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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
April 24, 2007
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the weekly NASCAR teleconference. This week we're in advance of the weekend's events at Talladega Superspeedway. Two very special guests are going to join us today. For our first half hour we have Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.
Approximately 2:30 or so we'll be joined by Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. Dale, you have five wins at Talladega. What is the outlook for number six this season and the rest of the season overall?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, you know, we just need some luck, however I can get that. I don't know. There's not a store where you can go buy that. We've had really, really fast cars. I've been happy everywhere we ran. We've ran with the leaders everywhere, but haven't been able to get the finishes.
I think this past weekend is probably the worst car I've had all year. If that's the worst it gets, that's pretty good, so...
HERB BRANHAM: We're ready to go to questions for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., from the media.
Q. Going back a couple weeks, I wanted to ask you about the big thing with Kyle Busch's car. It seemed to me the story was more him getting out of his car and disappearing than you getting in. You may totally disagree and may not want to comment. Were you at all surprised at how much comment it got on your end, or are you just used to every breath you take being scrutinized to that point?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, I learned after the fact. I also heard that Kyle had got out of his car and was angry, had left. But I learned after the fact that I was going 40, he hit me going 150, he hurt his wrist and back real bad, so he was at the bus or the infield care center somewhere trying to get some assistance with that pain he was having.
They only had 20 laps left in the race. They only needed to run seven. Had to be pretty quick about my decision to get in there. I did it 'cause it's fun. That was really the only reason I did it. Also, I don't mind saying this, I can deal with the power they got in their motors and go back to my guys and say, This is where we stack up, this is where we're better, this is where they're beating us, I think. I can feel the attitude of their car.
Obviously they run really good with the Hendrick cars. I can feel the attitude and how the car sets, reacts in the corner. I can't obviously look underneath the hood and see the springs and shocks. I can go to Tony, Jr. And say, Hey, this is the way it felt. He's smart enough, he can run back in his head and have some ideas maybe what they're doing that I liked or disliked, just depends.
The car was wrecked. I did it as a little bit of a favor because I got some buddies over there and I got a huge amount of respect for Rick. It's fun. You don't see it that much any more. It's a shame. It's a shame it was such a big deal, number one, because it used to be commonplace. It's a shame that you don't see it that much any more because corporate sponsors are so pitted against each other, so competitive.
Of course, they got to be, but it's taken a lot of that stuff out.
Q. An update on where you're at right now as far as the contract negotiations go.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: We're basically where we've been over the past couple weeks. Not much has changed. Unfortunately, I know you guys want to know more than that, and I want to tell you more than that, but there's not more to tell.
Whenever we get the information, when I have what I have, know what I know, believe me, I won't hold it out for long. Really nothing to report at this time.
Q. It's been the main story around you. Has it served as a distraction at all?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: No, it's not a distraction at all because really there's nothing been going on. I get worried really that it's being run into the ground. When we find out what we want to do and we decide what to do, how it goes down, what the plan is, we will tell the press. We'll be ready to tell the press. We'll be happy to make those announcements.
What I worry about is during this time, see there's a period in the contract negotiations where you'll run into some stalemates, but you'll also run into some waiting periods where you're waiting back on a response here or sent something here, waiting for a response on this, that and the other. You're working out these little instances. It just takes time. There's nothing really to tell the press because there's nothing really changed.
I get worried that the story is just going to become stale, old, it's going to wear people out. They're going to get tired of hearing it. One of my favorite shows is Around the Horn on ESPN. They were talking about it on there. I know it's getting old when Around the Horn is debating whether it's getting old 'cause they were debating whether it was an old story, we were hearing too much about it, whatever.
I just get worried about that because I don't want -- I'm not out here saying, Hey -- I'm not out there fueling the fire. I'm trying to put it out until we're ready to tell everybody what the deal is. The press just keeps asking. We're honest. We're just telling ain't nothing changed till there's something changed.
Q. Can you talk about the success you've had in the past at Talladega, why you've enjoyed such good results there.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, a lot of reasons. My dad put a lot of emphasis on the restrictor plate program when he built DEI. He brought Richey Gilmore in there who was one of the best at building restrictor plate motors. Going into my rookie season, I had fast motors, fast cars already.
Tony, Jr., just so happens, we had not only the best engine builders for plate motors in Ricci, we had one of the best body men when it came to Tony, Jr.. he knew exactly what that car needed to cut the air just right, what to do to the car to make it draft good, how to get it to pull up good with the body, with the air.
We have a lot of guys in the shop now that have learned from Tony, Jr. and brought a lot of their own knowledge.
We just built a really, really good plate car with all that information, all that expertise laying around there. I feel like can I do a good job driving it. I feel like I know what I need. Watching so many races with my dad, I don't know why, but you always tune into the Daytona 500. I always paid a lot of attention to every move made there.
I went to the Talladega races, enjoyed them immensely. Plate racing was something I really enjoyed, superspeedway racing was something I really enjoyed watching, was really excited about doing that. I look forward to those when we got in the Busch Series. I would always wreck in them. I finally got to where I could finish 'em. When I got in the Cup Series, I started winning.
It's just been something I've tutored myself on for a long time. I feel like I've got a good appreciation for what it takes to win. I think carrying in that sort of confidence helps as well. When you feel confident about what you're doing, guys see that body language, see that language in your driving style on the racetrack, they like to draft with a guy like that, that's confident.
Q. You've talked about obviously your respect and trust with Kelly before. You obviously have a lot of respect for her business sense, to put her in the roles you've put her in. How is she as a negotiator? Is she tough, diligent, quiet?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: She's pretty good. I like challenging my sister with those type of responsibilities. As she learns more about the sport, her position. In her position, she's able to learn quite a bit, be around quite a bit, experience a lot. I like challenging her with those responsibilities as she gets more under her belt.
This is a pretty big -- pretty full plate she's got right now. She was dealing with a lot of things in the past, a lot of small circumstantial stuff, business deals here and there. It was a real full plate for her then. But she never really tackled the big monster, the real deal like a contract negotiation until now.
But she knows Teresa. She knows the company really well. She knows the people working with them, working through the deals of Wrangler deals, Chevrolet deals. She knows all that. I think that's going to help her in working with everybody. We're all getting to know Max, who is a really cool guy. He's got a lot of passion. Just working with Max has been an experience and been pretty enjoyable.
Don't have any worry whatsoever of my sister being able to get the job done or not being able to get the job done. I feel total confidence in her. We both learned a lot over the last several years and learned it together. But I wouldn't have her in that position if I didn't trust her, and she wouldn't want to be in it if she didn't feel confident. She wouldn't want to put herself or me in that position if she didn't feel like she could get it done.
Q. NASCAR talked so much about diversity. Do you think maybe you've made the biggest move in years in making your sister a very important person in this sport?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I never even really thought about it like that. I suppose. It's not -- I guess it's something that should come natural whenever it comes to diversity. If that's the way somebody will make a story out of that, I guess they could. Just always been a part of my life. She raised me quite a bit when I was young. There was a lot of gaps that she filled and voids she filled when it come to having some parental guidance, whatnot, what's right and wrong.
She helped me a lot. I'm just trying to show her a lot of appreciation, number one. She's obviously very talented. I'm lucky to have her, a caliber of person like her, in my camp. I feel very comfortable.
Q. Dale, considering that Talladega just might be the rock-solid Earnhardt home court there is, and considering last time you and Jeff had a real duel there, the caution flag messed things up, they rained beer cans at him, are you prepared if he should actually surpass your father's mark at Talladega Sunday? Would you go ahead and do sort of another go over to the car and take Jeff Gordon's part in this tight thing? What would you say to fans who don't seem to want Jeff to surpass your father's mark?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, if Jeff does something involving my father, some kind of recognition to him, I think it's a responsibility of somebody from this side, my side of the family, to tell Jeff we appreciate it either in Victory Lane, the next week or something. I think it's important to tell him that's cool and we appreciate it.
I think if we don't say anything, Jeff is going to wonder whether we liked it or disliked it. I do what I think I would want done to me in that situation. That's how I react to everything basically 90% of the time. I would like to be told it was appreciated, so I would do that for Jeff.
He did that last week. I think if he wins this next race, it will be a typical celebration just like all the others. I wouldn't expect anything more or less from that circumstance. He tied him. He recognized that. That was appreciated. I think he closed the door on that. He can go on and move on with his career and enjoy it. He can't feel obligated to continue to relate everything back to my father. So I feel like he's done -- he paid his due in that last week. That's all great.
For the fans who don't want to see that, it's going to happen regardless, whether they like it or not, whether I like it or who likes it. I'm proud to be able to be in this sport. It's a privilege to race in the NEXTEL Cup Series. It's a privilege to be a driver in that sport. There's only 43 of us in the entire country that get to do it.
I get to get out there and compete and race and have fun. I can appreciate a guy winning 76 races. It's a heck of a feat. Congratulations to however many more he wins. If he gets up there and ties Bobby, pulls into third place, who knows what he can do. I definitely see him getting more wins. That's just a product of his success and his ability.
Q. If he were to win Sunday and get sort of a hail of beer cans, would you consider that a funny thing, a rowdy NASCAR time, or a little bit nasty?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I'd consider it nasty. I think I just don't feel comfortable with beer cans flying onto the racetrack. I'm out there in my race car. I don't feel comfortable with beer cans flying on the racetrack at any point in time, to be honest with you. You see a lot of them are full, half full, hitting people 'cause they're not making it over the fence, knocking people in the back of the head. I've seen that happen on occasion. It's a dangerous business. I don't think it's cool. It ain't cool at all.
Go out in the parking lot and wail a couple beers at your car. Don't throw them at my car or anybody else's, for that matter. Take a couple shots at your own. I think it's ridiculous, to be honest with you. The first time it happened between me and Jeff, it was funny. Then I heard later that people got hit in the head. You could see it on TV, beer cans, full beer cans, were being thrown onto the track.
If a full beer can doesn't make it on the track, hits somebody in the head sitting down in row four or five, maybe an innocent fan, maybe a first-time fan, maybe it's a female or a child, that's ridiculous. Once I found that out I realized the seriousness of that situation.
Maybe get some toilet paper. If you're unhappy with it, throw some toilet paper. It's hell to clean up, but it won't hurt anybody.
Q. I know you don't want to talk about the contract. I'm not asking you to belie any confidences. Would you say it's fair to say now or all along that this has been, how we can get a deal done, not whether we can get a deal done? Has it progressed at all in that direction or has it ever been anything different than that?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: It's not been "if" at all. We've both worked together and it's all been positive. We've just made an agreement between ourselves to try not to talk about it in the media or insinuate anything until we're ready to release the details. Both sides have made that agreement. We had to make it a little bit firmer obviously after this weekend.
We're just trying to work on it without any press, which is kind of difficult. Maybe typically it ain't fair to you or the public, but we like to do this on our own terms here.
Q. You have fans that care about you and your sister, your team, that really sort of have a personal connection. There are fans out there worried about you, what you're going to do. Doesn't seem to me in this whole thing that you've been worried at all. Seems like business.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I think the fans should not be worried. I mean, I've always looked at everything in life, not to be philosophical or anything, but I always look at everything, whatever happens happens. You do the best you can. At the end of the day, if you give it a hundred percent, at the end of the day there's no reason, even if you run last or wreck or blow up, whatever happens, with the contract or anything, you just did your best. That's how you go to sleep at night being comfortable. That's how you can sleep at night. You tried your hardest.
Everything else didn't fall into place for you but you did what you could do. I wouldn't be happy with myself if I was only giving 90%. I know when I went to bed, if you tried that 10, what position would you be in, give that 10%, get that hundred. What position would you be in right now? Would you be happier? I don't give myself that opportunity to worry about it. I go hundred percent every day, do my best. The good Lord's going to take me wherever I go in life. I'll be fine. I'm going to be fine. I'm going to win races. My sister's going to be happy. My mom's going to be happy. My family will be took care of. My friends could care less. Hopefully my fans are real happy. We get down the road, get the job done.
Q. There was a time where you were just totally dominant on the restrictor plate tracks. Now you've gone nine races without winning. What happened in that time? The fact you were in place to win at Talladega last fall, does that mean you got it figured out again?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: No. I mean, we had just put ourselves in position to win. I'll tell you, I'll be honest with you. When we were winning earlier, won the four in a row, whatnot, Talladega, we had such a dominant car. That car would go to the lead whenever I wanted to lead. Nobody could pass me. If I wanted to be arrogant about it, I could of held the light the entire time. For some reason, we just had a package that was dynamite.
The cars have changed, aerodynamic package has changed, plate has changed, our engine package has changed, torque range, power ranges. A lot of things have changed. When that happens, you don't take the same thing back and you don't run the same. Other people have learned more.
I don't even know exactly what the number is of multi-car teams in the sport, six, seven or eight. If there's eight multi-car teams in the sport, we were probably sixth or fifth at best for a while at the plate tracks. Me and Martin or anybody, when Michael was driving for us, we had to draft really, really hard just to get up and see the lead much less take it.
Just recently we got fed up enough, and Tony, Jr. really went to work hard. We brought that car last year. We really had a pretty good car. We could get up there, race with the leaders. If we were smart and made the right moves, we could accomplish leading the race. We happened to be there at the end when it counted. Unfortunately, didn't work out for us. But I was happy that we were at least in position.
To go, like you say, so many races and not be in position to win, that was very frustrating, knowing what we accomplished before, knowing how we ran, how frustrating that was. I don't want to go back. It's a cycle. You see it with Yates. You see it with a lot of teams, that plate stuff, the success rate, whatnot, it cycles around. It comes and goes.
Q. Dale, with all due respect to what you already said about your contract this morning, can you at least say whether you're hopeful or confident of staying with DEI?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Yeah, I am. I'm pretty excited that things are going to be fine, things are going to work out with our negotiations.
Q. I know you just said earlier that things at Talladega and plate racing seem to cycle around, but lately they only cycle around to Chevrolet drivers. Are you surprised that Fords, Dodges, even Toyotas haven't caught up there?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, you got to look at how many teams Chevrolet has, the caliber of ownership, equipment. I think the odds are just in Chevrolet's favor for winning pretty much every week.
You know, from the Ford camp, Roush has really been the only real strong threat to win. Last couple years Yates has sort of went back into a rebuilding stage. Hopefully in the next several years, they'll get back to where they want to be. I know they want to. You know, if you just look at the teams, Chevrolet, if you take Hendrick out of the bunch, we're all pretty much even. Hendrick has put a lot of wins on the table. That helps Chevrolet quite a bit.
You know, I like driving Chevrolets. Over the years, NASCAR has done things that I didn't agree with to help certain manufacturers, maintain a level playing field. But, you know, my Chevrolet, I don't know, I've always been a Chevrolet guy. My daddy drove a Ford once, drove a couple Oldsmobiles. He liked Chevrolets, stuck with them. He had a good rapport and relationship with them. I've been able to pick that up with those guys as well. I enjoy it.
Q. There seems to be a split in your fan base where the smaller number of fans who might have gotten upset with Jeff Gordon, thinking he's the Intimidator, not understanding the move last week, is being kind of overwritten about as compared to the fan base that doesn't feel that way. You have a certain aspect of your fan base that wouldn't throw a beer can, that understands this whole thing. Do you hear from them, too?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Yeah, I mean, not all my fans are going to throw a beer can at Jeff Gordon every time they see him. I don't really know. I didn't really see a replay as far as the amount of trash that got thrown on the track last week. I was pretty surprised to hear that it even happened.
I was blown away that anybody would even take what Jeff did wrong and be offended. Hello, I mean, he was waving a 3 flag. Just seems like to me he was trying to do the right thing and trying to say this guy was really good and I'm honored to have met one of his accomplishments. Every time I meet one, I'm pretty dang happy about it.
I was pretty happy that Jeff -- I like to beat Jeff. I don't like seeing Jeff win. I like to win. But when he honored my father, that was really cool. That was a lot of class. I wanted to make that known.
You know, I can't speak for everybody. I can't speak for all my fans. My fans are their own -- just like me, I'm my own guy, they're their own people. They do what they want to do. We each can relate to each other in the fact that they like what they see on Sunday and they like what I'm about. You know, as far as their actions, you know, that's their actions. They're responsible for 'em.
Q. Knowing what you know about the car, taking it to Talladega, can you beat Jeff Gordon at Talladega?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Sure, can I beat anybody at Talladega. Are you kidding (laughter)? You give me a decent car, I can take it up there, run up front.
Q. A question about the All-Star race coming up. Just wanted to get your ideas on how you like the winner-take-all kind of format. Bruton Smith said there should be more emphasis on winning at NASCAR.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, there should be more emphasis. That sort of ticks me off when I hear that. I don't know a guy out there that's going to run 10th or 5th. Is it so bad that it makes you happy when you do run in the top 10 or top five? Are we all supposed to be ticked off from second on back?
But we are there to win. We're not settling for 5th, you know. You go out there, run a 500-mile race, finish 5th, tell me if you wouldn't be a little satisfied about that. But you still wanted to win. 500 miles is a dang long race. To be in the top five in any of 'em's pretty cool.
I just get upset when people make a deal out like we're some kind of -- all the drivers are some kind of spoiled group that has forgotten that winning is No. 1. That's ridiculous.
Anyway, I don't know. The All-Star race is really exciting. I've always held it up pretty high as far as importance. A lot of people might look at it and go, Well, it's sort of an off week, no big deal, no points, no real reason to get too excited. Well, that's wrong. That's opposite. There's no points so you can let it all hang out. You bring your A game 'cause it's a million dollars. Pays a lot of money.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for joining us today. Dale, best of luck this week at Talladega Superspeedway.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: All right, man. See you all later.
HERB BRANHAM: We're joined now by another very special guest, another true NASCAR legend, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick.
Rick, you have Jeff Gordon leading the points, reigning champion Jimmie Johnson already won three races this season. Obviously it's been a pretty good start to 2007.
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, it really has been. You know, we're competitive every week. It's been a good start. We're pretty excited.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks again, Rick, for joining us. We're going to go right to the media for questions.
Q. Can you talk about how phenomenal a run Hendrick Motorsports has had with the Car of Tomorrow, not with just your own camp but with your satellite teams as well?
RICK HENDRICK: I think we have had a good start, although if you're a realist, you've got to look at the fact that Tony probably would have won Bristol had he not had a problem. I think he would have anyway. You know, Martinsville, we were really good there. Then Phoenix, we were -- we did a good job there.
I think our guys, it's just like any more -- whether it's the Superspeedway or intermediate track, everybody goes to work, they do good. We got great talent in the cars. I think Sharon and Jim Long, the guys in the R&D shop, Lance working in there, too, all of our guys have put a lot of effort in it because we knew this was where they were going to have to be. We've had a little luck going along with being in the right place at the right time. It's been a good start for us.
Q. Can you also weigh in a little bit on Jeff and what a class move he made the other night giving tribute to Dale Earnhardt when he took his victory lap?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, sometimes I don't understand the fans. I tried not to try to figure them all out. I don't think there's any way you can. Jeff was trying to pay tribute to a great champion, a fallen champion, at a time when it all could have been about Jeff Gordon winning that race.
In tying him, he tried to give tribute to a guy that's no longer here that was a true champion and all of us in the sport look up to. I think it was a great gesture. It was good to see Junior come over in Victory Lane. Jeff was touched by it.
The race meant a lot to him to win the race at Phoenix. It meant a lot to tie Dale at that place. You know, it was something that meant a lot to Jeff. I think the majority of people I've talked to thought it was neat and a great tribute. I remember Davey Allison, after his death and Alan Kulwicki. I think it's way for those folks to honor those folks that have gone on that meant a lot to the sport. I think most folks took it that way.
Q. I was talking to some of your crew chiefs today, they were talking about how you guys have really gotten this one team mentality. One of the things they talked about was how a year or so ago Jimmie came and wanted to really do the team meetings, all the drivers, all the crew chiefs. You were really proud of Jimmie when he came up with that idea. Perhaps it showed a leadership side in him. Can you talk about how Jimmie came up with that idea and you being proud of it.
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, you know, that's the way I built the automobile business, everybody sharing best practices. We started multi-car teams years ago, doing it the same way. But the drivers, you know, they always talked, but everybody's been busy. Everybody's got obligations with sponsors. You just can't seem to get together.
But when Jimmie stepped up and said, Listen, we need to change what we're doing, we need to get together, we need to talk, I think it was at Pocono. From that point on, I guess he's just as busy as everybody else is. He thought it was that important. The crew chiefs and all had tried to do it, but getting everybody to commit to one time, you know, hats off to Jimmie. He made the stand. He said, I'm going to be there.
We started changing our -- what we had to do, what the obligations were to fit, that this was most important. It's really paid off. So, yeah, I'm very proud of Jimmie. All of our guys want the team and the organization to do well. But he's a student of racing. He thinks about it all the time. His office is right down the hall from me. He comes in and he's a smart guy, but he thinks about how we can be better. I think that's how you get better every day. We're real proud of him for what he did there.
Q. I suppose the flipside of these meetings is now everybody sharing information. The bad part about it is when one car wins with another team's information, as we saw in Martinsville. How are these guys able to accept that?
RICK HENDRICK: There's an old saying, You can't sink half a ship. If the whole organization does well, everybody wants to win the races. Nobody wants to run second to a teammate. But how many times does that really happen? How many times does it come down to it?
It's happened to us more here lately because the cars have been up front. But you got to remember, that's kind of what got us there, too. It's no one person or two people as smart as six or eight people. That's the negative side, you're exactly right, of sharing information. But if you're one man on an island, somebody else figures it out, it takes you six months to get it, at the end of the day, you're not going to accumulate as many points.
The situation at Martinsville, that's when you try yourself. We had it with Kyle and Jeff, Martinsville with Jimmie and Jeff. They're smart guys. They realize it takes a day or so to get everybody calmed down after you have a finish like that. At the end of the day, they can see the benefit of what we're doing.
Q. In your estimation, how much of a rivalry really existing between Jeff and Dale, Sr.?
RICK HENDRICK: I think it was a lot of respect there. I never remember "a rivalry" where they leaned on each other or ever had a situation where they had to go in the garage area. Definitely didn't have to go to the NASCAR hauler about any problems on the racetrack. I actually never remember any problems.
I think there was a lot of respect there. I think when you've got two popular drivers, different fan base, I think a lot of times the fans create the rivalry. I don't think it really happens on the racetrack sometimes. I think in that case it was just the Earnhardt fans didn't want to see Jeff win. And Jeff fans against Earnhardt.
I think that was more fan-driven than it was actual -- in order for there to be a rivalry, something's got to happen usually on the track, some kind of confrontation. I don't ever remember seeing that happen.
Q. Your personal opinion on the driving style, the success and the leadership that comes from Jeff Gordon.
RICK HENDRICK: Jeff, you know, he was always mature way beyond his years. Now that he's older and has as many years of experience as he does, he spent a lot of time with Jimmie, a lot of time with Kyle and Casey as well as a lot of other young drivers. I see a lot of people coming up to him and asking him questions. You know one thing, Jeff, he's not going to talk a ton, but when they ask him, he's pretty direct and gives them good advice.
One of the things that he talks about a lot is when to race, how to race, at what point do you save your stuff and try to figure out your car and strategy, then you go at the end. Jeff, again, has had so much experience, it's not just the experience on the track, it's experience off the track, in how to handle your time, not burn yourself up, what commitments you need to take care of first. He's been a great mentor for all of the guys at motorsports.
Q. Are you more surprised or impressed that he has 76 wins?
RICK HENDRICK: I'm impressed. I've always been impressed with him. I'm one of his biggest fans from the time I seen him drive Busch cars till the things I've seen him do in a Cup car. He is totally focused. He was extremely unselfish with Jimmie early on. He has really just, from the very beginning when he got into Cup racing, showed a tremendous amount of talent and a very smart racer. Then when you get down to 10 to go, the money's on the line, he really steps it up when he has to.
Again, that's part of knowing what to do and how to do it. You know, I feel like his personal life right now is really focused. He's got a baby on the way. When people say, Is that going to slow him down, I think he's got everything together, just like he's always wanted it. I think you're going to see him, he's determined here in this championship run. He could have won some more races this year, but he and Steve have done a great job when it's not exactly right, they'll work on it till they get it there. He's points racing and wants to win races, too. I think he's going to be a tough guy to beat this year.
Q. All that being said, with the reaction, the negative reaction from a percentage of the fans to what happened Saturday night, do you think he might be the most misunderstood champion in the history of the sport?
RICK HENDRICK: I think Jeff came out of the gate winning so much early on, you know, usually when people don't like somebody, there's a reason. I've never kind of figured out the reason other than he was a winner, because he gives back so much and he does so much for the sport. You haven't seen a lot of confrontation out of him. He's good to the media. He's good to NASCAR. I mean, he's been a good citizen.
If he hadn't won any races, I wonder how many people would like or dislike him, you know. I think it just comes with the territory. I look back over the years, guys like Darrel, if they beat -- if you were a fan of Bobby Allison, some of the other guys, here comes Darrel Waltrip, all of a sudden people don't like him. I think Jeff has paid some dues for his early success.
At the same time he takes it in stride. He's got a lot of fans that are loyal to him. You know, you're not going to get everybody to like you, so I think that's the way he does it.
Q. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Was on before you were here. He was talking about jumping in Kyle Busch's car, about how he was able to in the seven laps to pick up on some horsepower nuances, go back to his crew and share where you had more speed. From your perspective as a team owner, is that worth the trade-off that you get three more points for Kyle in the standings but maybe some trade secrets get given away?
RICK HENDRICK: NASCAR has these lap charts, time segments. You can get that stuff anyway. I don't think that you're going to be able to drive a car in a few laps that's tore up. You might feel where the power is, where we're better or worse than they are, but then to go back and duplicate it, bring it to really happen in a car, I think I'd rather have the three points.
Q. Would you ever allow a driver in another team to get in a car, a test session, or is that a taboo practice?
RICK HENDRICK: We've done that before. Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon swapped cars one time in Atlanta when Mark was driving for Roush. I wouldn't have a problem with it. Not at all.
Q. The wires had a story today that Toyota surpassed GM in global sales for the first time in this first quarter of the year. I'm wondering if that suggests anything to you about the significance of Toyota racing in NASCAR, being a part of NASCAR?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, you know, I sell both of 'em. I think what you have is GM is really focused now on product. They're doing a really good job. Toyota has had an across-the-board good products for a long time. I think you could kind of see it coming.
Me personally, I've known Toyota was going to be a threat and someone that you're going to have to deal with because they have tremendous resources. But GM has tremendous resources, too. At the end of the day I think it's good for us if all the manufacturers are healthy, Chrysler, Ford, GM and Toyota. Everybody that's in Cup needs to be a healthy organization so they can spend money and help us team owners out.
At the end of the day NASCAR is going to control. They're going to keep their show in check. It took us forever to get the same block or even a block close to what the rest of the manufacturers had. So they're going to make sure that the playing field is level.
I think what it's going to come down to is the drivers and the teams. I don't think the nameplate is going to have as much to do with it as the drivers and the crew chiefs and the organization behind them.
Q. I was meaning as much symbolically or from a marketing sense. Do you think it was a smart PR move or image move?
RICK HENDRICK: I think when you look at the fan base and you look at the people at what they're driving going into the racetracks, I think the more manufacturers we can get involved - this is just me talking - I think it's better because I think it gives some teams that maybe wouldn't be able to be supported by, say, Chevrolet or Ford, then Toyota comes in and Chrysler comes in.
You know, I'd like to see Nissan, Honda, I don't care who comes in. I think the more the merrier. I'm not opposed to it. Again, I've heard people, fans calling in complaining about Toyota being here. Then they ask them what kind of car they drove. They said a Nissan truck. I don't see -- I kind of look at the positives because they're all out here on the street. We are selling them. People are driving them. It's going to be -- it's here.
So I think having all the manufacturers involved is good for NASCAR and it's good for the teams. I think the fans have a different manufacturer to pull for.
Q. How did you see Dale Earnhardt, Sr.'s influence on Jeff Gordon on or off the track through the early years? Are there any instances that stand out?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, Dale had -- I've seen him since I've been racing before I actually got in the sport. You saw him when Jeff came along. Dale shook down our first call before I started with Harry Hyde, the first car Harry built. He was always a guy that had very little to say but always would come in and kind of get a new driver by the collar, pull him over by the side.
When he'd see a driver make a mistake on the track, he would -- it wouldn't be a whole lot said, but he would say some things. Jeff had a tremendous amount of respect for Dale. And everybody in the garage area had a lot of respect for him. I remember on several occasions that Dale would come over to Jeff and just talk about how he raced, when he raced early on. I think Jeff always took anything that Dale said as a very positive statement because Dale didn't give a lot of those. But when he would come over and tell you something, he really saw it and he really meant it.
Jeff and Dale always were good things. That's why I said earlier, you know, I never saw any kind of conflict between them. They always wanted to beat each other. I mean, that's why they raced. Tremendous amount of respect both ways.
Q. Did you see more of that, maybe Dale talking to Jeff, especially that rookie season? Jeff had the year where he damaged a lot of cars.
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, I think we had like 17 clips that first year. A lot of them were in practice. Again, Jeff came from Sprint cars, 30 laps, 10 laps, 50 laps. You got to run a 500-mile race, you can't drive 10-lap heats for 500 miles. That was one of the things that Dale said to Jeff.
Again, I think because Dale could see he had a tremendous amount of talent, and Dale even said that to me about one of my other drivers, I won't tell you who that is, but he said he's great. He's got a lot of talent. He just doesn't know when to race. He had those kind of conversations early on. I think Jeff listened to him and learned from him.
Q. Are you concerned what the fan's reactions would be Sunday if Jeff were to win at Talladega?
RICK HENDRICK: Not really. I mean, I don't know how to really answer that. I don't know why it would be any different than any other race because what he did in Phoenix was to honor Dale Earnhardt. Some of the fans, Earnhardt fans, have got to see that. Some of them saw Junior go over there and he and Jeff exchanged niceties. If there had been a problem, I could see it.
Junior has more fans at Talladega than any track I guess I've seen. Nobody wants to see anybody beat him down. I don't care if it's Tony Stewart or who it is. I think the reaction is going to be about the same no matter who it is.
Q. When Jeff wasn't quite as competitive maybe two years ago, is there anything like self-doubt that ever slipped into a guy like that, even after all he's accomplished? I'm curious what he's like to be around these days, newly married, atop the standings? Is he just floating around these days?
RICK HENDRICK: I think I can go back to the years when Ray left and Jeff stepped up and became a team leader. We had some changes in the team. Then when Stevie came on, you know, we went through -- and Jeff going through a divorce, having to handle that.
I can say from my standpoint, owner's standpoint, when Jeff wasn't running his best, it wasn't Jeff Gordon, it was us not giving him what he needed. As things change, cars change, rules change, you have to adapt. I think we just last year started -- well, the year before last, '05, he was right there to win the championship. We had horrible luck. We had a couple down years, but I think maybe some of it might have been him going through his divorce and not being settled, but the majority of all of the situations with Jeff Gordon has been we weren't able to give him what he needed.
I think he is the happiest I've ever seen him married and I think he's always wanted a child. I think this is all happening now and he is just -- he's running well, he's leading the points, but his life is balanced, probably better than I've ever seen it or as well as I've ever seen it. The team is in sync, life is good.
He's always been a guy that would put on the happy face if he had to. If the team got down, he'd lead 'em back. He would be the cheerleader when we'd break or make a mistake, run over an air hose. The most you'd ever hear out of him, We can't do that and win this thing. Most of the time you hear him say, It's okay, guys, we'll make it back, we'll be okay.
He's been an unbelievable cheerleader to keep his team pumped up and I guess right now it's fun to be around him 'cause he's always been that way but he's the happiest I've ever seen him.
Q. You've had some strong teams in the past season. How strong is this Gordon team as you look at the championship potential?
RICK HENDRICK: I think he's shown it by the points and the consistency this year. Again, Jeff is a very smart race car driver. But this points system, this 10-race shootout, you got to have luck on your side. The team is plenty good to win it. We know Jeff's capable. Stevie and Jeff are clicking. That's in place. So is Chad and Jimmie and Tony and Junior, a lot of other people.
Jeff Burton, he's a lot like Jeff Gordon in a very consistent driver, there every single week. So Jeff Burton is going to be a guy you're going to have to race to the end of this thing. So many good teams, so many good situations there. But then you got to have that racing luck.
Would I like to have this kind of momentum in the last 10, if I could swap it, I absolutely would. I think all we can do is all we can do. Jeff and that team are plenty capable this year.
Q. DEI had had a lot of dominance on the restrictor plates there with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip. Hendrick looks like they caught DEI and past them. With the dominance you now have, do you change anything with your Superspeedway packages or is it still pretty much the same packages?
RICK HENDRICK: We've had to change it. You change it every year. But DEI forced us to have to step up as well as everybody in the garage. They were dominating the thing so much that we had to really go to work and dedicate a lot of resources to getting us where we needed to be because we had guys that could do it, we just weren't giving them the equipment. Then we made some real gains and now you see the Yates cars coming around.
Nobody's going to stay on top forever. The best you can hope for is that you can work yourself and watch everybody else and just keep flogging along in the restrictor plate deal and hope that you're going to be competitive.
I think this Car of Tomorrow is going to really change the dynamics of the restrictor plate racing a lot, though, because if you watch the trucks, you can have one that's three-quarters of a second off and it's going to suck the rest of them all together.
It's going to be interesting to see what NASCAR has to do to make sure that we're able to pass and do all the things to make it a good race with the COT. You know, I think we've got to put one more race, a couple more races, then it's going to be all up for grabs again. Nobody's going to dominate that deal forever, I don't think.
But the one thing I will see, you got guys that are great drafters that always seem to be at the front: Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson. They're always up there. A lot of it is driver and talent, too.
Q. Back to what you were saying about the Car of Tomorrow, restrictor plates, how much of a wild car will it be at Talladega?
RICK HENDRICK: I think it's going to be a real wild car, more than anybody's seen. Nobody has a clue. When you get out there running four or five cars, that's one thing. But when you put 43 out there together, you have a different situation.
We don't know. I think from what we've been able to tell, car is going to punch such a big hole, the draft is going to be a big factor. You're going to see, again, the cars bunched up. It's going to be four-wide, I don't know how many rows deep. It sure throws kind of a wrench into trying to plan in the Chase. Nobody knows. There's just no way of knowing.
Q. Can you speculate at all how much you will be able -- how much of this dominance now y'all will be able to take with you?
RICK HENDRICK: I don't think we'll have any. The best we can do is hope to be equal and work hard. We'll do the same things we're doing now. You know, they've worked hard to limit what you can do to the car. The motors, we don't know exactly what size plate we'll have to run. You'll be working in that direction the best you can. There's not a lot you can do to the body. Can't massage on it too much. It's going to be a unique animal for everyone.
There again, you're not going to have a little bit of advantage like maybe on the short tracks where you have a couple of 10ths on somebody, you maybe have your cars in the top five or top 10 because the cars that started 30th or 40th are going to be able to suck up there. If they get a run, it's going to be a big freight train to the front like you see in the trucks.
It will be interesting. It will be a good race for the fans.
Q. Earlier today Dale Earnhardt, Jr. intimated he's very close to signing with DEI. I guess he could have went wherever he wanted to. Do you think that's the best interest for NASCAR to have Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at DEI?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, that's probably a hard question for me to answer. I think down the road if Dale wants to own teams, run DEI, that's the best place for him. He's got a tremendous amount of talent. No matter where he is and what he does, I think everybody has kind of figured that they'll get that worked out, get over the humps, they'll put that together and he'll end up running and owning the company his father built.
Q. As a team owner, how do you view what a lot of these Toyota teams are going through week in and week out, having to qualify on speed? What goes through your head, how do you feel when you see an owner like Michael Waltrip consistently struggling?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, you know, it's tough. I'll tell you right now, Michael trying to put three teams together from scratch was a major accomplishment. I was impressed when he got to Daytona and he had all the rigs painted and everything done.
With the organization that we have, that's been around as long as we have, to start a new team, is a ton of work. But to start two or three, that's an arm load. They'll get there. Anybody that starts up a new team is going to go through this. It's not anything that they're doing wrong. It's just a heck of a hill to have to climb.
With no points, trying to learn, work a Car of Tomorrow in, plus the existing car, it's taxing our crowd and every other team out there. When you get to this summer with having to build all these cars, different types of cars, the schedule we have, it's going to be tough.
I can tell you, the pressure of qualifying with a car with no points is tough. You got sponsors. It puts knots in your stomach. You can't sleep at night. It's a horrible feeling because some of the things are out of your control and you're talking about thousandths of a second in some cases meaning whether you race or go home. It's a situation I feel for him. It's a tough job and a tough task.
But I can see the improvement in the teams as the weeks go by. It just takes time and they'll get there.
Q. How would you assess Toyota's performance so far?
RICK HENDRICK: I think, there again, it's a lot of new teams. Bill Davis is the only team that's been there. Blaney seems to be the guy that's running good. All of them have had cars that at certain times ran close into the top 10.
I think from a start-up situation, the people inside the sport knew it was going to be a tough hill to climb. You can't take anything away from the Toyota folks. They know how to race. They're going to be competitive. But when you start up brand-new, you have to build everything from scratch, it takes time.
I see them getting better and better as time goes on. This is a competitive sport and you see awful good cars back there that four or five years ago would have had no trouble making a field. But it's just when you got this many teams that start up from scratch, they're victims of their own making. That's just part of it.
HERB BRANHAM: That concludes today's teleconference. Rick, thank you very much for joining us. Really great to have you.
RICK HENDRICK: Good to be here. I appreciate everybody calling in.
HERB BRANHAM: To all the media, we appreciate it. This is one of our biggest turnouts of the year. A reminder: Next week, Tuesday, 2 p.m. eastern, our scheduled teleconference guest will be Denny Hamlin in advance of the Richmond race.
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