Chevy Racing–NASCAR–Daytona Media Day–Dale Earnhardt Jr.

FEBRUARY 22, 2017

DALE EARNHARDT JR., NO. 88 NATIONWIDE CHEVROLET SS, met with members of the media at the annual Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway. Full Transcript:

Q. Dale, since Sunday, what discussions have you had with Greg with the cars and handling? Is your confidence different than it was on Sunday?

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, we talked a little bit. Right after the Clash, just talking to Greg down on pit road about some of the things. I went down there pretty quick and voiced my concerns.
He told me, you know, a good half a dozen things to make me more confident that we’re working on those issues ’cause they were certainly a problem for us last year.

I like what Greg said about what he thinks he’s done to the car to help give me the confidence it’s going to drive well. Still, though, you got to get out there and get in a pack somewhere somehow.
Outside of that qualifying race will be preferable. I don’t know how much of a pack we’ll have in practice. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Q. Junior, everybody is talking about Jimmie’s beard. Your nephew seems to have the whole beard thing beat. Awesome beard. In talking about that, are you going to continue? Is this coming off? You going to try to jump in the beard game?

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: This is probably my chosen length for this season per Amy. She really likes where it’s at right now. She doesn’t like it to get too much longer than this ’cause it gets out of control.

Jimmie’s beard hair is straighter than mine, and mine is kind of wiry and curly, so it gets a little messy.

I’m not very good at shaping it. It gets really awful looking, which I like, but Amy does not. Happy wife, happy life, so…

But I do think that Jeffrey has the best beard for Speedweeks, hands down.

Q. Dale, you’ve obviously been involved in William Byron’s career for quite a while. What have you seen from him at such an early age that has set him apart?

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: He ran our true late model cars at Hickory and a couple other places a couple years. It was his first couple of years in a stockcar. I just enjoyed giving him the opportunity.
We really didn’t see, I guess, what kind of potential he had until he started running some supers, driving some of Kyle’s stuff. He started really kind of coming into his own in the trucks and the super late models. Kyle’s cars are extremely competitive, whether they’re the supers or the trucks.
So we’re glad to have him back, glad that he came back to be a part of our program. Rick really believes in him going forward. Rick hopes that it’s basically a carbon copy of the process he went through with Chase, to build up Chase into a regular Cup competitor.

I believe in William. The one thing about William that I think maybe you guys probably already see, it’s pretty evident, is his marketability and personality. The guy is so impressive. He’s very humble, easy to talk to, good disposition. Those are good things and important things that will allow him to be able to network and partner with great relationships that Rick has with folks within our industry or within our company, like our current sponsors. They’re going to love William. That’s a huge, huge thing these days, is to be able to get a good connection between his sponsor, whoever that may be down the road, and his marketability.

I’m excited for William. He’s able to get it done on the track and off the track. He’s kind of a total package, much like Chase. Good, well-mannered kid.

Q. I wanted to ask you, obviously you’ve been out of the car for months. You come back to Daytona. You’re starting on the front row. People consider you absolutely to be a favorite in the Daytona 500. Could you just talk about that, the fact that your first race back, I’m guessing your expectations are, as well, that you can win this race.

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I don’t know, man. Watching the last several plate races, I think the Gibbs guys have the market cornered on the favorite. The Penske guys are really strong. So I think it’s their race to lose. The Hendrick cars are going to be up there trying to mix it up.

From the performance standpoint over the last couple of years, Brad, Logano, any of the guys in those Toyotas from Gibbs are going to be up there, going to be working together. They’re going to be hard to beat.
That’s where I think the standard is right now, where those two teams are. So we’ll work on our stuff. I think we got what we need to compete. We just got to make sure it’s driving good, we can get up in there and mix it up with them.

We were almost there last year before we spun out. We were kind of making a charge, making something work. Hopefully we have better luck this go-round.

Q. Dale, I know you’ve answered this question probably a million times. Forgive me. I’m wondering, first, how are you feeling? How did you feel when you got the okay to get behind the wheel? What did you learn from the whole experience?

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: You guys cool with three questions? You got three, right? That’s a lot (laughter).

I feel great. Really happy that I feel great. This is what I was looking forward to throughout all the process, was to get well and just feel like myself again. I’m really thrilled about that, to be honest with you.
To get the okay, I mean, I knew how I felt so I wasn’t surprised to get cleared when we went through that process. The best feeling I think was just showing up and seeing my guys. Walking to the car with my suit on, my guys standing around the car, ready for me to get in. Just everybody, we all kind of wanted to high five at that moment. It was pretty awesome that day in Darlington. Then we sort of had that same moment at Phoenix when I walked into the hauler. We all just hollered.

Just a good bunch of guys that enjoy working together. I’m so lucky to have that kind of camaraderie and friendship with them. It makes the job a lot more fun when you’re working with your friends.
Yeah, that’s about it.

Q. Obviously you did the big sit-down with the magazine last week that has set the tone for a lot of stories to come because you and Amy were so candid and open. What kind of reaction did you get from the people around you, the people in your life? Specifically, what kind of reaction did you get from Jane, your couples therapist?

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I haven’t talked to Jane about it. I don’t know if she reads the paper or those articles. She’s an amazing person. Really helped me. Really helped me understand my role in our relationship. Helped sort of get the best of me out so we could move forward, me and Amy could go ahead and get married.

My sister was thrilled. She was very proud. My mom obviously. Everybody that I’ve heard from in my inner circle thought it was great. Outside of that, it’s all been very positive.
I don’t see any reason not to be very transparent and honest. So far it’s not bit me in the ass yet. I feel comfortable putting it all out there. If I was younger, I might be a little more guarded about that part of me. I’m on the backside of this. What’s there to hide?

We’ll just try to keep being that way, keep being as honest as possible. I like to try to control the narrative, I guess, with you guys, give you guys the information you want. That way the fans and stuff aren’t making assumptions. It gives me a lot of peace of mind to make sure the right information’s out there so people aren’t making up their own assumptions on what’s going on. That’s helped me a lot. It’s given me a lot of peace of mind.

Q. Danica was just saying when a driver of your stature goes to the sidelines because of concussions, it makes everybody else sort of take notice. Are you cognizant of the fact that you are sort of a role model for other drivers, are writing a book on safety here?

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I’m just doing what I needed to do to be taking care of myself. I was very, very sick. I had no business being in a car. I just did everything my doctors were telling me to do. I don’t want to take any credit for how this all appears to someone else.

If it helps somebody, that’s important. But I was just looking out for myself, listening to my doctors. If it taught someone a lesson or helped someone, that’s awesome. I definitely became more educated through the process. It’s an incredible experience. I feel fortunate to have a lot of ammunition and understanding of what I’m dealing with.

I talk about it all the time, but I really can’t say enough about the doctors that I worked with, Mr. Collins and his team, really give me a lot of confidence. Me and Micky will be friends for the rest of my life. We have such a great relationship. I have so much trust in him. He’s given me all the confidence in the world to get out there and compete.

I know if anything is to happen to me going forward, he’s the guy that can fix it. That gives me even more confidence to get out there and do what I need to do inside the car.

I don’t want to be defined by the concussion, but I certainly love to help people, no matter what it is. If I can help anyone take care of themselves and avoid further injury or get the right treatment, get clear, that’s a great thing. I love to do that.

Q. What does Chase Elliott need to do to go from kind of 10th in points, on the brink of winning races, to being in the top 5 in points and winning consistently?

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Well, he had a few races I think last year, like everybody else, that he thinks he probably should have won. Got taken out in a few races where he probably would have finished in the top 10 or top 5. Had some fast cars. Especially as the year went on, they got much quicker and he got more confidence, gained more confidence.

Alan and him got a great relationship and a great rapport. They seem to complement each other very well.

I expect Chase to win multiple races this year and easily make the Chase or the Playoffs.

Yeah, as far as I see, it’s a natural progression. I was not surprised by the struggles, and I was not surprised by his success. I expect to see him continue to get better. He’s with an incredible race team with the 24 group. Hendrick Motorsports is always going to be on top, one of the top teams. So he’s got a great opportunity at a long career with a lot of success.

Q. Dale, the topic of concussions obviously is very prominent in football. I don’t know how you relate to those stories when you hear them or see them on TV, players talking about what they’ve been through, also concerned about their futures. How much thought do you put into that in your own case?

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I don’t really worry too much about it. I mean, the sports are a little bit different, the frequency of contact, impacts. They’re a little bit different. I don’t want to minimize this or that. It’s just apples and oranges as far as I think how they experienced and how I’ve experienced.

Everyone reacts differently to experiencing a concussion. Micky told me way back in 2012 that concussions are like snowflakes. That’s the only analogy that I think can explain it the best. There’s no two that are the same. Me and 10 other people in here could have the same exact event, but experience completely different symptoms. We would then, therefore, need different treatment.
But as far as the long-term effects, I can only believe. I’m not an expert. My doctor is. So when I have concerns, questions, I go to him. I say, What’s going on? What do you think about this? Am I in danger?

I’m 42 years old. If you want me to quit racing, I’ll quit racing today. I’d like to keep racing if you think I’m able to keep racing.

He gives me that confidence in our conversations. He doesn’t work in the gray area. He’s black or white. He don’t care about racing. He just cares about me being healthy. He knows I just got married. He knows I want to have a family. He knows I want to have a good quality of life the next, however, 40, 50 years that I’m alive. So he don’t care about racing.

He’s going to say, Stop doing this, you need to quit. Or he’s going to say, What I see in you is not a concern of mine. Continue if you want to continue.

I let him push those buttons ’cause I want to do what’s best for me. I’m not going to do anything. I don’t want to put myself in further danger.

I know it’s a dangerous sport. I’m taking and accepting a risk when I go out there. He tells me it’s no more than I was accepting in taking on before the injury. So I believe what he’s telling me. He should know. He sees 25 people daily with this type of situation, with a concussion. He’s working on patients every 30 minutes. He’s walking into somebody else’s waiting room, dealing with so many different types of issues.

So I trust his opinion on it.

Q. Dale, how has plate racing become more challenging for you, based off of what your competitors do, how they approach things differently, how they attack things differently than years ago? There are just different ways of doing these things.

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, everybody seems to have learned most of the tricks. Everybody understands how critical the side draft is now. It’s quite frustrating, to be honest with you, how you can kind of hold a guy beside you. He can do the same. You can’t really get away from each other ’cause I’ll side draft you, you’re going to side draft me, and we’ll keep doing that lap after lap after lap until somebody decides to push one of us on through. Then that guy side drafts with you for about five or six laps until somebody pushes him through, or you.

It seems like everybody’s kind of got smart to most of the tricks. The more common stuff out there, you see everybody sort of taking advantage of that. So it’s made it more competitive.

Every time we come down here, the cars draft and work a little bit differently. Something that used to work maybe doesn’t work quite as well, or there’s a new thing that’s actually working. It’s the guys who pick up on that in practice that seem to do well in the races.

But again, at the same time, it’s the same people seem to find their way to the front. I think plate racing works for a certain type of personality, a certain type of mentality, ’cause it’s more about the choices the driver’s making instead of what the car’s capable of doing. So the guys that are really good at understanding and making the right choices always seem to be toward the front. Same characters every race at the plate tracks.

Yeah, it’s gotten a lot more competitive as far as what people know and what people know about the air, how the draft works, so… You just got to really be aggressive out there with the side drafting and working and pushing.

It’s definitely picked up in intensity out there ’cause we’re side-by-side much more than we used to be. We’re sort of stuck in that position. When you’re in the second, third, fourth row, you’re kind of boxed in waiting, which is no fun. I hate being in that position because you can’t do anything. You get run after run after run, you got nowhere to go with it, because the cars are all around you. That’s why you want to be up front.

Q. Dale, yesterday there was a tweet about a walk off championship retirement. Were you serious with that?

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Hell, yeah. I would definitely not want to come back and try to race anymore if I won the championship. I would be outta here (laughter).

You know, I’ve always wanted to win a championship so badly. Coming back from this injury, we worked so hard. To come back this year, win a championship, it would be hard not to hang it up.

This is the last year of my deal. I would like to race more. But if I win the championship, I’d have to consider going out on top. I mean, I don’t know. It just really depends on a lot of different things.

That was tongue-in-cheek. I said that a little tongue-in-cheek yesterday. But I’d definitely consider it because that’s the last box I don’t have checked really. There’s a few races I’d like to win. The championship would definitely be the icing on the cake for my career.