The Charlotte Observer
Q: Toward the end of last season you began to feel like your team was putting things together, didn't you?
A: Yeah, I feel like they've certainly turned a corner if you look at the end of last year. Things just started to click, things started to come together. We were way behind starting the 2000 season and I look at where we're at right now today vs. where we were this time last year and it's just it's a world apart. Just the whole attitude having Robby (Loomis) on board now for over a year and he's starting to mix the people and bring people and just really et the team where it needs to be where he's comfortable with it. I see it coming together real well and you know we've got a lot of things happening.
Q: How many legitimate 2001 championship contenders do you see out there, and where would you rank your team among those?
A: I kind of look at 2000 and look how bad a year we had all year. We finished ninth in points, so obviously I think we're going to be a lot better than we were last year and with that I feel like we should have a shot at it.
Really, I don't think the championship comes down to just a handful of guys until the second half of the season. The first half of the season, it's anybody's game especially right now where we're sitting with many people who can win the championship and many who have done it for 2001. So I don't know, I think that it's hard to really pinpoint who's going to be the threat.
I think that if Bobby Labonte and his team do what they did in 2000, they will certainly be a threat and Bobby's always been very good at being consistent. He knows when to win races but he knows when to get those top fives, so I'd say that they're the favorite right now. They're the one we've got to knock off the top.
You look at Tony Stewart's team and if they get some consistency and win as many races as he's been winning, you know they've got a shot at it. I think Jeff Burton should every year. You know we say Jeff Burton, Jeff Burton and they're very capable of doing it if they just get the consistency going. And if Jeremy Mayfield can finish where he's usually about the half point of the race, he's going to win a lot of races and he's going to be a threat for the championship.
Our goal this year is to keep the DNFs down like we did last year but to get the performance up. We just didn't perform. We know that. We didn't run good enough to win races and so we didn't win races. And then when you're finishing 10th every week-end, you're not going to be able to win the championship when the average finish is you now fifth or sixth. So we know what our job is.
Q: You said you guys were behind, struggled early last year. Was that simply a matter of the change in crew chiefs or did the change in crew chiefs have a trickle down effect and affect a lot of different areas of the team?
A: Well, a couple of things - it was a change in personnel and having to hire people, find a place for these people. Not just the crew chief - Robby was a big part of it, but the pit crew, a few other people in the fab shop. It wasn't that we had this big dispute till it was a common agreement that we had when Ray left, you know, we knew who was going to be going and who was going to be staying and we just filled those places.
Probably the biggest thing even more so than the people were change the cars having to put a new body on all these cars. I mean we had to build a lot of cars in a short period of time. When you're coming out with a new body style like that with the first Monte Carlo back in `95 we got pretty fortunate that we put the bodies on the cars at the same location basically that we put the old Luminas and they were just a rocket ship. Well, we put the bodies with this new Monte Carlo the same way we did the 95 Monte Carlo and it didn't work for us. So it took us halfway through the year to find the location that we really needed.
Thank goodness for Jerry and the 25 team because they put their bodies in at different locations and hit on some things right away and we started gradually getting our bodies where they needed to be by learning from those guys.
Q: There are two schools of thought out there about where racing is these days. One is that with the increasing disparity between sponsorship dollars available that it kind of shrinks the pool of available legitimate contenders. Another is that because of the constant rules changes and a lot of the influx of young talent there is actually more competitors, a little more legitimate type of contenders as the years go on. Where do you fall in that?
A: Well, now I think money gets you into Winston Cup and money may help you be a top player but money doesn't win you the championship. You can talk with Joe Gibbs yeah he spent a lot of money but I bet he didn't spend as much money as some other teams spent. So you know, I think that the sponsorship is important to have and the numbers continue to increase because we're just constantly on the edge of new technology. I mean when the rule book is that thick, you've got to find more ways to get better and so that means get more aerodynamics, get more into engineers and then bring in the technology of computers and it's just fine tuning every little tiny area. That means hiring more people and that costs a lot more money, but I don't think because you're seeing now a handful of teams that have $15 + million deals that those are the only guys that are going to be running for the championship. I think that that just gets you down the road in the future where you need to be hopefully.
Q: What do you see as the pluses and minuses of the changes Goodyear is making in the tires this year?
A: I've heard some people say they love the grip that they have and then I've heard other people say that it doesn't have the grip at all that we had this last year. So I'm not exactly sure right now how to look at it.
I've been hoping that these tires are not going to have as much grip as what we had last year. That is one of the biggest things that we fought last year with the new Monte Carlo with as much rear down force as that car has, then you take the Goodyear tires that we had in 2000, and all the grip that they had, it just drove the car with the rear tires and the front tires would never stick. So they say with these newer tires that they free the car up quite a bit, don't have quite as much grip, which I'm kind of looking forward to.
I hope that's the case, you know, because you know a lot of times this past year it was just put it to the floor and drive it as hard as you can and you'll go fast. You know that's ok but I'd like to be able to finesse it a little bit myself.
Q: Will it be good for drivers who like loose race cars?
A: Nobody likes a loose race car, its just some guys can drive them better than others. But it's really more in the setup of the car and the balance of the body and just you know I like a car that's neutral. I don't like a car that's real tight, so you know for Mark Martin he'll spin out with a new tire, because he's already on the edge of loose. So he'll really like it but I don't know, I don't know if it falls in anybody's favor, but I do feel like that one of the biggest things that we fought this last year was just way too much grip in the rear of the car. You would think that is a great thing to have and we all thought it was a great thing to have with the new Monte Carlo when we started up for the season, but you find out right quick that you've got to have the right balance.
Q: In your first year in Winston Cup you got to work with Ray Evernham. What kind of benefits do you think that will bring to the table with Casey Atwood?
A: It will be huge benefits. Now when Ray and I first started, neither one of us knew anything so we were both kind of learning together and it was kind of fun and we were fortunate to have Hendrick Motorsports, a lot of good people that helped contribute and helped us all learn together but it did come together pretty fast.
I think his knowledge and just the way he organizes things it will be a huge benefit to Casey, him being a rookie and it always nice to come into the sport with someone who has experience, knows how to win, knows how to win championships, and I think they'll make a good team.
Q: We've heard a lot of talk about Daytona. You guys have spent a great deal of time testing there. But can it happen that a driver and a team can be kind of mesmerized by getting ready for the 500 and maybe actually cost themselves a quick start for the whole season?
A: Yeah, that can happen absolutely especially when you have two rounds of testing you know in Daytona you could wrap up a ton of money and a ton of time in Daytona. Now I feel like we spend more time in the wind tunnel and more time in the engine room getting the engines where they need to be. I mean we know if we go to the wind tunnel and the numbers are pretty good and we put a big number up on the dyno that we're going to be in pretty good shape.
We're kind of in the middle though we spend a lot of time in the engine room at Daytona a little bit of time in the wind tunnel, but that's why I'm excited I'm testing at Rockingham and Vegas because those are tracks that we're going to have to go to after Daytona. Those are the tracks that I think are going to be good especially to help us out with this new tire, really throughout the first half of the season.
Q: From your championship experiences, talk a little bit about what Bobby Labonte's going through from how hectic it is from winning the Championship in November to when you guys go to Daytona.
A: That's just part of winning the championship. I mean you just never can slow down, it's non-stop and especially the first one - when you win the first time you're just so excited and you want to do everything and everybody is asking you to do everything and you just can't say no to anybody and you just kind of run yourself ragged a little bit and wear yourself down and it could be very easy to lose focus for trying to come back and repeat. It's pretty hard to repeat championships, so I think if anybody can handle it Bobby can. I think he's very good at that and he's won Busch championships before. I'm a fan of Bobby's. I think that he and that team are pretty tremendous in their efforts, in what they've done, what they've accomplished. But I can tell you; he's pretty wide open, that's for sure.
Q: Is it going to be kind of fun to go out there and compete against Ray Everham?
A: I have to look at every car, every team, every driver all the same out the as another competitor and if they're in front of me then I' ve got to find a way to make my car go faster and pass them. It doesn't matter what number and name is on the side and who owns it.
I talked to Ray not too long ago just right before Christmas and I know it's been a lot of hard work for him but I know how excited he is. It's a perfect opportunity for him. I think it's the only thing that makes sense for him to do. He got a taste of being an owner and to bring a whole new manufacturer back into the sport. I know that it's something that he loves, he's eating it up you know and now it's time for him to get out there and do the job and that's what I look forward to is getting back on the race track and every body wants to know who's going to win, who's going to do.... and I have no idea. But I do know that we're going to get out there and we're going to find out in the next few months.