ATLANTA - Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second last week at Las Vegas and feels his team finally is on track to contend for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. As he prepares for Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the third-generation driver answered some questions about his season.
Q: What are your thoughts on the new Chevrolet Monte Carlo after last week's race at Las Vegas?
A: "I think the cars are close to the same. Nobody is ever going to be totally satisfied until the end of the whole shebang, so I think everything is just going to keep kind of changing and keep changing year after year. But, I'm pretty happy. Look at the teams that ran up front - they're all just good teams. That's what it comes down to. They're all just good race teams and good drivers.?"
Q: Dale Earnhardt Inc. had three cars in the top 10 a week ago at Las Vegas. Does that signal a turnaround?
A: "I think it does a lot for my confidence, and I think it does a lot for the teams. I'm sure it helps Steve (Park) a lot to be able to run a good top 10 finish. I know Michael (Waltrip) was real happy. We were happy and relieved all at the same time. We've just had a hell of a start to this year, so it feels real good to be able to run good and be happy with what you've got at the end of the day."
Q: Was there any kind of team meeting to talk about your slow start before the Las Vegas race?
A: "We didn't really have a meeting. We had a pretty good end to last year. We found out a lot of things that are going to make us better this year with our chassis. We were running raised-rail chassis and stuff and we got some standard-rail chassis and that's why we ran good at Phoenix and Homestead. I've never been good at Rockingham. I've just never been good there. I don't know why. I ain't never run good there. We go in there and if we got a 20th place finish, I'd be ecstatic. Daytona, we were just a victim of some crappy, old (alternator) part that didn't work right. Everybody but the team has made a bigger deal out of the start of the season for us. I feel like we're on track."
Q: What are your thoughts on this week's race at Atlanta?
A: "I like Atlanta. We always qualify well and race well there. It's a fun racetrack because you can run three wide and move around. Your car can work on the bottom, but I can run just as good up top, so you've really got an opportunity to do some racing there. I hope they don't ever cut back on the schedule for that track because it's a lot of fun. I don't know how many times we've run second or been in second place there with a few laps to go. Hopefully, one day we'll win a race there. Daddy used to win all the time."
Q: Are you better now as a race team than you were a year ago?
A: "We're learning so many things that are helping us at all the tracks. Running good (at Las Vegas) is going to reflect on the rest of the season. But, like I said, we found some things out during the last third of last year that really helped us out. That's how we got to running real good and climbing back up from the depths of the point system, and running good at tracks we hadn't run good at before."
Q: Is there any pressure being the most-popular driver among the fans?
A: "I don't think so. I have a good core fan base. I think that I'm one of the few drivers in the field that a race fan can really relate to and attach themselves to, so I feel like a have a stronger bond with my fans than more so other drivers. I feel real comfortable with the fans we have. It fluctuates. There are a few stragglers that like you one week and hate you the next, but the core fan has always been good to me."
Q: Does that make you more of a target?
A: "I think we're definitely a better team. I guess that puts you in a better position to get better results. We're a better team and that will show and that will reflect in all our results this year. I don't count us out. It's real early. We can still come back and win the championship real easy."