TALK ABOUT HOW YOUR FIRST FEW DAYS OF SPEEDWEEKS WENT, HOW YOUR DAYTONA 500 CAR IS, AND YOUR OUTLOOK ON DEFENDING YOUR DAYTONA 500 RACE CHAMPIONSHIP
“It’s been a decent week. We were very competitive in the Unlimited race and spun out there off of (Turn) 4, which was kind of a weird deal to have a single-car spin. But I learned a lesson and certainly learned about the car set-up some and how to avoid that from happening again. So, I was bummed to be a part of that because I felt like starting dead last as we did and to work our way up to second and really get that bottom lane working and pulling along the guys behind us, that we had a very strong car and a great chance to win the Unlimited.
“The next morning was the half-marathon and that was far better than the Unlimited; I actually finished (laughter). Qualifying turned out okay. We expected to be a little faster than that. It’s just tough down here. You really have to take a lot of chances to produce speed and lap time and we’ve been neutered over the years and show-up in qualifying trim pretty much in race trim and make sure that nobody gets in trouble and everything is okay. We’ve got a great race car though. I think it’s going to race just fine. It’s the car we had a lot of success with last year. And then the updates have been made to it and it will be real competitive. We lost our car in the Unlimited. Not that we were going to draft in practice before that, but we really aren’t going to draft now. And then in tomorrow night’s race we need to watch ourselves because we’re down to one car. We have other stuff at home, but we really don’t want to bring it down here. We like the car that’s sitting over there, ready for the 500.”
HOW DO YOU APPROACH THE DUEL TOMORROW? ARE YOU AGGRESSIVE AND TRY TO GET TO THE FRONT TO GET A GOOD STARTING POSITION FOR THE DAYTONA 500, OR DO YOU JUST LAY BACK AND LET THINGS HAPPEN?
“The safest place, really, is leading. So if you’re able to get that done; and then typically the guys racing for the lead are the ones you trust the most, especially with this package. Since this package came along, we’ve elected to not ride in races. We’ve raced for every lap and it’s paid off for us. We’ll keep that same mentality, but historically the Duels are pretty calm. Everybody has an agenda to save their race car and to be smart. And we really don’t see big crashes and multiple-car incidents in the Duels. So, we’re counting on that, as well. When the green falls, we’re going to go racing. We just need to make smart decisions and hope we get through the race with a good, straight race car.”
DO YOU THINK THE RACING MIGHT BE ANY DIFFERENT DURING THE DUEL BECAUSE IT’S AT NIGHT?
“If the track stays hot like it has today, and we’re in the 80’s, a night race would bring more grip back and make the cars a little racier. I feel more than anything, this track is pretty forgiving right now because of the asphalt they put down and the job they did was really, really strong. Night racing, knowing that we’re doing to be racing in prime time, that’s going to bring the energy up. Hopefully we have a strong attendance here and all that stuff will drive the energy up and potentially the risk factor.”
BEYOND YOUR QUEST FOR A SEVENTH CHAMPIONSHIP, HOW DO YOU THINK THE RULES CHANGES MIGHT IMPACT DALE EARNHARDT JR.’S SHOT AT A FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP? DOES HE HAVE A BETTER SHOT, OR A WORSE SHOT UNDER THIS PLAN?
“I’m going to sound like a selfish driver, but I haven’t spent any time thinking about Dale Junior winning a championship (laughs). I’ve thought about how I can win it and how it will help me (laughter). I do know that they have been very consistent and have been very close to wins through the season. You need to win, in the Chase, and I know there are plenty capable of that. But I don’t know. I really don’t know how to look at the final ten races and how to handicap it. I feel good about us in looking at statistics and what we’ve done in the past and winning races in the Chase. That’s obviously a requirement now. As far as others, I don’t know. I’m kind of babbling now. I’m sorry (laughter).”
THERE ARE A LOT OF STORYLINES ABOUT THE DAYTONA 500 WITH DANICA PATRICK AND THE NO. 3 ON THE POLE. EVEN THOUGH YOU ARE GOING FOR YOUR SEVENTH CHAMPIONSHIP, DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE A LITTLE BIT UNDER THE RADAR?
“I think a lot of people are tired of hearing my name. It’s not bad to have the attention go somewhere else. I hope to be back in everyone’s mindset come Sunday evening in being the winner of the Daytona 500. From the No. 3 car standpoint, that’s the perk of winning the pole. You get to sit on it for a week, basically, and all the headlines leadoff with you as the pole sitter and we’ve been fortunate to be in that situation. I’m sure Danica would rather not be in the headlines at all with what’s transpired there, but we’re under the radar for now I guess, but certainly hope to change that come race time.”
WITH THIS CAR AND THIS PACKAGE, WHERE DO YOU WANT TO BE IN THE LAST THREE OR FOUR LAPS COMING TO THE CHECKERED, AT THE DAYTONA 500?
“I was trying to experiment with that in the Unlimited when I spun out. I was truthfully trying to pass the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) off of (Turn) 4 to see what would happen from the exit of 4 to the stripe and how things would play out. But I didn’t make it very far and ended-up wrecked. But, looking at how small the field was toward the end of the race and the fact there was some passing, it is really leading toward a revolving door. I’m not sure you’re going to want the lead until you come off of Turn 4. Somebody’s going to have a run, second car back or third car back and come up through there. So, I think there’s a chance for a lot of passing come Sunday.”
DO DRIVERS LIKE THE RISK AND REWARD OF THE DUEL? IT SEEMS LIKE IN MANY WAYS IS MIGHT WRECK A REALLY GOOD CAR.
“That’s my perspective this year. When you get through the Unlimited and you have a straight race car sitting there, you’re much more relaxed and (can) have fun and forget about things. But it will be weighing on my mind the whole race that we could lose that car and put ourselves in a big hole for the 500.”
AS YOU ENTER THIS YEAR WITH THE OPPORTUNITY TO TIE THE GREATEST, HOW MUCH REAL THOUGHT HAVE YOU GIVEN TO HISTORY AND TO THAT OPPORTUNITY THAT’S BEFORE YOU?
“Since the banquet, not much thought. At the banquet, and some of the stories that were around it and the questions that were asked, my mind was much more present with it. But I got into the off-season and relaxed and let go of racing and it was really nice to get into January and not have racing on the brain at all. So, I haven’t put a lot of thought into it. It’s a huge opportunity that we have, obviously, and I feel like we will be able to get a look or two at it as this year goes on and the next few years go on. It would be awfully cool to get it done. But it’s been out of my mind for a couple of months. So, I don’t have anything too relevant to discuss.”
WHEN THE HENDRICK ENGINES STARTED HAVING ISSUES ON SATURDAY DO YOU ASK ANY QUESTIONS? WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION AND HAVE THEY UPDATED YOU ON WHAT IF ANYTHING THEY HAVE DONE SINCE THEN TO ALLEVIATE THAT?
“I didn’t know that we had an engine problem. My wife was changing Lydia’s diaper in the back of the motorhome and said ‘what is going on with the Hendrick Engines, the second one just blew’. I had no clue. I was up front with Genevieve and didn’t have a clue what was going on. Certainly concern is there, but the guys have been on top of it. I haven’t heard what the final outcome is. I know there were some parts and pieces they were looking at. They inspected an engine that was in the No. 1 car and decided that there weren’t any issues there. We will see. I know that they are on top of it. Actually I haven’t even been to the truck yet today to figure out what is going on. If there was a burning topic I would have had a phone call or two by now. I assume everything is under control.”
LAST YEAR YOU CAME HERE WITH A NEW CAR AND WON. THIS YEAR THERE HAS BEEN SOME MINOR CHANGES. HAS THAT EFFECTED HOW YOU WILL DRIVE ON SUNDAY?
“Not really I think was effects at least my driving on the plate tracks is the style of racing. With the push drafting although we did win a race it didn’t fit my style all that well. I just figured out the drafting thing before the Generation-5 car was kind of put to rest and won in 2006 here, won at Talladega a couple of times. Then they moved on. When this car came back and the style of drafting was like the Gen-5 car I was real optimistic and so was Chad (Knaus, crew chief). I think Chad pointed out to me that this kind of goes back into the sweet spot of drafting that I’m good at. It certainly showed that last year with the two wins at four of the plate tracks and certainly a threat to win all four of them. It’s more of the style than necessarily the rules package. The rules haven’t been changed that much coming back this year. I think the goal was to create more passes for the lead and I’m feeling good about that. I think that is going to happen. It will be interesting to see what drivers do. Right away in the Unlimited when the No. 1 car had control of the race he went to the top and got us all single file. So some of it is still in the driver’s hands and when we decide to race. From what I saw when we want to race I think we have a really sporty package right now we can make passes happen.”
ONE OF THE CONSISTENCIES OF YOUR TEAM GOING BACK TO THE START BESIDES YOU AND CHAD (KNAUS) IS RON MALEC (CAR CHIEF ON THE NO. 48 CHEVROLET SS). YOU GUYS WORKED TOGETHER BEFORE YOU GOT THERE. CAN YOU JUST TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP AND HISTORY WITH RON?
“Let’s see so I first met Ron when I was racing the Herzog’s off road truck. I think I met him at the Crandon race track. He was working for Pro Power Engines. They had engines in some trucks and Billy Schleper was a friend and around and introduced me to Ron. Then a little time passed and I ended up I think back in California and moving around. Relocated to North Carolina, kept up with Billy Schleper letting him know where I was going and what was happening. After I got to North Carolina the Herzog’s decided to go ASA Racing and bought Baker Motorsports. When that happened I told Billy ‘hey I’m coming to Wisconsin where do I go? You know where the Baker shop is. Where do I get an apartment, what do I do?’ So he gave me a few places to look at. I could probably afford it on my own to get an apartment, but I was looking for a roommate. Ron was working for Pro Power and was living above the engine shop in this room filled of fumes, which may explain a lot about Ron’s personality. But he was living above the engine shop and working on Al Schill, Jr.’s late models and also working at the engine side of things for Pro Power. We moved in for a few months together and then after that happened we relocated our race shop, our ASA (American Speed Association) shop and expanded and we needed another full-time guy on the team. It ended up being Ron. That started in I guess the winter of 1997 when we first got our apartment and then he came to work for us at Herzog. We’ve been together ever since. He came to the Nationwide team and then when I left the Nationwide team and came to Hendrick Motorsports Chad (Knaus) hired Ron to come over there and he ended up being the car chief, I think after the first year. Jason Burdette was our car chief the first year and then Ron has been there for everything and really has been responsible for my cars and things being bolted together mechanically sound since 1998.”
LAST YEAR AT TALLADEGA IN THE FALL YOU GOT OUT OF THE CAR AND WERE KIND OF PERPLEXED ABOUT WHY THERE WEREN’T MORE GUYS PULLING OUT OF LINE. THIS RACE A YEAR AGO WAS ALSO KIND OF SINGLE FILE. DO YOU EXPECT THAT IS GOING TO BE DIFFERENT THIS YEAR?
“There is a vibe on the track that really dictates that, what dictates it as well is who is leading. There are a few drivers that, it’s a great move it works very well, but they would prefer to ride around the top of the track and tow that train. Once you are there long enough and a handful of laps go down and everybody is riding around the top everyone subconsciously or consciously commits to sitting in line up there. You will see one or two guys try to move down and try to create something and they just fall to the back of the line. Once that happens, once that vibe changes you are stuck with it for a while. It’s really weird. It happened that way in the Unlimited and after I think Tony (Stewart) tried and Carl (Edwards) tried there was a bunch of attempts. Finally enough drivers were agitated to riding single file that we went to the bottom we had a long enough line and were able to get to the front. So it’s a weird environment and it’s so unpredictable because you are dealing with all these individuals and the decisions they make. Then again there is that kind of vibe on the track that if you pull out of line if the bottom lane doesn’t work out you go from running fifth to 15th or 25th or something like that. So you are weighing your risk versus reward and in Talladega last year I was blown away especially after they took the white (flag) that second, third, fourth did not try to make a move to get by the No. 1 car. Everybody sat there in single file around the top. That was a bizarre one for sure.”
IS IT IMPORTANT AND WHEN DID YOU SENSE YOU HAD GAINED SOME ACCEPTANCE FROM YOUR PEERS? SECONDLY, WHO WOULD BE IN YOUR FINAL FOUR BRACKET GOING INTO HOMESTEAD?
“The respect factor from my peers is really important to me and it always has been. I attribute a lot of that to the way I grew up racing and had some success, but not a lot of success. I enjoyed the race track because of my passion of competing and the relationships and friendships I had and whatever pits or garage area that existed in the vehicles I was racing. That whole environment has always been very important to me and relationships and respect have been really the foundation of all of that. I have to say though it was probably the second or third championship before I felt maybe the certain level of acceptance or respect. I don’t know why it could have very well been myself and I know that over the years I have become a lot more comfortable in my own skin in the garage area. Where I fit in the sport and how I fit into Hendrick Motorsports. It’s weird that it might have taken me two or three championships to feel that way, but there is an argument for that for sure. Now in today’s world I take a lot of ribbing from the guys in the garage and that is fine. The friendships, I look forward to it and enjoy it. I do feel the respect in the garage area and it means the world to me. It means more than the trophies ever will. Those relationships really are everything for me.
“Then my bracket, certainly have got to put the No. 48 car in there. I think the No. 20, the No. 18 and the No. 24 would be my four.”
TWO JOE GIBBS RACING CARS VERSUS TWO HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS CARS WHAT IS THE REASONING BEHIND THAT?
“I guess I’m going off of how we all run at those three tracks leading in. Those are the first three faces that came to mind from Martinsville, Texas and what is the other one Talladega? Talladega, I guess Talladega it could be anybody, but Martinsville and Texas those are the faces I saw fighting off for the win.”