CONCORD, N.C. Dale Earnhardt Jr. grew up in a racing family that was obsessed with winning championships. His father, Dale Earnhardt, won seven championships, and now it's the son's turn. His focus never wanders from the big picture. Every race is a chance to stockpile points and move a little closer to his first title.
Earnhardt Jr., who leads the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series standings by 40 points heading into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway, talked about his season and his own expectations.
Question: What are your expectations heading into the 600-mile race on Sunday?
Earnhardt Jr.: It (Lowe's Motor Speedway) is considered by a lot of teams and drivers and families to be a home track. We'll have a lot of people in attendance that are family members that normally don't get to go to most of the races, if any. It's one of the first racetracks that I was able to go to as a young kid to see my dad race. I've seen a lot of races and history there. Before I ever even started driving it was a pretty important race track for me. I've had that on my list of racetracks where I wanted to win. I consider it to be one of the biggest races of the season."
Question: Your father won the 600 three times. How special would it be for you to win your first?
Earnhardt Jr.: It would really be special. That's the longest race of the season. At every big event whether it be at Daytona or Charlotte seems to have it's own little twist and piece of history. The 600 is more of the more historic races that sort of lined up next to the Southern 500 if you will in the history of the sport. So it means a lot to me and to a lot of the drivers. A lot of veterans really understand the importance of that race. It's a big deal. It's hard to win. It's hard to get a good competitive car to be strong for such a long period of time all night long. We've run good in the race but haven't been able to put it together in the end, so hopefully we've got what it takes this year."
Question: You're leading the points right now, but are there things that need improvement with your team?
Earnhardt Jr.: Well, it's obvious to me that we are struggling at the 1.5-mile tracks. We did get a win at Atlanta. I don't know what the difference is between Atlanta and Kansas and Homestead and tracks like that. We can run good at Atlanta and go to Texas and we're just off a little bit there and we seem to be able to get a top five even though we're struggling a little bit. But we'll go to Kansas or Homestead or Vegas or California and we're just not hooked up. The car is just not competitive at all. And we're trying our hardest to remedy that and to learn and to get the car tuned back in. We've been to Kentucky, which is a similar track, and tested as much as we can. If we've got a weak spot, and obviously no team is perfect, then that's ours. There are other thing I'd like to see improve. There are some things, whether it be me or the team, that can always be better.
Question: Who would you like to race head-to-head against?
Earnhardt Jr.: Right now it's probably Matt (Kenseth). We love to race each other and we love to beat each other on the racetrack. We actually used to race back and forth quite a lot in the Busch Series, and it was a blast. Maybe that's because I came up on the winning end of it most of the time. But today in the Nextel Cup Series, he's quite a bit more competitive whether it's because of the equipment or the experience or whatever but he's hard to beat. We have a good friendship off the track and we realize that when we are racing each other on the racetrack that we're both really enjoying it. I just like him. When you pick a guy in a sport, that when you know you've outrun him that you really did you work for the day, that's the guy for me. I know when I beat Matt that I've had a good day. From a different era, it would probably be David Pearson. I don't know. That's kind of tough. There was a whole group of guys. I would definitely have liked to race with Cale Yarborough. I never got to even imagine what it would be like to race against him. He was pretty tough. I liked his style. My dad came along when Cale's career was starting to become more of a limited schedule. But Cale was pretty tough.
Question: There's no question you're one of the most popular drivers in the sport's history. How do you respond to that kind of responsibility?
Earnhardt Jr.: It's overwhelming. It's kind of an embarrassing form of flattery, if you will, to be considered that. When I was 18 years old that definitely wasn't what I was aiming for. I didn't even have the vision or foresight to see that and target that. But things have fallen into place one after another. Circumstances have evolved and here we are. There are a lot of people to credit for that aside from myself. It's not just me sitting here and pulling a bunch of strings.
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