HOW WAS YOUR PRACTICE SESSION AND WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS FOR SUNDAY’S RACE?: “Hopefully get back to some of those statistics although we did finish second here last year, pit strategy really worked our way and this year I feel like we’ve come with a much better package. We really struggled here last year in practice and in the race as far as handling goes. Today I was really pleased with the car right from the beginning. Felt like the car was doing a lot of the things that you need to put a good lap together and have a good race car. Mainly worked on race setups the first half to even three-quarters of practice and then we put it into qualifying trim and made two qualifying runs. The first one I didn’t feel like I put a very good lap together, but that last one was a good lap and hit my marks and put a really strong lap up. Hopefully, we can back that up.”
DO YOU STILL FEEL LIKE A FAVORITE AT SONOMA?: “I feel a lot better than I did last year, but it doesn’t have anything to do with that second-place finish. I feel like the second was a good finish for us, a very good finish, but it happened because of pit strategy. Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) called a really good race, the cautions came at the right time and we had great track position at the end of the race and we made it better, don’t get me wrong. We made the car better, but what we did that I felt like contributed to this year is we really missed the setup at the beginning of the race here last year and we were able to learn what not to do to come back this year. I feel like it has really given us a much better direction for this race this weekend plus Goodyear has a little different tire so I just feel like the team has done their homework and it’s paying off so far.
“Hopefully, we’ll continue to. When the car does the things you want it to do, you need the car to stop under braking and turn into the corner and be able to accelerate and you need to do that both lefts and rights. When we do that it gives you confidence and helps you prepare for the race. That’s something we haven’t had the last couple of years being here. We’ve really been missing that. I’m not saying we’re a favorite this year, but we’ve definitely taken a step in the right direction.”
WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO GO TO VICTORY LANE ON SUNDAY?: “It would be great. The competition has gotten better. Guys have done their homework and got their cars better and guys like Juan Pablo (Montoya) and (AJ) Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, these are just guys that have road racing backgrounds and they really have stepped up the game now that they’re in solid teams. Those are the guys that I feel like we’ve really been having to watch these last couple years.
“The cooler conditions, they’ve been nice. The track has got good grip, the speeds are up there and from inside the car, it’s nice because I’m not sweating too much. It’s a little surprising and we did not expect to have these types of conditions, I thought there would be a lot more sun today and not quite this cool. It was kind of raining throughout practice so that really surprised us. I’m more curious now how the conditions change for qualifying. If that sun comes out, it’s going to throw everybody for a bit of a loop.”
WILL THE NEW SWAY BAR RULES NEXT WEEK IMPACT YOUR SETUPS?: “We were working in that area. I don’t feel like it’s going to affect us too much. I feel like what they’re changing is very, very slight. I think our cars and our teams are good enough to keep the performance going with that change. I don’t know who and how many teams that it affects, but we’ll certainly know more. In this span of races that Hendrick has won some of the cars have had those areas that they are adjusting and some of them haven’t. I don’t think it’s a huge thing.”
HOW DO YOU KEEP MORAL UP WITH YOUR TEAM AND WHERE ARE THEY WITH THAT NOW?: “It’s easier when it’s just all down, when there’s no ups and downs, you don’t have any expectations. I feel like it has really been a test for us. It has not been easy. When you have high expectations on yourself and your teammates are winning and doing well and when you’re running so good it makes it even more frustrating. I’ve been saying this, how hard it is to run good and we’ve got that part down really good, we’re running good.
“To not have any results to show for it is extremely frustrating and it has really tested us in a big way. I just give a lot of credit to Alan (Gustafson, crew chief). I feel like he and I have really come together through this. We really had great talks over the off season and I think we just bonded in a way where we have confidence that no matter what happens, we’re not going to let it tear us apart. Little did we know what was going to happen this year after that conversation, but because of that I think it’s allowed us to really stick together and just keep on digging through those trenches and knowing that there is an upside that’s going to come. Especially because we’re running so good.
“There have been times where he’s really had to step-up and be that glue and then there’s been times where I’ve had to as well, which is not something I’ve really had to do in the past. For me, from a leadership standpoint, it’s really more of just going out and getting the results and I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to go get those results and get the team rallied around that. This year, I’ve had to do it more on a personal level one on one and in the team meetings of really kind of stepping out there and putting some words out there that I feel like could be key to keeping us together and getting us through those tough times.”
WHAT IMPACT DO YOU THINK DALE EARNHARDT JR.’S WIN WILL HAVE ON THE SPORT?: “Listen, we all know the impact. I think that’s why so many people were happy and excited to see him win. One is the guy has gone, he went for four years so he paid his dues and those guys have really been performing well this year. They’ve been putting themselves in position and finally got that win so that was awesome. You saw the crowd reaction and then this week you continue to see the fans and the media and everything and how it reacts to Dale Jr. winning, especially when it’s been that long.
“That’s all positives and good things for the sport that we all can benefit from. It’s definitely a boost that I feel like we needed. Hopefully, now we can just continue to put great racing out there and if those guys stay on their path, they’ll have a shot at the championship, which I think fans would really love to see.”
IS THERE A DISCIPLINE THAT HELPS PREPARE DRIVERS FOR ROAD RACING?: “I can’t speak completely for those guys (Tony Stewart, etc.). I did a little bit of go-kart racing, went to a lot of different driving schools and kind of listened to the instructors on some different things to apply myself or what to apply on a road course compared to an oval. Then I just love the challenge. I think it’s exciting and fun to be able to attack the corner into the braking zones while you’re down shifting and have to throw the car left and right and over the curves. I was excited from the beginning of that challenge where I think some people are really not looking forward to that challenge. I think that the guys that enjoy the challenge are usually the guys that improve and maybe even excel at it. I talk about these road racers, they excel at it because it’s what they were brought up to do so it’s more natural to them. The ovals are more of the things that they have to work on. I’m pretty glad we only have to do two of these a year because while they are fun and challenging, I think that those guys that are really good on the road courses would shine even more if we went to more road course races. It’s just something I worked on. I wanted to be good on the road courses so I worked on it with all that I could do. I came out here to the driving school they had here in 1993 before I raced here. I’ve been to Bob Bondurant, I’ve been to all those and then just testing and working with my team back with Ray (Evernham) with what we needed to go fast on road courses. The first year I came here, I was in that tire wall when we had the boot. It didn’t all happen naturally the first race.”
HOW IMPORTANT WAS DALE EARNHARDT JR.’S WIN OVERALL COMPARED TO THE MIAMI HEAT WINNING THE NBA CHAMPIONSHIP?: “I think it’s important because the fans react, sponsors react, television and media they react. Those are all things that are good for the sport and help it grow. I think that it’s interesting — looking at the NBA and watching some of the final games, there is no doubt that what the (Miami) Heat did to bring that team together, while some people frowned on it, it has paid off and I think what the big stars need in any sport is to be able to hold that trophy and when they do, it makes them a bigger star, but it also makes the sport grow. That’s no different in our sport and Junior, we all know the attention that he gets and the popularity that he has and when he goes out there and just wears them out like he did last week, he gets a lot of people talking and a lot of people excited about him and about the sport.”
ARE THERE ANY RICHARD PETTY MEMORIES THAT STAND OUT FOR YOU?: “I think Richard (Petty) is an influence on all of us. What he accomplished in the sport will never be done again. It’s 200 wins, Jimmie (Johnson) I guess could get to seven championships, but when you look at the time when he did all that, it was unbelievable. I don’t think it’s even just the stats, it’s the impact that he made. He’s probably still to this day one of the most recognizable individuals in the garage area. As a kid, I didn’t even watch NASCAR races, I watched IndyCar races, but I knew who Richard Petty was. That’s the kind of impact that he’s made on people’s lives. When I came into this sport, to see his popularity and see how he handled himself with the fans definitely was a great positive influence on me. I actually did an interview last week talking about my first race, which was his last race and just watching him work the crowd, going through the garage area and I’ve never seen swarms of people. Junior’s (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) popular, but Richard on that last race, he had so many people around him and he was so gracious and handled himself so well that to me was a great example of how to handle yourself with the fans and on your last race.”
WOULD YOU BE IN FAVOR OF BRINGING THE CAROUSEL BACK AT SONOMA?: “Oh yeah, I loved it. I always loved it. I’m not a big fan of turn four, what we have now. I thought the carousel was great, a lot of fun, another passing zone, which I feel like we desperately need. It’s so hard to pass here and that carousel was tricky and makes it very challenging. It’s an exciting part of the race track. Also, like the fact that we get more laps in this way. I’ve kind of gotten used to it and have gotten better at making some passes in seven and coming out of four, but I’m a traditionalist these days and I still love the old track.”
HOW MUCH OF BEING GOOD AT SONOMA IS BEATING THE COMPETITION, BEATING THE TRACK AND NOT BEATING YOURSELF?: “That kind of puts it all there, that’s what it takes. All those things. This track is slick and it’s challenging. You cannot over attack this race track or you’ll be off in a second. Keeping it on the track is probably your first and number one goal, but then you’ve got the competition pushing you and cars and teams and drivers getting better every year. Then you’ve got strategy. You have to meet your fuel mileage numbers, but you have to take some risks with that to try to get the cautions to fall for you in the right way and if they do then you’re going to have a great finish. Takes a lot to win here. When I hear them say we won here five times, it always blows me away because when you haven’t won in awhile, it just seems like it’s so hard. It is. But when you do it all right and things go your way, it actually feels pretty easy.”