because of his last name because of the expectations put upon him and because of his alignment with Mr. (Rick Hendrick), and maybe even with his alignment with us. He’s going to have a lot of expectations. Take for example the ARCA race where he had something to do with that accident. The guy that spun out - everything him had some influence on him losing control of his car. Chase had no intention of spinning the guy out. I don’t think he even thinks he did it.

“And maybe you could argue that he didn’t spin the guy out. But just the way the air works, that guy got tight and put a lot of wheel of wheel in his car and Chase was right up on him. If he didn’t hit him, he was an inch off of him, and that’s all it took. I’ve done the same thing. I came down here, I can’t remember, I think it was the second 300 that I came to. Maybe It was the July race, we were out there practicing and was running down the front straightaway drafting with Jeff Burton, Dick Trickle and a couple of other people.

Michael Waltrip pulled out on the track and he was blending up on the track, and I had a run on somebody and pulled out to make a pass. I was basically going three wide in the middle. Michael was about 50 mile-an-hour slower than we were. Just going by Michael that fast blew my car up into the guy beside me, and we all wrecked; about 10 cars in practice. Jeff Burton and Dick Trickle were both in my garage in 10 minutes trying to chew my butt.

“Those things are going to happen to every driver that comes into this sport. And, more importantly, I think it happens more often with guys like myself, or Chase number one, because they are angry. But number two; they expect more out of you. They expect you to know better than to do that because you are Bill Elliott’s son, or you are Dale Earnhardt’s son and you’ve been around this forever and you ought to know better. And they want you to know better. As much they were there to chew my butt, they were there to help me to understand to not make that mistake again. If I am going to get it, and going to make it, you have to learn not to make that mistake again.

So, that is going to be part of the process for Chase, and part of the growing pains, but he is such a quick study, and he handles those situations just really well. He said ‘Hey, I might of done it; I don’t know if I did it.’ He’s sitting there in the car under caution with a pretty level head about the situation, which I felt pretty good about. He doesn’t get excited. He doesn’t bad mouth; he doesn’t point fingers and say ‘It’s that guy’s fault’ or ‘It wasn’t my fault’. He just has a real level head and open mind about things, and I like that about him. I think that is going to benefit him as he is going through these growing pains, and trying to process everything happening to him.”

HAS YOUR APPRECIATION CHANGED FOR THE DIFFICULTY OF WINNING A PLACE RACE WITH THE LONG GAP SINCE YOUR LAST WIN? “Those were different cars. Those cars were pretty amazing that I was driving back then. I will be honest. Those cars should have won. Those were pretty fast cars. I can’t as much credit as I would like for how good those cars were back then, and how we had ourselves separated from the competition I think. Under the current rule package, and strict guidelines with the rear shocks and springs; really there is no area that the teams are able to work in to set themselves apart from anybody. So everybody pretty much has the same car these days. It is a lot harder to win these races and rightfully so. I definitely appreciate the challenge we have today. But if it were the same playing field, I would be asking myself a lot of questions. But it has changed so much since then. At least that is my story.”

YOU HAVE BEEN SECOND IN THREE OF THE LAST FOUR DAYTONA 500S. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU CAN TAKE FROM THOSE BECAUSE THE CARS KEEP CHANGING? “You are always trying to learn, and every time I go out on the track, I want to be around a pack of cars that I can learn from every time we practice. Every time we practice this week, I want to go out there and try to learn my car. Maybe we’ve changed something that makes my car do something it couldn’t do. Maybe it does something better or worse that I need to pinpoint. So I am eager every time we get an opportunity to go on the track to do that.

As far as trying to win one of these races, or not run second again, I think we need to be up front. We’re not far enough toward the front. When we’ve run second; we’ve come from third, or fourth, or fifth, or sixth I those last few laps. You are not going to win the race from back there. You might run second, but you aren’t going to win. You need to be leading the race. I would much rather be leading the race tonight, and the Daytona 500 inside of five laps to go than be anywhere else.”

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