Stephen Leicht, driver of the No. 90 CitiFinancial Ford Fusion, was one of the NASCAR Busch Series regulars who also will be trying to make the Nextel Cup race this weekend. Leicht, who made his Cup debut two weeks ago at Pocono, spoke about attempting to make both races and his first trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway as part of a press conference this morning.
STEPHEN LEICHT Ė No. 90 CitiFinancial Fusion Ė WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT TRYING TO MAKE THE RACE AT INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY? "Itís Indianapolis, the Brickyard. I grew up watching this race, watching Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt and all them guys run here. Itís just cool to be here. Iím just soaking it all in, and hopefully weíll make the race Saturday and go out and see all the fans in the stands, to walk down the frontstretch and see all that. Itís very exciting to be a part of Robert Yates Racing at this time, and glad to have our sponsors on board. CitiFinancialís doing a great job, and glad to have them with us. Just glad to be here, and hopefully just go out and run a good-enough lap to get us in. Hopefully, weíll get a good draw."
WHEN YOU TESTED HERE EARLIER, HOW DID IT FEEL THE FIRST TIME YOU CAME TO THIS TRACK? "The first lap I took here, I donít think I took a breath until after I took about three or four laps Ė just getting around my surroundings. Hereís kind of a funny story: I was sleeping in the van when we pulled in to test and I woke up and I got out and I saw trees and I saw the buildings, and I said, ĎAre we at the track?í They said, ĎYeah, weíre inside right now.í Itís a pretty neat deal. We were able to go through the garages where those guys go when they do the Indy 500 testing and racing, and got to use those garages when we tested here. Being on the frontstretch and seeing everything, itís a pretty neat deal. Obviously, this is pretty much one of the biggest races of the year, if not the biggest. I know a bunch of drivers, I know Tony Stewart thinks this is his biggest race of his career, a lot of people think the Daytona 500 is. And I wonít know until I run both, and Iíll let you know. But this is definitely one for the books as far as my racing goes."
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR 2007? "Iím not really focused on that, Iím focused on this year, this weekend, hopefully this weekend making this race, and the rest of the Busch races. Iím very excited to be a part of Robert Yates Racing and whatever they do have in store for me next year, and I would be very pleased to have CitiFinancial back with us. Right now, just pretty much taking it a race at a time, and see how it goes."
WHAT IS THE MOOD LIKE AT RYR THESE DAYS? "I think everybodyís got a very good attitude at Robert Yates. Obviously, theyíve made a bunch of changes here recently and weíre trying to catch up. Weíve been behind. Remember last year, Childress had tough times. They were struggling week-in and week-out, and it took them time but they figured it out. I know Robertís a very smart guy and everybody that works for Robert Yates Racing and theyíre both going to figure it out. Itís just going to take some time."
MARK MARTIN, driver of the No. 6 AAA Ford Fusion, heads into this weekendís race in sixth place in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup points standings with six races before the Chase for the Championship. Martin met with reporters behind the teamís hauler prior to todayís first practice session.
MARK MARTTIN Ė No. 6 AAA Fusion Ė HOW DO YOU RATE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY IN TERMS OF PRESTIGE, PLACES YOUíD LIKE TO WIN? "Itís right up there. Itís right up there behind the Daytona 500. Different reasons make this race, to me, different heights on the stick there. One is, this race track has more history than anything we get involved in. From a NASCAR, stock car, point of view, the Daytona 500 carries a little bit more, so one has a little bit more of one thing and the other has a little bit more of something else."
SIX RACES BEFORE THE TOP 10 IS SOLIDIFIED. DO SENSE THAT DRIVERS ARE STARTING TO SCRAMBLE MORE AND DRIVE A LITTLE BIT MORE DIFFERENTLY? "No, I think that everybodyís been racing pretty hard all year."
AND THAT WILL KEEP UP? "Itís always the way it is in NASCAR. Thereís a lot of competition and we have a lot of great drivers and a lot of great cars and we have a number of young drivers that are very optimistic about what they can do, so it makes it interesting out there."
WITH SIX RACES TO GO, YOUíRE IN THE TOP 10 RIGHT NOW, BUT FROM HERE OUT WILL YOU BE CONSERVATIVE, AGGRESSIVE? "Weíll race. The same. The same as Iíve been doing for 30 years. Try to win íem all. We give everything weíve got every time we get within 100 yards of a race car."
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO BE SUCCESSFUL ON THIS TRACK. THIS TRACK IS A LITTLE DIFFERENTÖ "This race track is a lot different, but, really, at the end of the day, if you throw out the restrictor-plate races, itís the same as everywhere else as far as being competitive. Youíve got to go these corners really fast. Itís a given that you have to have a great car to do that, and you have to have great engines to pull íem down these straightaways, but thatís a given, too. You would have to have, I would say, great equipment, but at the end of the day you just have to go through the corners faster than everybody else if you want to put a whuppiní on íem."
THEREíS TALK OF CHANGING THE CHASE FOR NEXT YEAR. DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS ON HOW IT SHOULD BE? "The only thing that I really see Ė I really believe that it should be the top 10. I think for the fans, which I probably be one of next year, I think the point system after the Chase starts should be 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Plain as that, for those guys that are in the Chase. I, personally, donít think there should be huge bonuses for winning or anything else. If we want to make this things a show, and itís all about show business and everything else and Iím going to get to be watching instead of participating, then I want to see them go into Homestead at the last race with at least five of the 10 having a shot at the championship."
YOUR OLD TEAMMATE JEFF BURTON IS HAVING A REALLY GOOD YEAR. EVERYONE SAID THAT HE DIDNíT FORGET HOW TO DRIVE THIS YEAR. IS IT A MATTER OF RCR GETTING ITS STUFF TOGETHER OR IS THESE SOMETHING MORE TO IT? "The driver can help the equipment or the equipment can help the driver, but in todayís age, out here, you have to have both. And there are no drivers out here that canít get it done. And there is some equipment out here that has all the resources to get it done, but canít get it done in the form that itís in. And that goes in cycles, no matter if youíre Richard Childress or Jack Roush or anybody else Ė your equipment sometimes is very potent and sometimes itís not, for a lack of resources or people who are working or talent or anything. Itís just where you are in that cycle."
ARE YOU HAPPY TO SEE HIM DO THAT WELL? "Iím real happy for Jeff. I believe that heís going to win real soon and Iím going to be cheering."
HOW IS ROUSHíS EQUIPMENT RIGHT NOW? GREG BIFFLE SAID THAT ITíS LOST A LITTLE BIT OF ITS DOMINANCE FROM LAST SEASON. "Our stuff was superior last year and our stuff is real good this year, but itís not superior as it was last year. For us, this year, we have to be on target. If we want to have a great showing we have to be a little bit more on target than we did last year."
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE DRIVER AND HIS CREW CHIEF? "In this business today, there are no crew chiefs, I donít think, currently here in the garage, that canít get it done. As well as drivers. But different combinations get different results, and as frustrating as it might be, thatís just how it is. Once you get a combination thatís working, if you can keep that relationship strong and solid, then youíre going to have a good run for a long time. But sometimes that gets derailed and sometimes youíre able to get it back on track and sometimes you need to change the combination up some."
DOES THE SUCCESS OF THAT RELATIONSHIP DEPEND MORE ON PERSONALITY OR KNOW-HOW OF THE DRIVER AND CREW CHIEF INVOLVED? "Itís both, but the know-how is knowing how to make a marriage work or make a relationship work or communication or knowing how to play well with others. Thereís a lot of things that are involved there. Itís just human beings working together, and thatís just like a marriage or anything else. Sometimes it gets strained and sometimes it really goes well."
WOULD YOU SAY THE BREAK-UP RATE BETWEEN DRIVERS AND CREW CHIEFS IS HIGH IN NASCAR? "I think itís just normal. I donít think itís high. I certainly donít think itís low. I think when youíre in a competitive business like this you have to do whatever you need to do to try to continue to be at the top of your performance. And itís a performance-based business."
WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT GOOD BEHAVIOR ON THE TRACK, THE QUESTION IS WHAT WOULD MARK MARTIN DO? WHEN YOU RETIRE, WHICH DRIVER WILL THEY TEN BE TALKING ABOUT? WHICH DRIVER WILL SET THE STANDARD FOR WHATíS APPROPRIATE? "Jeff Burton comes to my mind right away, not only on the race track but off the race track. Jeff Burton sets a great example for everybody in NASCAR. From the driversí standpoints to anyone involved in this sport can look to him and pattern their thought process and their actions, really, after Jeff Burton."
WHEN YOU CAME INTO THE CIRCUIT WAS THERE ANYBODY THAT YOU PATTERNED YOURSELF AFTER? "No, not really. Not in that respect. I certainly did admire a lot of drivers, but I never really Ė there was less focus on that at that time and I tried to keep my focus on race-track stuff and working well with the media, because I knew that was going to be important, and those kinds of things."
WITH INCREASED COMPETIVENESS AND INTENSITY THESE DAYS, HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO REMAIN POLITE ON THE TRACK OR TO NOT BE TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF BECAUSE OF BEING POLITE ON THE TRACK? "I donít see a lot of taken advantage of going on. But it is real competitive and it is a real frustrating business. Itís all I can do from time to time to control my emotions, and I may have more control than some. But it still takes everything that I have from time to time to keep things in check. The thing that Iíve found is keeping íem in check sometimes after all the dust settles, I find that the whole situation didnít look like I thought I saw it, and that I was wrong, and I had I not kept myself in check wouldíve been even more embarrassed of what I had done and how I may have reacted based on things not really being as I thought they were."
HOW ARE THINGS GOING WITH YOUR SON, MATT? "Mattís doing good. I think heís racing next weekend at New Smyrna with a Super Late Model. Heís 14 years old and heís getting a chance to drive some pretty fast cars."
Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 DeWalt Ford Fusion, is second in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series point standings going into this weekend. He spoke about this weekend prior to practice.
MATT KENSETH Ė No. 17 DeWalt Ford Fusion Ė HOW BIG OF A DEAL IS THIS FOR YOU? "Itís cool. Itís one of the biggest races of the year for sure and itís always cool to come to Indy. Itís a big race for us and, hopefully, we can do something decent."
HOW DOES IT RANK TO OTHER BIG RACES IN NASCAR? "When I think of it for the year I think itís in the top three or four for sure as far as races that youíd like to do good in, so I think every driver is a little bit different. There are certain races that are probably more important to them for other reasons, but certainly the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard and I think the 600 in Charlotte are definitely three of the biggest races."
ARE YOU JUST TRYING TO KEEP YOUR NOSE CLEAN FROM HERE ON OUT OR ARE YOU TRYING TO GET EVERY POINT YOU CAN? "Itís still five points a place and everybody thinks weíre in, but I donít think weíre really locked into the chase. Youíve seen what happened to Junior a couple of weeks ago and how fast things can change, so I think we need to make sure we keep doing our job and try to operate at a championship level and hopefully gain some points on the 48. Our goal is to be leading the points going into the chase, so hopefully we can do those things and get up front. Weíve had a few mediocre finishes the last two weeks. Hopefully we can get back on track and start getting some top fives and challenging for some wins again."
DO YOU WORRY ABOUT GETTING CAUGHT UP WITH THE GUYS FIGHTING TO GET IN? "No, I donít think it really has that much. I think things have changed a little bit through the points with things happening, but I think the racing is about the same as always. Itís intense every week. I donít think it matters where you are in points, itís intense every week and youíre trying to go out and get the best finish you can all the time."
ARE YOU MORE LIKELY TO SETTLE FOR A TOP FIVE OR BE AGGRESSIVE TO WIN? "No, I know this thing is always a big story with everybody, but everybody races every week to win, I think. Thatís what itís all about is winning races. Everytime I look at it, you get the most points to lead the most laps and win the race. Thatís what you try to do every week. You try to take what youíre given that day and do the very best job you can with it and finish as high up front as you can with it. If youíve got a winning car, hopefully you can win with it. If you donít have a winning car, you finish with what youíre capable of doing on that day."
WHAT IS THE KEY TO THIS TRACK? "Youíve got to be able to turn good and get off the corners really good. Theyíve got long straightaways so everybody thinks about horsepower, but itís really about getting through the corner the fastest and that will help carry you down the straightaway. You need a little bit of everything here. You need a good motor, but youíve got to be turning good off the corner to be able to drive under people off the corner to be able to make passes."
YOU WON A TITLE UNDER THE OLD SYSTEM. HOW MUCH WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO IT UNDER THIS ONE? "I think youíd like to win it under any system. Itís a really competitive sport. Itís hard to do it the old way and itís hard to do it the new way, so I donít really see it as really that different. If you can get into the final 10 races, itís still about being consistent. The 20 last year was consistent through the last 10 and didnít win a race, so itís about being consistent and getting the good finishes and not having problems in the last 10 just like itís always been."
DO YOU FEEL LIKE A CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM? "I felt really good about the whole season, but the last few weeks weíve made a couple of mistakes and got taken out of one race. We just didnít do good at Loudon and didnít run very good at Pocono, so the last few weeks weíve lost a little bit of momentum, which I think is very important to get that back before the chase, but up to that point weíve been leading laps, weíve been up front, and weíve had a lot of top fives. Weíve had a lot of chances to win races and only finished two of them off, but weíve been in position a lot, so I feel like theyíre operating at a high level right now. I think we need to step it back up a notch before the chase starts, which, hopefully, we can do. Itís a long season. Now youíre kind of in the middle of the summer and youíre done with all your off weekends. Thereís a lot of racing through the end of the year, so weíve got to figure out how to keep this thing rolling."
HOW VALUABLE WAS THE WEEK OFF? "Thatís a good question. I donít feel a whole lot different than what I did. I was actually really busy last week, but hopefully for the team it gets everybody rested up and ready to go for the last 16 or 18 or whatever it is. Hopefully, everybody is ready and got their batteries all charged up because itís a long stretch to the end."
YOUíRE NEXT TO JEFF BURTON IN THE GARAGE. WHY DO YOU FEEL JEFF HAS REBOUNDED? "Theyíve got their cars better. Jeff has always proven that heís a great race car driver and a championship contender all the time. You can only go as fast as your cars can take you. Weíve seen that with everybody in this sport, including Jeff Gordon a couple of years ago. They had an off year or off time where they havenít run up to his capabilities, so itís about everybody doing their job at a top level to be able to win these races. Itís not just about drivers, itís about pit stops and the whole deal. Jeff is awesome. If we couldnít win it, Iíd love to see him win it. Heís been running great all year and itís cool to see him back in that form gain and Iím sure theyíre gonna win some races here pretty soon."
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT TONY STEWART TAKING IT UPON HIMSELF TO BE JUSTICE OF THE PEACE OUT THERE? "I donít have any comment on that."
HE SAID ITíS ABOUT HOW SOME OF THE GUYS RACE EARLY IN THE RACE AND HE JUST REACTS TO IT, BUT IT COULD CAUSE GUYS TO GET CAUGHT UP IN SOMETHING YOU HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH. "I still donít have any comment on that."
Dale Jarrett, driver of the No. 88 UPS Ford Fusion, is a two-time winner of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. Jarrett spoke about returning to Indianapolis and the current situation around Robert Yates Racing before Fridayís first practice session.
DALE JARRETT Ė No. 88 UPS Ford Fusion Ė YOU HAD AN INTERESTING START TO YOUR DAY. "We got the opportunity to go to the Indianapolis Colts training camp this morning (Dale, Penny Copen Ė PR rep, son Zachary and one of Zacharyís friends). We watched them go through their morning session and met Coach Dungy after practice was over and then Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark came by and had some conversations with them, so it was a pretty fun day."
DO YOU LIKE YOUR CHANCES TO WIN THIS WEEKEND? "Iíd like to stand here and be really positive, but our goal right now with the way that weíve run is getting back to running respectably. We havenít done that at all. I havenít even looked back at how long itís been since we literally could race ourselves in the top 15 Ė back early in the year. Weíve had a lot of changes here and to think that youíre just all of a sudden because you come to a place that youíve won, Iíve been at those places too and we didnít run very good at those Ė at Pocono and Michigan Ė so weíve got a lot of work to do here, but we have a group thatís ready for the challenge and, hopefully, we can get something that will allow us to race and run well. Then if we can put ourselves in position, anything can happen. But to think that weíre just all of a sudden going to leapfrog 20 or 22 of these teams that have been working just as hard as we have, that would be kind of crazy on my part to even stand here and try to tell you that and make you believe it."
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE CREW CHIEF CHANGES THIS WEEK? "Robert and Doug decided that they wanted to look at doing something different and I assume that this was done in getting prepared as much for next year as anything and thatís the change they decided to make."
DESPITE YOUR STRUGGLES IS IT STILL EXCITING TO COME HERE? "Itís still exciting to come here. Just the opportunity to race here is exciting enough in itself. I still believe in my heart, even with what I just told you, you still want to believe that you can get in the race car and I can make a little bit of a difference here and you still have some kind of chance. But just racing here, regardless of how bad the season has been to this point, being able to come here is still quite a thrill."
WHAT KIND OF REACTION HAVE YOU GOTTEN FROM FANS ABOUT YOUR DECISION? "Youíve had fans react in different ways for the most part. Of course, I hear mostly from fan club members so theyíre sticking with us pretty good, but itís been both sides. There are a lot of people that certainly understand and are sticking with me as the driver, but then you have the diehard Ford fans that think Iíve totally fallen off my rocker and canít understand why I would do something. Then I have people question loyalty and things like that. We donít even want to get into that conversation because I could go down a whole list of facts of people that want to talk about loyalty, so we wonít even get into that. But you understand that people are gonna have their opinions, but, for the most part, I think weíve heard a lot of very positive things about the move and what could take place there. As I tell all of those people and as Iíve told people yesterday at two different appearances I was at, my main goal right now Ė even though thatís kind of my moonlighting job is to make sure everything is getting prepared and helping Michael and that group get as well prepared as they possibly can for next year Ė my main focusing job as Iíve always said is whenever I either retired or was leaving, which now itís Iím leaving here, is that I want this race team to be in as good a shape as what itís been for the majority of the time that Iíve been here in racing and thatís to where they could plug someone in and we could go win. Weíve got a lot of work ahead of us to make that happen."
HOW ARE PEOPLE AT THE SHOP REACTING TO ALL THIS CHANGE? "Itís certainly a little unsettling for the guys on the race team, but I think Robert and Doug have done a good job in communicating with the race team and making them understand why theyíre making the changes and why Elliott and I may have looked at our decisions. Theyíre trying to go forward now. These guys realize that thereís gonna be a race team there and theyíre gonna race hard. Itís just a matter of how long itís gonna take them to move themselves back into the top 10 of these teams, but theyíll do that because those of us who know Robert and Doug know that thereís a strong will there and theyíre gonna make all of that happen. We keep trying to reinforce to the guys on the race team that now is when they look at people and decide who theyíre gonna keep in their organization. The ones that are gonna work hard during these difficult times are the people that you want around, not the people that may want to think about giving up just because we havenít run well and theyíre making all of these changes. Now is when people can really solidify their jobs by working extremely hard and being a positive influence on everybody within this race team."
IS THERE A SENSE IT TOOK YOU LEAVING TO GET THEIR ATTENTION THAT CHANGES NEED TO BE MADE? "I donít know that. If I were in Robert and Dougís shoes, you always think that you can fix things and you can go about doing that. There were a lot of things here that weíve talked about for a number of years. We kind of started down that path a few times and then we kind of made a u-turn and came back around and didnít quite get there. I think if we would have ever just made that full commitment to get there, then a lot of this might not have happened. You donít know, but I think that theyíre smart people and theyíre gonna realize exactly what they have to do and make it happen. Unfortunately, it took a lot of different circumstances for that to come about, but theyíll right the ship and everything will be fine."
WHATíS IT LIKE TO GO THROUGH THE LAST 10 RACES IF YOUíRE NOT IN THE CHASE? DO YOU FEEL IGNORED? "I donít know about that. I didnít feel that way. We won a race in those last 10 last year, so I think you keep battling hard. Certainly the attention is on those 10 and well it should be Ė theyíve earned and they deserve that right for that to happen, but I think itís an opportunity to show what youíre made of and what your team is made of that you keep working through that and trying to get better until that last lap is finished at Homestead. I look at every week as an opportunity. This is a chance that you have, you donít take for granted just the opportunity to race in these races. You donít just go and say, ĎWell, weíve got 10 more to go, letís just go finish this off.í Thatís not in my make up. I still believe that we can get better and we can draw attention to ourselves. We have an obligation to our team and to our sponsors to give it everything that we can. Just because it didnít work out that we were a part of the chase, then I think thatís motivation to go work harder."
DOES IT CHANGE HOW TEAMS LOOK AT THE REST OF THE YEAR? DO THEY LOOK TOWARD THE NEXT SEASON? "I think you start doing a lot of things in preparation for that and it gives you that opportunity to do that. There will be a lot of teams that will start that process of focusing on their upcoming season and whether thatís making changes or just trying some things that maybe they didnít want to get involved in before the chase cutoff, I think it gives them that chance so you see a little bit more of that."
Ken Schrader, driver of the No. 21 Little Debbie Ford Fusion, posted the fastest speed (180.321 mph) during Fridayís first practice session and was fifth-fastest in the second session (180.908 mph). Wood Brothers Racing had a successful test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month, but the team brought a different car, the one that finished 15th at Pocono Raceway last week, to the track this week.
KEN SCHRADER Ė No. 21 Little Debbie Fusion Ė "We came, we tested, we had a good test. We were solid, we came back and were solid. A lot of guys arenít throwing everything at it yet. Weíll just have to see. We shouldnít embarrass ourselves too bad."
WERE YOU FAST RIGHT OFF THE TRUCK, AND IS THAT IMPORTANT AT THIS RACE TRACK? "It sure doesnít hurt, but this isnít the car we tested with. We came back with a different one. The stuff that we learned at the test, we think, we did it at Pocono and it seemed better there and it seems to be working here, so far."
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