Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief Steve Letarte meet the media following their NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at Michigan International Speedway.
Dale, that is your 19th win in NASCAR Sprint Cup. I know that coming out of yesterday's practice, might not have had the best feeling in the world but talk about the win
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, we had some tough things to overcome this weekend with the tire issues and they made some changes and we were not really – I wasn't very confident after the practice. Steve felt pretty good. Talked about the things we would do to the car and he felt pretty confident, and I was a little nervous when the race started – the car was not quite where I needed it to be. We were not in too big of trouble.
But we needed some adjustments, and then in that moment, it's really kind of tough to give Steve or I guess I worry whether he knows exactly where I'm at or what I need with the car, how much I need. But I guess he knows me well enough, because he made the right calls, and the thing took off flying.
And then, he made some pit strategy choices that put us toward the front to where the car could respond, and if we had a fast car it was going to happen, and it did.
So he did a good job, and from there on, we just did everything we had to, to keep ourselves in the top, you know, five or the top three, to stay in the clean air, because it was definitely difficult in traffic, especially from 10th on back. It was really a real challenge to run around there.
So he did a great job putting the car toward the front and the car responded when we got there, and I just learned a lot, you know, running around behind people and learning about what my car was capable of doing. I pushed my car a little bit harder each time we ran around the corner and found where the car was comfortable and fast, and just tried to maintain a good pace. I was worried about tire issues and stuff like that, even late in the race because our car kind of started turning better, and I was thinking, “Man, I'm going to work the right rear a little harder.”
I saved a little in my pocket in the last 50 laps and ran only as hard as I thought I needed to, and at the end of the race, this thing was a rocket and I couldn't slow it down, it was so fast.
Steve, could you talk about working through all the tire issues?
Yeah, it's been an eventful weekend. I think it really started back in Pocono. We had some concepts and some ideas in the racecar we took there and it showed speed, so we were excited to get here.
We were pretty comfortable with our car on Thursday and on Friday we were disappointed to see the tire trouble, because we thought we had good speed but understood the situation and what needed to be done. When Goodyear brought the different tire in that short happy hour session, we did the best we could throwing some thing at the car to get feedback on it.
I can't say enough about our guys. It was a long day (Saturday) and they left with as much energy as they came in with and were ready to go this morning. The engineers put a tremendous car together and Hendrick engines stuck together. We went over our laps, for sure, in practice; and to be able to run 200 strong laps today was a total team effort. It was good. We had to make adjustments on our car today, we made them early and then worked really hard on our pit strategy. Just kind of all worked out. It was great.
This was run as a slower pace because of the change in the tires, but the hardness of the tires probably made things a little treacherous in the turns. Did those two factors balance each other out? Did the changes help or hurt?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: The car was a real handful, especially around other cars; when they change the tire, it takes away a ton of mechanical grip.
So the car really relies a lot on the aero grip from that point on, and when you get around other people, you lose that. So when you have no mechanical and no aero, the car is a real tricky thing to get through the corner.
You've got to be careful, because whenever cars are around you, that changes how the air is displaced from your car. So you've just got to know where if a guy is on your right rear quarter panel, how that's going to change the aerodynamics on your car versus a guy being out on front of your car or the left side or whatever. You just have to know that going into a corner, and watch out.
But you know, I was really disappointed not really that they changed the tire; I was just disappointed we were going through the process. I know everybody was. I know NASCAR was and Goodyear was probably disappointed. But we worked a couple of days getting the thing to work with what we brought here.
Then we were thrown into a deal where we had about an hour to figure it out, but we only had 25 laps on our motor. Our motor tuner would not let us run more than that. I told Steve, “We are going into this practice with 25 laps, and what if my car is junk?” He said, “We can't practice no more.” That's how strict of a deal it is. I was desperate in that last practice to get something to work and when it ended, I still wasn't really sure if we were where we needed to be, and I woke up this morning just antsy not knowing how this was going to play out.
We had done so well up to this point, cognizant of the top-10s and the laps we have ran and how steady we have been all year and I just want to keep that going each weekend. I felt like we might be getting ready to have a difficult race.
It turned out to be the exact opposite for whatever reason. But I was just disappointed we were kind of going through that process and I know that at the time, I didn't know if it was the right decision or not.
We got to put on a race today without any problems, without any tire problems, so I assume that, you know, everything is OK, and everybody – we'll probably have to tire test here again and figure out something a little bit better than this, because this definitely ain't the answer.
We got through the weekend OK and we didn't have any trouble with guys blistering tires. We are going pretty fast out there on this new surface to have tires blistering and coming apart. I would I have hated to see anything happen to anybody or even myself with a tire failure or something like that at this speed.
Matt Kenseth said after the race that he considers your team probably like the favorite to win the championship, and I know you got a lot of congratulations on the way to victory lane from other drivers, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson both came and congratulated you. What does it mean to have your peers happy for you, and also talking about you as a title contender?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I guess it means I'm an all-right dude. (Laughter) When people are happy for you, they want to see you do good. That's the way I feel about people; I want to see good people do good things, and I want to see people that I think are good people have success and be happy.
I feel like we are getting stronger. One of the things that we did last year throughout the season was kind of maintain, and even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve and be able to run well and be competitive, I was a little disheartened that I didn't progress through the year, really. I didn't find more speed as the year went on. We just kind of stayed the same throughout the season, and maybe Steve looks at it a little different than I do; we don't talk about it that much.
This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker, and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that's been a thrill for me.
I don't know really where we stand in the competition level and what-have-you, where we are as far as being a threat to win the title. I think that's a great compliment from Matt. But we just kind of kept our nose to the grindstone to try to win a race. We'll just try to keep doing that and win the next race and see what happens.
Looking back four years ago, what was that like to win four years ago to the day? What do you remember from that day? And is it the same feeling as you have today?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Unfortunately, it was. I was so nervous in the last few laps of that race four years ago, and today, that's the worst feeling, riding around there with 15 laps to go wondering what's going to happen or how you were going to lose.
I was just thinking, “Man, those laps could not go by fast enough.” I was like, “I've got a big lead, I'm going to take it easy – no, I want to run it hard, get it over with. So I was just in there going crazy, thinking, and I'm looking all around the racetrack hoping there's no debris around the next corner. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal lying in the racetrack. I was just waiting on something to happen. So that was terrifying, to be honest with you.
I kept thinking about Steve and the team and how hard we have worked and how we deserved to win, and how we should win, and was hoping it would happen for everybody. But, that race four years ago was a fuel mileage race, and today we just whooped them really good. So that felt good.
Not to take anything away from your win, but what does the guy next to you (Letarte) mean to you? It just seems since the two of you – and I know you guys are both really humble, but the turnaround since the two of you have gotten together, it's just really clicked.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: It has. We have been doing some great things. He's hard to compliment, because he doesn't take it very well. But him and that team, they can have all the credit – my engineers and Steve sit in that lounge every weekend and make the car go. You know, they make it turn. They make it whatever I want it to do. If I ask them, you know, this is my problem and this is where we are hurting, they get together and they fix it.
During the race, just like today, every week, we start the race, and all right, we are going to have a few issues, these are the issues and Steve fixes them. He gets with his engineers and they make it better.
Especially today, that car, it wouldn't have mattered who was driving it today. That car was going to be the fastest thing out there and going to win the race. That car deserves all the credit, so the guys that put it together deserve all the credit.
Steve is just really sharp. He called a great race. I trust in him to do that every week, and I know he will. You know, I just trust that he's looking out for – not for the best interests of just me. He looks out for the entire team and puts great people around himself to be able to do the job right. We have a good group.
Today really solidifies and justifies our efforts and we can move forward to try to do more, do more good things. I think this is really great for everybody. But Steve – when you go to the shop and watch him kind of work, and you can see how this team is as good as it is just by being in the shop and watching him sort of dictate and move pieces around like on a chessboard.
Steve, can you talk about what point you knew that you had a driver that still had the passion and could still win races since you started working with him?
STEVE LETARTE: Probably a year ago February – I mean, never in a moment or a day did I ever question his desire to drive.
We sat down when the whole deal came together. We spent some time that off-season. We went to Vegas for the banquet and a couple other things and I laid out what I thought would be a good plan to approach the season, no different than I would for any of the other years. And he was completely on board, gave his opinion on things which were great. Any time you can get an opinion of a veteran driver, a guy that's won that many races, that only makes your team stronger. We went to New Smyrna to make laps, and from day forward, we have been all steam ahead.
One thing I can say, we have had bad runs, good runs, disagreements, agreements, but from the day we started working together, I hope he's never questioned my desire to improve the team and to run well and I never have questioned his desire and where he stands as far as the team and what our goals are when we came in here.
You know, that's hard. It's a long season. There are weeks you are cranky to come to the racetrack. There are weeks they change the tire on you after you've worked two days, and you know, what else possibly could happen, and I could say, you know, it's not always been peaches and cream. We have had disagreements. That's great. That's healthy disagreements. But I can say really the devotion and desire was never questioned by me at all.
Did you guys both talk a little bit about what this meant in terms of the way you won, kind of validating your season and what it also means in terms of the Chase and everything else, because obviously if you had gone into the Chase with no wins, would you have been behind.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, there's a lot of things. We're in the All-Star Race next year, so we don't have to grind it out in the shootout.
We are back on the Winner's Circle Program, which is a big deal, to the company, as far as income and revenue. So over the last two and a half, three, four years, we have missed out on a lot of that revenue. So that's great. And I've never had bonus points for the Chase (chuckling). So that's neat.
You know, I feel like we want to win some more races before the Chase starts, obviously, and you know, we'll think about where we are points-wise when that all happens after Richmond. But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top-10 at that place. We have a lot to accomplish this year.
But it's a good deal for the team, and it feels good to win in that shop. I got moved into that shop a year and a half ago, and that shop's got all the trophies and got all the wins with Jimmie and Jeff, and they are used to success. So it feels good to be able to bring those guys what they deserve, all the employees will get bonuses or what have you from this win. So the whole company sort of gets to enjoy the effect of this.
So it's a great deal. We have got this victory bell that I get to take around for the first time since we built it. And ring the hell out of it all over the complexity. I'm going to ring that damn thing as hard as I can. (Laughter).
So it's a big deal for me. But I like seeing, you know, I like seeing the smiles on everyone else's face. I'm going to enjoy this and I am enjoying this. It's so awesome to see how many other people it affects and how many people are affected by that kind of what happened today.
STEVE LETARTE: The only thing I would say is what today does is solidifies decisions like last week, makes them a lot easier one way or the other.
It was disappointing last week because we had not won in three years; if we had won three weeks ago, nobody would have cared that we pitted. You had a great car; you pitted bad, well, you ran eighth, you'll get 'em next week.
We had confidence in one another to make that decision because we knew the goal. We had discussed the goal. We know what the goal was. The goal was to get as many points as we could to get out of there, and that's every week to, run as good as we possibly can.
Now this proved to us, you know, you see race teams and I've been a part of them, that you don't race out of desperation, but you start swinging for the fences. When you're down seven or eight runs in the ninth inning, bunts are not going to work. You have to start putting guys on base. This proves to us that our strategy is correct.
If you bring fast-enough racecars, you don't have to get out of your comfort zone too far and you don't have to get super crazy with your pit strategy. We say it all the time, you just need to put in hard work, hard work every Sunday and this helps us understand that we are not crazy; that our goals and what we have been trying to do has been working.
What did Rick Hendrick say? And secondly, Tony Stewart said “it's not a national holiday” when asked about what your win meant. Do you feel like it is?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I do. For me it is! (Laughter) I'm sure his running second for me won't be a holiday, either.
It feels good to win, and I'll enjoy it, and in a day or two, I'll be thirsty for the next one.
Rick, I told him he should have a good excuse for not being there. He better be on a boat somewhere in the Keys or something. But he said he was at home but they were thrilled to death, and you know, so I know that no matter where he was, he enjoyed this. I told him that I had to thank him for sticking with me and getting me back to victory lane and he went through hell and high water to make it happen and he should enjoy, enjoy the win.
You were saying that in a day or two you will be thirsty for more. How late will you let the party go? And for the guy next to you, I know you've talked about how he's changed your mindset; will you celebrate for one day and then Monday it's over?
STEVE LETARTE: Not one day, I can assure you. (Laughter).
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I'll probably lead by example, but I'll probably just see what everybody else does and just kind of jump in the pool if the water is warm. But I just don't want to get carried away. We have a great thing going. We want to be sharp and I want to be sharp when we go to the next race. We have a tough one at Sonoma and we have a got like a chip on our shoulders to go there and run well because of struggles I've had at that place.
We have a conference meeting on Tuesday with all of the drivers and crew chiefs and that will be a thrill since we won, but we have got to start talking about the next race.
Steve, are you more relieved or excited?
STEVE LETARTE: Excited. I think a little bit of both. I think if it would have happened last year it might have been relief, because I don't know if we had the speed last year. We had some good runs and we had some good cars, but we had some consistency, but nothing like this year.
I'm a true believer in statistics, and I don't think it's luck. I think you make your own luck. You get bad breaks along the way, but if you have a strong-enough race team, and strong-enough cars, then even the bad luck can't hold you down forever, and I think this year, we have earned this win. You know, I think it wouldn't feel as special if it would be our first year, 12 races in, and not a top-5 in sight; but to go out and run like we did this year, I think of Las Vegas, we had a spectacular car; Dover, we had a good car, maybe not a winning car; Pocono I feel like we had a winning car.
When you start to have winning cars, and then you finally win, it's excitement. I don't think it's relief. Because now you have winning cars and you know that the hard work is paying off.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I would say the same thing. I thought it would be all relief but it was no relief at all; it was excitement.
To follow up on the excitement question, at what point did you feel the fans? They were all on their feet on the front stretch. At what point did you feel them really getting into it?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I would imagine they were into it, I came off of Turn 4 for the checkered and they were pretty excited all the way down the front straightaway. And I felt good for them because my fans went through a lot to stay dedicated and they stayed loyal, and they they wondered why we weren't competitive.
There were a couple two or three years ago, where we were far from competitive; I was, as a driver. They wanted to know why we weren't competitive and they wondered what was missing, but they never doubted me and they never gave you up. So I know there was a lot of people that were happy today. I could tell – I felt the fan base. I felt the excitement and the emotion from them immediately, almost immediately. As soon as I got out of the car, that was my initial thoughts was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs and running out in the yard or whatever they do (Laughter).
I just wish I could see it all at once. That was the one thing I kept thinking about.