Q. : Dale Earnhardt, Jr., what does it feel like to win the Daytona 500?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Man, it feels incredible. You know, I was looking at winning this race in 2004. It’s the greatest feeling you can have as a driver in NASCAR at a single event in a single day. Just trying to explain what that feeling is to people, I’ve been trying to tell people for 10 years what that felt like. It’s just hard to put it into words what winning this race really means you.
As an individual, I felt lucky back then because I was with family, working with Tony, Sr. and Tony, Jr. That was a great team. Had my Uncle Danny on it, a lot of the guys that worked with my dad for years on the Nationwide team in the ’90s and even the ’80s.
What makes this special is the people you’re with when it happens. I have a great relationship with my crew chief, Steve. He’s put an amazing team around me that we all really enjoy working together. And Rick’s here to make all that possible. It just seems like it’s too good to be true really.
We ended last season on such a strong note. In the garage area at Homestead after the race, we were standing there tearing apart racecars, talking about how great the season was. A lot of these guys, like Jason Burdett has been in this sport for a long time, he’s my car chief, said that’s the most fun he’s ever had in a season in the sport ever. That was the biggest compliment. I took it personally as a compliment. I know he meant he was really enjoying himself.
That really summed it up to me that this group is unique and special. That’s what makes winning this race that much more special. Obviously it’s the biggest race and most important race we run. But the people you do it with is really the icing on the cake.
We really all are best friends, enjoy working with each other. We pull for each other. Lucky enough to have Amy with me, my sister Kelley, LW, my staff, Mike Hoag, Laura that helps with HMS. All those people we grind every week throughout the season.
When you got great people around you, it just makes that whole experience so much more special.
Q: Dale, I’d be remiss also not to ask you, as you mentioned earlier, with this win, what do you think about the Chase?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, we don’t have to think about it (smiling). We don’t have to think about it. If everybody is telling the truth, we’ve won a race, we should be in it, so I’m not going to worry about it (laughter).
Now, if I got to win two of these things, I don’t know if we’re that worried ’cause we’re going for the jugular this year.
This is a good analogy for Steve I’ve been using with him. You know, when you’re a kid, especially when you’re growing up around racing, me and all my buddies would go to pay to ride the go‑kart ride, whatever racetrack we were at. Every racetrack, Talladega, every place would have them. We’d get a hundred bucks from daddy and go ride the go‑karts till the wheels fell off, till we ran out of money.
On that last ride, you let it all hang out. You didn’t care if you got kicked off. If you didn’t get kicked off, something was wrong, on the last ride. This is Steve’s last ride. He’s going to let the rough side drag all year. He’s got a little racing left in him, I think he’s going to try to get it all out. That’s good for me. I’m fortunate to be on the ride with him.
This is his first Daytona 500 victory. So I was glad to be a part of that, to be part of the team that helped deliver that for him.
But, yeah, making the Chase is important. I didn’t anticipate having to put that to bed so quickly. We’ll go ahead and concentrate on winning more races. Like I said, at the end of last year, we felt like we were right on the cusp of doing just that, winning races. We’re turning the corner right at the right time. I got one last year with this guy and we’re going to make it something special.
Steve, talk about the significance of tonight’s win.
STEVE LETARTE: I don’t even know if I know it quite yet.
It’s Daytona. It’s a place I’ve been coming my whole life, 20 years in the sport. I remember before that coming with my dad, watching him run around here.
It’s like when we sat in the drivers meeting today, when they announced the guys that were in the Hall of Fame, all the great drivers there, they don’t say how many times they won Martinsville, Bristol, Charlotte. This is the five‑time Sprint Cup Champion, and a three‑time Daytona 500 champion.
Any race they decide when you win it, you’re the champion of the event, not the winner of the event, it kind of sets it apart. That’s really what this is all about, is to come down here.
I think everyone in this room could be a resident of Florida as much time as we spent in Daytona over the years. You spend so much time all winter long working on cars. Everybody brings their best stuff. These races are hard to win. We’ve been fortunate to run second the last two years. I’ve seen him put our cars in positions they shouldn’t be in. He really makes something happen.
He said it best earlier in Victory Lane. For the last two years, we’ve been that car in third, fourth or fifth trying to figure out how we beat the leader. Coming here today, we decided if someone was going to win it, they were going to have to pass us. We wanted to be the leader at the end. That strategy worked. It only worked because he held it.
We had a pit stop there with more than 50 to go. So he held them off for a long time and we got help from our teammates. The whole thing is kind of surreal. I don’t think I’m quite eloquent enough in my words to describe it all. It will probably sink in well maybe never. We’ll see. It’s a big day.
Q: Rick, congratulations. Certainly you’ve won many big races, this one several times. Talk about the significance of this win by the No. 88 team.
RICK HENDRICK: I like to listen to these two guys talk.
But, you know, this is really special. I mean, after last year with Dale and Stevie running so good, five second‑place finishes, this year locking in Chase, I saw him put the sticker on the car, to win the Super Bowl here, he drove his butt off tonight. He made some phenomenal moves. Stevie called a great race. T.J. did a heck of a job spotting. I mean, it was flawless all night.
But this race is so big and it is our Super Bowl, so it will carry us, this team. I’m excited to watch them. Now you’re in the Chase, just go race hard and have fun. I think it makes a statement how good they were last year and carrying it forward this year.
Q. Dale, it seemed like no matter who was behind you, who was pushing you or who you were trying to block, you didn’t have any trouble maintaining your lead. Was there anybody who gave you a particular problem tonight?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Biffle was rather competitive. He was the guy I saw quite often. My teammate Jimmie knows what to do when he’s up there. He’s my teammate. When he is leading the race and I’m running second, in this particular moment, it’s in my best interest to protect both of us. So that presents a unique challenge.
We just had such a great racecar, I’ll tell you. You guys know this place. You got to have a lot of car. The guy that wins this race has to make some smart moves and do some things either by luck or on a whim or experience or what have you, but the car really does the majority of the work. Just the car has to be excellent and above par.
My car tonight, I knew it was something special. I didn’t know it was as good as it was tonight. But in practice, a couple times throughout the weekend, I noticed it was something unique. When we got the opportunities to sort of work our way into the lead, hold it, I was able to fight guys off, like you were saying, hold the lead, hold the lead, keep moving line to line.
I learned a little bit about what I needed to do to hold the position. The outside line worked best on the straightaways. When they’re all side‑by‑side behind you, the outside line gets the run on the straightaway and the inside line gets to run on the corner. You get in front of each line, depending where you’re at on the racetrack. Just keep watching guys, watching how they’re tight together, whether they’re pushing each other.
You can sort of anticipate a run coming. You just sort of jump in front of it and they shove you away.
But the car has to be something special. Typically if the car isn’t anything special, you get diced around and guys can make a fool of you and send you on back outside the top five kind of easily.
But our car was able to battle and fend off guys left and right it seemed at times.
Q. Dale, you were talking to Steve on the radio before the final laps about how nervous you were, how you couldn’t enjoy it at all. Have you had that same feeling when you’ve fallen short or was there something about tonight that made it any different?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: No, you always have that feeling when you’re sitting in position. When you’re close enough to the front to win races, there’s a lot on the line, it’s a big race, and you want to win it so badly, your team wants to win it so badly. You realize at that moment, especially inside of 20 laps to go, you’re in the top five, you realize at that moment there’s countless people watching on television, there’s countless sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on, your team over on pit wall, your crew chief, your family back home watching. There’s so many people pulling for you that want to see you win, it’s a heavy weight.
You get so caught up in trying to do what you can to make that happen. When you finish second or you fall short, it’s really disappointing. You’re proud of that effort inside somewhere, but outwardly you’re disappointed because winning’s all that matters when it comes to Daytona. They won’t really remember you for running second a lot.
It’s such a great feeling. It’s such a great feeling. You want to do it again. I’m grateful to have one it twice now. I was grateful to have won it once. In about six months, I’ll be as urgent to try to do it a third times as I was after the first.
Q. Dale, was that tape deal much ado about nothing or was that a concern?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I had no thought about it. He said the grill was half covered. We had two laps to go. We were cycling the engine, trying to save fuel. That was bringing the temperature down quite a bit. I knew that the motor was going to be fine.
If anything, it would help us. Anytime you add tape to the grill, you speed the car up. If anything, it was going to help my car. They could have taped it solid for all I cared those last two laps. Would have been fine.
I don’t know how Steve feels about that.
STEVE LETARTE: I think he’s right. Once we saw the white, we knew it wouldn’t be an issue. We knew at most we were going to run two laps at a time maybe a couple times. We figured we could maintain good enough temperatures to do it. It closed half the grill off, so I think we’ll take it.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: It’s like fate.
Q. Rick, obviously this is a huge deal for your team, but talk about what it means for NASCAR to have Dale Jr. in this position this early, just the bigger picture for the season.
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I think you see the fans’ reaction. We were in primetime. It’s going to be exciting to see what the ratings were tonight.
But Dale’s got a bunch of loyal fans. It’s good for the sport. It was good TV. It was a great race. It doesn’t hurt to have him, the most popular driver, win the biggest race, the Super Bowl of our sport.
I think it will be good for NASCAR. It’s good for all of us. It’s definitely good for our organization. It takes a little heat off of me with his fans.
STEVE LETARTE: I know what you mean.
RICK HENDRICK: Stevie and I know about that (laughter).
Q. Dale, a lot of drivers have been asked about what this means for the sport. Do you have a sense of that? What is your feeling about people talking about how big this is for the sport? How much of a weight does that put on you and the relief you feel tonight?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: It’s not a weight when you’re able to deliver. It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver. When people say you’re the face of the sport, you’re running fifth or 10th every week, it’s very challenging because you want to deliver and you’re not delivering.
This brings me a lot of joy. I look forward to going and doing all the media all week long and representing the sport.
I don’t know that I realize how big a deal it is, but I know I got a lot of fans that are really happy, really enjoyed what we did tonight. Can’t wait to go to work tomorrow to brag to all their buddies around the water cooler. Monday is going to be a fun day for a lot of people in Junior Nation.
Q. Can you do that with the champion’s breakfast, too?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I won’t complain much tomorrow. I’ll be slow. I’ll be there nonetheless.
I’m looking forward to the entire week. You just don’t get to do this every week. I’m going to really embrace this whole experience. I won’t be home for a while, but it will be well worth it. I think I’ll have some fun even throughout the process.
Q. Did you really think it would take 10 years to get back to this particular Victory Lane?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I did, because the competition’s changed so much. I was talking earlier about how when we was winning all these plate races at DEI, there was a bigger tolerance in the field. Our cars were so superior to other organizations. About the only organization that could run with us was Rick’s. Otherwise, we was out there running by ourselves.
The competition, the way the rules are, the way NASCAR has transformed over the years, there’s no room between the competition. There’s just no tolerance. Everybody’s basically got the same car out there, and it just comes down to who can make the right moves.
Granted, our car was definitely extremely unique tonight and special, one of the best cars that I think Steve’s ever put on a plate track in his career. But I knew it was going to be challenging. As soon as I set down in the drivers meeting, seeing all the talent in that room, I knew it was going to be a difficult day for anybody to win this race.
It’s only going to get tougher. This sport is just growing tremendously, getting so much more competitive every year.
Q. Steve, from a practical standpoint, now that you’re locked in the Chase, what does this allow you to do differently that you wouldn’t be if you had to be fighting for a spot?
STEVE LETARTE: I think without a doubt all the crew chiefs on pit road understand the risk versus reward. There’s a line there. It’s hard to explain. It’s like a return on investment. There’s a number there that everybody knows how many positions you’re willing to give up versus how much of a chance you have to win. I think that opens our window tremendously.
Now it’s easy to say you can run 20th and go for a win, where if you’re racing for the points, you can’t afford to give up 20 points.
When they come out with this points system, we talked about it a lot, especially at Media Day. I don’t think it changes much before you win. I don’t think anybody can take any bigger chances we already take to try to win. I think once you have won one, it gives you an opportunity to really take borderline ridiculous chances. It really does. If there is a slim chance, that’s really all the chance you need.
We’ve been very fortunate to have good runs and there’s been a lot of seconds, close calls, run out of gas in the 600, a lot of stuff over the years. I think those opportunities are going to come around more often now.
Q. Dale, do you think you could have won this race three to four years ago, given what you were facing given the talent running up behind you?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I tried, you know. I’ll be honest. There’s something about the car that you sort of connect with the car. That car that I drove tonight, we got along. You know, we worked as a unit. It just happens.
It’s hard to explain with this guy sitting next to me. The cars we’ve had in the past, I drove ‘em all week down here at Speedweeks. I just didn’t have that 100% confidence in either the car or myself or us as a unit to be able to drive it with the confidence that you need to win.
Yeah, that car tonight, man, it was just doing so many great things. I could depend on it. When I would ask it and put it in certain situations and expect it to do what I wanted it to do, it did it.
The car’s everything at Daytona and Talladega. I think I do a good job of drafting and understanding the draft, knowing what to do, when to do it, but you can’t without the right car. The difference between the right car and what I’ve been driving is this much, that’s how close it is out there. You know it when you’ve got that much more. It’s an obvious gut feeling you feel from the seat of your pants.
That car was just ready to go, man. It was just asking for everything that I was giving it. I mean, I felt like I was just out there just beating ‘em off one at a time. Man, it was awesome. Just an amazing car.
Q. (No microphone.)
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I put one in there before. It’s a good feeling. Fans come down and take pictures of it. I signed autographs with it sitting there all year long. Memories will come back to you from tonight. It’s a great thing.
Q. Dale, do you expect Mooresville to burn to the ground tonight?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: As soon as I said that, that was probably not the perfect choice of words. I was exploding inside. As soon as my mouth opened, everything just came on out (laughter).
Yeah, you know, that’s how you feel. You know, that’s the emotion you feel when something like that happens to you.
Imagine in your profession the greatest thing that could happen to you. That’s what happened to me tonight. I just couldn’t contain myself.
Q. You talked about the car earlier. Did you know before the delay that the car was going to be that good? How tough was it to wait?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Made it easier actually to wait knowing we had such a good racecar. Typically when you and the car aren’t on the same page, like I said, it’s just that little bit, you grow concerned about what you need to do to win the race. The slope got steeper, gets steeper with every lap.
Tonight, you know, as we drove, even as we waited it out, I knew we had enough racecar. I was a little bit nervous because the pressure was on me because there was plenty of car to do it.
Q. Dale, is there anything special about the confluence with Austin?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I thought about holding the three fingers running down the front straightaway. I didn’t want to bring too much attention to that. I just want Steve and Rick and the team, everybody, to enjoy this experience as it should.
But, you know, it felt so comfortable all week for that number to be back. I’m happy with that situation. I’m happy for Austin. You guys have gotten to know him over the last couple years. He’s got a great head on his shoulders. He appreciates the history of the number. He appreciates not only what it meant as an Earnhardt fan, but what it meant for his family. It means something entirely unique to him separate of my father.
I appreciate that and I’m happy for him and Richard. They’re really enjoying that experience together. That’s got to be something special, grandfather and grandson, to be able to do that together.
I’m very comfortable. I had not thought about it once all week ’cause it just seems right.
Q. Dale, you said when you crossed the finish line, This one’s better than the first. Then you said in Victory Lane, This one’s not better than the first. Which one is it?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I was thinking about that. When I crossed the finish line, I was relieved that I’ve done it again and I’ve done it with the people I’m with. Initially the reaction was, This is better because I’m back in Victory Lane.
It’s different because it’s the people, you know. I was talking about that earlier. It’s better because you had a taste of it before. To win it the first time, you are blown away and sort of overwhelmed. The experience is a blur. It doesn’t sink in. You don’t absorb much of the whole thing. I can’t even remember half of it even after the fact, what we did that week. I don’t even remember going over and putting the car in there. It was just all so much of a flash.
So now I realize that. I’m surrounded by so many great people. We got a great team. So many people are able to enjoy this. I’m reminded to let it sink in, reminded to enjoy it. I really enjoyed driving down in front of the fans there. I was having the time of my life inside that car going down the front straightaway.
When I got to Victory Lane, I couldn’t wait to hug everybody, just enjoy it. Didn’t do that the first time ’cause you’re just blown away.
So this one’s funner (laughter).
Q. Rick, I imagine fielding cars for NASCAR’s most popular driver is quite a responsibility. It must feel frustrating that you don’t have more success, you always give your best stuff to Jimmie, let Jimmie win all the time, according to the fans.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I’m glad I’m sitting here. I want to hear this (laughter).
Q. I don’t say it. The fans do.
RICK HENDRICK: They’ve never said it to me. You’re the only one that said it.
Q. Dale told Michael Waltrip if he wins the Daytona 500 he’s going to get on Twitter.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: You’re paying attention. I got to get my password (laughter).
Q. Do you feel any relief or satisfaction in getting this win with him? Can you talk a little bit about the burden that you do feel in needing to have success with Dale Jr.?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, I think Dale had a lot of options when he was going to make a change. We talked. He wanted to come with us. I wanted him to come with us.
It was a lot of pressure, an awful lot of pressure, an awful lot of high expectations. We didn’t have the success that we thought we’d have.
I remember a lot of you said, He’ll win six races and a championship. We came down here and we won the Shootout and qualifier right out of the gate. We didn’t go where we needed to go.
But we never gave up. I was as determined as ever. I told him that we would get it right and we would do what we set out to do, and we were not going to stop.
But it’s a lot of pressure. It was an awful lot of pressure. I felt like I let him down. He felt like he let me down. But we locked arms and said, We’re going to figure it out.
Last year was a great year. I wish the success had come earlier. But this is a tough sport. I mean, it is a tough, tough sport. There’s so much talent out there.
Just like he said, it’s that little magic with the car, it’s also that magic with the guys here, with the team. When you hit it, it’s amazing. When Jimmie Johnson goes two years and doesn’t win a championship, something’s wrong. Well, there’s nothing wrong; it’s just everybody else is that good.
They’ve got that magic, and these guys have that magic. I think this could be the year.
Q. Dale, Brad Keselowski was here earlier and he said that he thought this may have been one of the hardest‑run Daytona 500s from start to finish. You’ve obviously been in a lot more than he has. I wondered if you felt something similar. If so, was it just being the Daytona 500, points don’t matter, or sitting around for six and a half hours?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I think it was the package, the way you were having to race to stand your ground. I hated to do some of the things I had to do tonight to race. There were a couple laps where I had to run Jeff Gordon right on the fence, down the turns, the straightaway, right on his door, to keep him from drafting by me. I hate to do that to my teammate. I hate to do that to anybody. But that’s what it took. That’s what you had to do.
I knew, like we had talked about before, I talked to Steve about how we were not in the right place at the end of these other races. We’d make a move and finish second. We knew we didn’t have a shot at winning, knew we didn’t have a shot at the leader at the end. Why? What do we need to do?
Tonight it was all about not giving an inch, not running fifth, not sitting there in fifth place all night and being okay with it. We wanted to be in the lead every lap, be in first every lap. That’s what my motive was.
It was a unique race. I feel uncomfortable sitting here bragging that I drove my ass off or ran the best race of my life, but it was a unique race. We all were pushing the envelope out there, asking a lot of each other. I remember running real, real tight on the door of the 16 car for the lead. He had the 20 behind him. I just kept thinking, All it’s going to take is for Matt to make one move a little wide into the corner or something like that, catch my quarter panel, turn me into the 16, we’re going to be up in the wall.
Every lap you’re asking every driver around you to be able to hold their line and be smart and see what’s happening and understand how close quarters were. Everybody was shoving all over each other, climbing over the top of each other. So you were asking a lot of everybody around you to be able to do that all night long.
We all really put each other in a lot of difficult situations, but it was really fun even under the circumstances. I felt like that for the first time in a long time you were able to see just how talented everybody out there was. Biffle and all those guys, everybody was really bringing the best out of themselves tonight.
Q. Steve, I’ve had many veteran drivers say over the years how much they have spent time trying to win the Daytona 500. Even Dale Jarrett who was in here earlier. Once they accomplish that goal, the first thing they think of is how they win the next one. You decided to take another career path. Is this the optimal way to go out or do you think you might have some second thoughts?
STEVE LETARTE: I mean, it’s better than losing. Yeah, I mean, I was telling my wife last night, we were riding to dinner. We were just talking about stuff. I said, It’s a little sad. I never really put two and two together. When you think about making that decision, you know, so many things that are so important in my life that drove that decision. Going to dinner last night, I’m a little sad, this will be my last 500.
I think I’m going to have a lot of those moments this year. I’ve done this since I was a 16‑year‑old kid. I don’t know anything else. The joke with my team when you go anywhere, if you want to know where to eat, I’ve grown up at all these tracks. Everyone has a bucket list, and you don’t work in racing without having the Daytona 500 on your bucket list.
It seems a little bit surreal or awkward, but it appears that a career‑defining moment came in my last chance at it. Like I said earlier, it’s one of the those things that they might say I won X amount of races as a crew chief, but Daytona 500 champion will always be set out of that list. This one was special. I’m going to enjoy this one, for sure.
Q. Dale, you talked about trying to remember more of this experience. You mentioned driving in the car with the fans. What stood out about that? That’s your moment by yourself. Also, obviously great moment, you’re excited. When is the last time you felt like that?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: The last time I won the Daytona 500. You win other races. Other good things happen to you in life. But this is a unique feeling. It only comes with this particular win.
You know, the fans are so supportive. They stick with you. We put them through so much. We ask so much of them to plug into this sport, to be a part of it. You think about that.
Then you think on a smaller scale of your personal fans, the fans that pull for your team, what I’ve went through as a driver. You know, the lows you go through, they’re with you. They’re with you in the highs, obviously.
We went through some pretty bad lows. They’re still there. I know when I drove down that front straightaway, I know it wasn’t, but it seems like everybody that was here was cheering. I know we don’t have every fan out there, but it was certainly a happy crowd. I really feed off of that. That is as key to the moment, enjoying the moment as anything. That’s as key to the moment as going to Victory Lane, seeing your crew, seeing Rick, seeing my girlfriend.
All those moments where you see joy in someone else’s face during this evening, seeing all that in all those fans, you feed off of that so much. You’ll never forget that, just looking up into the grandstands, seeing all those people cheering, so happy.
Especially when you get the flag, you get right up on ‘em. Like they’re coming through the fence, you know. It’s just incredible, the energy from that side of the racetrack.
Q. How much fun can the next 25 races be, being able to swing for the fences? How can you use that to build momentum in trying to win a championship?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I expect that we’re going to have some great racecars and some great opportunities to win. I know that we run our guts out every week. Steve and the guys give it all they got. I give it all I got. We did that last year and didn’t win any races. We weren’t trying to be consistent. We weren’t trying to just gather up points. We want to win so bad because we know how important that is for our fans, how important that is to the sport, how big it would be for all the effort Rick has put into it.
So we try every week to win. We’ll continue to do that. I don’t think we’ll do it any different than we’ve always done it. Steve may be able to get in certain situations at certain tracks and make a different call that he would typically make. I anticipate that, look forward to that.
For the most part, the tracks and the tire wear and things like that will really dictate the strategy he uses regardless of the format, the points, the Chase, all that.
You want to do whatever you can to win the race, and that’s dictated by the track, the tires, fuel mileage, what have you. I don’t think our approach is going to change a lot.
But we have a lot of confidence coming off such a strong year, obviously winning this race. Our confidence couldn’t be higher. Confidence is a great thing. It’s half of the battle, you know, being confident in what you’re doing. When you have the most, you’re in perfect situations to have some good things happen, so hopefully we can seize the moment.
Q. Rick, when you rode Jimmie’s car into Victory Lane, you said you never would do it again. What possessed you to do it again tonight?
RICK HENDRICK: When I got to the car, he said, Get in. I was so excited, I got in. When we got to that corner at the gate, I couldn’t hold on inside. The roll bar was slick or something. I almost fell out. I was hollering, Stop. I almost didn’t come in here tonight. Probably would have been over to Halifax.
I won’t do it anymore. I better not say that. But I think the emotion just got me as soon as I got to the window.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Need to learn how to get those side windows out, that way you can ride in the passenger seat.
RICK HENDRICK: As soon as I got over there, he said, Climb in. I didn’t even think about it. I’ll think about it again because I almost fell out. I was wedged in with Jimmie. My legs were wedged up under the steering wheel. Riding like I was riding a bull. This time I almost did fall out.
Q. Steve, what do you think it will be like a year from now when you’re not going to be able to defend this?
STEVE LETARTE: Oh, I have no idea. I think I’m going to come back and get my car back. Maybe I’ll come back and get it when they give it to us next year.
I don’t know. There’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge between now and then. There’s still 35 other trophies to get. There’s a big one at the end of the year. I’m going to really, really enjoy this victory.
But it’s kind of like Dale said, winning reminds you how great this sport is, why we all did it, why we’re all here. It’s really as simple as that. It seems odd, but that’s really what it comes down to.
We don’t play in stick and ball sports. A .500 year doesn’t exist with a race team. You go and you compete against 42 other people. Every Sunday you line up. Nobody cares what you did last week. It’s all about what you’re going to do this week. You have that same sort of feeling. You want to go and win every single week.
That’s my biggest concern about next year is what is going to fill the competitive void because it’s all I’ve known since I was a kid. We’ll see if my kid’s go‑kart will fill the void or not. I think he’s going to be a tougher boss than this one. I’m going to have to sharpen up a little bit before then.
Q. Dale, I wanted to talk about your teammates a little bit. With around 10 to go, even when the lanes forced a separation, you had a clear commitment to work with each other. How much of a difference do you think they made down the stretch? How much did they keep your confidence up, especially Jimmie being in the same shop after all these second‑place finishes?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Jeff pushing us on the last restart was key to us winning the race, a key moment for us to pull away, not get stuck side‑by‑side with the outside lane. We timed that perfectly. He did a great job. That was definitely a very big moment for the victory there.
You know, our teammates, they’re all great guys to begin with. The reason why we all get along so well and tend to want to work with each other and even seek each other out at times on the track at Talladega and Daytona is because of the culture in the company.
There’s no favorite. No one’s singled out. No pressure on one guy more than the other. Everybody has the same commitment, whether it be the fabricators or the engine room. Every team sort of gets the same commitment.
It’s a very well‑run machine. Just the culture in there, how everybody enjoys working together, we feed off of that.
We see each other quite a bit. Rick has us over there often for luncheons, what have you, in the shop. We actually spend time with each other. I’ve known Jimmie since he first started racing in the Nationwide Series, St. Louis since he ran his first race. I’ve known Jeff forever, back when him and daddy were partners in several business ventures together.
Dad introduced me to Jeff on the first straightaway at north Wilkesboro one time, told me he was going to be great. Me and Kasey have been friends since when I started. You know all these people because you’ve been around them for so long. We’re all in great stuff. Rick keeps everybody happy. We enjoy seeing each other doing well and enjoy working together.
The package tonight made you have to depend on people. You couldn’t do things by yourself. You definitely needed people to help pass other people. You know you could count on your teammates to give that to you if you could get in a lane with them.
As far as Jimmie being a good teammate, when we won when I was working with Tony, Jr., we won at Michigan. It was my first win with Rick. When Jimmie came into Victory Lane, the first thing I could think of to say to him is, I’m a winner. He said, I know you are.
Jimmie has always been one of my biggest fans. Even before we were in the same shop, you know. Like I said, I’ve known him for a very long time, before he was a champion, when he was just getting starting, he was wondering what kind of motorhome to buy.
It’s been a long road for both of us. He enjoys seeing me do well and I feel the same way about him. So we got a great relationship. It’s really great to be in the same shot together. We feed off of their success. I think they do the same with us. Hopefully we can continue that.
Q. Dale, go back to the final lap. The appearance was that no matter what Denny Hamlin did, you seemed to know what he was going to do before he did it. Can you talk a little bit about that last lap. And, Rick, did you hold your breath for a minute or did you just feel confident the whole time the checkered flag was coming?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I think I knew what had to happen for us to be passed, and I knew what I needed to do to combat that. I needed to be in front of the cars that were moving to get a draft push from them, keep some separation, not allow them to get a run on me, whether it was the 2 car or Denny, whoever was going to come with a run. I needed to be in front of them when they got there, limit their opportunities around me.
Denny came pretty close. He got very close coming off of turn four. I didn’t know if he had enough to get to the quarter panel. If he even sniffed on the quarter panel, he was going to get a hell of a run to the flag stand. It was going to be tight.
He’s obviously very good. They ran well this week. Won a couple races. Showed their speed, his talent. I knew when he come up through there, that’s what I was expecting, somebody to get up there and make a move. He’s been able to show all week that he’s had a great racecar and knows what to do with it.
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, this race you’re never confident. I thought we were in good shape. Those cautions kept falling. We had to have those restarts. You worry about that.
I thought when he got that good push from Jeff that we were going to be in good shape. But you just don’t count this race until you see the car come off the fourth corner, and the car running second on the outside can’t get to him.
It’s an unbelievable feeling. I bet if you had a heart monitor, you’d be amazed at what your pulse was that last couple laps. I know your knees get weak when it’s over.
I’ve been there so many times down here leading coming off the four, and wade ‘em up. So it was good to see that thing out front by itself. I was very nervous.
Q. Where is the party tonight?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I’m going to try to keep myself under control some, good shape tomorrow. I’m going to have a few beers, spend time with my girlfriend Amy and whoever else wants to sit around. See where the night goes.
Probably won’t be able to party till we get to Vegas after Phoenix. I’m going to Vegas straight from Phoenix on Sunday. That might be our time to celebrate.
RICK HENDRICK: It’s five hours past my bedtime.
Q. You said you put yourself in some situations that you had to in order to win. Is that kind of the mindset you’re going into this whole year with knowing it’s Steve’s last year and knowing you’re starting to get closer to the end of your career than the beginning? Are you at that point where, in order to fulfill your dreams of winning a championship, you’re going to have to be more aggressive than you normally like to be?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: We were running second every week, running in the top 10 throughout the Chase pretty much. We were getting cars that were completely superior to what you had at the beginning of the season. Hell, what I had at the beginning of the season was pretty good.
Just when you think things are as good as they can get, they get better. That’s been the situation with this team since me and Steve got together. We’ve gotten better every year. We said we were going to get better and we have. We get closer and closer and closer to reaching our goals without any kind of setbacks or pauses. So, you know, if things just keep going like they’ve been going, we should win some more races this year and the cars should be there and the confidence should be there.
I’m perfectly comfortable forcing my way in any situation when I know the car’s capable of carrying its load and doing its job. Steve knows that. I think that gives him motivation to try to give me those cars.
We were starting to see that happen last year. Looking forward to this year.