When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visited Pocono in June, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was not among the favorites. To the surprise of many though, Earnhardt was able to get the lead away with four laps to go from arguably the best driver on the day, Brad Keselowski who led a race high 95 laps. From there Earnhardt was able to hold off Keselowski and score his second win of the season, the 21st of his career and his first at the track known as the “Tricky Triangle” .
The NASCAR Sprint Cup series returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend for this Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 and Earnhardt is looking to become the seventh driver in series history to sweep both races in a single season at Pocono Raceway. If he does he will be joining Bobby Allison (1982), Bill Elliott (1985), Tim Richmond (1986), Bobby Labonte (1999), Jimmie Johnson (2004) and Denny Hamlin (2006). Not since 2002 at Talladega has Earnhardt Jr. swept both races at a track in a single season.
Friday prior to the first practice session Earnhardt took time to meet with the media. He talked about the announcement this week of his new crew chief for next season and his chances to sweep Sunday among other things. Below is a transcript of that media session.
TALK ABOUT THE SPECIAL PAINT SCHEME THAT YOU ARE RUNNING THIS WEEKEND:
“Basically this would be a National Guard Youth Foundation race paint and they gave it to Michael Baker International for their support of the foundation. Michael Baker is a consultant firm 6,000 employees, 90 offices, and they are based in Pittsburgh so this is kind of their home track I guess. They support the National Guard Youth Foundation basically helps high school dropouts sort of get back on track. They are doing tons and tons of good work there that we have been involved in for several years. Ever since we started working with the Guard. Usually the Guard uses the paint out and we put the Youth Foundation on the hood, but they wanted to show Michael Baker and those guys some appreciation for their support of the foundation so it’s pretty cool.”
DO YOU AND GREG IVES STILL PLAY FANTASY FOOTBALL TOGETHER?
“Yeah we have been in this Hendrick league since the beginning, since I started working there. Jimmie (Johnson) doesn’t play he is not much into fantasy football. Jeff (Gordon) I don’t know that he… I think he might play or be in a different league. Kasey (Kahne) plays. I don’t know if he’s going to join us this year. But it’s mainly upper management Doug (Duchardt) and a couple of those guys, some crew chiefs and maybe an engineer or two, a little bit of everything. It’s fun. We are about crank back up. I’ve got two leagues that I run. I’ve already activated them. Doug is the commissioner of this league at Hendrick. He’s not activated it yet. He’s a little lazy about that. He’s real good at writing the league note every week. We will just wait on him to get cranking and start getting after it.”
WITH THE ANNOUNCEMENT YESTERDAY ARE YOU JUST SORT OF IN THE RACE MODE? DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL MORE HARD ABOUT STEVE (LETARTE) KNOWING THAT NOW YOU OFFICIALLY HAVE ANOTHER CREW CHIEF? OR IS IT KIND OF OFF YOUR SHOULDERS NOW THAT IT’S DONE AND ANNOUNCED?
“There is a lot of emotion. Every race gets a little bit harder knowing this is Steve’s (Letarte) last year. I know that winding down into the Chase is going to get pretty emotional for both of us. The one thing that I was probably most happy about or relieved about was to be able to make a decision and just get it done. I didn’t want to be in the middle of choosing that guy. I kind of wanted to just sit back and watch. I wanted Steve and Chad (Knaus) to make that decision with Doug (Duchardt) sort of overseeing it and Rick (Hendrick) giving his blessing. Those guys know the company so well and know the position so well and I trust them to make the better decision than I could have made. I just didn’t want to have to sit there in limbo. I don’t like being in limbo about nothing and having any kind of stuff up in the air. Number one it was great to hear how confident Rick and Doug and Chad and all them were in this particular choice. That gets me excited. I can get right behind that. I already know how good Greg (Ives) is, but just knowing that Chad and everybody believes in that decision and thinks that we will be even better off than we are today.
“That was one thing that I thought we could focus on and I hoped we would focus on is anytime you have an opportunity to fill a position or someone is leaving or retiring or moving on is that you look at it as a chance to get better. Steve would want us to get better. We are not trying to photocopy Steve and plug in a guy just like him. We want to try to get better. I think we have in making this decision. I haven’t been able to really talk to the guys yet, but the ones that I have been able to talk with they feel like that is what we have done. We are going to be a better team for it once we get going next year. I mean it’s a big relief to get it off my shoulders and not worry about who we are going to be working with. What kind of personality he is going to be and whether or not we are going to get along or whether he is going to work and whether the chemistry is going to be good and the cars will be fast. I don’t have to worry about that. I feel good about it.”
WITH THE WAY YOU RAN HERE LAST TIME AND WHAT YOU LEARNED LAST TIME WHAT ARE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING BACK-TO-BACK RACES HERE?
“I think they are good. We were not the best car. I think the No. 2 was probably the best car. There were a couple of guys that if they were in front of us we probably weren’t going to pass. But such is the case when we were in front of them we had a really competitive car, but not the best car. The best car doesn’t always win of course, but it certainly helps to be the fastest guy out there. You can definitely call a strategy a little bit different. So what we want is to find a little more speed than we had last time. Me and Steve (Letarte) talked about that particular thing is we want to try to get a little bit better in practice so that we have a little more confidence.
“I remember during the race weekend when we won here we really didn’t think we had the best car. On Saturday at the debrief we were communicating about what we could do to get better. We didn’t go into the race thinking that we had a very good chance of winning we were just going to try to do the best we could and felt like we had a top-five car, but there were certainly some guys much faster than us in practice. We want to definitely find some speed on Saturday and give ourselves a little more breathing room, a little more comfort and confidence going into the race. We are confident. Anything can happen here. You get out front it’s going to be hard to pass. It’s easy to pass from 15th on back, but when you get up there and the competition gets so tough in the top-five you just have to be in the lead or in second somewhere around the top three or four even on those last two restarts. The last restart you need to be on the front row to have a real shot at it.”
WHAT MEMORY FROM COMING HERE AS A KID REALLY STANDS OUT TO YOU?
“I think it was ’86 or ’87 when him (Dale Earnhardt, Sr.) and (Alan) Kulwicki swapped the lead through the tunnel on the last lap or two laps to go or something. I was watching that from the infield with my buddy Scott Williams. He is Doug Williams son, Doug used to be a crew chief in the garage. We just thought that was so cool how I think the No. 7 got under Dad off of turn one and then Dad backed the corner up and passed him on the exit of the tunnel. Which you saw that kind of a pass quite often back then with the cars the way they drove and handled I guess it was a little bit easier to do that. I remember that race probably the most before I became a driver here. We came here several times, but that was cool we got to go to Victory Lane and that was that.”
ON THE CONFERENCE CALL YESTERDAY YOU SAID SOMETHING LIKE ‘I FEEL LIKE I’VE GOT MY MOJO BACK’. FOR YOU WHAT GOES INTO THAT? IS IT SIMPLY PERFORMING BETTER EACH WEEK?
“The performance just the performance of the Cup car on the race track, there have been times when the performance of the Cup car wasn’t there, but other things in my life were going great. But none of that really matters unless we are running well on Sunday. I don’t know whether that is the right way … I don’t know if I’ve got my priorities in order or not, but performing well on Sunday’s is number one in my life. That is probably the way it will be until I’m not driving anymore. If that is not working for me and that is not going good then everything else doesn’t really matter. The rest of it can be as good as heck, but it doesn’t replace what I am missing when I’m not running well. I need to run well. Once we started competing better and better the confidence started building and I think that the confidence has been there for some time now maybe, a year or two, maybe three even. We are just starting to really realize our full potential I think trying to take advantage of that this year. But yeah that is probably the most important thing to me, really the only thing. Nothing else in my life no matter how good it can get can make up for the lack of performing on Sunday.”
WATKINS GLEN IS FOLLOWING THIS EVENT HOW DO YOU FEEL YOU ARE PREPARED FOR THAT?
“I think we are approaching it similar to Sonoma where we ended up having a relatively good car in the race at Sonoma. It gives us a lot of confidence to go into ‘The Glen’. We didn’t know that going into Sonoma whether we were going to be good or not. We hadn’t tested or done any of that homework so we were just kind of basing it off of what we had learned from our teammates and what they had done in testing and going off of their data and putting together a car we thought would be the best based off that information. It worked great. Being where we are in points and we are locked into the Chase it’s definitely a lot of pressure is off going into that race. It’s not as important to try to go out there and tally as many points as we can and try to finish as high as we can. We will just go out there and run and have fun.
“Try to limit mistakes on the track and stay on the blacktop and try to finish and pass cars. Who knows if we call a strategy right and get out front - I’ve ran better there than I have at Sonoma. There have been sometimes when we led some races out right and legitimately qualified well and ran well. I think I’ve got a better shot at having a better performance there than I did at Sonoma. Very confident.”
IN REGARDS TO THE ACCIDENT AT SONOMA RACEWAY IN 2004 IF HE THOUGHT HIS DAD LIFTED HIM FROM THE CAR:
“Yeah I mean we talk about that. I definitely thought that I was getting pulled out of the car. Looking at the pictures there wasn’t anybody around. That was really eerie and something I guess you will never forget. That whole day was weird. To end up in the hospital overnight burned all to heck and had to go through that wasn’t any fun at all. Yeah that was pretty weird. I thought for sure I told people for days that man I couldn’t figure out how to get out of that car because I wasn’t familiar with the window net and the door and all that stuff. You don’t get out of them like a Cup car. Luckily hitting the wall knocked the window net down and got a lot of things out of the way that would have been a problem for me to get out. When I hopped up on the door the door collapsed because it was sort of melting. I felt like somebody grabbed me and drug me the rest of the way out. I don’t remember from the time I sat on the door and it cracked and busted to me being on the table in the infield care center. I don’t really remember anything. When I see pictures of myself sitting on the tailgate of this pickup truck I’m like I don’t remember that. I don’t really know how I forgot all that or why that is missing from my memory, but it was a pretty crazy moment. Maybe I was in shock or something.”
WITH ALL THE EQUIPMENT THAT YOU WEAR INSIDE THE CAR HOW DO YOU NOT WANT TO GO TO THE BATHROOM?
“Well you do go to the bathroom. Yeah, so if you can hold it you hold it. If you can’t hold it you go. It’s not too often that this happens because the car is real hot and you sweat a lot and you basically lose all your water weight through sweating. So your bladder never fills up. If you get nervous if it’s a hot day and you get real nervous before the race and you drank too much water because you think you are going to dehydrate you typically end up having to go to the bathroom before you even get the green flag. You just have to be careful not to drink too much water. All the water you are going to lose and all the water that is in your body is something you put in there throughout the week. If you drink a lot of water right before an activity it’s typically not going to help you. It’s just going to go in your guy and go in your bladder. But sometimes you make that mistake and you just got to go. Just go it’s not a big deal.”