Hendrick Motorsports tested at NHMS on Wednesday in preparation for the SYLVANIA 300 on Sept. 22. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson all visited the Media Center during their lunch break to share their thoughts on the test session.
Here's what the drivers had to say:
DALE EARNHARDT JR.
NO. 88 NATIONAL GUARD CHEVROLET
HOW TODAY IS THIS GOING TO HELP IN SEPTEMBER?
"Testing anywhere can help you and we didn't think we were as good as we needed to be last time (we were here) and we're trying to pick up a few things that can help us. If we are fortunate enough to make the Chase, this is one of the important races in the Chase so we're trying to get off to a good start and the race is real key."
WHY IS THIS RACE SO IMPORTANT IN THE CHASE?
"They're all very important. You can’t really give up any (points), you can’t take a race off and you can’t have a bad event so you need to be prepared for each one and the average finish to win a championship has to definitely under seventh spot, so that means you have to finish good everywhere.
WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT NHMS TO HAVE ALL FOUR HENDRICK TEAMS HERE?
"Well, with the new rules, when you get a test, all the teams go. That’s the way the rules are this year. We test as a company with the new rules. So if the 5 car thinks he needs to get better at a certain track and he wants to test there and we all kind of agree to it because we all got to go whether we agree to it or not."
WHO WAS THE DRIVING FORCE BEHIND THIS TEST SESSION?
"I think as a company we all wanted to run here, so it was a pretty easy decision."
IS IT TOUGH FIGHTING FOR THOSE LAST FEW PLAYOFF SPOTS?
“Yeah, I know we’re not in that situation at this point, so hopefully we can keep the cushion we’ve got and not have to worry about being in that spot because it’s not a lot of fun having to race looking over your shoulder all the time, trying to make the Chase those last few events, especially going into Richmond where if you’re in a situation that’s real close. It’s just a real miserable weekend having to worry about that. You want to go into Richmond actually feeling pretty comfortable about your situation and start thinking ahead and looking ahead to Chicago and all the tracks ahead."
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR POSITION?
“We’ve got a good cushion right now over the guy in 11th and that’s the way you want to keep it. We had a tough weekend, points-wise, at Watkins Glen and we don’t want to repeat that in these last few races before the Chase.”
THOUGHTS ABOUT MICHIGAN?
“It’s no different than any other track. We’ve been running there the last few times out and hopefully we can have the same kind of car we had this past trip and stay up front and get a shot at winning. It’s a tough race to win and anything can happen. Hopefully everything works out for us in practice. I feel like it’s definitely one of our better tracks. I just hope we can put a full race together and get a good finish.”
WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE LAST FEW RACES, THREE STRAIGHT RACES AND ONE WIN, YOU TAKE MORE PRIDE IN CONSISTENCY IN THAT PERIOD OR DO YOU LOOK AT WHAT YOU NEED TO GET TO VICTORY LANE MORE OFTEN?
“Yeah, we definitely want to win more races than we’ve been winning but the consistency has been a positive thing that’s been going on for us and it’s something I’ve been working on my whole career to sort of put all the pieces together to be able to run well every week and be consistent every week. It seems to be as consistent as it’s ever been the last couple of years working with Steve. It’s really put me in a good position around the good people that we’ve got a real good package as far as everybody we’ve got together on the team to be consistent every week and that’s important and I’m real proud of that, but definitely we want to win more races. It’s frustrating that we haven’t won as much as we would’ve liked to, but as long as we’re consistent, opportunity should be there.”
WHAT’S BEEN MORE CONSISTENT?
“I think last year we were more consistent and finishing more races and not having more mistakes and issues. The whole time I’ve been with Steve, it’s been this way. Working with the guys, throughout the three years we’ve been together or however long it’s been, there’s been few positions that’s changed and people that come and go, but we really don’t miss a beat and I think that says a lot about Steve’s ability to lead the team and put more good people around us.”
DO YOU TAKE MORE CHANCES? TAKE A RISK TO HAVE SUCCESS?
“We run hard every lap and try to pass as many cars as we can pass. You drive with your head on your shoulders and try not to do anything stupid. We take plenty of risks every time we have a restart . You take gambles to try and improve your position. I don’t think it’s being any more riskier. I think it’s the borderline being ignorant and making mistakes and putting yourself in bad positions and putting other people in bad positions, too.”
THOUGHTS ON JUAN PABLO MONTOYA NOT BEING IN THE 42?
“It was a shock to me. I’m sure Juan and Chip have had these discussions about it and it wasn’t something he would find out like everyone else did. It was funny, because there was no discussion about it. You normally hear about these things underground a little bit earlier before they happen. I didn’t hear anything about it. I was really shocked. I don’t know what Juan’s plans are, but he’s been a lot of fun to have in the series. If he wanted to, he didn’t have to be here. He didn’t have to try and come back and race in this series. He’s had a pretty good career and he doesn’t have anything to prove, I guess is my point. But he’s been a lot of fun to have him around. I was worried about him being a Formula One driver and how the culture was so different and how he would fit in and interact with us, me in particular. I’ve always enjoyed working with him and racing with him and competing with him. He’s been a good guy off the race track. It’s been fun having him around. I hope he sticks around, but you just never know. He just kind of picks his own battles, so you never know where he’s going to race next.”
LESSONS YOU CAN LEARN TO HAVE A BETTER RUN AT A TITLE THIS YEAR, OR HOPE FOR BETTER BREAKS?
We got to be there and we got to race every week. We didn’t get that chance last year, so we got to show up at all the events and be in the field to compete. We got a lot of tough competition and I think our teammates are going to be part of that competition. It’s not going to be easy at all whoever wins the championship. It’s going to be very, very challenging and very, very competitive. But you show up every week. If you’re one of the guys and you get that shot, you just show up every week with that attitude that you’re going to do your best and it’s going to happen. You just have to believe it’s going to happen for you.”
ACCESS YOUR CHANCES FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP?
I don’t think we’re considered probably one of the favorites by anybody, by no means. We haven’t had the performance this year to really (be considered a contender). I think last year people in the middle of the season might’ve been putting us in that conversation, but this year we just haven’t had the finishes throughout the season to be in that conversation. We may be a bit of a mid-pack or darkhorse choice in the Chase if we get that opportunity to be in the Chase.”
NO. 24 DRIVE TO END HUNGER CHEVROLET
IS TODAY’S TEST GOING TO HELP YOU OUT IN SEPTEMBER?
“You certainly hope so. This is an important race in the Chase, obviously. Anything we can learn here that we can take somewhere else to help us get in the Chase is as crucial as well.”
HIT AT WATKINS GLEN?
“Yeah, that hit was not a hard hit at all. It was between the guardrails and the angle I hit, it was pretty cushioned. My ego and pride are hurting a lot more than that. It was one of those freak things where I got a big run and lost the nose and got in the wall and then got in the grass and couldn’t keep the car going straight. So it was a huge hit in the points for us, more so than a huge hit on the track.”
HOW DO YOU FEEL GOING INTO THE LAST FEW WEEKS OF THE SEASON?
“My approach has always been the same. It doesn’t change, whether you’re trying to make into the Chase or trying to win a championship or wherever you’re at, you go week to week and try to get the most out of it and get your best result. Sometimes that battling for a win, sometimes that’s battling for 10th, sometimes that’s running a wrecked race car to get every point you can. Excited about running Michigan. We seem to have found some speed at the bigger tracks and we’re going to focus on getting qualified so that we can start a little further in the front and not get caught ourselves caught up in some things. I feel comfortable that we’re going to race good once the green flag drops.”
ACCESS CHANCES AT THIS POINT?
“Um, our chances are still as good as anybody that we’re around. It’s been a rough season for us and we haven’t had a lot of things go well for us. It’s hard to get yourself excited about gaining momentum and get confidence in things starting to go your way because it seems every time we do get things going our way, something kind of disrupts that. I’m hoping the next four, five weeks we can put it together and kind of start over. I wish I had a better prediction for you, but from a performance standpoint, I feel like we’re good enough to make it in. We’ve had so many other things factor in for this season that you just don’t know.”
HAD MORE DNFS, FIVE, BUT YOUR FINISHES BEEN SOLID?
“Yeah, well you can’t have those DNFs, it just makes too much work. We’re not going to go down without a fight, though. That’s why we’re here and that’s why we’ll be in Richmond next week (testing). But we’re going to work hard and get everything we can. So the approach is still the same; we go week to week, trying to get the best finish we can, whether we’re in the Chase or not in the Chase. We know if we accomplish what we set out to do every week, we’ll make it in the Chase. That’s all we can do right now.”
HOW DIFFICULT HAS IT BEEN HAVING THIS TYPE OF A SEASON?
“I’ve gotten comfortable - or not comfortable, but able to experience it the last couple of years. I mean, the last couple of years have not been good. Last year it was a rough year for us, but yet we made it into the Chase, but it wasn’t pretty getting into it. We showed what we were capable of once we did get into the Chase, so that’s why we kept fighting. It shows what you’re made of as a team and an individual and that’s the way I want every season to be; one we learn from, one we get stronger and better from and, hopefully, that leads to more success in the future.”
HOW’S TESTING BEEN HERE, HAVING TO CRAM TWO DAYS INTO ONE?
“Testing is usual here at New Hampshire: four cars, cooler temperatures, the car does everything you want it to do: it cuts, it stops, it accelerates. Then you come back for the race and it does something completely different. I mean, we went through this with our tire test. When we were here, the car was doing everything we wanted it to do. Then we came back for the race and we didn’t feel like we were as near as competitive. The car just wasn’t doing the same things. Then we showed up today and it was exactly the same way. As the track temps came up, we started to see more of the characteristics of what we did deal with the last time we were here. Regardless we’re going to learn some things here and hopefully we can apply it when we come back.”
ON JUAN PABLO MONTOYA LEAVING THE 42 CAR NEXT YEAR?
“There’s so many more questions I think as to what are his plans. He’s been a great asset and an addition to the Cup series. To have a Formula One star of his caliber and race in the Cup series and win races and be as competitive as he’s been says a lot about his talent. Hopefully he lands somewhere else, if that’s what he chooses to do, and then of course the big question is who’s going to fill that seat (in the 42).”
IS IT JIMMIE JOHNSON’S CHASE TO LOSE THIS YEAR?
“These guys just always find a way to get more and get stronger. I’ve always felt our biggest competition is always ourselves. We’re always just pushing the limits of our own team and our own capabilities or myself. I think that’s what everybody on the team does. Those guys, they do the same thing and they just rise to a level that has been superior to everyone else, so when they’re on top of their game, they’re very tough to beat. But I think they’ve also shown this year that nobody’s perfect and in order to beat them you’ve got to put pressure on them and you’re going to have to push them into an area to make mistakes. And they just don’t do that very often. They’re performing very, very well. They’re just a really well put-together race team. Jimmie’s a great driver, Chad’s a great crew chief, great equipment; so, yeah, I’d say that as good as a season they’ve had, they’re definitely the team to beat.”
CONTRAST AT THIS POINT OF THE SEASON TO LAST, SCRATCHING AND CLAWING YOUR WAY INTO THE CHASE VS. NOW - HOW ARE YOU FEELING ABOUT WHERE YOU ARE?
“Pretty much the same. Pretty much the same. We’ve been through it, so we kind of understand what it’s like to deal with that. All you can do is approach each race in a manner where you’re trying to get all you can get and get the best finishes you can. There’s still a lot of racing left to go and we’ve seen where we can gain 15-20 points in one week and we can lose it in one week. We’re just looking for some consistency. I think the performance has really picked up and that’s going to help. We’ve got to qualify better and then we’ve just got to execute. If we execute over these next few weeks, I know we can make it in like we did last year and hopefully we don’t have to go do it in the same fashion in Richmond like we did last year.”
WAS IT AS NAIL-BITING AN EXPERIENCE LAST YEAR?
“It was fun and exciting and crazy and, yeah, it wasn’t the way I would’ve preferred to do it. But when you know the end results, then it’s the coolest way to do it. But when you go into it, knowing that you basically have to win to make it in, that’s a lot of pressure and we had a lot of ups and downs in that race. It just tells us that you can never give up and that’s what I think we’ve learned from that in how we approach this weekend and the next several weekends.”
NO. 48 LOWE’S CHEVROLET
HOW DOES TODAY’S TEST HELP YOU FOR SEPTEMBER?
“We’re trying to get the rubber down and trying to create the situations as close to the race as possible. It’s tough to do with four cars, but I think we’re having a productive test. Unfortunately, yesterday the weather was bad so we missed out on a day of testing but we’re trying to make the most of it today.”
HOW DO THE VARIABLES OF NEW HAMPSHIRE PLAY A ROLE IN HOW YOU TEST TODAY AND HOW YOU’LL RACE IN SEPTEMBER?
“It’s tough. Even on a race weekend, the track changes so much from the Saturday practice session into the Sunday race that I experienced in my last trip up here that the car handled much different. We’re used to the challenge here and the weather playing a factor here. Hopefully we’re making smart decisions so when we come back we can be in the right space. This is a tricky track to get right and grip level is so important. Cloud cover plays a big difference. Temperature does. And certainly the amount of cars on the track. The more cars, the more slippy the track gets. We don’t have a clear-cut way or answer, but we’re just trying to get a foundation to work from so we can be in the ballpark.”
DO YOU LIKE NEW HAMPSHIRE AS THE SECOND RACE IN THE CHASE?
“They’re (Chase tracks) all tough. It hasn’t changed in my mind any, where it fits in. All 10 tracks have their own rhythm to them, their own energy, their own intensity. The fact that it’s still in the lineup hasn’t changed it a lot for me.”
THE IMPACT TONY STEWART’S INJURY HAS ON THE SPORT? THE CHILLING EFFECT HIS INJURY MAY HAVE ON OTHER DRIVERS THAT VENTURE INTO EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES.
“I don’t think it’s going to change much on that front because we all have contracts that state we need approval from sponsor, from team, to compete in these other cars. So drivers that have already worked out those details with their team and sponsors - that stuffs already in play for the year. A sponsor can always come back and say they don’t want that to happen; but from a driver’s perspective I don’t see it changing any driver’s mind. We all know the risks. When you choose to run other races and divisions, you work through all those things. If you have a wife, you ask her opinion of that. You talk to your team and sponsors and you work all that out. I don’t think it’s going to have a big impact on things. It was a terrible accident and we all want Tony here. Everybody on the Stewart-Haas side knew what the risks were and they all agreed to take those chances to go out and race. I personally commend Tony for his contributions to motorsports. Clearly, he has a big influence here in the Cup Series, but when you look at what he does to help other drivers develop. The divisions he runs; the cars that he owns; the tracks that he owns and supports. I mean he really does give back to our sport day in and day out. I respect him for that, and I really hope this doesn’t change that down the road. Maybe it will, we’ll all find out in time, but I’ll be bummed out if he changed what he did because his contributions have been massive for our sport.”
IS THE FEELING AROUND THE GARAGE THAT TONY STEWART WILL BE BACK THIS YEAR AT SOME POINT? POSSIBLY IN THE NEXT MONTH?
“Gosh, I thought I heard multiple months. I think it’s a pretty severe injury. I don’t know if it was a statement from them (Stewart-Haas) or where it came from, but I heard Larry McReynolds we’ll see him February in Daytona.”
HOW DOES TONY STEWART’S ABSENCE EFFECT YOUR TITLE HOPES?
“Anybody and everybody in the top 15 is a threat. But Tony, when he gets hot, man, he gets hot. You just don’t know when that streak’s going to come. Carl Edwards was caught off-guard from it, I think we all were back in 2011. When he got hot, man, he won half the Chase races and took the championship. In a very complimentary way and respectful way, it takes a little bit of pressure off the Chase in some respects. But it looks like his loss might still benefit the Stewart-Haas group, and Ryan (Newman) is showing a lot of speed right now, so we can’t count him out.”
LOTS OF TESTING COMING UP FOR HENDRICK. HOW DO YOU MANAGE THE TESTING WITHOUT PEAKING TOO EARLY ON-TRACK?
“It’s tough and it’s a big workload. For everybody to get geared up. Before, you could choose as a team where you wanted to go. Now, you have to choose as a company. Everybody has to work a lot harder and maybe enter Chase a little overworked and not as fresh as some other years. But, strategically, when we look at laying out our test sessions it makes total sense if all four cars are in a good place with points, to save our tests for Chase tracks. That’s what we’ve elected to do. It’ll be good in November to see where it worked, and if it didn’t we’ll see what areas it didn’t. But laying out a clean sheet of paper and trying to manage four teams instead of one, this is best philosophy that we can come up with.”
COMFORTABLE CUSHION IN POINTS. HOW DO YOU MANAGE THIS MUCH MORE BEFORE THE CHASE?
“I think it’s good for me. I’m not sure about the other Hendrick cars, but to be in the car, at the track, trying to find speed, developing parts and pieced, and putting pressure on myself, on the team, on Chad (Knaus) - that’s the world we’re going to live in for 10 weeks. Right now, we’re kind of ramping up and building into that pressure instead of showing up at Chicago and the pressure leaning on our shoulders. So I think it’s a good thing for us.”
WHAT HAVE YOU GUYS BEEN ABLE TO FIND AND HOW CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE SUCCESS YOU AND CREW CHIEF CHAD KNAUS HAVE?
“All four Hendricks cars plus the three Stewart-Haas cars – we all have the same engines, same equipment, access to all the same tools, parts and pieces. It’s all the same. What the people do with it is different. The way Chad and I communicate. The bond that we have. The understanding we have for one another, we’ve been able to take those tools and do a really nice job with them over the years. At the end of the day it comes down to the driver/crew chief relationship to make the car go fast. And that’s what we work so hard on.”
ON BRIAN VICKERS, WINNER OF JULY’S CAMPING WORLD RV SALES 301 AT NHMS.
“My relationship with Brian goes way back to the Hendrick days. I think he was a senior in high school and missed prom to drive at Rockingham, that’s the first time I met him. Thereafter, we became teammates at Hendrick. And after, although he’s driven for different teams, there’s always been a friendship there. The performance he’s had in a Cup car and the consistency he’s shown in the Joe Gibbs Nationwide car, I felt like he’d land in a full-time Cup ride. And that’s worked out for him and I’m real happy for him.”