THE MODERATOR: All right. Welcome to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series test at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Monday. We are joined by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who is testing with Hendrick Motorsports for the next two days. Dale, how was your morning out there?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: It was pretty good. You know, just went out there working, trying to figure out a few things. Really didn’t get a lot done this morning. Just kind of started kind of.
But, you know, the guys seem to have a good attitude, seem to be excited about the possibilities of our success. You know, pretty good to be working with Tony, Jr. again a little bit. You know, we had a full weekend. Everybody is ready to go home. We’re going to try to do the best we can to get through this test, have a productive couple days here.
THE MODERATOR: Sounds good. Questions for Dale, please.
Q. Dale, this morning in your communication, has it been almost totally with Tony, Jr. or have you had a chance yet to communicate with Hendrick people, Hendrick engineers, that sort of thing? If so, how has that gone?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Yeah, a little bit. I mean, you know, it’s mainly been with Tony, Jr., but we haven’t really — we haven’t really tore through our list of things to do. We just sort of run both cars a couple times, tried some rear shocks. Now we’re redoing this one car with a totally different setup. We didn’t get a chance to get out on the racetrack with it.
We haven’t really delved into the technical side of it yet. We’re just sort of driving the cars, making sure nothing scared me, making sure there’s no big problems, anything like that. So the cars drive really good and very comfortable. One’s got a set that I’ve been running in it, running for a long time. The other’s got a seat that — new carbon fiber seat. We’re trying that out, getting used to that, getting the bugs out of that.
Hopefully in the last half of this day and tomorrow we can start getting a lot more technical, start really working on the problems that the car has as far as the handling and whatnot. We haven’t really started in that direction yet. We just been getting data.
Q. This past weekend in one of the interviews you said you were kind of looking at this move as a kid on Christmas morning coming downstairs and seeing all your presents, said you couldn’t wait to get in the car. What have you felt? How big of a difference is it than what you’re used to?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, the car drives about the same, but you feel like the — the steering and the — the steering is smoother. I think the theory and the method that Hendrick takes in putting their geometry together and putting this front suspension — how the front suspension’s assembled, makes the car steer smoother. That’s the way the 5 car felt at Texas. It was quite a bit different than my car at Texas. It’s a little bit the same here.
The COT, everybody should drive really close, pretty much the same.
Q. You don’t seem like you feel very good this morning. You got a cold or something?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I’m sore. Got hit like a ton of bricks yet. Didn’t feel too good yesterday. Hungry and sore.
Q. So much attention on this day. Was this exciting for you, or is this just mundane testing?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, the actual physical testing part is mundane, of course. But I was excited. Rick is going to be here any time. I’m excited to see him. I’m excited to watch Tony, Jr. work with the new guys. I’m excited to see the expressions on their face, their mannerisms, their attitude about the whole thing.
Working with Allen and Casey is going to be a lot of fun. Two good guys with great attitudes. Real easy to talk to. Real easy to go up to and ask questions about.
I was looking forward to that waking up this morning, but I knew the physical testing part of it would be relatively as boring as it always is. Plus, like I say, I’ve been here all weekend. I think NASCAR is trying to punish us for some reason with this scheduling deal. But it is a lot more convenient. But, man, it makes for quite a long week.
Q. Can you talk about exactly what you found out about what happened to your tires? Tell us what hurts. Was it your neck?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: No, actually I was really surprised how not sore my neck was. I thought my neck was going to hurt like hell. But my leg smashed into the clutch pedal. I had the brake pedal mashed. When we hit the driver’s side, my pedal flew into the catch, caught the top of my foot up pretty good. Just shocked some of the muscles in there, so it cramped up all day long.
But that’s about it. I mean, had a headache a little bit, but no concussion. I was pretty glad about that. When I laid on my back I didn’t get dizzy or anything. Just a real hard hit.
What happened was is we had, middle part of the race we were running second to Martin. Thought we had a flat tire. Come in, didn’t have any flats. The wheel had worked its way loose. It had fouled up either the threads on the studs or the hub itself. So every time we put the left rear back on, on every stop, 30, 40 laps into the run, it would work its way loose again. So the wheel came loose on every run.
That’s why I stayed out there. I thought, you know, it’s been loose all day long. It’s not come off yet, not really gotten bad. And it wasn’t. We were sitting there running pretty good. Caution come out. We put on rights.
Denny had his deal on the front straightaway. Caution come out again. I thought, you know, it should be fine. But it was really acting weird under that caution, so I had a couple guys behind me look at it. They said it looked fine to them.
When it come loose the first time it tore up the hub. Every time you put the wheel back on, no matter how well you tightened it, it would work loose again the rest of the race. I was a little disappointed in being put in that situation. But, you know, it happens. Up and down pit road, loose wheels happen all the time. Nothing like that can be perfected. You just have to deal with it.
I was a little disappointed in me for being ignorant enough to think it would stay. They tell you when you’re a rookie when you come into this sport, if you have a vibration, have a problem, come into pits immediately. Never try to drive through it. Never try to fake it or hold together. Save everybody trouble.
I should have done that. I was bullheaded. I was frustrated. We hadn’t got our finishes this year. Thought we could steal a third place there, cost me a good spot, good finish. I was just disappointed that I didn’t do a better job, not only my own safety, but everybody else.
Q. Has there been that one person yet you found that you can rely on that is helping you to ease the path?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: The what?
Q. Ease your path in the transition at Hendricks.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: It’s pretty easy anyway. You ever been over there, hung out over there, you know, it’s where everybody wants to be. It’s real easygoing. Everybody’s got great attitudes. Everybody’s got winning attitudes, winning on their mind. It’s contagious. Makes you feel good. Makes you get excited.
The adjustment period, I think the hard part for me is just, you know, it’s like going to a new school, making new friends. It’s hard to make friends. It’s hard to build relationships. Starting all over with a new group of guys, I had such a great rapport and great relationship with all the guys on my team I’m currently with, and to have to go through the challenge of that and building that respect and trust, you know, with a whole new group’s gonna be tough.
They seem like they’re willing to have a great attitude, willing to work really well. So it should be just a matter of time. Just getting to know everybody, remembering everybody, everybody’s name, getting to understand and learn their personalities, the ins and outs of every member on the team. That’s going to be the only challenge.
I mean, driving cars, you know, the cars, equipment, the pieces, the pieces of all that are the same. It’s just maybe Hendrick does a better job at being organized with it. They have more success. There’s some things that are different, obviously, but I’m not aware of them yet.
Tony, Jr., he’s going to make sure the cars are comfortable. That really should be a non-issue, just getting the cars to do right, drive right. Yeah, the challenge is just going to be getting to know everybody.
Q. You talked a lot about the transition. This is the first day of the new era. You still have some work to do for your old team here. How do you keep focused on the work you have left, and is there any problems right there with the transition and the fact you still have some races to run?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: No. You know, when I’m behind the wheel I just do my job, try my best to be respectful. I don’t know. It’s not that difficult for me really I don’t think. It would probably look difficult or challenging, but it’s not really.
A couple of the guys from the 8 car have already come over and seen me today, asked if I was all right, asked how things were going with the 5 car. They got a great attitude. They look out for me. You know, we have work left to do. We’ll do it. When I’m asked to come over here prematurely to do this type of thing, we’ll work really hard, try to accomplish something, leave here with a good feeling about what we got.
Q. Have you had the occasion yet to pass the 8 car on the track? Anything about that surprise you?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: No, not really. I seen it down in the garage. It’s a unique situation to see it down in the garage. I don’t know who’s driving today. Is Mark driving today? Well, I mean, you know, hope they’re there learning and doing. I’m sure the car is going to be a rocket ship. It was yesterday.
Q. Do you feel like a Hendrick driver yet?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I don’t know what that’s supposed to feel like. You know, I mean, I think that will probably be the feeling I have when I go to test in Daytona. You know, getting an opportunity to work with these guys a little early, but I’m still focused and dedicated toward finishing my job with the dignity over at 8 car.
That’s important to me, that we keep working and work hard. I would regret if we end up not doing that. I feel like those guys are very welcoming and excited. But I think it really won’t sink in until we go to Speedweeks testing.
Q. The military is such a big part of your career, sponsor of your Busch and soon to be Cup car that you’re working on right now. Being in a vehicle for supporting the troops, do you ever feel a responsibility to speak out about issues that the troops have, deployment of the National Guard extended, and issues at Walter Reed?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I’m not in a position to blast opinions on anything like that. I mean, certainly when it comes to knowledge of those various and specific situations that you just spoke of, I’m not intelligent enough about them independently to be able to sit here and think that I would be able to tell a cameraman or a print reporter what I thought should be done.
You know, what I enjoy doing, I do got some friends in Iraq. One of my buddies just went there recently. I just ask them what they need. They tell me. I try to mail it to them. You know, I think if there’s one responsibility, obviously my job with my race team is to try to let young Americans and young adults know that that’s an opportunity, to join the Guard, to join the Navy, that that’s an opportunity, and try to give them all the information that they can have to make that decision.
But I feel like, as a citizen of the United States, you know, being able to take some time out of my week to put together a care package to send to a couple of buddies of mine that they can disperse throughout their company and whatnot, that’s probably the best thing. I remember being in military school. That was the coolest thing that could happen, when your parents sent you a box of stuff, new socks, candy bars, whatever.
As ridiculous as that sounds to us, to just be able to walk up to the corner store and pick it up, it’s really hard to get over there. You can get an iPod, but you can’t download music. The things we take for granted.
They tell me what they kind of things they wish they had or hadn’t thought about bringing over with them, and I try to mail it to them. When we’re all on our XM radio show we try to tell our listeners that that’s a good exercise for them, too, is just to put a care package together. Takes five minutes. Makes a big, big difference to those guys, the morale over there.
THE MODERATOR: Dale, thanks for joining us.
We’re joined by former NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte, six- time winner here. Leads all active drivers with six wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Bobby, what has been your impression thus far?
BOBBY LABONTE: It really has come along pretty good. We haven’t really made a whole lot of changes to the car. Kind of tuned on a few things. All in all, my feeling from yesterday to today really isn’t that much different.
Obviously you can tell that we’ve got a lot less downforce and center of gravity is a lot higher so the top of the car is just a little top-heavy. But other than that, it’s not bad, not as bad as I thought it would be.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for Bobby.
Q. Bobby, obviously it’s way too early to know what this car is going to do on mile-and-a-half tracks. Are there early impressions that it is not going to be a revolutionary difference in this car? Can you give us any kind of general impression?
BOBBY LABONTE: Well, I think my first thought is it’s not — not too far out of the whack here of what we ran yesterday. But it’s not what we ran yesterday either. And we’re not green-flag racing yet. We’re just testing. You throw 43 on a green-flag start like we did yesterday, running 325 laps, you know, that’s a better indication of what you’ll see.
It’s so hard to tell. I mean, I think that the experts can’t even tell. You know, I don’t know how I can tell. But we’ll have to try it and see. Hopefully it’s not look-good-on-paper type of thing.
(Pause in audio)
The troubles guys had yesterday, looked like they were struggling for the handling of it, losing grip. After about five laps you pretty much lost your grip anyway. You’re just hanging on. But today is a little different tire. You can be a little more aggressive with it. You can feel it a little bit better. But still we got the same problem with it on the right side. I have to show you what it looks like rather than explain it. I’m not disagreeing with him, it’s just a hard call.
Q. A lot of guys are driving for the teams they’re going to drive for next year today and tomorrow. As someone who sort of went through something similar a couple years ago, what are the challenges of that? What is that like? Is it difficult to stay focused on one situation when you’re testing for another team at the same time?
BOBBY LABONTE: Well, I think for those guys, switching over to the new rides, everybody’s professional in the garage area. They know they have three more races to complete for their current team. I look at it, too, you know, it’s like it’s good that, you know, they’re getting a head start on next year. Every year, you got to get a quicker head start. You need to be testing sooner and more because the competition’s so tight.
I don’t think those guys give up or are different on their current rides. But I think it’s probably a good thing that at least they’re here today testing in their car for next year instead of not able to. At least for those guys, they’re going to get to race the next three races in their car without somebody else being thrown in it. Again, it’s professionalism on both parts.
Q. What kind of changes, if any, need to be made to the Car of Tomorrow for next year? What do you think could be changed to improve the quality of racing?
BOBBY LABONTE: I’m not sure if you read the rule book yet, but I don’t think you can make any changes to it (laughter). What you got’s what you got.
I don’t know. I can’t answer that one very good until we get into the racing season because, I mean, again, it goes kind of back to David’s question where until we get out there on the racetrack, 43 race cars, throw the green flag in front of 150,000 people, you don’t really know what you got. You got an idea. Until you put all the cars on the racetrack, you don’t really know if that’s going to improve or not.
The biggest challenge we have today, yesterday, we’ll have tomorrow probably too, is the fact that all cars are really close. When you’re first, you can run a certain speed. When you’re 25th, you pretty much run that speed, too.
You might run close to the same speed, so if you’re running close to the same speed, it’s hard to pass. Usually it’s a little slower. We’ll see if that changes or not, if that answers your question.
THE MODERATOR: That’s it, Bobby. Thank you for coming in and joining us.