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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Leigh Diffey

Townsend Bell

Sam Flood

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for joining us today for our media conference call to preview our Sunday motorsports double-header. We’ve got coverage of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs that begin this Sunday from Las Vegas at 3:00 p.m. eastern on NBCSN. That’s immediately followed by the Verizon IndyCar Series championship from Sonoma at roughly around 6:30 p.m. eastern on NBCSN. Although there are others that have a mathematical chance, the championship is pretty much expected to be won by either Scott Dixon or Alexander Rossi.

In addition to being the championship, Sonoma is the final race of the current IndyCar media rights agreement, and beginning in 2019, as I’m sure all of you know, NBC Sports becomes the exclusive media rights holder for IndyCar, televising and streaming all races, including for the first time the Indy 500 in May.

Joining us on our call today are NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood, NASCAR analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., IndyCar play-by-play voice Leigh Diffey, and IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell. Jeff Burton was supposed to be on today’s call, but we apologize he has had a travel conflict and cannot be with us.

SAM FLOOD: Thanks for joining us. This past weekend I was in Indy for the Brickyard race, and it was very special being there knowing that we’re going to be covering the Indy 500 in May for the first time. One of the great, iconic events on the sports calendar, one of those events you circle, and this new partnership with NBC and IndyCar is incredibly exciting for the entire NBC Sports Group, but particularly for the group of us that love racing and love cars going fast and people having the guts to drive it hard into the corner and have fun on a racetrack.

And I thought the NASCAR crew had fun making magic on Monday. We would have preferred it on Sunday, but they had a lot of fun in the last regular season race on that iconic racetrack, so we were thrilled to be there.

We’re thrilled to crown a champion on Sunday out in Sonoma. What a spectacular place to end the season with our team.

And then the playoffs for the Cup Series start on Sunday in Vegas. No better place for a little bit of drama, a little bit of gambling on the racetrack and off the racetrack, and Dale Jr. who gambled on the track for years and is now gambling hanging out with our group on television, I throw it to him now.

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, this weekend we’ve got a full plate, the last regular season race for the Xfinity Series on Saturday at 5:00 p.m. eastern on NBCSN, and then we’ll have the first race of the playoffs for the Cup Series Sunday. That’s going to be exciting because the racing over the last several months has been building in intensity. The action has been dramatic and extremely fun to call, and here we are finally at the start of the playoffs that will determine our champion.

We all know how wild and crazy the playoffs get, and with how interesting and dramatic the regular season has been this year, much more so than I believe in the past, I can just imagine this playoff 10-week stretch is going to bring excitement and drama that we’ve not seen in some time. Las Vegas will be a great, great place to kick this off, and I know our drivers love to race there. They want to win there because it’s such a marquee market. It’s an incredible experience to win at Las Vegas. With it being the first race of the playoffs, it puts even more importance on that event, and a win gets you automatically into the next round. Some guys will be eliminated not mathematically but mentally eliminated with poor finishes on Sunday.

So it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Can’t wait to get there tomorrow. We fly in tomorrow to get started on our weekend, and looking forward to that.

THE MODERATOR: Now we’ll go to Leigh Diffey.

LEIGH DIFFEY: Thanks very much. Hi, everyone. Thanks for taking the time to join us for a little bit. For all of us at the NBC Sports Group, this is such an exciting time because with the NFL season kicking off, hockey not too far away, with NASCAR taking that first step towards building the Championship 4, ending at Homestead, and on the Verizon IndyCar Series front, it has been a spectacular year, an amazing year.

Scott Dixon doesn’t project himself or promote himself all that much. He prefers to be quiet, but we’re witnessing greatness with him. If he can win that fifth championship, it would be incredible. And Alexander Rossi, this young American talent who has really stood up and said, I’m here to be the next American hero. It has been something else to witness what he’s done this year.

It’s the 13th consecutive year that the Verizon IndyCar Series will be decided at the final race, which is something special, and that’s a pat on the back for the series, as well. From where all of us sit, there’s nothing but excitement. Can’t wait for things to get going.

TOWNSEND BELL: The IndyCar Series championship to me this year is really fascinating because of Alexander Rossi, young American rookie that -- well, rookie a few years ago that’s come on so strong into a series where for the better part of 15 years, Scott Dixon has been the measuring stick. He’s been the bar. And he’s really stood alone in sort of persona. Doesn’t talk a lot, does most of his talking on the track, and has performed year in and year out for so long and really kind of stood alone in his own space, and for the first time I think in Scott Dixon’s career, somebody has surfaced and emerged on the scene in Alexander Rossi who is very, very much like Dixon, reminds all of us in the booth of Scott Dixon, quiet, confident, kind of stealth-like execution, and the two of them now find themselves squarely in the points race with double points on the line at Sonoma. I think it’s going to be a terrific show.

For the first time in a long time Team Penske is really an outsider, a long shot, if you will, in the points scenario with Will Power, but they were arguably the fastest team at Sonoma over the last three years. So a couple of really fascinating story lines, and I think we’ll see some great action on Sunday.

Q. Question for Leigh and Townsend. I know you talked about it in the introduction, but as the general landscape, what’s been y’all’s biggest takeaways from this season?

DIFFEY: I think what IndyCar did in bringing on a car that was esthetically pleasing but on the track effective. The fan base really feels like this car in IndyCar with the new aerodynamic package actually looks like an IndyCar. It has that kind of sexy look about it, it has that sleek look about it. It has raced well. Not perfectly, not all races have been fantastic, but for the majority of the season, it’s got fans and viewers and us tremendously excited again.

I think while ostensibly IndyCar is an American sport, it has a huge global appeal, and that has really started to resonate again on a global level because people are saying -- I mean, there have been folks in the UK recently saying, ‘We don’t care what kind of motor sport you’re into, IndyCar is the one you should be watching right now.’ And I think while the NBC Sports Group represents various motorsports properties, again, that’s a huge pat on the back for IndyCar for taking a really proactive step in getting back -- a new engine package coming in future years where we’ll step back up to 950 horsepower, I think IndyCar has made some really positive advancements to not necessarily win the fan base back but just to say, hey, we’re not resting on our laurels, we can always be better, and to me that’s been a great takeaway from the year.

BELL: I would just add to Leigh’s comments there that stability and consistency have yielded a lot of positive results for the series, so they haven’t been chasing new, far-out ideas, they’ve just been kind of bolting down what they already have and getting advance news out early, like the new TV contract with NBC, the schedule, and you’re starting to see the benefit, I think, of steady and consistent leadership, the team of Mark Miles and Jay Frye at IndyCar, C.J. O’Donnell. They’ve all done such a great job, so that the stakeholders now have increased confidence in the direction, and you’re seeing that now with more entries. We’re going to be up into the mid-20s I understand next year on full-time entries, where normally we’re right around 20 cars full-time. So the demand is up. We see it in some of the events that have been added like Portland and St. Louis where the crowds have been terrific, great energy.

For the first time since I’ve been involved, there’s really just this amazing upward trajectory, and I’ve been involved for 20 years. So it’s very refreshing to see.

Q. And then for Dale Jr., I know that you’re a NASCAR guy, but kind of reflecting on a championship in general, you’ve been in a few championship battles yourself over the years, even with it being on the NASCAR side. Can you just kind of talk about the nerves and emotions that take place when you show up at the race on race day knowing that you’re in the thick of a championship battle?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I mean, it’s a very tense situation because you spend all year racing, and if there’s a mistake or a misstep, those are things that you always -- you don’t take those too hard. You have in your mind that you can recover, you can rebound, the team can -- there’s another race, another week. And in those moments racing for that championship and those final events, particularly the last event, there is no tomorrow. A mistake, and it’s over. A part failure, and it’s over. That is evident in every moment of the weekend. That is hanging over your head and right over your shoulder at all times.

And so the pressure to be perfect, to not misstep, to not make a mental error, by everyone on the team, that pressure is so obvious and apparent.

All the while, you’ve got to perform. You can’t dial it back or be cautious or be careful. You have to be perfect and fast and excellent. That’s why teams become champions and some teams don’t.

The ones that can still perform under that type of pressure are the ones that hold the trophy.

Q. For Dale, you’ve moved to the booth, and I’m wondering if you’re expecting to be -- I know you won’t this weekend, but are you expecting to do some more sort of cross-pollination with your IndyCar broadcast friends next year and as time goes on?

EARNHARDT JR.: I really enjoy being a part of the booth in NASCAR. I’ve learned so much, and that’s where my home is. But as you know, leading up to this season, my superiors at NBC placed me in various positions to challenge me and help me learn and help me get to know the business, help me get to know my colleagues and the whole family at NBC. You would go to South Korea and you would go to the Super Bowl. I see myself being put in those positions in the future, wherever they are. I’m sure I’ll be at the Indy 500. It’ll be my first Indy 500. I hope that NBC sends me there to do whatever they think they need me to do --

FLOOD: Don’t worry, you’re going to the 500, Junior. You’re all set.

EARNHARDT JR.: So I’ve got a long list of hopes and wishes that we’ll see if they come true, but I really enjoyed being put in those positions in the pregame for the Super Bowl and all those things. They were amazing experiences for me to be in those big moments -- in those big games in those moments to just be a witness to it, but I also learned a lot as an analyst or a broadcaster. I learned a tremendous amount. And I learned from the best. I’m working with NBC who has the best of the best, and I’m able to observe those people and learn so much.

I hope to be able to have that opportunity, and I would love to go hang out with Leigh and those guys and see what they’re doing over there on the IndyCar side and what I can learn from them. It’s all about just trying to be a sponge and taking it all in. Leigh has been incredibly supportive and a great friend, and it’s been good to be able to get to know him even better.

Q. Let me ask the guys on the other side of that equation, Leigh and all you guys. Do you expect to spend some time working the turns, working the booth at NASCAR races?

DIFFEY: Well, thanks to Sam, I’ve had multiple opportunities to do that, both on the Cup side and on the Xfinity side, which I have to tell you, one thing that NBC does is, as Dale just pointed to, is when you get hired by NBC, it starts and it stops with fans. He tells you straight away, this is why we’re hiring you, but this is not the only thing you’re going to do. And as Dale has learned.

Whenever you get outside your comfort zone, it actually makes you better. You know, perhaps an athlete can tell you that through cross-training and trying different sports, and quite often you’ll see various athletes that are tremendous golfers but golfers in their professional -- whatever it might be. Whether I’m calling the Olympic Games in bobsled, skeleton or luge, or I’m doing Xfinity Series races at Watkins Glen or wherever it might be, whenever you do something different from what your norm is categorized as, it makes you better because it makes you step up, and it makes you have even more attention to detail, and it keeps you fresh.

I think when you look at the NBC Sports family of on-air talent, you’ll see a large crossover going to different events. And I think that’s what makes us the family that we are, because we do do that. Sam challenges us to do that, which makes us all better.

Q. Dale, you’re going to be racing next -- the following weekend in Richmond in the Xfinity race. I wondered if you’ve thought about that a lot, if you’re apprehensive about it, eager to go? What’s your feeling?

EARNHARDT JR.: Actually today I just came from the shop, sitting in the car and getting the seat mounted right and getting the headrest mounted and getting all that stuff prepared. The car looks great. The car is almost ready to go. Doing those type of activities to prepare for the race gets you really excited about it, gets you looking forward to it.

I’m prepared and have my bag ready to go, my helmet, my suit, everything in it, and I’ll be a busy, man, jostling between my responsibilities with NBC and covering practices and qualifications and so forth for the Cup event and then doing the practices and driving the car on the Xfinity side. It’ll be a busy weekend for me. Not something I’d want to be doing often, but there’s a little itch to scratch, and I’m looking forward to having this opportunity to race a little bit, have some fun.

Q. I just wanted to ask Leigh and Townsend, how impressive is it that Alexander Rossi is doing what he’s doing in just his third full season in IndyCar? I was looking back at some numbers, and I think Bourdais was the last guy to win a championship, and it was in CART during his third season. I know we’ve seen some young impressive talents lately, but to do what he’s doing in his third season I imagine is tough to do.

BELL: Well, I think the first race Alexander Rossi showed up for was St. Petersburg back in 2016, and if you recall, on the closing stint, final say 30 laps, he was literally pulling over and slowing down to let the leaders by so he didn’t get in their way. I’ll never forget that moment in the race because it was kind of that sink-or-swim moment for any rookie coming into the top level of any sport, and it’s an eye opener, when you realize how deep the pool is or how deep the competition is, and what are you going to do about it, how are you going to go back with your team and analyze your performance and come back stronger.

For Alexander Rossi to do what he did at the Indy 500 his rookie year, I was his teammate that year, and while a lot of people made noise about the fact that it was a win on fuel mileage, I knew as his teammate, having the unique privilege of being able to see his data relative to my data, his performance, that there was an incredible amount of talent in what he was doing in practice sessions, how he worked traffic, how quickly he was learning.

And fast forward now three years later, and he’s now met and in some cases exceeded the measure of Scott Dixon, the established milestone, the established marker in the series, is incredible. And he’s a guy that I think more than some in our series thinks about and obsesses about performance and racing literally 24/7. He just doesn’t really have anything else going on and has that purity of focus that I think you find in a Scott Dixon, you find in a Will Power, and it’s no surprise that that obsession and that intensity has yielded the results.

So it’s been very, very impressive, and it’s so cool that we’ve got a young American who has basically stopped pursuing a European F1 career to come be an IndyCar champion, and he’s on the verge of making it happen this weekend.

DIFFEY: We’ve used a lot in commentary, and he’s not the most outwardly going guy. He’s not the biggest personality in the paddock, but one of his common themes is, A, I make no apologies, and B, I’m not really here to make any friends. That’s not a cliché, that’s his words. So he’s here to do one thing and one thing only, and he’s probably done it the best this season.

Q. He’s talked about wanting to become -- like you said, an American hero, an American champion. Earlier in the year there was a lot of talk about maybe him being a villain. Where do you think he’s come as far as promoting the series of IndyCar, especially like you said, when he had Formula 1 dreams early in his career?

BELL: Yeah, I think that Formula 1 European history, he really pursued F1 for the last six or seven years, and coming up through that ladder system, it is an absolutely cutthroat existence because you know everybody you’re racing that only less than one of you each season is actually going to get a chance to move to Formula 1 someday. So the probability is definitely not in your favor, and it’s every guy for himself.

He came out of that environment into IndyCar, and you see it a lot, Sebastien Bourdais, the same way when he came over, Nigel Mansell was the same way back in the day, they are so used to and kind of hardened by that European experience, and it’s frankly nothing against anybody personally, it’s just every position is so closely fought, any contested corner like at Road America if you saw how Rossi was racing guys and running people out of the road at the exit and driving right to the limit of what the stewards would allow, race control would allow. He never really had a penalty that I know of this season for rough driving, but he’s ruffled plenty of feathers, and he’s done it, as Leigh said, unapologetically, and again, it’s just that intensity of focus and only really caring about the results.

If that’s made him a villain, like Leigh said, I don’t think he particularly cares. The results speak for themselves, and that’s kind of who he is and how he’s going to race, and I think we’re thrilled for it. We benefit for sure as viewers, as commentators. It’s been an incredibly competitive season.

DIFFEY: And I think the important thing to remember, too, is he did make it to Formula 1, which the majority can only dream of, but in my opinion, the reason he is the driver that he is now has nothing to do with Formula 1 whatsoever. He did five races in Formula 1 in a back- marker team. That wasn’t racing. He was staying out of people’s way.

Where he learnt his race craft was in GP2, now F2, and GP3, where he won races in both categories, as Josef Newgarden was in GP3, Conor Daly was in GP3 and GP2. That’s where Alexander Rossi really learned his race craft. That’s what he’s brought to IndyCar. It’s a great thing on his resume that he made it to Formula 1, but he didn’t learn his race craft or do anything there. It was in those junior formulae, and it’s a benefit and a win for IndyCar to have him here.

Q. Dale, what do you think the mindset is going to be like for Jimmie Johnson coming into the playoffs this year? Obviously he’s been so successful in the past but now finds himself in a very different position to what he might be used to. How do you think his mindset will be, and how will he approach these playoffs?

EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I think that -- I’m sure that there’s some concern in his mind over his ability to go out there and perform how he knows he needs to perform to move through the rounds and get a shot at winning the championship. He’s starting to see some more speed in his cars than they had earlier in the year, but he knows it’s still not exactly where they need to be to compete with the Penske team over the last couple of weeks or compete with Kevin Harvick and Stewart-Haas. I mean, he knows that they’re not quite there yet, and that has to be a bit of a concern in his mind.

But at the same time, he’s not the target. He’s not the target that he used to be, and so maybe mentally that’s better, to fly under that radar. He’ll have less pressure, media pressure, less eyeballs on him. Everybody is going to be looking at Harvick, Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. has a lot of pressure on him with the news of their team shutting down and things like that. Jimmie can kind of perform over here under the table, so to speak, where no one is looking, and maybe having that pressure off will allow him to focus more and have a little more focus on what they’re trying to accomplish. But he still has to have some concerns about the speed in their cars.

The only thing is, the one thing I always -- we can measure, we can look at all the other teams and say, well, this Penske guy the last couple weeks, they’ve been really fast. Last time we were in Las Vegas earlier this year, Kevin Harvick controlled the entire race. These guys shelved some of the speed in their cars. They shelved some of the advantages in their cars and some of their tricks and so forth and their best pieces. They put that stuff away when they don’t need it, and here all of a sudden, all that stuff comes off the shelf. Everybody brings out their best equipment for the playoffs, and so we’re going to see some guys actually improve in performance, and I think we’re going to all have to reevaluate where everyone is after that first race or two in the Chase because the performance of these teams is going to change just a bit now that this regular season is over with. It’s the start of the playoffs and everything matters.

Q. Obviously the series is coming to Las Vegas, which is a place synonymous with gambling and sports betting. There’s been some talk about the possibility even in the future of on-track betting at NASCAR events. Is that something you think would be a good thing for the sport, a bad thing? How do you think it might play in the future?

EARNHARDT JR.: I think it would be a bonus for the sport to have the betting interest in -- I think it would create more excitement, bring more attention, more people paying attention, watching, more people in attendance. I can see it having a ton of positives.

Q. Dale, it’s been a really interesting season when you look at things. You’ve got five drivers winning 21 of 26 races, so as I look at the 16 drivers who are heading into the playoffs, what’s going through your mind with the seasons that they’ve had unable to get to Victory Lane, and can one of these none -- the drivers in the top 5 actually win the championship?

EARNHARDT JR.: I think they can. Denny Hamlin almost won the race at Indy, and that would have changed the picture dramatically. So that’s how close any of those guys are to winning a race and doing what it takes to move forward into the rounds. We weren’t really talking about Brad Keselowski a couple weeks ago as a real contender. He goes out and wins two races in a row, but also he gets 10 playoff points in that matter of time. He’s going to have the opportunity to continue to accumulate more playoff points as we are going into these playoff rounds race after race after race. He could be sitting with 15, 20 playoff points and having that advantage each round to make it all the way to Homestead.

I think that Harvick and Kyle Busch definitely are a lot to go to Homestead. I feel pretty confident that Martin Truex Jr. will also make it to Homestead just based on the extra bonus playoff points that he has each round.

Any driver -- if Keselowski continues to accumulate those, I think that obviously helps his chances, as well, but Denny Hamlin could win this weekend. Jimmie Johnson could somehow win this weekend. Kyle Larson could somehow win this weekend and push themselves into the next round. Keselowski could have some trouble, find himself eliminated somehow in the first round. You just don’t know how this is going to go.

But I feel pretty confident about the three drivers that I mentioned with Truex, Harvick and Kyle Busch making it to the final round. It’ll be interesting -- I think that fourth spot is totally up for grabs.

Q. Leigh, what do you think the biggest factor has been with the comeback in IndyCar? Is it the car changes? What is it?

DIFFEY: The comeback of the series?

Q. The comeback of the series, the whole thing, yeah.

DIFFEY: Well, I just think in any business the human resource element, whether that be a race team with the right engineer or the right driver, right mechanics, whatever it may be, IndyCar have made some really great acquisitions as far as people, the right people in the right places, in particular Jay Frye in the competition department. I think Jay has done a really nice job, and there have not been knee-jerk reactions. Himself and his department do a really good job of listening to the drivers. They always get back to the drivers when there’s feedback necessary or there are queries or questions.

I just think there was a long period of time where, whether it be back to the mid-'90s when CART and IRL went their separate ways and there was a period there of darkness, of just distance and people kind of went away from the sport because they didn’t know which one to follow or they were disillusioned or whatever, and you’re not going to get that back overnight, and it’s taken many years, and I think with the really encouraging depth of American talent, whether that be Ryan Hunter-Reay leading the charge, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, youngsters like Jack Veach and Spencer Pigot, the list goes on, Bryan Herta’s son Colton Herta, he’s going to race this weekend, he’s the first kid to ever race in the IndyCar Series born in the 2000s. So the depth of talent is there plus a lot of international talent, and to me that harkens back to IndyCar’s big appeal, fast cars, good-looking cars, the four different disciplines of circuits, great American talent, and then other drivers from around the world, and going to places where there is a really good IndyCar fan base.

I can’t underscore enough what Townsend mentioned right off the introduction earlier how great Portland was two weeks ago, the weather, the fans, the race, the track, the outcome of Dixon being in that first lap pile-up and then driving out of it. There’s just so many good things. I mean, in any sport, people can jump on a downward spiral and try to drive it into the ground, negativity breeds negativity. There is none of that in IndyCar right now. Everybody is pumped, everybody is feeling positive, and it’s on a massive upswing. I think you can point in multiple directions, to answer your question, to attribute this growth in our TV ratings, this growth in entries, this interest in teams, the fact that Fernando Alonso and McLaren would like to be here. There are just so many positives at the moment. I think it’s a really great time for the series.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, everybody, for joining us today.