From USA Today
During an interview at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last weekend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke about his love of Daytona International Speedway and his chances in the Coke Zero 400: Q: Why is Daytona, particularly the July race, so special to you?
Earnhardt: “When you were a kid, and you went to the races, you didn’t get to go to all of them. Maybe one a month or so. When the summer came, you wanted to go to as many as you could and as many as Dad and Teresa would take you to, and those were even the select few. You got to go to Bristol and a couple of other places, obviously Lowe’s (Motor Speedway). The biggest trip of the year was the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. It was the biggest trip of the year when I was a kid … Daytona, like a baseball fan going to Cooperstown. It was this grand thing. I looked at Daytona the way that fans looked at my father. Going there as a kid and seeing all the cool races and hanging out with all my friends. The (drivers’) wives and children were all in the scoring tower down in Turn 1 during the race, so we all hung out. It was a good experience. I never got to go to the Daytona 500, which was the biggest race, so going to the Firecracker 400 was the second-biggest thing you could do in the NASCAR season. The first Daytona 500 I went to was the first I competed in, so I never saw one until I raced at Daytona.”
REMINISCING: Junior misses Daytona break
Q: How is that possible you never went to a Daytona 500?
Earnhardt: “I don’t know. I was always in school. And when I ran in the Busch series, I flipped in ’98 and had that concussion, so I went on home, and Daddy ended up (expletive) winning, so that was stupid. In ’99 something happened, we wrecked or something, and I guess I got pissed off and went home. I never saw a Daytona 500 until the one I ran in in 2000. But going to the July race, I’ve done that all my life as a kid. It’s a special event. It marks the midpoint of the season. The economy is rough for everybody, but probably more so for Daytona. It seems like right now the only thing they have going is the racetrack. But I still like it. It’s not as polished as Miami or a couple of other areas in Florida, but I think the town is still relevant to the sport, too. I feel as comfortable there as I do in my own house. I really like the place.”
Q: Is it because that town has some blue-collar grit to it and is more for a hardcore fan?
Earnhardt: “I suppose it’s appealing to some of the more hardcore race fans being that the town isn’t as polished as some of the other towns. I think, too, that every day you spend at the track in February, there is a lot less stress, a lot less pressure on every person inside the infield. There’s a mentality that’s different than you find at any other racetrack. And it’s a little bit of a break from all the (expletive) pressure that everyone puts on themselves. Everything about the schedule seems to be good for everyone. Everything about the whole experience. The Fan Zone is really cool, and some of the updates to the track are really neat. I think all the tracks would benefit from having that kind of environment inside or near the track.”
Q: So it’s fair to say that until a decade ago, when you thought of Daytona, you thought more about the July race than the Daytona 500?
Earnhardt: “Oh yeah. I appreciated the Daytona 500 being the biggest race of the year, but I’d never seen it other than on TV, so I didn’t know what it felt to be standing there before the race. One thing I will tell you is the worst (expletive) thing that ever happened in this sport is when they took that off weekend away from us the week before Daytona. That really (expletive) up everything I loved about this sport. Because we could go down to Daytona a little early. When I’m there for Speedweeks (in February), I never get to see the town. The farthest I can go is Steak and Shake. That off week gave me the opportunity to go down there, and we’d rent a house. Me and my buddies did it three or four years in a row. We’d rent a house, stay out there and party all weekend leading up to the race. And it was so much (expletive) fun. And then they changed the (expletive) schedule. It doesn’t make much sense to me. Because most people enjoyed going down into town early for that off weekend. We all went down there, and you’d go to the bars, and everybody knew what bars to go to, and it took all that away.”
Q: Besides the looser feeling in the garage, does running well there give you a comfort level as well?
Earnhardt: “Yeah, I’ve always run good there. I’ve always had great cars. The car means a whole lot more than the driver does to be able to be competitive year after year after year. The driver makes the moves that put him in position to win races there, but to be strong, it’s obviously a lot of race car. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some great ones, and it does make it more fun to go down there. The style of racing and what goes into driving around there is equal part Talladega and equal part Atlanta. There’s a lot of handling going into play, and guys are trying to figure out how to get their cars to where they can run wide open all the time, and they’re rarely successful. It’s as slick as Atlanta is, but there’s a lot of drafting that goes on, and when everyone bolts new tires on, everybody’s got grip, everybody’s trying to make everything they can make happen until that grip wears out. It’s so much harder to pass then, you’re sort of stuck where you are. That race was a lot of fun when it was run during the day, I assume because of how slick the track is. At night, we get a little more grip, and we don’t have those issues, especially late, late in the race. You have tighter packs. Because even on old tires, you’d have enough grip to be able to do what you needed to do. It’s a fun experience racing there. I think the history of the races, and the things that I know that have happened there in the last 50 years make that the way it is. That’s why I really enjoy Daytona. I think it has a lot to do with knowing it’s the grandfather racetrack we run on, knowing its history and everyone that’s won and raced there. That track has just suited us, and done so much for us, I just have a lot of respect for it. It makes me really enjoy going there.”
Q: This is only the third time since 2000 you’ve gone to Daytona without Tony Eury Sr. or Tony Eury Jr. on your pit box. Will that be weird for you?
Earnhardt: “It ain’t going to be weird. Tony Sr. and Tony Jr. both are some of the best people that I’ve witnessed take a superspeedway car and work on it in the shop and make it what it is. They’re really, really good at that. They have studied that so hard. They have learned that craft so well. They never failed in delivering a winning race car every time. I think they know a lot of things that a lot of people here would love to have in their arsenal. Little tricks and nuances about the bodies and the way that you need to do different things to get the car to go as fast as you want it to go. They just studied it so hard. I pick on (crew chief) Lance (McGrew) all the time, just jamming at him about, “How is the Daytona car looking? How’s the Daytona car looking?” because I know in the back of my mind that there’s not many people not only in the sport today but that have been in the sport that can make the superspeedway cars as good as Tony Jr. and Tony Sr. good, separately or together. They had that craft down. They studied and studied it and have done it so well.”
Q: So at least you still have that knowledge in your building right with Eury Jr. staying with Hendrick Motorsports after being replaced as your crew chief?
Earnhardt: “I got it in my building. Convincing Tony Jr. to want to pitch in is another thing. He’s probably still a little raw over how things went down. I know how damn good he is, especially at those two places Talladega and Daytona. I’m interested in getting on the racetrack and out there drafting and seeing what the car does and how it reacts. I’ll give Lance my honest opinion how I feel if there’s any difference between the car I drove for Tony and his car, and we’ll work on it.”