Each Tuesday, NASCAR holds a weekly teleconference for members of the motorsports media. Due at least largely in part to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s drought-busting win at Michigan International Speedway last Sunday, guests for yesterday’s teleconference included car owner Rick Hendrick and No. 88 crew chief Steve Letarte. Below, is a transcript of the interview:
Q. Steve, when you took over the 88 program, it seems like you had to rebuild a driver as much as anything else. When you first started to go through that, how did you determine what Dale needed the most first?
STEVE LETARTE: I think the most important thing we did, when Mr. Hendrick made the changes to the race team, we started with a blank sheet of paper. We didn’t take any preconceived notions of what Dale’s strengths or weaknesses were. I personally didn’t listen to anybody else’s opinions on Dale. I learned a lot from Mr. Hendrick on how to deal with people and with relationships, and the most important thing is to create your own relationship firsthand. Dale and I did that.
We sat down and went through what we thought the concerns were, the strengths were. We took a very methodical approach. We kind of walked before we could run and tried to run before we thought we could win.
It was trying on our patience when we started to see success last year. Of course, we wanted to push harder. But I was very proud at the patience everyone in the race team had. Mr. Hendrick has a tremendous amount of patience and allowed us to do everything we could to improve, giving us every tool possible. It’s taken a while but we feel now we’re kind of hitting our stride.
Q. What made you think the combination of Dale and Steve would work in the first place, Rick?
RICK HENDRICK: Being around Stevie, he can be extremely funny and in a nanosecond he’s very serious. He balances having a good time and keeping his guys loose. He wants it as bad as anybody I’ve ever seen. I just think watching his people skills around the shop, the way he handles his team, the way they believe in him, I thought that was a great match.
I’ll give him 100% total credit. I surprised him one afternoon about 3:00. No one knew what was going to happen. When I told him within 15 minutes he was in his car driving to Dale’s house, and he said, I’m going to sit down with Dale and we’re just going to talk about racing, about life, about each other, what each of us want to accomplish.
So from there, Stevie, they rode together to test. They were together all the time. I mean, that created that trust. We use that word a lot, ‘trust.’ But Dale does not trust everybody. He doesn’t think sometimes that he’s taken in the right light. You see that more when his confidence isn’t there.
But when his confidence is switched on, I mean, he’s convinced and he knows he’s got the best in the garage. He believes that. He believes he’s got the best crew chief and the best team. He believes this is what he’s needed.
Chemistry is so important. Sometimes you never hit the right combination. But, man, I look back and I think we’re very fortunate. Didn’t have any idea it was going to be this good. But I think that the chemistry between these two guys, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years, is as good as or better than any I’ve ever seen.
Q. Mr. Hendrick, NASCAR has made a lot of changes over the last few seasons to up attendance, make racing more exciting. What do you think has worked and what else do you think they could do?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I think they’ve done a lot of things. I think in some cases, like in Pocono, they shortened the race. We repaved some tracks. But I think the double-file restarts have brought a lot of excitement to the sport. If you look at how many races are won or lost right after the restart, someone’s led all day, they’ve done the pass-around. Some people wave by, they call it. A guy can make a lap up and get back in the competition.
They’ve made a lot of adjustments to give the drivers more opportunities to win. The cars, they’re so equal now. You see some pretty aggressive driving. They’ve let the drivers kind of ‘boys have at it’ a little bit, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.
You take all those things together, the racing is better than it’s ever been. It’s more competitive than it’s ever been. I think the fans are enjoying it. They asked for some of these things. Now next year we’re bringing the cars back, the Chevrolets will look like Chevrolets and the Fords will look like Fords. I think that’s another element. The tracks are doing Fan Zones, asking what they like and want.
I think all that said, the bottom line is that racing has to be good and the racing is as competitive or more competitive than I’ve ever seen it.
Q. With Dale being the most popular driver in the series year after year, getting him back in the winner’s circle, that also helps build momentum, doesn’t it?
RICK HENDRICK: Oh, absolutely. Two things. Seeing him run up front every week, seeing him win a race, seeing him running for the championship, that’s going to just build the sport, the TV ratings, fans in the seats.
I mean, we have been bombarded yesterday with emails and different blogs to our sites all over about Junior Nation is having Christmas early this year. It’s fun because they’ve waited. They’re loyal fans. He cares about them.
I think that has bothered him more than anything else, that his fan base, he didn’t feel like he was getting it done for them. I think now that’s got him pumped up. He’s very confident. I mean, our guys said they were still partying when the trucks left Michigan.
I think you’ll see it at these races, when he’s introduced, he takes the lead again, you’ll see his fan base on their feet.
It’s good for the sport. It’s good for him. I think it helps everybody.
Q. Coming out to Sonoma this week, the last couple of years we’ve really seen some high tempers on the track, maybe more so than in the past. I was wondering if you agree with that and if you had any explanations why we’re seeing more on-track incidents?
STEVE LETARTE: I guess I’ll go first.
I think it shows where the sport is. There’s so many successful race teams. There’s so many race car drivers, fast teams out there. Week in, week out with the points system, the Chase, every week has become more and more important.
I think years ago when race teams went out to Sonoma on the road courses, everyone looked at it to go out there, not make mistakes, get the best run you can. I think that mindset has gone away. Every race team feels that it can be like a oval track, they can go out and run well.
The double-file restarts increases tempers. You hear all the time about wanting to race for wins. Sonoma is a perfect example of how hard everyone races every lap to get the best finish possible.
RICK HENDRICK: I agree with Steve. The problem there, again, is when you don’t have the opportunities to pass, you have so many corners, you’re driving under braking, your only shot is to out-brake a guy or push a guy, our cars, we tear them up more at this race than we do anywhere other than maybe Talladega and Daytona. I mean, our bodies are beat off of the cars when the race is over. It’s just because it’s really tight-corner racing, they’re on top of each other, pushing and shoving.
It’s a very aggressive way to race. But that’s the only option they have.
Q. It seems like there are many better road course drivers in NASCAR now. You look at all the first-time winners we’ve had, it seems there’s more good road course drivers now.
RICK HENDRICK: I think you have two things. The equipment is equal. Everybody’s got good brakes. NASCAR basically has restricted us with what we can do to the car. And you’ve got the most talented drivers in the world. If they know they’re going to have to go on a road course, they go and practice, go to school, and they can test on other road courses.
You’re right, you see guys like Kasey Kahne, Dale, Ambrose is going to run really well. But then everybody that’s in the top-20 guys that can run can win a race on an oval now, they can win a road course race too. They’re that good.
Q. Steve, you’ve won here with Jeff Gordon. Dale has been the most popular driver out here at this track for years and years and years. It seems like the races in the past have been physically demanding races for him. Just finishing in the top 10 was a good finish for him. Has anything changed since you’ve taken over with him as far as his road course approach?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think I guess it’s a two-part question. The first thing is the physically demanding. I don’t think any of us on our race team question his ability to go out there and run well. We go to tough ovals. Bristol, we run very well at, is one of the most physically demanding ovals we go to. We ran well at Dover. There’s no straightaway to rest on. We’ll be prepared in that area.
As far as our consistency, our performance during the race, we have worked very hard. We’ve been to Road Atlanta, we’ve tested. As we mentioned in the last question, no one throws away any races anymore. You do all you can every single week.
Sonoma is a place we look forward to improve. We felt we had an okay car there last year, got caught up in an accident. Those things are going to happen. That hurts our stats at Sonoma because it was just an accident. We look forward to going out there, having a good time. I don’t think the win could have come at a better time. We’re going to go out there and enjoy ourselves. We are pretty confident that if we go out there and have fun with it, we can get a car that drives very good.
There’s a lot of opportunities there with restarts, fuel strategies. There’s a lot of opportunities to have a good run there and we’re looking forward to it.
Q. Rick, you’ve won several races with Jeff Gordon, with different crew chiefs as well. Also you won a couple years ago with Jimmie Johnson. Of all those, does any one stand out as being more special than any of the others?
RICK HENDRICK: You mean, at Sonoma?
Q. At Sonoma.
RICK HENDRICK: I think they’re all special out there. Usually we have a bunch of employees at the racetrack. We want to run well when they’re there.
A win is a win. I don’t think one is any more special than the other. When you see that car coming around and it’s one more lap, you get the trophy out there, you’re a happy camper.
I feel about them all the same way.
Q. Rick, since Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s resurgence here in the last year and a half, what would you say has been the most impressive or surprising thing that he’s done? Is there anything you thought, I didn’t think he would do that, react to something a certain way?
RICK HENDRICK: Golly, I’m trying to think through. Stevie may know and be better prepared to answer that than I am.
I think when he said he was the best driver in our camp, he had not said anything close to that before. He, as a matter of fact, would say, Man, Jimmie is unbelievable, Jeff is unbelievable, Kasey is really fast. But when he came out and said, I’m getting the job done, I’m the A horse in the stable right now, and felt good about saying that, that just showed me that he was at max confidence, and that’s what he needed, that’s what he needs.
When he gets that little stride, that little smile, that kind of notch in his step, he’s starting having fun with it, and he starts playing with the guys on the radio when he’s leading the race, that kind of reminds me of his dad. I love to see that.
I’m really excited because I think he’s having fun and looking forward to the races. And that’s all about your confidence. You just got to get in a rhythm where you can run good every week when you feel that way.
Q. Steve, do you want to take a stab at that?
STEVE LETARTE: I think Rick answered it pretty accurately.
I think that was a telltale sign to maybe the world where he stood on where his opinion was. That’s definitely a question that I think anyone in a company wants to shy away from because it’s a hard question to answer.
Little things like that mean a lot to the race team because you have to think that. If you don’t think that on Sunday morning, then this sport’s really, really tough. If you don’t believe that you can go out and be the best, then it’s really hard to try to do that.
So I think with what Rick said is a great answer. We had all made great strides. It’s one more notch in the belt, one more step in the process.
Q. Steve, the most important thing you did for Dale, he said, was give him accountability and structure. Can you expand on that a little bit.
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I will expand on it some. I don’t like to go into a tremendous amount of detail because I think those are important things you work on in your race team to improve the race team. Those are as important as shocks and springs.
This is how this building has always operated. It operated that way when Ray was here. I think Chad and I learned a lot from him, how he ran his race team. There are expectations set forth for every employee whether you’re the tire man, engineer, engine man or the driver. The driver isn’t a subcontractor, he’s a team member. When you become a team member of the 88, you’re expected to carry your end of the ship.
That is not only the hard work you put in but there’s certain expectations and certain things needed. For the engineers to do their jobs as needed, certain times be available, certain expectations to come post race. I can’t say enough about it. I think those expectations were laid out. They’ve been met 110%.
I think that has continued along, that chemistry, and trust we go back to. When people do the little things, go above and beyond, it’s not what people say in life that makes a difference, it’s what people do. I think those actions have spoken louder than any words that could have been said within the team to get everybody fired up and pulling on the same side of the rope.
Q. Rick, one win in four years, and you still felt the confidence and belief in Dale Jr. to give him a contract extension. I know from a marketing standpoint, he’s a money machine for you. But what did you see in him and why have you believed in him through this whole stretch?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I want to back up just one second and say something about Stevie here.
When you say you put in structure and you put in accountability and all that, not everyone could have gone up there and sat down with Dale and said, Look, this is the way it’s going to be, this is the way you have to show up, ta-da, ta-da.
Stevie has a unique way of putting his arm around him and saying, Look, Bubba, we’re in this together, together we’re going to do this, this is what I’m going to do, this is what you need to do. Dale felt comfortable and trusted Stevie. I don’t think Stevie gets near the credit he deserves for getting Dale to feel all the things that Dale has to feel to be successful and be comfortable with the guys.
To go from doubting what he had to feeling like he has the best in the garage, that’s a tremendous job. I think it’s probably the hardest job out there. So I just don’t think Stevie gets near enough credit for what he’s accomplished.
That being said, Dale and I have a real bond. I look at him not like a son, but close to it. I’ve known him since he was a kid. He and Kelley and I have been tight for a long time. The fact that he had faith in me and I saw him run good and knew he could drive, knew he had the talent, to come to our organization and then to fail, I mean, I did not want that on my résumé because he had faith in me.
I was going to do everything in my power to give him what he needed to get the job done because I knew it was inside those walls. What we were missing was a coach and a quarterback. We finally got the best coach and quarterback with him, then things started to happen.
It was like I just didn’t want to give up on something that we had talked, he had faith and confidence in me to come over there. I was not going to quit trying until we hit on something that would work because I know he can drive a racecar.
So, yeah, we had one good year, a couple of not good years, but now I think we have the foundation and the base to show the Junior Nation and the NASCAR community what Dale Jr. can do and what he’s all about.
Q. Rick, when I saw Mike Helton in Victory Lane, he hugged Dale Jr., more like a son, a long hug, more than just kind of a man hug thing. I was watching that. Through the whole process I was wondering about your phone call to him, the phone being passed to you. Have you seen him other than this comment saying, I’m the best in the stable, whether you’ve seen changes in Dale seemingly enjoying life more, other than that one comment, anything you’ve seen change in him?
RICK HENDRICK: It’s a combination of a lot of things. He’s just happy at this point in his life. I talked to him in Daytona getting ready for what I think was going to be a clash, Stevie was standing there. He said, Hey, man, I want to tell you I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in a racecar.
It can be a multitude of things. But genuinely he likes Stevie. He likes the team. They’re his guys now. He feels like they belong to him. They’re all friends. They play basketball. They do things together.
He and I spent some time in Key West together. We’ve created something the that’s fun but you get the job done at the same time. Nobody losing sight of why we’re there, but we’re trying to not make every minute of life miserable, but to have some kind of fun and enjoy yourself.
Again, his joy comes when he’s confident and he feels good about what he’s doing in the car. When a driver starts doubting his team or doubting his ability or just feels like he’s going to be in a train wreck any minute, it’s a miserable way to get up and go to work every morning.
He doesn’t like change. I don’t like change. I don’t like shuffling people because you never know if you’re going to make the right decision. When you change as much change as we did, again I sound like I’m giving an Emmy to Steve today, but I walked in one day unannounced and said, Next year you’re not going to have Jeff Gordon, you’re going to have Dale Earnhardt. 10 minutes later he was charging the hill to see what he could do to make it work.
I think Dale has seen all of that. I think he’s happy in his life with his girlfriend. I mean, I think life is good. I think he should be walking around with a ‘life is good’ hat on right now. He’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him.
Q. When you got the phone, what was that like? What kind of conversation did you have on the phone when he finally wins?
RICK HENDRICK: I was hating myself because I was in Michigan. I was sitting at the airport in the rain, waiting to get in the helicopter. I had a big meeting in Atlanta Monday morning and I had to have the pilots back at 6:30. It was a 7:00 deal in Atlanta, I had to make it, so I had to leave and come home.
In one way I’m glad I wasn’t there because nobody got to put the camera on me and see how nervous I was those last 20 laps because I was climbing over chairs, around chairs, about to go nuts. It had just been so long. After this year, I was thinking, What is going to happen? Something is going to happen. Somebody is going to break, somebody is going to blow. Something is going to happen.
I told him, I knew we was going to get it done, I’m so proud of you. Enjoy it. The world is proud of you. Take a deep breath and have some fun.
Q. Steve, going back to Pocono, the last pit stop coming in, was that a big picture kind of pit stop and does this win change your strategy for the future?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think that last pit stop at Pocono is definitely a big-picture pit stop. It was important for us all to be on the same page and we were.
The season is very long. I think it’s easy to take for granted our points position, take for granted that you’ll be in the Chase. I learned an important position in 2005 when we missed the Chase with Jeff, a guy we never thought we would miss the Chase with, a superstar in the sport.
At that point it looked a little bleak in our fuel strategy. Hindsight would maybe change your opinion. But we had to make the decision at that time. The other thing that helps that decision, when we unload fast racecars, it gives Dale and I and our whole team to stick with our strategies, even when they’re not the most popular. Eventually we thought we could win a race.
If we don’t have fast racecars, you get a little more Hail Mary, panic situation, out of your comfort zone. That would have been out of our comfort zone to stay out at Pocono.
Winning at Michigan, does it make us call the race more aggressive? Maybe. Maybe when we get opportunities. What it allows us to do, it proves to ourselves that the hard work is paying off, we’re on the right track.
I wish I could answer your question more direct, but each race is going to have to be taken as it’s presented in front of you. If we’re fortunate enough, continue with the same points progression throughout the summer, without a doubt as you get closer to the Chase, they don’t become Hail Mary’s, they become calculated risks, and we probably will take some as we get closer.
Q. Before you got the 200th win at Darlington, you said once that came maybe you expected the floodgates to open. Did you expect it to open as big as it has?
RICK HENDRICK: No, I didn’t. I felt like we were putting too much pressure on ourselves. Everybody wanted to win the 200th race. I think it just became almost a joke that we were ready to celebrate and couldn’t celebrate.
I remember Matt Kenseth sent me a text that night and said, I was starting to feel sorry for you.
Again, when your cars are running as good as they were running, running up front, you knew the breaks were going to go your way. So I had no idea. If you look at the All-Star Race, the open race, the races inside the race where Dale won a couple, we had been very fortunate. But we also know that that pendulum swings and you enjoy it and ride it while you can ’cause we can go back through a sinking spell.
But I just really feel like – and I said this earlier in the year – we sure don’t have the results to prove it. But I feel like we’ve got the best four combinations capable of winning a race each and every week that we’ve ever had.
Now, we got two guys in the Chase and two guys that aren’t, but we got three guys with wins. I think Jeff will get some this summer. But, again, across the board, the way they’re working, I think we can win more races.
But, man, it is so competitive out there. You can be there every week and something happen in the pits, something happen to you. But you just got to be in that top 5 to get it.
Q. Steve, with what’s happened with Hendrick as a whole over the past month and a half, do you think the same sort of floodgates can open up for you and the No. 88 team?
STEVE LETARTE: We’d be lying if we didn’t think we had opportunities to win races through the summer. That’s what we do. That’s why the team is assembled. That’s why Mr. Hendrick is in racing, to win races. If you don’t think you can win, you should stay home.
We try not to put expectations on how many you can win. You have to win one before you can win two. It was great to win one. Without a doubt I think it’s definitely going to make the flight to Sonoma a lot more fun. Everybody likes to win.
There are some great races coming up. We’re excited. The summer stretch is an area where we feel we can win races. We feel we can win everywhere we go. That’s our goal. We’re going to start again this week at Sonoma.