NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Post-Race Transcript
An interview with:
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.
KERRY THARP: Our winning crew chief has joined us here. That's Steve Letarte.
Steve, congratulations. Heck of a win for the 88 team here at Martinsville. I think Dale said the other day in the third practice y'all really kind of found something. Talk about this win. I know it's a special win for you.
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, without a doubt. I was able to win my first race here as a crew chief with Jeff. This place is always special to the Hendrick family, everybody who works at Hendrick Motorsports. I guess we all consider ourselves part of the Hendrick family.
To come here and win is great. Really since Dale and I have worked together, he's always talked about this place. It's just different when he talks about it. Kind of has that twinkle, he really wants that clock.
There are certain trophies in this sport that have remained the same. It's different. You want to have one. This is one I was fortunate enough to have, now I was fortunate enough to work with Dale and get him his first.
It was a great day. A hard-fought day. Beating and banging all throughout the field. I think we saw more catastrophic style crashes. You see a lot of sliding around here, but today we saw more serious crashes than we have ever seen. That is what the sport has created. It's stressful. It's high pressure. It's what we want. It was exciting to come out on top.
KERRY THARP: We'll take questions for Steve Letarte.
Q. How often have you heard Dale Jr. talk about the clock?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, he brings it up basically anytime Martinsville is in the conversation. It's a place that we thought we were there. Man, we led this race, I can't remember what year it was, under 10 laps to go, and we just weren't good enough, we got beat.
This place, he talks about it a lot. Whenever we talk about coming to Martinsville, I think Martinsville is a high conversation at our company. We prepare for this race like most people prepare for the Brickyard.
There's a reason that all of our cars run well here. It starts with Mr. Hendrick. Right behind him it comes to our drivers. They study it, understand it, believe it, work very hard at it. It's not just by chance. We don't just have some lucky drivers that are good here. They work very hard to be good here. I think that trickles through the organization.
He talks about winning a clock a lot. Now hopefully when I'm at his house having a cold one we'll listen to the chime 10 years from now and smile.
Q. How hard was it to make that call at the end, pit for tires?
STEVE LETARTE: It wasn't hard to make, but it was nerve-wracking to watch. Tires were very important, without a doubt. They were important all day. We kind of saw it earlier in the race.
We pitted with about 17 or 18 laps on our tires, got back to the lead pretty quickly. The 11 did it with 12 laps on everyone else's tires. We knew tires were important.
We have like a private channel. My engineer and I are next to one another. Basically it came down to if you pit and no one else does, you lose. If you stay out and everyone else pits, you lose. So how would you feel better losing?
We felt we would feel better losing with tires. We just put tires on it. Luckily we had a lot of lap down cars between us and fourth and fifth. As long as we had a decent stop, we thought we would maintain some decent track position. Then Dale has to go out and do what he did. That makes the pit call look good, which I appreciate him doing.
Q. You were fast the past three races, but maybe didn't get the results. Now that you're back in Victory Lane, is there any way to not kind of wonder 'what if'?
STEVE LETARTE: No, not at all. In my opinion I thank NASCAR for the new Chase. We went to Charlotte and Talladega with an opportunity to advance in the Chase. If it was the chance last year at Kansas when we blew a tire, we were eliminated. That's how I look at it.
We blew an engine last year at Chicago, put together probably the nine best races we could put together. We had a hope and a prayer making fourth in points. Leaving Homestead, I think we got the fifth.
I look at it as the opposite. They established a platform and opportunity. When we left Kansas as deflated as we felt, we could go to Charlotte, make our own destiny, our own opportunity, our own chances, and we didn't do that. We faltered when we needed to run the best.
There's no excuses. I think that is how a team gets better, when you don't make excuses. We were eliminated because we didn't perform as well as we needed to to stay in the Chase.
I think more than anything, what I'm proud of is the fact we were eliminated seven short days ago. This team, you wouldn't have known it Monday morning, other than disappointment, which is natural, this team performed. They came to work. They were ready to go when we showed up here.
You wouldn't know whether we were the championship leader or eliminated from the Chase when you walked in the garage on Friday. I think that showed on Sunday afternoon.
Q. Do you do anything in Victory Lane to commemorate 10 years ago? Can you talk about how you feel when you see Rick Hendrick walk into this place.
STEVE LETARTE: Well, the first part of your question, we don't do anything different here. We handed out our decals that we run, which are important to all of us. Other than the decal, every Victory Lane I've ever been a part of since the accident, we make sure we wear our Hendrick hat backwards for a picture. Some of the newer guys, I think they kind of understand. But when you look around, there's a group of us that have been around for a long time and I think we really get it.
Then when you see Rick, I mean, I read the article that I think Marty wrote. Rick's quote really hit home where he said he had seen and met parents who lost loved ones for so long. He said he tried to console them, tried to put himself in their shoes. Until he lost one of his own, he had no idea. He wishes he could go back to each and every one of them and say, I didn't really know.
I look at it the same way. I'm blessed to have a great family with two healthy children. Those are the lessons that people that work for Rick learn. It's not about managing money, budgets, hiring people. Those are all good things he does. But the great things he does very few people write about because they're hard to write about, they're hard to understand.
I can say after 20 years, I'm a way better person for knowing Rick Hendrick than when I started employment there.
KERRY THARP: Steve, congratulations on this victory here today. Enjoy it. We'll see you at Texas.
STEVE LETARTE: Thank you.
KERRY THARP: We'll hear from our race winner, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He drives the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet. Got himself a grandfather clock. This is his first win at Martinsville Speedway, his 23rd win overall, his fourth win of 2014.
Dale, congratulations. This has to be one of the big ones for you.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: It sure is. You know, I love the history of the sport and just can't get enough of like all these pictures on the wall in here. I just know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.
Been coming here so many years, I've been coming here since the early '80s, watching races here. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs. Had this little round rug right in that hallway that I'd run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on the Racing Motor Network. That clock would ring on the hour.
I always wanted one. I came close I think several times. We had some good finishes here. Even with Tony, Sr. and Tony, Jr. in the Bud days, we had pretty quick cars here. Several years I think the car should have won, but the driver didn't.
It all worked out. I know by running here so many times that everything has to go right for you. Really at pretty much every race you win, it all has to fall into place. And everything was hitting on all cylinders. We had amazing pit stops, had a really smart, good, aggressive strategy by Steve and the engineers. They were giving him great information, giving him confidence to make great choices. At the end the right things had to happen on the restart to get by those guys, and it just sort of did.
I couldn't believe it. I still really can't believe it. The clock seems so hard to get. This is so special. I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it's a team deal, but this is very personal and very special to me to be able to win here.
KERRY THARP: We'll take questions for Dale.
Q. Dale, when Jeff was in here earlier, he made it very clear to us, If I got there, I was going to move him, he would have to understand that. What was going through your mind knowing that? Was that, I've got to put the hammer down so he can't get there?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Exactly. As soon as I got clear of everyone but Tony, I remember going into turn three and seeing Tony struggle. I thought, I got to get by him really fast because he's going to hold me up. If I have to run behind him for even a corner, I'm going to have somebody with four tires, just like me, on my bumper. That's not going to be fun for three laps.
I got sort of a run. I really wasn't under Tony, but I think he knew that the position was lost and he'd give me the inside going into three. As soon as we got in the center corner, I just gassed it, doored him pretty hard. But I had to go.
I couldn't really sit there and run on the inside of him off the corner down the next straightaway and give any time to anybody coming up behind us like Jeff. I hadn't looked in the mirror since the green dropped, until I got past Tony. I saw Jeff was about four car lengths back. They said it was three laps to go.
I thought, All right, just hit every corner, don't overdrive the car, don't try to be the fastest car, just try to put together the best corner you can and get out of that corner, get out of the damn corner as hard as you can get out of it. Don't overdrive the center to where you can't exit as well as you can. It's really important to exit as hard as you can.
If I gave him a half a car length a lap, I was able to afford to do that. He was fast enough all day that he could run us down if the race continued. I knew if I give him half a car length a lap, he would never have the chance to get to that bumper because I knew he would move us or run through us.
Q. Would you have understood that?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I would have been pissed. I mean, hell, I'd have been pissed off. I've come so close here. I've been passed at the end, lost some races here. Like I said, had some cars that should have won. So it was good.
Q. How do you view this win in the course of the season? On the one hand you're having somewhat of a career year, four wins, overall consistency. On the other hand it's a disappointment because you didn't make this round of the Chase. Is this a successful year?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Yeah, I definitely would put it as a successful year. One of the things I'll tell you is we really kind of think more of the here and now. The Chase has been very disappointing.
I remember this team right around when we were winning at Pocono, that they were confident. Man, we're the best. All this work. We feel like we've been working to this point for five years with Steve, trying to get going.
Instead of running up the stairs to the top, we've had to take one step a year. Finally we're getting to where we're winning some races.
This Chase and the disappointment in this Chase beat all that success and all that mojo and all that pride, all that excitement out of these guys. We all enjoy working together. It was unspoken. It's not conversations that we had. But everybody knew it was very disappointing where we were at coming into this weekend.
So to win today sort of reminds the team, more importantly than myself, I think it reminds the team, the engineers, that what we got is a good thing. Everybody is staying together except the crew chief. It was unexpected. I expected when one domino falls, a few more might fall, so we would have to fill some gaps or holes that would be difficult to fill. Everybody said, When Greg is coming, we're here.
I think that win reminded that team and those guys what they're capable of. Yeah, we've had some bad breaks with the tire at Kansas, just some poor runs where we got outrun. But we can accomplish some really good things and win more races. So I think that was good for them.
Q. It almost feels like your season was going this direction.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I don't believe in fairytales. It's only destiny in hindsight, you know. This wasn't our year. It's only magical after the fact when you see it happen.
But it just wasn't our year, man. It feels good not to sit there and watch everybody else just finish the year off. I'm glad we were able to get a win, remind ourselves that if we keep working hard, keep trying, maybe we will win the championship like we want to.
We're definitely a good enough team. We got to get them breaks, got to keep working, got to stay positive. You can't get beat down.
Q. Do you have a place picked out for the clock?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I'm going to leave that up to Amy, where she wants to put it. I'm glad to hear her say she thought it was beautiful. It will get a good place up front somewhere, hopefully in the living room.
I'm going to put it somewhere where I see it every day. I want to put it just inside the front door where you got to walk around the damn thing when you come in the house, but she probably won't let me set it there.
Q. Talk a little bit about the jerky this week. You were talking about it in the car. You talked about a keg stand. I'm sure you're going to have a hell of a party at the house. Will you please put up a picture.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I don't have a keg. But we'll have fun. We'll definitely take a picture of all of us having a good time and send it out to everybody.
I like jerky. I don't know anybody that doesn't. If they don't like jerky, I look at them funny. If they don't like jerky, I don't think I can hang out with them.
I got me a meat slicer and I got me a dehydrator. I think the dehydrator came from my buddy Kenny for my birthday. I made two batches. I gave some to T.J. He didn't vomit during the race and he said it tasted good, so success.
It's pretty easy. You just marinate it, throw it in the dehydrator, and you're ready to go. I don't know what in the hell I was doing buying jerky all these years.
Q. You started 23rd, but at what point this weekend did you know you had a winning racecar? Really, did Josh Berry's win have any extra motivation for you?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: That's a great point. I knew yesterday in the last practice we had a fast car. I think we liked our runs, our times, the way the balance of the car was going.
Starting the race, I was a little bit concerned about the balance of the car. It was a little bit tight. We made our first adjustment, it really worked. The car was turning great, doing great things. I was really happy with the car right away with the race.
I went to Hickory last night. I have been to Hickory sings 1999, as far as I can remember. I haven't watched my late model win a race or even run a race in several seasons. It was great to see Josh go out there and win.
I listened to him on the radio talking about saving his tires, listening to how mature he was about winning that race, driving that race. Just being in that atmosphere, the smells and the sounds.
Watching Phil Parsons try to whoop somebody in the pits, that was pretty funny. Somebody spun his boy out going into turn one. Anybody, they had their back turned, Phil was trying to kill this guy in the pits (smiling).
It just brought back a lot of memories about how grass-roots that is, how damn much fun all those people there are having, to be there every week. You get those friendships, camaraderie, fellowship. You're with the same people every weekend. You know what they do for a living. You really enjoy that company, although you race hard, may fight and feud every once in a while. It's just a great atmosphere.
I don't know that it helped me win today, but definitely I came to the racetrack very refreshed, as if I had a week vacation or something like that.
Q. That last caution, you talked about how this win is personal, out front, nothing between you and the victory, how hard was it to be in the cockpit, come to pit road, the decision that Steve made?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: It wasn't hard at all. Staying out on old tires, we were going to lose for sure. Taking two tires, if nobody else took two tires, so we got all these guys behind us on four tires, we were probably going to be beat.
It was the right call to come get four. I knew it was. I had to hope to line up in the right line, get the right circumstances in the restart. Sometimes it doesn't work out. I could have gotten beat out of pit road by somebody and not had the opportunities I made on the inside.
Circumstances could have played it out differently. But I've always run this race, you get to running really good, about lap 200, you start daydreaming about what it might be like to win. I refused to let myself do that in this particular race. I don't know if that had anything to do with how we ended up winning.
I'd start daydreaming about winning. I'd shut it down as hard as I could and get back to whatever the hell was happening on the racetrack. I thought that was pretty funny.
Q. On the restart, the next to last one, with 63 to go, Jeff was on the outside next to Clint, you were restarting third. Did you think about cutting him some slack on that one? He said one time earlier he filled the hole on you so you might not have wanted to.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: With 50 laps to go, you still sort of can't burn the rear tires off of it. If we go as hard as we can on sticker tires, as hard as you can, you're going to burn tires off in about 40 laps. Everybody else who is a little smarter than you is going to beat you.
It was still the time in the race where I didn't need to push the issue. Jeff was on the outside. Clint got going. We come off of turn two. I had a fender under Jeff, but he was coming down like, Hey, I want the spot, I want to get in here.
At that particular moment, I didn't see a point in really making a big deal out of it. I think I let him have that particular spot.
But it just depends. I think at the same time you don't want to be on the outside on these restarts. We had a lot of cautions late in the race there, as well. I didn't want to be lining up on the outside of Clint and get trained and lose several spots. Starting third is not a bad place to be.
Q. You mentioned something about winning, you could care less about the points, love winning races, winning races is the best thing. We put so much emphasis on the Chase, on the championship. When you saw the fans out there in the stands, how elated they were for you to win, did it shift the focus for at least a small bit of time?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: To?
Q. To winning. It actually means something still in this sport to win a race.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Hell yeah. Hell, there's no better feeling that I know of. I haven't won a championship, so I don't know what the hell I'm missing. But this is absolutely incredible.
Yeah, I mean, we're disappointed we're not in the Chase or don't have a chance for the title. But I can't even imagine. That's just too much to even ponder what winning a championship would be like.
I know how fun winning races is, how hard it is to win races, especially at this particular racetrack. How many years we've been coming here and trying to win.
I certainly celebrate it, definitely appreciate the challenge of it, how difficult it is. We sort of come out of our shell when we do accomplish things like we accomplished today.
But, yeah, I mean, winning races is what it's all about. You want the best feeling of everybody in the garage, you need to get the checkered flag. Everybody puts so much into it, you work so hard, we all do, everybody traveling so damn much, running like crazy. We've been working like hell all year on and off the track. It definitely feels good to be able to get some victories.
Q. What was it like in Victory Lane with Rick, knowing how much winning here means to him?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I could feel how important it was to him and his embrace, when he would hug me. You just know there's a genuine hug and there's a hug. His was the real deal.
This is the 10th anniversary. It's more difficult. The 10th anniversary sort of has you reflecting and remembering. On other anniversaries, you really don't have to remember as much or reflect as much. But when it sort of hits these particular anniversaries, like the 10th, you feel like you need to stand up and recognize and acknowledge. You do. You want to. There's a part of you that loves to celebrate those people's lives. But there's the other half of you that can't forget the loss.
Losing my dad was difficult. I can't imagine that loss that he went through, his family went through, the whole organization. All those people at one time. It just has to be unbelievable to have to deal with that.
I think I've paralleled my loss and his loss until I started working with him, then I started understanding it's quite a bit larger void that it created.
They do a lot to recognize and remember and celebrate those people's lives. I think the more years, the more time I spend around the organization, the more I started to understand what that weekend means to the company.
They always run good at Martinsville. They always win here. Like I say, I seen all the other drivers, even Mark Martin, all the other guys, continue come here and winning races. I thought when I started with Hendrick I would have a better shot at getting a victory here.
Part of me wishes that it hadn't took so long, but the other part of me thinks the fact that it did take me so long makes me appreciate it more and celebrate it.
Q. You've talked this season about appreciating a little bit more the wins, particularly in your last year with Steve. When you look back to your career, you talk about you don't know how it is to win a championship, but do you feel like you missed out on anything even in celebrating the victories or some of the seasons that you've had?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Not this year. I think the reason why we celebrate the wins with real genuine emotion and elation is because I remember when we were winning in the Busch Series, we won at Milwaukee. We got up to Victory Lane, it was just like going through the motions. We even looked at each other and said, Damn, we're winning so much, we almost come to expect it, just go through the hat dance, all that. So young back then. You thought, Man, you're going to win a lot more races.
But it's not easy and you don't. You don't have all these awesome years where you're piling up wins, just hitting homers every week.
I think the older you get, you definitely come to appreciate how challenging it is, how the competition is very difficult, how so many guys out there are capable of winning.
Plus, I mean, there's a lot of people that wrote us off, wrote me off. Even after winning Daytona, even after Pocono, people said, He probably won't win no more.
It's awesome to prove somebody wrong. That's probably not the priority. But, I mean, I can't believe 40 years old that I'm still doing this, still successful at it, still with a great team, maybe the best team I've ever been with.
It's something that I hope I can sustain and hopefully be fortunate enough to be with this group for many years, and we might have as good an opportunity next year and maybe the year after that to win a championship.
But winning races is the priority. I don't know that I'd be that damn happy about winning a championship had we not won any races this year. So definitely winning these races is a whole lot of fun.
Q. Talk a little bit about where this victory ranks in your career given your history here. What has it been like to have the success you've had with Steve Letarte?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: This ranks up here. Getting the clock is something I wanted to do. Short-track racing is something I love. It's not a lost art but it's definitely not something we get a lot of and do a lot of. This is a great ticket. It's a great racetrack. It's a great place to come see a race. These people here in this area are proud of this racetrack.
Working with Steve, a lot of emotions. I don't know where he's at. I imagine he's holding it together best he can. I know once we get to Homestead, that sort of end point comes where he knows this is the last race he's going to crew chief, that's going to be very hard for him. We'll be there to support him and hold him up.
He's excited about his opportunity, excited about what he's going to be doing in his future. I know there's a big part of him that definitely knows, even now today, that he's going to miss what he's doing today. He's going to miss the people and the friendships. That's going to be interesting to watch.
We'll probably all be bawling like little babies after the race in Homestead. Hopefully we're in Victory Lane and there will be all kinds of damn emotions running through us.
It was great that I got to work with him. He turned my career around. He put a great team together. What he's accomplished is impressive as hell. I'm overwhelmed with what he's been able to do.
He put me in Victory Lane. Like I say, the team he's assembled, incredible group. That's all Steve. He seems to have evolved into one of the best crew chiefs in the garage.
Q. You talked about your father's clocks. What do you remember about your earliest trip to Martinsville? What do you have to say to the fans back at Whiskey River who are enjoying an hour of free drinks?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: That's right. Hell yeah. I'm going to go home and finish what I got in the cooler.
I hope they enjoyed their day. I go to Whiskey River for lunch. I think it's a great place to hang out. I'm sort of envious of people that get to go out and watch NFL games, watch the race on Sundays. It's got to be a blast to do that.
I remember wearing panel knit sweatshirts. They were a sponsor of the race. They were a sponsor of Buddy Arrington's Ford. Guys would bring their racecars on the open trailer. They'd park the trailer up against the wall or the fence in the corner. We used to climb on top of those trailers, me and Brad Means, Scott Williams, Doug Williams' boy, Mike Whitcomb, Bob Whitcomb's son. Even Jason Jarrett, a couple of the guys, we would run around, run all over the garage, do whatever we felt like doing.
It was such a fun time. Looking for somewhere to get a good seat, somewhere to watch the race. We wanted to be in the corner, watch the guys go through the corner. I think the best seat in the house is down in three and four or one and two in the stall, in the pit box, getting on top of that car. You can see it working through the corner.
Dad, Dave Marcis would be out there practicing. You'd get so close to the track, you could actually tell how the car handled. So close to it, you could see the car a little bit loose in, you could see guys getting through the center of the corner. I remember that. We always wanted to be as close to it as we could. This was a great place to do that.
KERRY THARP: Dale, congratulations. Enjoy this win.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I will.
KERRY THARP: We'll see you in Texas.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Y'all have a good trip home.