Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks to everyone for joining us on today’s call. We’re thrilled to be celebrating the culmination of another very exciting NASCAR season. The official home of the NASCAR playoffs and championship, NBC Sports Group will surround the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity Series championships with more than 20 hours of trackside coverage from Homestead-Miami Speedway this week and weekend. Live coverage from Florida begins Saturday at 3:30 p.m. eastern time on NBCSN with the Xfinity Series championship and culminates with Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship at 3:00 p.m. eastern on NBC.
Joining us on today’s call to preview championship weekend are 21-time Cup Series winner Jeff Burton; Daytona 500 winning crew chief Steve Letarte; NBC Sports Group’s newest on-air contributor and NASCAR’s most popular driver for an unprecedented 15 consecutive seasons, Dale Earnhardt Jr.; and NBC Sports Group executive producer Sam Flood.
SAM FLOOD: Thank you, and thank you all for joining us on the call today. We’re excited to get to Miami and have this big championship weekend take place, Xfinity-crowned champion on Saturday and the Cup race on Sunday.
We have had some amazing racing in Miami through the years. The last three events there have been spectacular, so we’re excited about that. A good Final Four, a lot of sub-plots and story lines that the three other guys on the call can get into. But we do know that the early favorite based on the race last night on the Tonight Show is Martin Truex Jr. as he won the race on the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show. Pretty impressive performance by him, which raises the stakes a great deal on Sunday, and I know there’s a lot more angst for the other drivers who couldn’t beat him on the 8th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. With that, I hand it off to the mayor, Jeff Burton.
JEFF BURTON: Well, this weekend has proven to be one of the coolest weekends in all of sports. We’ve seen incredible racing in every one of these finales, and with the four guys that we have in each of the series, I don’t see that changing. In the Cup Series you have three former champions and Joey Logano trying to get his first championship. That’s really the four heavyweights from the whole year, when you look at laps led, you look at number of times in the top 5, you have the wins, all those stats, these are the four guys that deserve to be here. So it’s going to be a great battle.
And then in the Xfinity Series for Saturday, you’ve got four guys trying to be the next Kyle Busch, the next Martin Truex Jr., the next Kevin Harvick, and that’s going to be a fun battle to watch, as well. So just excited about the weekend.
The races that we’ve seen here in the finale have been phenomenal, and I expect nothing different come Saturday and Sunday.
STEVE LETARTE: This is Steve Letarte. I echo what Sam and Jeff said. I’m expecting great things at Miami, and I think the biggest reason is the type of racing we’ve had. I’m very proud of what we’ve done at NBC and the races we’ve put on air. I think we’ve covered them well, but we’ve been very blessed to have great, great racing, whether it was that great finish between Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch at Chicago, whether it was the baffling finish at the Roval, which was unbelievable, points battle and the battle for the win, or Joey Logano moving Martin Truex at Martinsville, I think none of us could predict how some of these races are going to go, and that’s what makes Saturday and Sunday’s race even more exciting is I don’t think it’s possible at all to predict which one is a favorite, which one has momentum.
I think we have without a doubt the four biggest heavyweights when you look at their stats, you look at the momentum, look at the playoffs, the regular season, you could even go back the last four years, these guys have won almost 50 percent of the races in the last four seasons, and I think they’re very deserving. They’re the only guys to ever repeat in the Championship 4, and all four of these guys have been here with three former champions and one in Joey Logano who’s trying to be a champion, I just expect it to definitely pay dividends. I think it’s going to be an exciting weekend, but it’s been a fun year in the booth with my booth mates, especially with a former teammate and now a teammate again in Dale Jr., so I’ll let him follow with some comments.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: What a memorable season it’s been, my first as a broadcaster with NBC, and could have never imagined witnessing the action that we’ve seen so far the second half of this season. All these races have been just tremendous, dramatic, exciting. Even last week at Phoenix was such a roller coaster for us in the booth, for obviously the drivers in the race. We couldn’t have predicted all the things that everybody ended up having to face throughout the day and how that all would play out.
That’s kind of been the way this year has been from my vantage point. It’s just really delivered — the drivers have delivered — the drivers have really stepped up and gave us everything they’ve had, and I feel like we have really whittled this down to the best four teams, the best four drivers for this season, and there’s not really an underdog in this group, but there’s not a favorite, either. All these guys sort of measure up, and I can see either one of them winning this championship.
That has me extremely impatient to get to Sunday and see what happens when the green flag finally drops.
Q. Steve, what’s it like for a team or what’s the challenges for a team when they have a car chief suspended, a crew chief suspended, and there’s kind of an aura around you that people are questioning your integrity?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I’ll start with the aura around you. I think that one of the challenges to be a crew chief in this sport is to lead your team through the ups and downs of a roller coaster of a season. That includes wins, loses, and it also includes outside opinions of your race team, so I think Rodney does a great job, Greg Zipadelli over there at SHR seems very clear to me just talking to their crew last week, they’re very focused on the task at hand. I thought they had delivered whatever message it was very wonderfully because the team seemed focused.
As far as losing your crew members, no one ever wants to go to their bench, but if you go to your bench with somebody like Tony Gibson, over 400 starts, six wins, very likable by the officials and by the competitors, and more importantly a leader. Setups are one thing, but you need somebody — I think last week was a perfect example, a flat tire, potential damage; it takes a real leader on top of the pit box to walk you through that situation, and I thought Tony did that wonderfully.
I actually think car chief is probably the hardest guy to replace. There are so many moving parts throughout a weekend, so many times through inspection, the interaction with the officials. So I think that’s probably the toughest thing to overcome, but it seems that it didn’t affect them much last week.
They were probably the dominant car through practice. The race didn’t go as the 4 car had hoped, but I thought after they had the adversity with the flat tire, they kind of circled the wagons and did what they needed to do. It wasn’t special by any means and it wasn’t what we expected for speed out of the 4. That’s not what they had to do; they just had to do move it forward, and they did that.
I would expect to see more of the same this weekend.
Q. And for Dale, both Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson are facing a year where they don’t win, and they’re used to winning at least a race every year. When you’ve had a year that you obviously aren’t the most — that isn’t the most successful, how much does it matter after Homestead that you didn’t win? Is it a kick in the gut even though maybe you go into Homestead knowing that your chances of winning aren’t all that great?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: You take a lot of pride in being a winner and being successful. Any time you don’t accomplish those key things that you expect, not only out of yourself but the team expects out of you, the company expects out of you, when you’re not in the group of winners or the people that made the playoffs, any of those kind of things can really be disheartening, and it’s a huge disappointment.
You’re going to talk yourself out of it. You’re going to understate it, but it’s going to be in the back of your mind throughout the off-season, into the next season, until you can get back to Victory Lane, until you can find your way back to being a winner.
I think it helps you realize just how hard it is to be successful in the sport, how hard it is to sustain success. You get to be — you win a few races, and you forget how much work goes into it or how hard it is to do that well. I think it’s a good reminder, too, when you’re not winning and you’re struggling to win of just how elite this sport is and how tough it is to stay at the top.
Q. Sam, on the production side, having these races are massive every week, and I’m sure you guys have been adding elements throughout the playoffs. Anything new you guys have tried, or is there anything that we can anticipate from behind the scenes standpoint that you might try to do differently this weekend?
SAM FLOOD: Well, the biggest add this weekend is the NASCAR Hot Pass, where we’ll have a second feed focusing on the four cars running for the championship that will be available on NBCSN. Leigh Diffey and Dale Jarrett will be calling that, and it gives the viewers an opportunity to just focus on those four cars.
Obviously we’ll focus on the entire field on the NBC telecast with Junior and Steve and Rick and Jeff and the pit road gang, but this gives an opportunity to get a different sense of the race based on those four cars and a multi-screen option.
But ultimately the bigger story is going to be told on NBC, and our first three years doing this Championship 4 race have been a lot of fun, a lot of drama, and the place to be when it comes to the back end of the race is on NBC. So we’re proud to have the A-team making it happen. The way we work our booth between Jeff and Junior and Rick and Steve, really it’s the best way to consume the race and really tell the story of what’s happening.
We’re confident and comfortable in what we’ve got going on, but know this second option on NBCSN will be a good opportunity for some folks that are into those four cars alone.
Q. Dale, last week during the broadcast you heard Kurt Busch kind of lash out, saying over his in-car radio, this is why NASCAR is hurting for sponsors and corporate sponsors. I know emotions run high, but is that something that maybe drivers shouldn’t be saying? We know the sport ratings are down, and we know what’s happening with Furniture Row Racing, but is there an attitude among drivers that maybe they should kind of hold that in, maybe not lash out since everything they say in their car can be heard by fans and the media?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, that’s not productive for anybody, and I think that if Kurt could go back and do that over again, he probably wouldn’t have said those things. Sometimes you want to — basically when you feel like you’ve been wronged by NASCAR, you come over the radio and say something that you try to take a dig at them, but you forget that everyone else is listening and you forget that that stuff is so readily available and able to clip and paste and put anywhere, and you think a driver that’s been around as long as he has, and especially that’s been through everything that he’s been through to get back to where he is as a competitor would have a little more sense in a situation like that.
You know, it’s not helpful for anyone, and I think that he certainly probably regrets having said those things.
Q. Steve, with the word that Rodney Childers will be allowed in after the checkered flag if his team wins the championship, as a crew chief if you were in the same position, would you worry about jinxing it by coming to town and showing up or staying at home and then coming later or something? What would be your thoughts on that if you were the crew chief?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I would be in town. I would be meeting with my team every night. I’d be meeting with my driver between every practice if he could leave the property and come see me. A lot of information can be sent visually, can be sent over the telephone, but there’s something about seeing your driver eye to eye that really lets you know. I was never a 1 through 10 scale for handling. I kind of was more of an emotional, look at me, talk to me, tell me what we need, how close we really are. I think that can all be done face to face.
So I wouldn’t worry about jinxing anything. I would be in town. Listen, this is one race to determine a champion, it’s definitely not one race to determine who has a shot at the championship, and Rodney Childers has led this team in person for 34 weeks and probably from afar for the last week, and I’m sure it will be the same for this week. I’m thankful that NASCAR is going to give him that opportunity. I think it’s the right thing to do. But I don’t believe in bad luck. I’d be there waiting to celebrate.
Q. Do you believe that this championship with these four is any more well matched or any closer than we’ve had in the past few years? Do you feel like it’ll be any tighter, that they’re more well matched beyond what we’ve seen in the past?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, these four are here because they’re running their best at the most crucial time of the year. So every year we come down here and we say, wow, what a great match-up, and this year is the same. The big three, we talked about them all year long, and the question was who’s going to join them. Like who’s the guy that’s going to join them, and Joey Logano and his team stepped up at the key moments and found a way to be that team.
When you look at it, it’s really kind of hard to pick a favorite. You can go with Kevin Harvick with the speed that he’s got, but they have some issues that they haven’t been as good as pit road. You’ve got Joey Logano that has had speed lately, and their pit road crew is phenomenal. Martin Truex, how dangerous they are on a mile-and-a-half. You could make an argument for any one of these four guys for why they could win a championship. That’s what makes this weekend great. That’s what makes it awesome is the very best four are here, and when it ends on Sunday night, I’m not going to be surprised if any of them win. That’s what makes a great weekend.
Q. For Sam, two-parter for you. How do you feel like the chemistry developed between the booth mates this year? Was it smoother or end up more awkward than you expected?
SAM FLOOD: I thought it was better than I could ever have dreamed of. I thought the four folks played together so well. The different combinations made each week exciting, and I think for the viewers, you got a different taste of the race based on how we paired them up. Even early in the season, putting Jeff, Steve and Dale together in Loudon was a fun change of pace for the audience. And we want to keep looking at different ways to engage the audience and make sure they know when you come to NBC you’re going to get the best of the best, and these four folks are going to engage different ways depending on the race and the track, because every track is different. So you can’t cover all these the same way.
Q. How much do you expect to continue kind of tinkering next year, or do you feel like you’ve kind of found the exact formula for certain racetracks that you guys are looking for?
SAM FLOOD: We’re going to keep tinkering. The game never ends. You’ve got to keep pushing every week to try to get better, and if you’re not getting better, I tell everyone you’re getting worse. So we’re going to get better every week, and that’s going to mean we’re going to experiment and we’re going to keep pushing, and some idea might pop up in our 10th race next year that we didn’t think of, and it’s going to make us better and we’re going to push that through.
Q. For any of the three of you, has there been any big surprises or something that you didn’t expect during this playoff, the NASCAR playoffs these last nine races, something that maybe stood out that you weren’t expecting or a big surprise? Maybe it could have been the success or the lack, the fiasco of the Roval or whatever along those lines?
JEFF BURTON: For me, I thought the first part of the playoffs were a little like teams we expected to execute that weren’t doing it. The first part of the playoffs was kind of chaotic with nobody really having clean races, and the big three in particular where we thought they were just going to roll into Miami, it all of a sudden turned into a challenge for them, and I think that showed me how much the competition stepped up.
I’ve done it long enough to know that maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that teams find a way to get better, but the inability for those teams that we thought were a lock-in to really execute and win races and do what we’ve seen them do all year long, them not being able to do that really surprised me.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I think the big surprise for me was Aric Almirola and how close he came to getting into the Final Four, and that’s not saying as much about Aric as it was about how dramatic the whole playoff system has been, and particularly the Phoenix race. So much happened in just that event to present him with an opportunity, but he was running well enough to be able to take it, to be able to seize it.
This is a guy that hasn’t really been competitive over the last several years, hasn’t been in a competitive car, gets his first opportunity in a great car, and really maximized that opportunity and almost sitting here racing for a championship.
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, I think what has surprised me is I’ve been very vocal to say I didn’t think all of the big three would make Miami, and I was wrong. They were all here. And I think the simple fact is that if I’m a crew chief in the garage still with this — I call it new, we’re a few years in, but with stage racing and with playoff points, basically the regular season, your success in the regular season can absolutely give you a huge advantage in the playoffs, and I think that’s what we’ve seen this year. I didn’t think all three could be — we’ve seen one guy gather up playoff points, we’ve seen a couple guys. We’ve never seen three do it like they’ve done it this year, but that success in the regular season is directly why all three of them are here, and that was a shock to me, and I think that’s a great thing, because I think that’s going to make the first 26 races more valuable, and the more valuable they are, the more interesting they are. We’ve seen what drivers will do in the playoffs, and now I’m wondering if some drivers are looking back at the regular season wishing they would have been maybe more aggressive, maybe the crew chiefs would have been more aggressive. I think the entire season has gained value for the viewer with the value of those points to the competitor.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about Chase Elliott and if you expect to see him in the championship next season?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I think that Chase is progressing along fine, and he seems — and I think he very well could be racing for the championship next year. Teams have a way of turning things around. HMS has a way of turning things around. I do think that they will find themselves back at the top of the heap at some point in the future.
I think that Chevrolet will also find its way toward the top of the heap and the dominance that they want to experience will come back, and I think Chase will be able to benefit from those two things. If he and his crew chief Alan can stick together through that experience, through that process, they will benefit greatly from it. They both work well together. Alan is extremely talented. He gets a ton out of that car. If you look at the rest of the team and the rest of the company ran, the rest of the Chevrolets ran, I think Chase was the best Chevrolet many weeks, and that starts at the pit box, the crew chief and throughout the team.
I think he’s in great position to capitalize here in the future.
JEFF BURTON: There’s no question Chase and Hendrick Motorsports has the ability to do it. The question is who’s going to come out. It’s what makes this sport so much fun to watch and also to be involved in is that you’ve got to go through people to get there, and when you’re going through people to knock them out and take their spot, you’re going through the best of the best. Chase has the talent, Hendrick Motorsports has the ability, but they’re going to have to find a way to step up, even for us, more than they realize, but this off-season everybody is going to step up. Everybody is going to put effort into being better.
It’s just hard. When you look at the four guys that are in the playoffs today, how are you going through them? And the only way to do it is to step up, and you’ve got to step up more than they do. So it’s a hard time — I’m not saying he can’t do it. I think he can do it, but it won’t be easy.