The last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup series visited Daytona International Speedway was for the season opening Daytona 500 in February NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second. The series returns to DIS this week for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400. Earnhardt has one Daytona 500 win under his belt (2004) along with a single win in the summer race (2001). Thursday just prior to teams practicing for Saturday’s race , Earnhardt met with members of the media and talked about his strategies to win the Coke Zero 400, the possible return of his father’s iconic number 3 to the Sprint Cup series and more.
Below is the full transcript of that interview.
TALK ABOUT COMING TO DAYTONA
“It’s a really special racetrack and one we enjoy coming to. The track is a lot of fun. It’s a good town. There are a lot of great restaurants and there is a lot of history. Being around here for so long and coming here for so long you find a lot of things about it that you like and look forward to all those things when you come back every time. It’s been a bit of a challenge for us to win here in the last several years. We’ve come awfully close trying to win the 500 in the last few years. We’ve been finishing well, but haven’t really been able to figure out what I need to do to get into first place on the last lap. We’ve had no problem finding our way to the front, but not been able to overtake the leaders. So, I think we might need to try to be at a better position sooner, where we’re not having to have to do so much right at the end of the race and not have an opportunity to challenge for the win.
“So maybe throughout the race trying to be a little more proactive toward improving track position, being a little more aggressive just trying to improve track position might be in our best interest if we want to try to have a shot at winning. The way the 500 was going, it was a big risk to pull out and try to make a pass or try to do anything to move forward because you were out there by yourself and you basically would go to the back of the pack in just about every case. So it was difficult to find out how there was any other way to pass or move forward. And then we had that late restart where we were able to take advantage of some people.
“But I look forward to the race and I hope that the asphalt has aged a little bit. I know that the weather should improve the style of racing; we’ll see, where the handling is a lot more of a factor. Handling was a big factor in the Daytona 500 race and that’s important to providing a good race at this race track is when the handling on the cars is more of a challenge. We might have a good opportunity to see a real exciting race and I think when things get more exciting at the plate tracks, I’ve got a better shot at finding my way toward the front for an easier shot at it.”
THIS RACE USED TO BE ON JULY 4TH. DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL MEMORIES WHEN IT REALLY WAS ON THE ACTUAL HOLIDAY? SHOULD NASCAR TRY TO DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT AGAIN?
“I don’t know about that, but it does haven’t to fall exactly on the 4th, to me. I still kind of connect it to whether it’s on the same day or not. And I think one of the memories that sticks out to me was I think it was 1995 or maybe 1994, but I was watching from the pits and Greg Sacks was three-wide down through the front straight-away in the tri-oval and was bouncing off two cars.
“I think one of them was a Petty car and I can’t remember who was on the outside, maybe Derrick Cope. And it’s just like a 22-car pile-up right there in front of the pits. And I’d never seen an accident, that large of an accident, that close. We were literally 30 yards away from that happening, so it was just really crazy to see that. And, I think Dad ended up winning that race. I had been here several times before in ’87; I think it was the year that Kenny Schrader flipped on the front straightaway. Dad had some kind of a tire problem or something and got a lap down, but he was still running rather well. But we were in the scoring stand down in Turn 1 where all the wives and the kids went, and we’d watch the race there. And we were leaving like 10 laps before the end because Dad’s real fast about getting out of the race track.
“And so Teresa had me and Kelley and we were hustling out of there to get in the car or something, and come over to the garage to be ready when Dad was, because he was obviously not in the running for the win. He was a lap down. And just as we walked out the door, I turned to watch the cars go through the corner and Dad blew a motor going into Turn 1 and hit the wall and he was just sliding across the wall. I don’t know why that memory sticks out to me. But I was trying to get Teresa’s attention to tell her that Dad was in the fence and she was like c’mon, c’mon, c’mon (laughs); I couldn’t get her attention to tell her what was going on. But I was the only one that saw it and for some reason that memory stands out to me.
“I never came here for the 500. I’ve talked about that 100 times in here (media center) it seems like. But I never came here for the 500 until I drove in it. But we came to the July race every year and just had a lot of fun. We’ve got pictures of us burying each other in the sand and things like that when we was little kids. I certainly enjoyed some good times here and driving as well. Obviously winning in 2001; that was an incredible experience. But, I have always enjoyed coming down here.”
ARE YOU A LITTLE SURPRISED ABOUT HOW WELL MATT KENSETH IS DOING THIS YEAR WITH A NEW TEAM?
“No, I’m not. I’ve raced against him for a really long time and I’ve known Matt to be one of the most talented guys in the seat, in the car holding the wheel. He is as good as anybody in the garage. I don’t know that he is surprising a lot of people that have been in that garage for the last several years because I think we all kind of knew how good he was.
“He is in some really good equipment and he is with some really good people in Joe (Gibbs) and J.D. (Gibbs) they are going to give him an amazing opportunity. When I heard about his deal last year I was excited for him because we have been pretty good friends for a really long time. I knew that this was going to be a great experience. He’d had some really good experiences with Jack (Roush) and the Roush deal. He worries a little bit too much.
“He was really worried about making that type of decision you know because he’s having kids and he’s just really hoping he’s making the right choice. I just felt like this was going to be exciting and he was really going to have a lot of fun. It looks like it’s working out.”
AUSTIN DILLON IS RACING FOR RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING NOW, BUT LOOKS TO BE MOVING TO SPRINT CUP NEXT YEAR. COULD YOU JUST TALK ABOUT HIM AND HIS CAREER AND HOW HE IS PROGRESSING AS A DRIVER?
“Yeah, I think he has really surprised everybody. He has got great speed. He has shown he can be aggressive and he will work real hard at every position. Just watching him run laps and watching him in races you see he is just a tough competitor and he works really hard. I’ve known his dad for a really long time.
“I think it’s exciting to see Richard (Childress) have something new to kind of keep the fire going in him and keep RCR (Richard Childress Racing) excited about their future. That rests squarely on those two kids shoulders. They were raised really well. They’ve got great manners and every time I’ve been around them I’ve been impressed. Obviously, they do a lot of good things on the race track too. I’m excited for both of them. Austin, I think he’s ready. I think he’s ready to go.”
DOES DANICA PATRICK HAVE ENOUGH EXPERIENCE YET WITH PLATE RACING THAT YOU COULD HELP HER WIN AND EVEN MORE DOES SHE HAVE ENOUGH EXPERIENCE THAT SHE COULD HELP YOU WIN IF YOU GET IN A SIMILAR HELP EACH OTHER SITUATION LIKE YOU HAD IN FEBRUARY?
“Yeah, I think the answer to that is yes for both. With plate racing you just don’t know. Mark Martin was pushing me in the Daytona race and he has as much experience as anybody and we didn’t get the job done as good as I think we are at it. There are so many other variables in play that the best plans never really seem to work out. You just sort of go by your gut in those last moments of those races. It really comes down to anyone, her or I or anybody making the gut decision at that moment when you are faced with a choice to do one thing or another making the right one. You don’t always do. You don’t fall back on years of experience or race after race of doing it. It comes down to really like dodging a bullet you move left or right and hope you make the right decision.”
IS SHE CAPABLE OF WINNING THIS RACE?
“Yes, of course, absolutely. Every car in the field with the exception of a few one or two; I think every car in the field, what we saw at Talladega proved that about anybody with this style of package can get up there and make it happen.”
YOU TALKED EARLIER ABOUT BEING AGGRESSIVE CAN YOU JUST KIND OF CLARIFY WHAT YOU MEAN ABOUT BE MORE AGGRESSIVE EARLIER IN THE RACE PUT YOURSELF IN POSITION AND ALL THINGS SEEM TO INDICATE THAT THE NO. 3 CAR WILL RETURN IN CUP NEXT YEAR. OBVIOUSLY WE HAVE SEEN IT RUN IN OTHER SERIES. WHAT WILL IT MEAN TO SEE IT IN CUP NEXT YEAR AT THIS TRACK?
“Being aggressive and trying to get track position or make track position happen or move forward just mentally aggressive not out there driving in the side of everybody, more so, just trying to force myself to take a few more chances. It was hard to do in the (Daytona) 500 because everybody ran around the top and if you pulled out you went to the back. That is what you did. What I did see was that if there was enough room in between the guy in front of me and the next car if I could make a run and side draft and actually create even more room by side drafting and fill that gap you can leap frog one car at a time. You keep doing that and I was able to pass a few guys doing that and you can pass maybe one car every two or three laps. You just continue to leap frog one at a time, but that one guy you aren’t successful with you go all the way to the back. It’s a gamble, but maybe if you want to win the race, I’ve got to be further ahead than fourth on the last lap. We had enough race car to win the (Daytona) 500 and just ran out of laps. I need to be a little further forward to be able to have that shot.
“I think it will be great. It was an iconic number for my father and it means a lot to a lot of his fans. This sport doesn’t really retire numbers and all the numbers have history tied to them for several different reasons. The No. 3 is no different. I think that for Austin (Dillon) a kid like Austin in this regard any kid that wants to come up through the ranks and he drove the No. 3 in dirt racing and he drove the No. 3 in his Truck series and Nationwide series. He has earned the right to run that number as long as he wants. It could have been anybody, but it’s Austin. It could have been any kid coming up through the ranks that had ran that number and that’s his number. Maybe he’s not even an Earnhardt fan maybe that is just his number. He wants to run it I think it’s not really fair to deny somebody that opportunity. I’m okay with it. I know that might not be the way a lot of people feel or some people feel, but I’m sure it’s the minority that feels that way. I think that a lot of people will be telling Austin positive things about it.”
For more NASCAR News and NASCAR Commentary, follow me on Twitter and Facebook or visit CupScene.com.