Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, turned in the fastest lap of the 43 car field and claimed the pole for Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at the Richmond International Raceway. Following him on the starting grid was Jeff Gordon and Regan Smith. Below is their transcript from when they talked to the media afterwards.
DALE EARNHARDT JR., NO. 88 DIET MOUNTAIN DEW/NATIONAL GUARD CHEVROLET – POLE WINNER
TALK ABOUT YOUR RACE CAR AND WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR HERE TOMORROW NIGHT: “The car drove really good in that qualifying run. We have been working over the last two years to improve. We weren’t very good last year in qualifying all season. This year we have made some gains, so it feels good to get a pole position and know that we are improving and doing something right there. It gives us a great starting spot for tomorrow we feel pretty confident about the car after practice today. Starting up front is an advantage and we will get us a nice little pit stall too. I’m just happy we are performing well and looking forward to the race.”
DO YOU THINK THE BENEFITS OF HAVING SUCH A CONSISTENT REGULAR SEASON WILL COME IN HANDY WHEN IT REALLY COUNTS AS WE HEAD INTO THE CHASE? “I think that we could have benefited from winning some more races this year. There are teams that accomplished that and performed better in that statistic than we did. I look at those teams as the guys that will be the ones to beat and compete with. The guys that are winning the races this year, but our consistency I think is not matched by many teams in the sport this year. That gives me a lot of confidence that if we don’t beat ourselves or make mistakes ourselves that we can continue that and that too will make us a strong opponent in the Chase. I do know that I don’t think I can depend on our consistency alone to win the championship. I think the guy that wins the championship is going to have a few trophies in the Chase.”
AS STRONG AS YOU HAVE BEEN AT THIS TRACK IN THE PAST ARE YOU SURPRISED THAT THIS IS YOUR FIRST POLE HERE? “I guess so yeah. This place reminds me so much of Myrtle Beach. I ran there so much that it is kind of where I learned how to drive cars. So when we came here and starting racing here with Nationwide Series I felt right at home. We showed that with some wins and good success even in Cup car the first several years here. In the last two or three years I have felt like we have struggled here and I really contribute most of that to the fact that they haven’t sealed the track in a long time. When they sealed the race track that sealer… they just need to seal it once and we really start chasing that sealer all over the place for a couple of years. They don’t have to seal it year after year. I used to really like trying to find that sealer up in the high groove and really getting that sealer tacky in the race and starting to run a high line that would benefit me. We just really can’t widen the track out like we used to since they haven’t sealed it in quite some time. It’s become a challenging track to me due to that difference. There is really one way around and that is right on the bottom. When they used to seal it we could chase that sealer up the race track. As we wore the sealer away and we would be all over the place really trying to find speed. Going really high in the corners trying to find speed and there were some pretty epic battles at this place. It has changed for me as a race track and become more challenging, but yeah that is a bit surprising that I haven’t had a pole here ever considering that I do count this in the top five or top 10 of my favorite tracks.”
AS FAR AS THE DECISION ON ‘POPS’ (TONY EURY SR.) DOES THAT WEIGH ON YOUR MIND AT ALL? YOU TALKED TODAY ABOUT BEING SO RELAXED, BUT HAVING TO PART WAYS WITH SOMEBODY WHO IS FAMILY I WOULD THINK WOULD WEIGH ON SOMEBODY’S MIND A LITTLE BIT? “Yeah, it was tough. It was a difficult decision that we had to make. As a company we just felt like we wanted to make some changes and I was telling Jeff (Gordon) earlier that the environment for our Nationwide team and I’m sure a lot of Nationwide teams is so different than what we have in the Cup series. In the Cup series you have commitments that stretch over years and you can really map a future further ahead than just 12 months. In the Nationwide series, a lot of our programs are structured over single years and you renegotiate each year. Every year you don’t really know what February is going to look like sponsor wise whether you will have one full time sponsor over an entire team, whether you are going to have three or four trying to outfit one car trying to get that car to the race track.
“During this kind of time of transition we felt like we wanted to make some gains or make some changes and try to do something different, try to improve our company, our team. We need to do something directional that is different than what we are doing. This is one piece of that. I think that there will be some more things we will do to try to become a better race team for next year. There are a lot of moving parts and missing pieces that got to fill in, the sponsorships and so forth that have to fill in the gaps to give us a better idea of the direction we want to go. You can’t sit here and say ‘man we are going to run three cars next year’ without three full cars fully funded, you can’t just make that decision. You have to wait until all the things kind of play themselves out and people make their commitments to you to decide all right this is what we’ve got. You look at your employees and you say how we are going to run two full cars or one and a half full cars you know you don’t know that stuff until January. So it’s really difficult. Even in the last three or four years that series has become more of a challenge, but we want to be there. I enjoy what we do in that series. I enjoy our efforts there and I think the change with ‘Pops’ was really difficult because he has meant so much to me and my career and me as a person, but at the same time we want to try to see if we can change our performance level and change a bit of the culture in the shop and see if that helps if that gets us going in a better direction.”
DOES THIS TELL YOU SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR TEAM THAT WHEN YOU GUYS CAN JUST BE RELAXED THAT YOU CAN DO AS WELL AS YOU CAN WHEN YOU HAVE THE ‘EYE ON THE PRIZE’ FOCUSED MENTALITY THAT YOU CAN RIP OFF A POLE AT A TRACK THAT YOU HAVE NEVER QUALIFIED FIRST? “I’m as surprised as anybody (laughs). I knew we had a pretty good car and we ran a really good lap in practice. You just never know until you line them up. We got a great draw going late, but I think being smart and using your head and being a thinking man and staying calm is what is going to suit me the best in the Chase. There will be times on restarts where you’ve got to get the whip out and get yourself geared up and take advantage of some people in certain situations on the race track. For the most part over the process I think being calm and being relaxed and confident is the best scenario for us. That is really how we feel this weekend since we don’t have to worry about points. We really just kind of focused on the car, the components and trying to make the car better. There is no outside pressure that we put on ourselves really at all this weekend.”
JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 DRIVE TO END HUNGER CHEVROLET – QUALIFIED 2ND
REGAN SMITH, NO. 78 FURNITURE ROW/FARM AMERICAN CHEVROLET – QUALIFIED 3RD
TALK ABOUT YOUR CAR AND YOUR OUTLOOK FOR SATURDAY NIGHT’S RACE AT RICHMOND: SMITH: “It was a good lap for the Furniture Row Chevy. We paid a little bit of a price for not going quick enough in that first session and having to go out too early in qualifying. I was worried about that earlier today. We didn’t have a great lap off the truck, but certainly that lap was good. It was smooth and there’s not too much I can say about it other than it was a good, smooth lap and maybe a little loose off of Turn 2 and that was it.
“As for tomorrow, I’m confident about my race car. I think everybody is fighting the same stuff with their cars here right now, handling-wise. So, it’s going to be a matter of who fights that stuff the least and who can keep the tires on their race car and that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
JEFF GORDON, STARTING UP FRONT HERE AT RICHMOND MEANS A GOOD PIT STALL SELECTION AND THAT’S GOING TO BE A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION FOR WHAT YOU WANT TO ACCOMPLISH TOMORROW NIGHT: GORDON: “I think this is a big mission accomplishment for us. We were very solid in practice all day. Just like what Regan said. We were a little bit further back than we wanted to be in that first practice. This sun goes down fast here at the end and it keeps getting better and better. I knew exactly where I left a little bit out there in (Turns) 1 and 2. I got everything out of it in (Turns) 3 and 4, but in 1 and 2 I knew I got down to the yellow line too early. I just couldn’t get back to the gas as hard as I needed to. When you do that, you know that there’s somebody out there that has a shot at getting you, so second is still a fantastic effort. We had a great practice today. Our car was solid. So, I’m pretty excited about this race tomorrow.”
HOW MUCH OF A STATEMENT IS THIS TO HOW MUCH PROGRESS YOUR TEAM HAS MADE IN THE LAST COUPLE OF MONTHS? SMITH: “I think it’s definitely a good statement toward that. We’ve made a lot of changes. We weren’t happy with what was going on at the beginning part of the year. Certainly none of us were happy with how we were running, myself included. This is a race team that up until the start of the season, and maybe the last five races of last year, was on the uphill swing. We seemed to get better each week and seemed to learn new stuff each week and we went through a period there of probably 15 races or so until we made some changes a couple of weeks ago. We just weren’t learning anything and we weren’t fixing the problems that we were having. We were having the same problems week-in and week-out and weren’t learning and weren’t fixing and didn’t understand them. Todd Barrier came in and he’s done a great job. He’s a great crew chief. That’s the best thing I can say about him is he’s a great crew chief. Certainly when it comes to the race cars, he’s very intense and very passionate about racing and he’s got a work ethic that’s pretty amazing. And it’s been a good change for us as a company and as a team. There wasn’t a huge transition.”
HAS THERE EVER BEEN A WEEK IN YOUR CAREER AS INTENSE AS GETTING READY FOR THE RACE TOMORROW: GORDON: “Yes. Many. That championship in ’97, when there was three of us going down to the final race in Atlanta with me and Mark (Martin) and Dale Jarrett, there was nothing more intense than that race weekend, and that day. And, the way that race went. This is short-track. For us, in my opinion, it is really Kyle’s (Busch) to lose. For us, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s been a frustrating season. We’re a strong team. I feel like we know what we have to do to earn our way into this thing, and that is the way it should be. You should have to earn it.
“I’m just thankful we have performed as well as we have the last couple of weeks to give ourselves a shot. We could go back through our season and look at many different races of what we could have done different. It’s not the way racing works. I’m very proud of the effort this team has put forth. Especially today. To me, this race is won today. And, I felt like we really put a winning effort out there today, and it is going to pay off for us tomorrow night. Yes, it is going to be intense. But once the green flag drops, your focus is going to be racing, and trying to get everything we can out of it.”
WITH YOU QUALIFYING SECOND AND KYLE BUSCH QUALIFYING 15TH, HOW MUCH PSYCHOLOGICAL PRESSURE DOES THAT PUT ON HIM? HOW MUCH CONFIDENCE DOES IT GIVE YOU? WHAT IS THE PSYCHOLOGY? GORDON: “I feel like we have a couple of different jobs. Number one is just win the race, right? That’s our job every weekend. But, we need to put pressure on our competitors. Pressure on the guys we are going to have to beat to win this race, as well as pressure on the guys we are battling with to make this Chase. Certainly he is one of those guys. So I do feel like we’re in a good position to get a good pit stall.
“As good as our car was today, to be able to start up front; those are all great positives. We never go out there focused on one other individual. We go out there focused on our job, and what we have to do to win the race. That is what we plan on doing. We know that Kyle is going to be strong in this race. But, we’re going to try to keep the pressure on him and the other guys that we are battling with out there.”
OTHER DRIVERS HAVE MENTIONED THAT PART OF THE CHALLENGE OF GETTING IN THE CHASE THIS YEAR IS THAT TEAMS NOT IN CONTENTION IN THE PAST HAVE GOTTEN BETTER. DO YOU SEE THAT THE FIELD IS EITHER EVENING OUT, OR SOME OF THE OTHER TEAMS LIKE MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING ARE INCREASING THE TEMPO TO MAKE IT HARDER? GORDON: “I agree with you that those teams have stepped up, and it has been obvious. When you go to test with them, look at the engineering and the backing that they are putting behind their effort. It is paying off for them. That’s not why we’re not in the Chase. We are strong enough to be in there.
“We just have not put those efforts together, and we blame ourselves. We’ve had some engine problems, and some tire issues at times. But, we still had plenty of races to recover and get ourselves solidly in there. We’ve performed certainly well enough to be in the top-10. But, the truth of the matter is, we haven’t gotten those results and we are on the outside looking in. Those teams I think have definitely stepped-up to make it a very interesting championship battle that is getting ready to happen. As well as Penske. I feel like (Brad) Keselowski has really been knocking on the door the last couple of years, and is really going to put up a good fight. Then you can’t ever count Tony Stewart out once the Chase starts. Anything is possible. I think Hendrick (Motorsports) is on top of their game right now. In my opinion, it is Jimmie Johnson’s to lose right now because they have been so strong. There is no doubt that the Michael Waltrip Racing guys have made some great strides, and it is showing in their runs; their finishes and where they are at in points.”