Dale, congratulations to you and the entire 88 team. It’s been about 36 hours since you took the checkered flag at Daytona. Since then you’ve made the rounds in New York City, you wrapped up at ESPN in Bristol, now you are en route to Texas. Has it all sunk in yet?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: This media tour is a great way to decompress off of something like that. I don’t know how I would take it in just having nothing to do with myself. It’s been fun being busy and talking about the win. It’s an opportunity to celebrate my team and their effort, give everybody credit.
So I’m enjoying it. It’s a lifetime opportunity to not only win the race but to be able to celebrate it and go talk to the world about it.
Q. I want to ask you something about you talked about in the media center, mentioning that Jimmie Johnson has always been one of your biggest fans. Speak more to your relationship with him. I guess maybe you see each other more as equals than most people might think. Is that the case?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I can’t really speak for Jimmie. I admire his talent. I admire the way he carries himself, how professional he is, even in crisis situations, difficult situations that he has to face.
I do feel like as talented as he is, I think I am on the same level. As a driver, you have to feel confident in yourself and believe in yourself. So I think I’d put myself up against anybody in the field.
But I think we definitely have a good friendship. I enjoy seeing him have success because I know where he came from and I know the kind of person he is, who he was, who he is now. I think he feels the same way.
We’ve known each other a long time. A lot of things have happened in that period of time that I think allows us to have a lot of respect and appreciation for each other.
Q. The most compelling part was seeing the fans crying, excited, the video of the little boy. It’s a compelling thing to watch the reaction. Have you had much of a sense of the reaction from your fans?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Not really. Seeing the videos was really the first bit of reaction I’ve seen. I just started using my Twitter handle that I’ve had for several years. Haven’t had a chance to follow anybody yet. Been so busy, haven’t even had a chance to eat anything (laughter).
It’s been hectic as far as the schedule that we’ve had. So when I sit down to all those videos, especially the kid crying, it gets me emotional seeing their emotions because I know what the win means to me. To see what it means for someone else, how it affects someone else is such a reward.
It’s a really awesome thing when you can do something that brings joy to someone else. There’s no greater feeling for me anyway. So I did like that obviously.
We’re doing some stuff with radio or RJN 360 where we compile some clips. I think fans may be able to check it out on DaleJr.com and stuff like that. We put some stuff up on YouTube. That’s going to be fun to be able to see.
Q. Yesterday after you took the photos by the car, Rick was talking about how he feels like last year they finally were able to knock some of the pressure off you, getting you comfortable with close-to-perfect cars, letting you be yourself. I’m curious if you think that kind of finally did happen last year. If it did, at what point of the year was it?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: The cars that I drove in the Chase were far superior to anything I ever drove. Even earlier in that same season, we were building new cars. We had gained a lot of information and understanding on how to improve on our cars since the beginning of the year. So we were able to start really putting all those additional features into one vehicle.
Right there at the end of the year we were running so well. To be able to be as fast as we were at Homestead, to finish the season off with such a strong car, almost get a win there, did wonders for our confidence. It obviously showed how we were able to take off at the beginning of the year, get the win.
We have a great situation here to have something unique. The team is in a perfect position really to capitalize on our final year with Steve Letarte.
Q. Can you describe what the difference is compared to before?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Drivers always talk about the car being into the racetrack, being into the track, getting more comfort and grip. I’d say that we have improved that tremendously throughout the year.
Q. The response to your victory sort of emphasizes your popularity. Do you ever feel you’re carrying the weight of the sport on your shoulders?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I don’t really feel that way. I feel like I represent Junior Nation. I represent my fan base and the people that support our team.
I think the sport is really kind of divided into the particular supporting systems for each driver. You have the fans of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart. I think we all represent our own fan base.
There’s people out there that enjoy our sport that aren’t particularly fans of mine. I don’t carry the whole sport on my shoulders. We have enough personalities in the sport to do that individually.
There’s tons of great storylines out there with the 3 coming back, Austin Dillon, all the rookies coming into the series, all the rookies coming into the Nationwide Series, Tony Stewart coming back, Danica’s first couple years trying to get her legs, trying to get going.
There’s a lot of good things happening in the sport that are relevant. I just feel like a part of it. Definitely got to stand on the center stage this past weekend by winning the Daytona 500. But I never would assume that I was the face of the sport, even though some people have said that before. I don’t think that’s the case at all.
Q. Your excitement on Sunday night was a lot of fun to watch as you came into the media center. It struck me even like your session on Thursday, you had this upbeat feel compared to the way you were a couple, three years ago. Certainly how you’re up right now is easy to understand. Can you describe where you were in life that had you looking so glum a couple years ago and what has really perked you up even before obviously Sunday?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: We weren’t running good. We were struggling. I think people underestimated how much I care about performance. I don’t think people realized how much winning mattered to me.
When you look at the critics and you look at their comments, aside from people saying I was overrated, they would always say I didn’t have killer instinct, I didn’t have the stuff that I needed to drive to win a championship, I didn’t want it bad enough.
I never was bothered by being called ‘overrated’ because it’s such a broad term. When people really pick at your determination, your drive, your hunger, that bothered me more than anything else did, because I grew up around the sport and I love it to death. I would do anything for NASCAR. I’d do anything for the health of the sport. I’d sacrifice anything for it.
When you don’t run good, it makes you upset, it disappoints you. If you look at how happy I was Sunday after winning that race, you’ll know how bad I want to win, you’ll know how much winning means to me, and you’ll know from now on that there’s no questioning my killer instinct or drive, whatever term you want to use.
When you don’t run good, I don’t know why, in ’09, ’10, we were 20th, 25th every week. I look at that now, I can’t even imagine it. But I know I went through it.
It’s such a long ways from where we are now. Ran so good when we first came into the sport. Then to go through that, get so far away from being competitive, then to come all the way back to where we are now, I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am and thankful I am that (indiscernible) didn’t give up on me, that Rick Hendrick didn’t give up on me, that they believed in me, were trying to find ways to make the chemistry work, regardless of what anybody said, regardless of what the critics were saying, when everybody was saying I was finished, whether I was going to do anything ever again.
I’ve been pretty vindicated, but I’m in a good place now. I got my priorities in better shape. I feel, like I said, we’re embarking on a season that could be something really special for me.
Whether we win the championship or not remains to be seen obviously. But I had one of my greatest years last year, and I think we can top that this season.
Q. For those of us that don’t do what you do for a living, going back to Sunday night, how do you keep your focus during such a long rain delay? Do you take your mind off racing during that time? Let us know what you were doing.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I just put on some sweat pants, sat on the couch, ate a bunch of candy, played with the dogs, talked to my girlfriend, watched some TV, ate some junk food. Normally whatever I would do on a Sunday if I had a Sunday off.
I can switch it off. We looked at the radar. We got relatively assured we probably would be going racing again at 8:00, 830. It’s not always common that you have such a structured idea of when the rain is going to stop, when you’ll get the track dry.
The rain delays where you’re wondering if it’s ever going to quit, when you don’t just know anything, that’s harder to deal with, always constantly looking out the window, has it stopped raining, how long has it stopped, are they close to getting the track dry, trying to stay on the phone, get texts from NASCAR, kind of keep up to speed on how close the track is, whether we need to put the suit on, get the suit off, be at the car, what the hell ever. All that is a pain in the butt.
It seemed none of that was never the case Sunday. It was like, All right, man, it’s going to rain for a while, we’ll probably do it again at 8:00. Have your stuff ready to go, so that’s what we did.
Q. I don’t know if you had a chance to go back and look at the race. Brad Keselowski said it was the most intense 500 ever.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I could feel it. It was electric, man. I don’t know what the hell was going on or why it was like that. I wish I knew because that’s what NASCAR wants to bottle and sell.
It felt so different than any other race I’d ever been in, any other Daytona 500 I’d been in for sure. The intensity level was at a max. Races usually have a lull in the middle, don’t get going till the end when it’s time to put money on the line, people start picking up the intensity. We sustained it from the time we started, restarted, all the way to the end. I couldn’t believe it.
I think people were enjoying themselves. I think everybody was having fun with each other, putting each other in difficult situations, bringing out the best in each other. There was really something special going on.
I know everybody thinks it’s the greatest race they ever saw because Dale Jr. won it. Taking that out of the equation, I think it really was an exciting race and one of the most exciting Daytona 500s I’ve ever been in and one of the most intense races I’ve ever been in.
The drivers were really feeding off each other out there. It was a really weird kind of deal. But it was fun. We were really having fun.
I cannot wait to watch it. I bet I watch it three times in a row back-to-back (laughter). I can’t wait.
Q. Dale, even with your huge volume of fans, you probably added even more new fans with the 500 win. What would you share with your fans? What would you say about what your fans mean to you?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I just hope they’re enjoying this win as much as I am. They should celebrate it, celebrate it long. If you’re a fan of a sports team, fan of the Washington Redskins, right? They have won Super Bowls in the past. They’re another storied franchise. They haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1991.
You face the trials and tribulations in the tough years. Every off-season you look at changes they made. You hope they’re going to turn it around. You hope they will, regardless if they will. Even if you don’t know about the new coach, even if you question the changes they made, but you still put that belief and faith in them because you want them to win.
When that finally happens, like when they finally do win games and go to the playoffs, you love to celebrate it. I hope they do. I hope they celebrate that victory. I hope they’re enjoying themselves this week. I hope they enjoy the coverage. I hope they think I’m doing a good job representing Junior Nation. I hope they appreciate the coverage.
The new fans, I heard a couple people tell me they’re fans now. Never watched a race. Now they’re a NASCAR fan. The race was fun and crazy to watch, now they’re fans. I think we turned on a lot of people Sunday. I think that race was destined to do that for some reason. It had kind of that feel, that ’79 Daytona that was first live flag-to-flag broadcast that really turned the world on to what we were doing through network television.
My race might not have had that kind of impact, but it’s comparable I think in ways. Yeah, hopefully this is going to be a solid year. NASCAR made some changes to try to kickstart some energy and boost awareness and excitement in what our series can do. I think we got a great start to the year, for sure.