Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
MODERATOR: NBC Sports begins its exclusive coverage of the second half of the NASCAR season. We get started this Sunday at Chicagoland at 3 p.m. eastern on NBCSN, followed by Daytona on Saturday, July 6, at 7:30 p.m. eastern prime time on NBC.
Joining us today will be NBC Sports NASCAR analysts Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte, as well as our executive producer Sam Flood.
Let’s begin with the call with our executive producer, Sam Flood.
SAM FLOOD: Thank you all for joining us. We are really excited about getting going on this season. Year five of the current TV contract. We think we’ve got the best opportunity yet to keep moving that needle forward.
First half of the season FOX did a tremendous job. Their numbers were up, so we were happy to see that. We plan to continue that momentum forward.
The team has been watching all the races, going to the racetrack, communicating with everyone inside the sport, getting ready to make it special. Our job for the next 20 weeks is to tell the story of this sport, make people care, and crown a champion in late November as our fifth season gets going.
We love the team we have on air. It’s a group that started with Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte up in the booth with Rick Allen, last year we had the fun of adding Dale Jr., who in Chicago made his debut with slide job, slide job. Jeff is going to have to learn to put out the slide job, might do a slide job of his own in the Toyota racecar.
Mr. Burton, slide away.
JEFF BURTON: You’re starting to get me in trouble already early this year.
I’m so fired up about getting back going. One of the great things about our group is we all get along, have a great time together, push each other. We just love what we do. We’re fortunate enough to do something that is exciting, it’s fun.
I think the point battle this year is going to get more intense as this thing winds down to the Playoffs in the Cup Series. Xfinity Series has three young, dynamic drivers trying to make their way. That’s been a lot of fun to watch.
I don’t know that we could be at a better racetrack starting. Chicago has put on great races. Last year was a phenomenal finish. I’m just fired up to get going. Wish we were racing today.
STEVE LETARTE: I echo their comments of excitement. Much like Sam said, we’ve been around the racetrack the first half of the year kind of watching, making sure we were ready when it was our turn.
While I’m jealous of FOX’s opportunity to cover the Daytona 500, I’m not sure there’s anything I would trade for the run up to the Playoffs and the run through the Playoffs.
When I look at the Cup side, I’m not sure if I should look at the potential rivalry brewing between Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. at the top of the standings, or look down at the bottom of the standings and look at Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, some big names in the sport that are going to be battling over the next 10 weeks to see who is Playoff eligible when we leave Indianapolis.
I think the storylines are unbelievable. I think the racing has been great. As Sam mentioned, we had such an amazing kickoff last year at Chicago, I can remember it vividly. I can’t wait to get up in the booth and start covering live action. There’s nothing like live racing.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I’m excited just to get back to working with my booth mates, Rick Allen, Jeff and Steve. I think we all had a blast last year. We were all pretty good friends beforehand, but during that experience last year we became even closer.
I had a lot of good times just going through that process and experiencing all that. I’m excited to get back together and talk about racing.
We do have a lot of great storylines that have been building up throughout the season that I’m excited to cover. Chicago was one of the most exciting races that we saw last year. I expect that racetrack and the drivers to deliver again this year.
We’ve been out for a while, haven’t had the chance to work together. I knew when we got to the end of the season last year at Homestead, it was bittersweet because we were broadcasting an exciting finish to the season, but we weren’t going to be doing this for several months until today or this weekend.
It’s finally here. It’s been hard to be patient. But it’s such a great group. We got a lot of amazing people that work at NBC, particularly on our NASCAR broadcast. I look forward to seeing everybody and getting the whole family back together and having a great time.
MODERATOR: We can begin taking questions.
Q. Sam, I’m doing a story on Parker Kligerman. Here is a guy who was racing last weekend. I know he’s going to race at times during your schedule this year. He’s really relevant in the car. What do you think he brings to the broadcast? Why have you found him to be such a valuable part of your team?
SAM FLOOD: I think most importantly his youth and his energy. He has just a different view of the sport, different background than others. His joy that he still has. I mean, our whole booth has joy. Junior brought a whole different dynamic to it. Here is a guy, Parker, who looks at the sport from a different place. Still dying to get in the car.
Jeff and Dale are both stars and had the big-time ride, the big-time teams. To see the sport through a guy who’s fighting to get in a car that might not be the top of the line, get a ride that’s not top of the line, seeing how he fights through it to make it happen, I think bringing that experience to the show is different.
That was what makes him special, he’s fighting for these rides, able to tell his experiences. He’s not quite Dale Jr. on social media, but he’s pretty big in that space as well.
Q. Junior, how have you kind of prepared for your second season in the booth? As a driver you mentioned you used to watch film trying to prepare for your next race. Have you been watching film of your past broadcasts?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I think you can watch some of the broadcasts from last year, particularly maybe the last race of the season, to sort of see where you were when you finished the year.
I think just knowing what’s going on. You got to understand what’s been happening this year, what’s been going on on the racetrack, who’s been good, who’s not been good, what’s different from last year as far as performance across the teams and drivers. You just get in there and react naturally and genuinely to what’s going on, what you’re seeing.
I’ll be interested. I really can’t tell you what that sort of layoff is going to do. This is my first time sort of going through that whole process of doing last year’s broadcast, then taking all these months off, then jump right back in there. I’ll sort of have to roll with the punches.
Luckily I’ve been pretty busy throughout these months. Been put in some situations that were pretty stressful as far as going to the Derby, the Indy 500. I’d never been to either of those events. Was not that entirely educated about horse racing or even some subparts and sections of the Indy 500 world. They were kind of new to me.
NBC has never put me in a position to fail, but I certainly had to think on my feet a lot in those moments. That put the pressure on me in some of those moments. To come out of there in one piece gave me a lot of confidence going into this season. So trying to use that confidence and move it over here to this NASCAR world, my experiences there in the booth, kind of maintain.
Confidence for me is everything. If I’ve got confidence, that’s half of the battle. So been lucky to stay busy and had a lot of fun, some good successes over the last several months leading up to this broadcasting season for NBC and NASCAR.
SAM FLOOD: On Junior, the Dale Jr. Download, what he’s done this year, the evolution of that show that airs every Tuesday night on NBCSN, the interviews he’s doing, the guests he’s had on, it’s just another step in a career that’s been so much fun to watch as he evolves into a real broadcaster that can go well beyond the racing world as we saw at the Indy 500 and the Kentucky Derby. The Download is special this year.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Thank you, Sam.
Q. Sam, we’ve seen in years past a lot of the Batcam you guys have had on the races. Will that return this year? Are there other new technologies that will help tell the story for the rest of the season?
SAM FLOOD: We have different cameras we’re going to deploy. Charlie Dammeyer, our director, is always looking for the best possible way to show off the race. He’s still proposing some different techniques he wants to use this year.
Each racetrack creates a different challenge, a different concept that he wants to play around with. So there will be plenty of ways that we’ll work to capture the speed and energy of all this.
But ultimately I think this sport is driven by what happens with the people telling the story of the race. To me that’s where this sport is going to grow, is the more the story gets told by Jeff and Steve and Rick and Dale Jr., they’re the people that will engage you at a higher level.
The bells and whistles are one thing, but the execution of these guys and their passion for the sport is what’s going to capture and grow the audience.
Q. Sam, last year we saw you guys experiment with different combinations in the booth. What combinations are you going to start with this year? Anything new as the season goes along in terms of the booth?
SAM FLOOD: Like last year, we’re not going to give away the whole playbook in the opening call.
This weekend we’re going to do the two plus two. Rick and Jeff will be together, and Steve and Junior, which is the same combination we used a year ago in Chicago.
We’re going to mix it up. The radio call that we use in Watkins Glen will come back for three races. Then there will be times when we will certainly do at least one race with the three racers together in the booth, and Rick will go down to pit road in the pit box.
We’re going to keep having fun and mixing it up. Steve Letarte told me when we were first talking about Dale Jr. is that Dale likes to be challenged. If it’s just time to make the donuts and the pattern stays the same, he’s not going to be as engaged.
We engaged the heck out of him last year. I think we learned something, that we’re better when we have challenges with new techniques and groupings. It started as an idea that Steve dropped in our laps, and it became something that made it better. Anything that makes you better, you want to continue.
Expect to see a variety of booths and a variety of combinations all building up to that championship. But it was a smart idea by Steve and a great execution by Matt and the team to get the different voices and different combinations. I think the audience liked it, too.
Q. Jeff, do you think this year’s package will help on the mile-and-a-half in Chicago?
JEFF BURTON: 100%. I think we stand a great chance to see a better race from start to finish. I think the mile-and-a-half’s this year have been an improvement. I think the more recent ones have been better yet.
I think early in the year, it was so new, I don’t care if you go test, I don’t care about all that, it’s all different when you show up to race. The races were not as good early in the year on the mile-and-a-half’s as they’ve been as the year has advanced. I think that will continue.
I think the gap between the fastest car and the car that’s going to run 20th, I think that gap has continued to narrow because teams have started to catch on. Even though Gibbs is winning the most races, I think you’re going to see, like we saw last year with Joey Logano, you’re going to see a team or a series of teams come on strong as the Playoffs get started. That opportunity to grow is bigger because there’s so many changes this year.
I definitely think the mile-and-a-half package has been better. I think it will continue to get better as the year advances and into next year, as well.
Q. A competition question for Jeff and Dale. When they started this year at Daytona, they had restrictor plates. Now those are gone. They run Talladega. What do you expect to see with the tapered spacers here at Daytona?
JEFF BURTON: Listen, I think what I saw at Talladega was a lot of intense racing. I think that’s going to transfer to Daytona. I think it’s going to look different than the Daytona 500, the ability for cars to pull up. It was just a different kind of race at Talladega.
We’ve been talking about on NASCAR America as this point battle starts winding down, there’s some teams that are in desperate need of wins. I think the combination of the package and the drivers’ and teams’ desire to get that win is going to make Daytona crazy.
The stages, you can’t just lay around and not go get stage points. I just think Daytona has an opportunity to be a really, really fascinating race because of the combination of the two things, the points as well as the package.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: I agree with everything Jeff said. Only thing I could probably add to it is, coming from some of the drivers that I talked to after Talladega, they said that they enjoyed that more than they enjoyed what they had at Daytona. It was because they were able to create bigger runs, the ability to drive up and try to make a move on the guy was presented to them more often.
So any time you put the car in the driver’s hands, the car is responding when you do things, want to do things, want to make a move, you’re going to like that as a driver at the plate tracks, Daytona.
I call them the ‘plate tracks’, but Daytona and Talladega, when you can create runs easier or sustain runs longer, you’re going to like that as a driver. You’re going to take more chances to pull out and make a pass because you have more confidence in your car’s ability to complete that pass.
I think the comments were favorable from the drivers going from Daytona to Talladega. I look forward to seeing that continue.
Q. Steve, from the technical part of this, can you give me a one-minute comparison of the restrictor plate to the tapered spacers?
STEVE LETARTE: I think the first biggest difference is that the tapered spacer is still going to have a lot more horsepower than restrictor plate ever had, just the size in general.
I think the biggest thing to consider is the restrictor plate was a stamped piece of one-eighth inch steel. There was variety within the stampings just from a brand-new dye to an old dye, how it was installed on the car, where tapered spacer is a machine piece, the tolerance can be kept closer, can be inspected closer.
I think it has a little less aura of magic around it. The stamped piece of steel is not a finely machined hole. They are actually pretty crude if you see them zoomed in. This machine tapered spacer is a highly finite machine piece that can be controlled from car to car to car. I think that’s the biggest change. NASCAR can feel confident in its consistency from vehicle to vehicle.
But the biggest thing is overall power. There’s much more power in the vehicle. I think that’s what you heard Dale say and Jeff say. I think the drivers like it better, more power with more drag. The driver response seems to be more favorable for the type of racing they’re looking for.
Q. Dale, did you think the ‘slide job’ during your debut would become an iconic thing? You seemed to get right in there. Did that moment kind of continue to make each broadcast easier for you?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: When I was hollering slide job, I was yelling it at Rick Allen. I wasn’t talking to the audience. When we’re in the booth, when it’s great, I think it’s when we’re us four having a conversation with each other. We’re just talking racing, about what we’re seeing.
That moment I’m hollering at Rick, Hey, here comes a slide job. Rick is tasked with calling the final lap of the race. I was just like, Hey, buddy, look what I see, this is what I see.
It was a tribute to Rick and Jeff and Steve getting me that comfortable that quickly. I’m really a bit shy and a bit of an introvert, to be honest. They worked really hard as a group of three guys to help me get comfortable as fast as I could. We had a lot of mock broadcasts last year that helped me a ton. We talked a lot, communicated together a lot. They all went out of their way to help me get comfortable quickly.
Not every broadcast got better after that, from my point of view, from what I was doing in the booth. I remember one race in particular, Pocono, in the first stage we got done, I told them, I said, I was awful. I couldn’t figure out when to speak.
They’re like, Look, get aggressive. We’re not going to hold your hand here, stop talking so you can come in here and say what you need to say. You have to work your way into this conversation, be aggressive. You’re not going to step on anybody’s toes, bother anybody.
So I learned I think over a period of time that if I was going to talk, I had to work my way into the conversation. That was a bit out of character for me because I don’t really interject too much. I just kind of wait for my opportunity to talk. In the booth, you can’t do that. They weren’t going to wait around for me. They made that clear. They expected me to step up, right?
So I worked hard to get comfortable doing that. I think by the end of the season, we were all hitting on eight cylinders. It was awesome. We were having a lot of fun. We had a blast.
It took me a while to build up my confidence, I will say that.
Q. Jeff or Steve, because you have been doing this a little bit longer, how would you describe the chemistry that you all had together in the booth last year? How do you make sure when you pick back up after so much time off, you still have that?
STEVE LETARTE: The chemistry in the booth, it starts with Sam and everybody at NBC putting people together that somewhat belong together, I think there’s a comfort. It started with Rick, myself and Jeff the first three years.
Then I give credit to Rick and Jeff, everybody. Through my racing career, Dale and I found the most success when we spent time away from the racetrack. When we were put into competition, it was comfortable. It was a relationship that we had tested and figured out away from the pressure of the performance.
I think we approach the booth the same way in the beginning with Jeff, myself and Rick. We spent a lot of time away from the racetrack. You instantly become more comfortable with the cadence and the conversation, how everybody watches a race.
Dale has covered very well in this call how he fit into the booth. We wanted to make him comfortable. Then we pushed him to be a part of it, how he felt he needed to be. I think he fit right into that.
That’s kind of how we got comfortable last year. Really the secret to the whole sauce this year is that we may not have been on TV covering races together this year, but we’ve watched every race together if not in person by either text message chains or conversations. We talk a lot. The four of us have a group chat that gets worn out over the course of a week.
I feel that sitting here today, why we may be covering our first race at Chicago, I have watched every race this year probably with this group. I think that constant communication and effort, because Jeff has been busy at races with his son, Dale has been busy with his businesses, Rick has been busy, I’ve been busy, yet everyone’s commitment to be ready when it’s our turn in June shows through that text message.
I think that’s why I’m confident when we get to Chicago, it’s going to be hopefully like we just left Miami.
JEFF BURTON: I want to go back a little bit to what Junior said. Junior did an incredible job of jumping in, fitting in. I think he had the hardest job. We all three started the thing together. Sam gave us I don’t want to say a playbook, but he gave us a direction, here is how we’re going to do things.
Junior came in. We all wanted Junior in the worst way. We all recruited Junior, you know what I mean? He had to come in and try to figure out how to fit in, right? He did an incredible job of coming in and just fitting in.
I think the reason why is because of everything that Steve just said. We don’t have time not to be honest with each other. If Dale thinks I’m not doing something well, he can tell me. We are close enough and we respect each other enough where anybody can say anything to anybody. That goes a long way to a good friendship, to a good working relationship, to all those things.
At the end of the day I’m not sitting here thinking I’m going to Chicago tomorrow to go to work. I’m sitting here thinking I get to go to Chicago tomorrow to go do this. It’s because of the people I do it with.
That is easy to have chemistry with. There’s not a person in the crew, in the whole group, that I think, Oh, my God, I don’t want to go talk to that guy. We have this incredible group of people. So from the time you walk in the racetrack until the time you leave, it’s an enjoyable experience even in difficult moments.
When I screw up, I do something wrong, I know that my guys got my back. I know they’re there pulling for me. They’re not there competing against me. They’re there as part of a team to bring the best broadcast so the fans are the winners. It’s not about us, we’re not the show. The race is the show. We all understand that.
It’s just fun to go and cover a race. It’s four guys with some buddies in the pits, guys in the trailer, cameramen, all those guys, we’re just sitting around talking about an awesome race that we would be watching anyway.
The chemistry part is easy because of the people that Sam and Jeff put together. That’s the whole key. They put together people that want to work with other people. It’s just that part of it has been easy, been really easy actually.
MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for joining us today. NBC’s season kicks off this Sunday on NBCSN. Thank you, everyone.