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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
May 3, 2006
THE MODERATOR: If I could have your attention, we are pleased to be joined in the media center by Jimmie Johnson, our points leader, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet. He is just off of a victory at Talladega on Monday. He's been very successful at this racetrack over the years.
We've got a live audience here in the media center. We're also on a national teleconference across the country with the folks listening in. We're going to be joined by Greg Biffle here momentarily.
Jimmie, talk about being out on the track here last night and yesterday, your impressions of the racetrack, how you feel about coming off that victory on Monday.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, the victory was great for the Lowe's team. Restrictor plate racing, put a lot of effort into it. Been working very hard as a driver to perfect that kind of craft and understand what's going out there in the draft. To get the results that we've had last two plate races means a lot to myself and Hendrick Motorsports. They've worked very hard to give us competitive cars. DEI had a period of time where they were real dominant. Rick didn't like that, our organization doesn't like that. We put some things in place that have really stepped up the plate program, really have got us the results we've been after. A lot of hard work is paying off and we're happy for that.
This racetrack, I was here a month or so ago at the Goodyear tire test. Really had a great test session. Unfortunately, we had a tire go down and lost a race car in the process. But the track seemed to me, you know, very forgiving, easy to get around in a sense, speeds were very fast and high. Now we come back with the new tire, the tire's a lot harder compound-wise, also it feels like construction-wise to me. It's made the cars really tough to drive. It's been a handful out there.
The pace has been a little bit slower. When the conditions were hot and warm yesterday, the sun was out, we had quite a few spins and some guys got into the wall. As we got into the night, I think the track finally got some rubber down, the track started to stabilize a little bit. I don't think we had any issues once the sun went down. Everything kind of went well from there.
We are working through some things. We aren't really pleased with the way we ended up last night. We felt like we were learning some things, but some teams were a little bit faster than us. We've got some work to do today, looking forward to getting on the track and making the most of it.
THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions now.
Q. One would get the impression you're running perhaps about 10 miles an hour slower than in the initial testing right after the paving. Is this due primarily to just the tire hardness? If so, how can you overcome that and find a little more grip and speed?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, it's all because of the tire. The tire is much -- it has a harder compound, less grip. We have less grip through the center of the corner and the ability to go fast is way down.
I was surprised to see the pace pick up like it did last night. I think tonight we will close that gap a little bit more. This tire is much harder than what we had here in the test session. I would expect the speeds maybe to be 2/10ths faster tonight, then when we come back and qualify. I'd say we'd pick up maybe another half a second or something. So I don't think we'll see a track record go down, you know, with the new surface because of the tire, and because Goodyear is really trying to make sure the cars can run the full distance. We also have the small fuel cell in the cars which has changed in the handling a little bit, and we're all kind of adjusting to that. Two different things we've got to deal with here at this racetrack.
Q. We asked you this question a couple years in a row now. How many can you win as far as the 600 is concerned? How amazed are you you've been able to capture so many wins here at such a difficult race?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Floored that we've been able to win all the races we have here, too. Thankful too, Lowe's being the sponsor, this being Lowe's Motor Speedway, this couldn't come at a better racetrack for us. There's no telling if that streak can stay alive. We certainly hope that it can. I think the 600-mile race really fits my style and also the team's style.
We're really about being consistent and trying to put in a good day's work and work our way through the whole event. That's paid off. Last year we really had to sit and kind of conserve the car with all the problems that people were having with tires. At the end of the race, raced Bobby real hard to get the victory. We'll see if we can keep it going.
Track's different, tire's different. It's really a learning curve right now. I don't feel like we have a huge advantage or that we're going to come in here with the momentum that we may have had in the past just because so much has changed since we were here last time and won.
THE MODERATOR: We're also pleased to be joined in the media center right now by the driver of the No. 16 National Guard Subway Ford. That's Greg Biffle.
Greg, thanks for stopping by to visit with us today. Talk about your impressions of being out on the new surface yesterday and last night, what are some of the things you have found out.
GREG BIFFLE: You know, I think they did a tremendous job paving this place. It's really smooth. The surface seems to be really nice. The tires, obviously Goodyear is on the safe side. They're pretty hard tires. It takes a little bit to get them to get some grip, although guys have gone out and run fast laps, like first or second lap on the racetrack. We haven't been able to do that yet. Maybe I don't have the guts to do that yet (laughter). I wrecked twice here last year testing. Just getting used to it.
I think it's going, the racetrack, my opinion is going to be in the best shape for racing in I don't know what period of time, maybe a couple races, maybe a year. It seems real decent right now. New pavement, you know, has that kind of oil that comes up out of it, I think. I don't know a lot about technical stuff about it. But seems to be taking rubber. The cars seem to be drivable. My car is super tight. Just chattering the front tires, I can't get any grip in the front. I think a lot of people are having that problem. At least it's not the chatter in the rear tires, trying to wreck you every single lap. At least my car is not like that. I think it's going to be good.
THE MODERATOR: We'll go back to questions again.
Q. For both of you, did you watch the tape of the Talladega race? Fans are still talking about who went with who and why, the drafting, why someone didn't go with someone, why they did. Have either one of you had a chance to sit down and watch the race?
GREG BIFFLE: I tell you, I'd like to answer that first, I got a great opportunity, I sat and watched the race on my couch at home. It was a good race. Unfortunately, I saw the race from my house, from my couch. Didn't really want to do that. Couple times I was glad I was sitting on my couch, it looked like to me (laughter).
But, no, I didn't really see anything spectacular, you know, guys going with different guys. I think the guys just picked, you know, the line that was moving and went with that guy. I mean, like Jimmie will tell you, when it's down to that, man, it's go with the fastest car or try and get in front of the line that's kind of coming, try and slow them up if you can and not have them split you, don't end up in the middle kind of thing. Just put your car where you have to. Those guys up front jockeying around did that.
Just, you know, I'm sure everybody knows, but Jeff Gordon and Elliott Sadler ended up at the back of that line, you know. That's not because they're not good drivers either. It's just where they were positioned on the racetrack. They got shuffled out. It's all being in the right place at the right time.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I totally agree. It's being in the right place at the right time. There was a lot of people -- I was trying to be conservative and take my time and wait for the right time to really get up to the front. I saw the 88 and the 20 coming. I knew it was time to go because D.J. and Tony typically like to play that game, sit at the back, have a nice straight race car and race their way through there.
There was so much going on. I worked with my teammates all day long. We helped each other out. We bailed each other out of situations. When we came around, it was two or three to go, it wouldn't matter if your mom was in the car in front of you, you were going to find your way by it. Things worked out for me. Brian got by the 24. I got by the 24. I had a push, a lot of different things going on. Got to the bottom, got by the 25. I still haven't seen all of the race, especially the last five or 10 laps, what took place. But it took me to sit on the speed stage after Victory Lane to know that it was the 20 that followed me from the fourth or fifth lane, wherever I was at the top, all the way down to the bottom. I was so focused on Brian, I knew I had a run on him, I wasn't looking in the mirror.
When I went down to the bottom, looked up, hoped I had some help with me, I saw the 20 there. That worked out perfectly. Got pulled down in front of the 20, got a push by. I found out he followed me from the top all the way down.
Q. You two guys talked about how this track will change from yesterday to today. Obviously you'll have several weeks, All-Star race, truck racing, all that stuff. As we go through the two weeks in May, the track will continue to change. Given that, how much will this test help you in terms of being ready to run the 600 or is this just sort of the starting point for you to learn this new surface and go forward?
GREG BIFFLE: I think it's definitely a starting point. We got to be here, we got to start getting rubber down. The All-Star race is going to help us most. I'm sure that that is going to be -- you know, kind of in race condition, that's probably going to be more closer to the track conditions we're going to be facing. The more laps they put on the racetrack, the more races, the more stuff that goes on, the better it's going to get.
We need to get to where it not loses grip, but it gets rubber built up on it. Kind of not sort of gets slick, but it gets to where we can race better. Just in a day yesterday it changed a lot.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I agree. The groove right now is a little narrow because everybody is just tiptoeing around.
GREG BIFFLE: Not if you see Carl, the groove is not narrow (laughter).
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Good for him. I'm hoping to have it open up (indiscernible) corner entry. I think we're driving a little straighter than we want. As Greg pointed out, the rubber goes down, the track just becomes more consistent. Right now with the grip level being like it is, almost too green and too grippy, I'm not really sure what all is going on with the new track, the oil is coming up, like Greg pointed out. There's just something off. So you get down enough rubber, you're real timid on the track, you're not really sure what the car is going to do, you don't have a good sensation where the car is.
As we keep putting laps on the track, it's only going to get better, widen the groove out, be better for everyone.
I also do agree with him, this is a good starting point. The All-Star event is really going to be something that the teams hang their hats on and say, All right, this setup did or didn't work, these are the changes we need to make. Right now we're all collecting data so when we leave here tonight, we can go home, our guys can sift through it all and find out how we can come back with a better package and fine tune more after the All-Star race.
Q. You know this is a green racetrack. Everybody is talking about putting rubber down. I don't know where that rubber is coming from. How much as a driver is it getting confident you've run so much here you know you can make it around here?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think the confidence for the driver definitely picks up. I think Greg mentioned how he crashed here a couple times last year. I crashed in a Busch car and also at the tire test earlier. You don't want to be the guy -- you want to be the guy at the top of the board, but you don't want to be pushing the envelope and making mistakes.
Yesterday, I was judging off how fast everybody else was going knowing how hard I needed to push and pick it up from there because the car on a new track with this tire, you don't have a lot of grip to deal with. When you lose grip and the car starts sliding, it's below where our minds tell us it should be, and it's easy to make a mistake right now.
I think confidence does have a small play in it on a new track first couple times out. But as we come back for the All-Star event, I think everybody will be where they need to.
Q. Jimmie, Chad had an interesting word for what it's like to be a crew chief Monday when he talked about it. He said it's petrifying to be a crew chief now. If you're not aggressive enough, you're out of a job. If you're too aggressive, you get in trouble and you're out of a job. Is Chad there with you now at the track? Do you get the point where you wonder how a guy does that, what kind of a person it takes to do all that a crew chief has to do nowadays?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, Chad's definitely here. All of our crew chiefs work so hard to keep the teams running on so many different levels, developing new race cars, working with the engineers on that, the engine shop, what they're bringing along, wind tunnel data, straight line testing data, seven post rigs. There's so many different things that we now consider before a car is built, a body is put on a car, what setup is even in it.
Then you look at the people side of it, the fact they've got to manage a race shop. In our shop, the responsibilities between Stevie and Chad to manage 88 guys inside of our shop. From there, you have your early crew of around eight guys, you end up with 15 guys race time. They're responsible for every piece of that.
There's a lot of pressure on those guys. They don't get a lot of sleep. They're really in the hot seat in most cases. You'll see a crew chief change two or three times on a particular team before a driver goes. They're on a hot seat. They know it coming into it. When Chad is crying on my shoulder with it at times, I'm like, Hey, buddy, you signed up where it said crew chief, I signed up where it said driver.
Q. He said after a suspension he kind of learned to take a day off. Has that gone by the wayside and he's back 24/7?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, he is putting that in place this year. He's taking some time. He actually took three days off over the last off weekend, which is rare for him to do. Went and enjoyed himself.
As the year wears on and the pressure comes on, I think as a friend and a teammate, sharing this team with him, I need to push him to do that. I know that management, too, at Hendrick Motorsports is trying to make sure that our road crew guys, our crew chiefs, everybody that is really on the road, they do get some time and take some days off because it's just a long grind. If you can be fresh in the final 10, we all know how much that can help you win a championship.
Q. Greg, are you beginning to think this is not your year? When you get to a track, are you thinking what is going to go wrong this week?
GREG BIFFLE: You know, I don't go to the racetracks with that attitude. I go, you know, with the attitude that we're going to get a good solid top five run out of our race car that weekend, hope for the best. I have to stay positive to keep the team positive and everything.
It is frustrating. You know, all you can do is just take as many precautions as you can. During testing, don't over-rev the engine going through the gears qualifying. Whatever you can do. Don't put as many -- minimize the mileage you put on your engine in practice if you can. If you feel like your car is good enough, don't make the extra lap. All the things that you think about, not making mistakes, weighing in on the cautious side, back out, wait the next lap, I've done all those things, put all those things in place, felt like I really paid close attention to that to try and finish these races in the top five.
You know, I definitely had a car on Monday that could have finished up front, was being cautious with it, being careful, doing all the things I needed to do. Unfortunately, we had a part failure again. They have found no rhyme or reason to it. You know, it seems like my engine ends up with the bad part that failed. It's just one of those things that happens.
Got to stay positive. The team's real excited because we've been running so well. We ran extremely well at Phoenix. We ran extremely well everywhere we've been. Our pit stops are really good. We just need to keep doing that. We know that if we keep doing that, we'll get some top five finishes and some wins in the near future.
Q. Jimmie and Greg, we all know the Nextel All-Star race is a no-holds-barred, Katie-bar-the-door type of event. What has been your hairiest, thrilling, mind-boggling moment that you've had in one of these races?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Mine from experiencing the All-Star, that one from watching it is the year it was raining and everyone piled up in turn one, Jeff came back to win. That was probably the best one I've seen or watched.
Being in the race car, I've been fortunate enough to win -- won the last Winston when it was called that. There's nothing like that experience, just to have the bragging rights in a sense. No points were on the line, everybody was charging as hard as they could, and the payday is pretty good, too. That's my highlight from the All-Star event.
GREG BIFFLE: Probably me, the hairiest moment is when Kurt Busch spun me out going into turn one. That was probably the scariest moment I've had in the All-Star event. Last year we ran extremely well in it. You know, I think we ended up third or fourth. Just couldn't quite run with the top guys. But learned a lot for the 600. That's important, is learning for the 600. There's a lot of money on the line.
What kind of happens is, I don't know about Jimmie, but us, you know, we're here testing, we take the best car and we keep it for the 600, then we take our second best car and run it in the All-Star race. There's more money on the line in the All-Star race, but your career or points, the whole season's on the line in the 600.
Hopefully we'll have two really good cars coming out of here and we can take the second best one to the All-Star race.
Q. Jimmie, it's been amazing. You have been a top five team your whole existence. How challenging or difficult is it to stay there, to maintain that level of excellence? Really, Greg, your team arrived there last year. Your performance is there this year. What are you doing or what is the challenge to get back to that level of being a top five team every week, every track?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I was listening to Greg's question. What about mine again (laughter)?
Q. What is the challenge? How tough is it for you to maintain the level of excellence you have had for your whole existence?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's very tough. It's something I'm proud of that we've been able to do. Look at the year that Greg has had. It hasn't been his fault. The guys have been really fast, up front leading races, leading the most laps, in position to win races, has had bad luck. I've been very lucky to not have that.
On top of having great equipment, doing my job in the car, the team has been doing their job on pit road, all those things, there is an element of luck involved as well. We've been good and lucky. Thankfully we've been in the situation.
You know, hopefully we can be a champion someday. But I'm very proud of the record that we have. The worst we've been in the points so far is fifth. That's a tough thing to achieve.
GREG BIFFLE: For us, I mean, you know, it's hard. It's really, really hard for me to consider us not a top five team. It's super difficult because I take Phoenix, which is just our latest race, or Talladega, you know, we qualified second outside front row, just missed the pole by a little bit, and led the most laps, ended up running out of gas and finishing 16th. If that doesn't qualify us as a top five competitor, let's say, you know, yeah, we're not fifth in points, but that sure states us as being a top five team, I think, as far as competition goes. Same thing for Talladega. We qualified seventh, ran very well there. Early engine failure. We didn't shine as great there.
But I look at our team as a top five team, and approach every race. I approach this race, this test, I approach Richmond as we are a top five team. That's the way I go in and race, take each event. Whatever it gives us, it gives us. I go in with that attitude. You have to be positive. Jimmie knows, as well. If you're down in the dumps, have a negative attitude, it reflects on your driving, it reflects on your pit stops, it reflects on how your car runs. I just go in there thinking that we're fourth, fifth in points, whatever, and we're that kind of team, and we're going to come out of here third or fourth or win, whatever we end up. That's how I approach it. That's how I feel the position our team is in.
Q. Greg, during this test, are you paying any more attention to maybe fuel mileage or anything else that you might be able to use to kind of take a chance and get a win or finish extremely high?
GREG BIFFLE: Not particularly. We're not really paying attention to fuel mileage yet. I think, you know, later on we will. We ran it out of gas yesterday just to see how far it would go, then kind of get that. Really, our hands are so tied from the engine builder and the tuning of the engine, then how much fuel we can carry. I mean, it's just -- that's as best we can do. There isn't a lot we can do different to try and increase our fuel mileage.
Some people speculated we leaned the engine out the Talladega, burned a piston, intake valve spring broke. You know, that wasn't an issue for us there. But, you know, we try and be the best we can with everything every weekend. We're going to get the best mileage we can here and do everything we can to get the best mileage.
I don't know how Jimmie feels, but I feel like we may see the larger fuel cell, definitely are going to see the larger fuel cell back at some point in the near future, I think, with the tire wear we're seeing, how consistent the cars are running. I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't see them back. I think there's more fun from lap 30 to 60 racing here. I hope it really doesn't come down to a fuel mileage deal.
Q. Greg, I'm curious if Jack Roush has said anything to you to sort of help you get through this year so far. Is it a case of where he knows your attitude and the team's attitude, he's just leaves you alone?
GREG BIFFLE: I think it's really easy for me to keep a positive attitude in this sport because so many things have happened. I've been through so much. I got points taken away for an illegal part that cost me a championship, that the part wasn't illegal, that we got permission to run from a NASCAR official. There's so many things that I've been through. People think that I'm struggling now dealing with the troubles we're having, and I'm not. I'm up here a hundred percent ready to go buckling that car, pull the belts down and give my job 110%, and whatever happens happens.
The head of Ford Racing called me this week, Dan Davis, and left me a long voice message about how they're suffering with me, all the things. I appreciate that phone call.
But I really don't need any encouragement. I can tell you, I'm ready to go. I'm ready to win races. I'm going to go to Richmond and I'm going to go to Darlington, come here with the attitude that I'm going to beat Jimmie, I'm going to win, I feel like we can. That's what I'm going to try and do. Whatever happened last week is last week. There's no fixing it. I got spun around at Texas and crashed. I went to the next race, Phoenix, not even thinking about that. Qualified second, led a lot of the race. I'm mentally ready to continue to win races.
Q. Jimmie, do you see the teams are kind of still learning and changing every year on how to approach these races going up into the Chase? Do you see anything the 24 team is doing differently?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No. I think every team, you know, you know where you are when the season ends. I think during the season, you want to develop your cars, you want to do some things, but you may not have time. During the off-season, all the teams are working from speedway racing to road course to intermediate tracks just trying to develop a better product.
I think that all the teams go through the off-season with that mindset, then you show up to the racetrack, then you get a gauge where you are. Then from there, you work out your strategy. If you're off to a good start, which we've been very fortunate to do, we settle in, we worry about making the Chase, just trying to hang on to a nice points total in general, not be under that 400, try to schedule some things out to keep our cars developing over the year.
If you come out slow and have trouble, the cars aren't up to speed, you really got to get to work and lean hard on the race team early in the season to develop a better product. It really just depends on your situation.
The 24, they've been -- they've had some ups and downs. I have to say that I've been very lucky to win -- not lucky, we've been on the mark at the end to win some races but we haven't been the dominant car. Hendrick Motorsports, we've been very competitive, but not dominating like we want to, like we've done in the past. As a company, we're still working hard right now to understand the cars a little bit better.
We have a new Monte-Carlo body we're working through, working on some new suspension things. We're learning and developing and trying to push hard here in this opening part of the season to get the best product we can still.
Q. Jimmie, as dominant as you've been here at Lowe's Motor Speedway with everything that's been changed, how important is this test for you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's important. It's important for everybody I think. New surface, new tire, the fuel cell situation. We're all here learning. I think a lot of us will still be coming back to the All-Star event, experimenting a little bit, trying to work things out.
In the past with the old surface, there's a certain line that this track just loves. We're honed in on the setup. I would come in with very high expectations. Since they started grinding the track, I've come in and I haven't had the same expectations. I came in and knew that it was going -- we're starting all over again. I feel that way again this year.
You know, obviously I hope that I can come back and win another 600, but it's too early and too difficult right now to place a favorite, I think. After tonight, I think we can form some opinions by looking at the speed charts and go from there. I don't think we have an advantage like we may have had before.
THE MODERATOR: This concludes our press conference today. Guys, we thank you very much for stopping by. Have safe travels out there today.
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