Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, heads into Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway as the current championship points leader. Earnhardt has never won at Martinsville. He recently took part in a NASCAR video conference to discuss series title sponsor Sprint’s texting and driving campaign, his season so far and racing at Martinsville. Below, is a transcript from the interview:
Q. Dale, a new commercial from Sprint just launched today about no texting and driving. Can you tell us about the cause and your involvement?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah. I was asked by Sprint and the National Guard to be a part of the program, the campaign which involves me basically doing a commercial or 30-second ad created by Sprint called the Sprint Drive First — it’s about the Sprint Drive First mobile application that you can use. Basically we’re trying to tell people that this application that Sprint has on their mobile devices will block texts and send automatic reply to the sender that you’re driving and you’re going to get back to them when you have an opportunity, just to promote safer driving because obviously texting and driving, as we all know, can be really dangerous. So it’s just a good way to be a part of a good campaign that has a good message.
I was real thankful to National Guard and Sprint to consider me for it. It was a privilege for me to be a part of it.
Q. I wanted to ask you about what it’s like going to Martinsville as a rookie and why it seems like that place is such a challenge for first timers, even those who came up on late model short tracks.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, that’s a good question. You would think that it fits right in your wheelhouse because of the style of track it is and the type of racing you do. I remember the first several races I ran there, I ran into everything. I ran into other race cars, walls, pace cars, just about everything that could be ran into, I found it.
And you know, it was real frustrating because I had thought of myself as a short track driver, and I thought that I had honed these skills on these short tracks in the Southeast, and this should be where I excel the most.
But you’re just so — short track racing can really allow you to get carried away with yourself, and you forget — even now, even last year, we would run 100 laps and I’d have the car torn all to hell down both sides and have to remind myself this is a longer event than you realize, and you’ve really got to preach patience to yourself and really rein in your emotions and your excitement because you just really want to get in there and gouge every corner, but there’s just not enough race car to do that for 500 miles.
It took me a few trips to really learn to be more patient, to let the race sort of come to me, that the track is going to come and go, the balance of the car is going to change, that you don’t do all your work in the first 100 laps, and you’ve sort of got to wait out the competition and let your crew make good choices and good strategy that keeps you in the thick of things and then have an opportunity at the end.
It just took a really — it took a while for me, it seems like a while anyways, to really understand that. Now I do feel like I do do well on the short tracks because it takes a totally different mentality than what you think coming in, even though you might be coming from the short track ranks.
Q. I read you hit everything in that race your rookie year, including an ambulance. Is that true?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, the ambulance wouldn’t move, so I had to give him a bit of the bumper. You know, it’s just — it was so funny because we were — I remember I was taking a helicopter ride with my dad and Michael Waltrip, and I ran over everything and finally Dad was like, man, tell that kid to park it. But somewhere in the race I had started on the inside a lap down, and I took off and yarded the leader by a straightaway. I was so proud of myself, and that’s the only thing I took away from the race, and I kept trying to talk about that on the way home, but all Dad wanted to talk about was how much I ran over and how I needed to really learn how to run better on the short tracks.
It’s a funny story thinking back on it now. But yeah, those first few trips were a real eye opener. The racing there is nothing what you imagine, even coming up through those style of racetracks. It’s just really tough and hard racing, and you’ve got to pick your battles. But it’s a long race and you can really just take yourself out of it early if you’re not careful.
Q. I have two questions completely unrelated to each other. The first is I was not at California, and I guess in the excitement of the finish it was a good while later that it was sort of holy crap, Dale Jr. is leading the points, and I guess it was sort of overlooked. I know you’re not a guy who loves the attention and the spotlight, but in this season of all this attention on Danica and all this attention on everything that Denny has had going on and Joey and Tony and Joey and Denny stuff, are you annoyed at all that your start to the season and your position in the standings maybe isn’t getting the attention that it warrants?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Completely the opposite. I feel like it gives us the opportunity to keep focusing on what we need to do. We’re still not — we’re not winning races, and I don’t expect to get much attention until we can win races. And I know a little bit more about — I guess the way we’ve ran doesn’t really reflect well on our finishes, meaning that I think we should run better. We’ve finished well, but I think that there’s a lot of areas that we can improve, and we get to focus on that sort of being out of the scope and out of the spotlight. We can pay more attention to how do we get better as a team.
You know, if we go out and win some races, we’ll get credit where credit is due, but we ran well, we’ve gotten lucky, we’ve had good cars, we’ve worked hard. But that’s what everybody in the garage has done the same thing, and there’s other guys in the series that aren’t doing anything who are flashier than we are. I wouldn’t expect the spotlight to be much brighter than it is. Hopefully we can win some races, though, and change that.
Q. This Joey and Denny stuff has started this debate about rich kid versus people who have worked their way up through the sport, and I wanted to ask you in a different light in regards to Carson and how she should manage that in that she does come from the background she comes from, and I assume that her equipment is probably pretty good and her resources are pretty deep and that people will probably talk about her that way, and she may face haters much of her career. How would you counsel her to manage that?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, you know, if you — talent speaks for itself. Hopefully she’s talented enough, no matter what your background or how — what your path is to where you are, you know, if you have talent, you belong, and you earn respect through that talent. If you’re really good at your job and really good at what you do, it won’t matter how you got there.
But I think really that comes down to how she was raised, how her parents raised her, the personality and mentality that she has as a person will dictate how she handles those things. If we have the opportunity years down the road and she’s chosen to seek out driving race cars as a career, I mean, I would support her as much as I can, but I’d be just as hard on her as anybody, especially about the — that side of it, how you treat people, how to get people to rally around you and just how you treat people with respect. That’s really important to me.
So that would be something I would hope that she would already know and already do well without any assistance from me.
Q. It seems like blocking is back in the spotlight because of everything that happened with Stewart and Logano, and the conference call before you Ryan Newman was saying that — he said blocking is a chicken way to drive and he just doesn’t do it. I mean, what is the general rule among — the code, I guess, among drivers as far as blocking goes? Aren’t you supposed to try to keep somebody behind you? When can you do it and when can you not do it as far as your understanding?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I think that every driver is going to have a different opinion. My opinion is that — I don’t — I might block in certain situations. I would expect and accept to be blocked in certain situations. But you’ve got to give me racetrack. You’ve got to give me somewhere to run. You can’t just run me up into the fence. You’ve got to give me a lane. You’ve got to give me — if you give me a reasonable amount of racetrack to race on, then I really can’t complain in regards to what you’re trying to do to maintain the position.
Also it depends on what time in the race it is. Is it time to be blocking? Is the position that important at that moment in time? Again, everybody will have a different opinion.
But when somebody blocks me, I’m not blown away by the notion. You know, some guys are more adamant about it than others. Some guys block stronger or block the whole racetrack and think that’s okay. But everybody has got a different opinion. You’ve got to give me some racetrack where I can compete, give me a fair opportunity to race you cleanly and race you with respect, and you’ll get the same from me.
You know, I’m not going to say that I’ve never blocked anybody because I have, and you do, you will. Being in certain situations, that’s your only alternative. But you’ve got to give people racing room or expect to get turned around or expect to make a few people upset.
And I’m not really picking sides either way. You know, I think in my opinion it was just hard racing. The guy is leading the race, he’s trying to do what he can to win. I don’t like to get run in the fence and I don’t like to get run in the grass, and if you give me enough racetrack I can’t really get too upset about a guy trying to maintain his position, especially near the end of the race.
Q. A lot is talked about rhythm at Martinsville, and yet with the traffic and the lap traffic and everything, it would be really seemingly very — it would seem very difficult to keep your rhythm at that track with all that’s going on with the traffic. How do you do that? What’s the art of maintaining rhythm at a track that it would seem would be very much impossible to do?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: In California?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I mean, it’s just — at Martinsville you do a lot of protecting your line, protecting your position. You’ll see guys doing a little bit of blocking. But there’s a fine line, and I kind of go back to everybody’s opinion on where that line is is going to be different, and you’re going to get different reactions out of different guys, depending on how you race them. You can race everybody the same, and some guys might not like it and some guys might not have a problem with it.
But you’ve got to know each other’s personalities well and know what to expect.
You know, that racetrack isn’t quite the momentum racetrack you think. If you get some clear room and a bit of space between you and your competitors, you can get into a rhythm where you’re doing things repetitively from corner to corner that are working and that gives your car speed, and you’ll find a line that you like and you’ll just continue to repeat that or do little tweaks on it each time you go through the corner and find things that work and don’t work.
So it’s not really more about momentum there as it is about repetition, finding things that work on entry, through the middle and off the corner that work lap after lap, and as the track changes, that all — where you need to be running and where your car wants to run changes and where the rubber gets laid down.
So you do a lot of adjusting run after run after run on what you’re doing in the corners and being able to put repetition together and do things consistently corner after corner, and then you’re going to — so you run a guy down, you’ve got to change everything you’re going to get by him and go back to what works. Being able to do that is important. A lot of guys might struggle with being able to go back to what they were doing. They might just end up — totally forget what they were doing when they get into some traffic. But it’s the guys that can really discipline themselves inside the car and not over-drive it and not really get to seeking all over the racetrack. You’ve got to be flexible and open-minded to where your car wants to be and where it wants to run, but when you do find what works, you’ve got to be able to repeat it over and over without getting too greedy about getting into the corner faster or trying to get into the throttle sooner, doing things like that.
Q. A little off the beaten path, I know you own a bunch of older classic cars. I’m wondering what it is that draws you to them, and do you have an interesting story about one of them that you acquired over the years?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I think I’m just really nostalgic about certain times, certain cars remind me about a time maybe in the sport or a time in my life. I thought it was unique to me that the first stock car that I drove was a street stock that was a ’79 Monte Carlo, and I thought really that car meant a lot to me because I remember when I lived with my mother when I was about five or six years old riding around the backseat of her ’79 Monte Carlo in Kannapolis. You just sort of take a car and it puts you back in a place in time or reminds you of something.
I just bought a ’77 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442 because I’m a big fan of that — the Gray Ghost and the car that Buddy Baker drove at Daytona and the ’79-’80 season, that era, that time when that car was dominant at Daytona, and that’s really all I have — the only connection I have with that car. But it’s important and special to me.
I think you tie yourself to certain times and certain eras, even though you might not have been part of them or been alive when they were happening, but it’s a nostalgic feeling when you get to be around those cars and drive them and work on them.
Q. We can sit here and debate forever on Twitter given what we know now about Denny Hamlin being out for five races, if he could come back and potentially make the Chase. Mathematically, yes, it’s possible, but for somebody who does it year in and year out, how tough a challenge would that be for him?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: You know, it would be a tough challenge for me because we’re not a team that’s out there winning multiple races. So if I were in his shoes, I would feel like it was a very tall order.
But with his team, they’re able — they’re a team that I look at and I say, yeah, they can win three, four races. That’s the type of performance they’ve shown in the past few years. So I don’t see — I don’t really count him out at all with the new wild card rule. They can come back, put together a couple wins and be right in the middle of it.
Yeah, I think with the new wild card rule, it really opens it up for Denny and gives them an opportunity.
Q. Things have changed dramatically for Tony Eury Jr. I went and visited him on the other side of the garage last week or week before last and just kind of wondering if you guys have spent any time together or kind of talked over what he’s up to, what he’s doing and what the change has meant to him.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: No, we haven’t had the time to really get down to a conversation like that, and it might be a bit of time before we are able to. But he’s my cousin, I’ll always have a special place in my heart and in my life for him. We’ll always — there’ll always be that connection between us with our history and what we accomplished together and the things we were — even outside of racing, just growing up around each other.
But it’s just — I have seen him and we have spoken on occasion at the track, and I just hope he’s happy where he is. He’s got a lot going on, had a lot of changes happen to him over the last several months, and I just wish him the best, and if he needs anything at all, he knows he can call me and I’ll be able to accommodate him or help him out however he wants.
But he seems to be doing good and going in a direction that he wants to go.
Q. Martinsville being as historic as it is and how it harkens back to the roots of NASCAR, do you guys down on the track get a sense of history when you run at a place like that?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I do, absolutely. Just driving into the racetrack, helicoptering into the racetrack you get a good sense just being able to see it all from one point of view, seeing the entire complex. But when you drive in when the weather is bad and we drive up in the morning, just turning into that road, nothing has changed. You park your car in the driveway of the first house on the corner. That house has been there for I don’t know how many years, just everything about the entrance and your first impressions bring you back to the mid-’70s and things look pretty much the same. The only thing that really reminds you of where you’re at and what decade it is is the model of the cars in the parking lot and all the souvenir rigs and all that stuff going on. But the grounds themselves really haven’t changed that much.
I love racetracks like that. Every track has something about it that you like or something characteristic about it that you enjoy. But Martinsville is just a fun place, really fun track to race on. I think the fans get a great event. They get a great show when we’re there. I think it’s a good ticket between it and Bristol and Richmond. It’s some of the best short track racing in the country that you can see. I feel like it’s always a lot of fun.
Q. Going back to blocking, do drivers view that as a big — is there a big concern about it right now? Should we expect to see people just starting to turn people when they get blocked because they’re tired of it? I can only remember it being mostly an issue at plate tracks and not other tracks.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I think, I think it just depends on the situation. You just don’t — you can’t run a guy in the fence, you can’t run a guy in the grass. You’ve got to give people enough racetrack to compete on. If a guy — everybody has got a different opinion about it. My opinion is, especially like at the plate tracks, if you’ve got a run and you’re coming, there ain’t much I’m going to be able to do to stop it. I’m going to move a little bit, show you that I want the position, but I’m not going to risk turning you — giving you the opportunity to turn me because basically when you get really aggressive on blocks, you open the door to putting everything in the other guy’s hands and making him responsible for not creating an accident or a problem for both of you. And really you can’t fault the guy if he ends up doing that.
I try not to put myself or another guy in that position. I might make a move one way or the other as a notion to the guy that I want to contest the position, but you can’t run people in the fence, you can’t run them into the grass. Give people a little bit of racetrack. That’s just how I feel about it and that’s how I’ve always tried to do it.
Q. I guess like in driver meetings and when you all talk amongst each other with other drivers, is it a big topic these days? Is it something where you’re like, man, did you see how much blocking was done in that race? Or is it not — do you guys not talk about it?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: We don’t really talk about it. You know, I can’t remember the last time that I was real upset about a guy blocking me. I’ve been ran into the fence a few times up off the corner, but that’s not really a guy blocking, that’s a guy just taking up the racetrack. We’re all sliding up off the corner and he don’t care who’s on the outside, he’s coming up.
But the only blocking I think that ever really got under my skin was every once in a while at the plate tracks it gets aggressive. But that’s been — that was several years ago back even in the older car before the COT. Now we’re all pushing each other around and the blocking has really kind of calmed down or went away a little bit.
It’s not something that I think comes up that often in conversations that I have.
Q. What do you attribute the — what’s clicking for you now, providing the consistency to be leading the points right now?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I think Steve — if you look at some of the statistics that we’ve done really well at, that’s closing races out and passing a lot of cars in the last 20 or 10 percent of the race. Two races really come to mind, and that’s Bristol and California, with just a handful of laps to go, we’re not in the top 10 in either one of those races, and Steve made some pit calls in the last 25 percent of those races that set us up to be able to make up a lot of ground at the end if everything went according to plan. I don’t really know if that was his plan, but he surely makes it look good.
I’ve got to give him a lot of credit because at the end of the race at California we weren’t going to finish in the top 10 and we were able to get tires and get a good restart on the outside and get around a bunch of guys that got choked up on the bottom and all that stuff was happening down there on the inside lane and everything slowed down for them guys on the inside and we were able to gain a lot of spots there. Just circumstance and good fortune has been a big part of it. We’ve ran good, we’ve had good cars, good speed. We were a little bit off, some of the guys out there that are running in the top 3, top 5 every week, I think we’re a better team than we were last year but still — I just feel like that we need to be winning races, we need to be running up in the top 2, 3 all day long, we need to be just — we just need to run a little bit better. There’s just a little bit there for us to gain until I feel super comfortable and feel, I guess, like our statistics and our points position really reflect on our performance.
We’ve got time in the season to get there, and we did that last year; we got faster throughout the season. And by mid-summer we were really one of the best teams out there, I thought. So I’ve got good confidence in the team that we’re going to be able to gain what I think we need to gain to be able to compete once the Chase comes around, and hopefully we’ll have that opportunity to be in the Chase at that point. But we’ve still got more to gain. There’s guys out there that I need that have more speed, and I think that’s the only thing that concerns me.
Q. If I could look down the road a couple weeks to Kansas, obviously you missed the fall race last fall because of the concussion. Just go back to what you remember about the tire and testing on that new track and what concerns you might have coming to this race this spring.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I thought the track — when we were testing there, I was really happy with my car and how it drove. I felt like we were one of the best cars out there by a couple tenths in the test. There was a good many cars there, and I felt like we were really quick. So I was excited about going back to the race.
But then when I saw how loose Steve Letarte had the car in qualifying I was kind of glad that someone else was driving it, and we joke about that. But once they got into the race, it looked like Regan and them had good speed. It looked like it was hard to pass. It looked like parts of the — it looked like the track had lost a good amount of grip from the test and maybe earlier in the race weekend.
But I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, and I look forward to being able to go there and race. I feel like everybody has got a race up on me, so when we go back there, there’ll be a bit of a learning curve, and hopefully we’re strong enough and the car is comfortable and we can get up to speed right away.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR