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February 21, 2006

Jimmie Johnson

HERB BRANHAM: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the first NASCAR Nextel Cup Series teleconference of the season. As we start this new season, let's just go through some quick housekeeping.
The call typically will be held on Tuesdays during the year, usually at noon eastern time. Occasionally the day and the time may shift to accommodate that week's guest, but typically Tuesday at noon.
Also each week we'll give you a heads-up on the weekend's Nextel Wake-Up Call at the track the series is going to that weekend. This week's wake-up call begins at 10:30 a.m. Pacific time on Friday in California Speedway's infield media center. Kyle Busch and crew chief Alan Gustafson will be the guests.
Today it's a real pleasure, we're joined by Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson. He's amid a media tour that took him to New York Monday and today, going to take him to Los Angeles on Wednesday. Because of Sunday's victory, Jimmie leads the first week of the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup points standings.
Going into California, he must feel good. He excels there. He has one win and three top five finishes in six races at California Speedway.
Jimmie, I know you've been on the go. Have you had any time where it's really kind of sunk in what happened, that you won the Daytona 500?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I would say the night after the race was over, the crew stuck around, put the car into Daytona USA. Rick stayed around, so did Jeff Gordon. My wife and I were there. We all just had a great time and really savored the moment. It was a special night. I really enjoyed sharing some stories with the guys and celebrating the big win.
Didn't get a lot of sleep. We were off to the media tour. It's been wide open ever since. I'm looking forward to sleeping in a little bit tomorrow morning on the West Coast.
HERB BRANHAM: Very good. We'll go right to questions for our Daytona 500 champion.
Q. With the win, as exciting as it was, as life-changing as it is, with everything that everybody has said, did that take away any of the excitement of it for you? Even on David Letterman last night, he tried to get into the events of the past week. Is there a dullness there?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, there's nothing I can do about it, so I'm accepting it. I'm happy to see that as these last two days have gone by, a lot of people are understanding that it was a qualifying infraction, and there was a whole week that followed, along with the race and the duels, then we cleared inspection in the 500 after we won the race.
As everybody could imagine, we were being closely watched to make sure nothing happened, and we flew inspection four or five times with flying colors. I think that story is now coming out, and I'm very glad to see that. I think it's been a little misleading. Yes, we were disqualified and our time was thrown out, but it was a week ago in qualifying and it had nothing to do with the Daytona 500.
I hate that I'm answering the questions, but it is what it is.
Q. How exciting was it to drive under -- is there any way to explain the excitement of driving under the checkered flag and realize one of your dreams?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I can't even describe it. It's been important for me to win a plate race. I want to win on all the different tracks that we have. A plate win has been something that I've had in mind for a while. I won the shootout last year. I'm very proud of that. I just wanted a plate win.
To win the Daytona 500 of all things, it's indescribable. Coming off of turn four, watching the flashbulbs pop, seeing the starter with the flag in his hand, I had a four-car-length lead over the guys behind me, I couldn't believe it. I just came unglued.
Q. Looking at what your teammate went through last year after winning the Daytona 500, have you guys put any thought into how you're going to avoid those pitfalls?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I heard a stat today that the last time someone won the 500 and the championship was like in 1949 or something crazy. So a long time ago, whatever it was.
I hope that's not the case. You know, Daytona is a different race. We only have four plate races a year. I feel very confident with our restrictor plate program. It's been a very strong part of Hendrick Motorsports. With that in mind, I've got three other chances.
But the season really starts this coming weekend. The track in Fontana really sets the pace for the rest of the season. Once we leave Fontana, we'll know a lot more about where we stack up in the championship race relative to the competition.
Q. When the drivers speak out against you like they did Sunday, any at point do you want to say, "Your trouble is with Chad and not me," or is this all a team effort?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I understand that it's a team effort. To a certain degree, I believe that, but at the same time I find that hard to believe how drivers that have had their own issues, their own situations develop in a tech line, sit up there on a high horse and make statements, and on top of that put statements out that aren't even true and spin them so they're negative and damage towards me.
With Ryan mentioning how my wins were tainted, look at the Las Vegas win where we had a car that we had some issues in tech and a few days later the ruling was overturned, which never happened in our sport, such to be a positive thing. But now we have a black cloud follow us. Then we go to the Dover race, pass inspection, but they say, "You guys designed some really great shocks in the back of your car, we're not going to allow them any more, we're going to make a rule against this type of shock." Then that is spun in a negative way.
Then we come to the 500, and something happens in qualifying, and that black cloud has fallen over our race victory. That just disappoints me, and I hate to see it. This team is very proud of what we've accomplished. There's no doubt that Chad has been aggressive and walks a fine line. He stepped over the line and he's living with the consequences right now.
We're not sure what's to come with the ruling, but we understand there's a balance due still, and we're going to find out what that is. In my eyes, I see it being something in line with what happened with Todd Berrier as NASCAR approached it. They know they've got to keep that in mind.
Q. Have you talked to him since your win?
Q. Yes.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely.
Q. What did he say?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Very proud of the team. Disappointed and sad in that he wasn't there. I expected that. I guess if he was taking it (inaudible), I'd be worried. But the fact he's taking it so hard, I know he works hard for his race team and how much he cares for the team.
Q. You talk about the balance due that might be coming from NASCAR. There's been some speculation that might include docking some of the points you won for Daytona. That would set you a little bit back in your attempt to win the championship. If that happens, do you see that as sort of a setback when you get to California?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, every point counts. I certainly hope that that doesn't take place. Again, you know, NASCAR is in a position where you make a mistake, they've got to make a ruling, and they have to make consistent rulings.
We're waiting, eagerly awaiting. Should be coming out here, you know, shortly. We're hoping for the best from our standpoint, obviously.
Q. There's a possibility, with the balance due again, that Chad Knaus won't be at California Speedway. At Daytona, he did a lot of work up through qualifying. How is that going to change the dynamic of preparing for a race weekend without having him at the racetrack?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: There's no doubt that it takes away from the race team and from our performance. I think last week in Daytona, working through the duels and 500, it gave the team a lot of confidence.
Hey, we're at a disadvantage, but let's make the most of it. We all have the ability to win, so let's tap into that, work hard, and make it happen. We did that.
California has a different set of challenges than Daytona. Very limited with the changes you can make to the cars. At Fontana and Vegas and the races following, getting into the downforce tracks, there's so many different things in the setup that you can mess with. That's going to be the real challenge, how we work at Fontana together if we're faced with this situation.
Q. Chad wasn't there Sunday night when you guys were celebrating.
Q. I know he must have been climbing the walls. That had to feel strange to you, too. You guys had worked so long and so hard together to get to this point, to get to obviously a pinnacle. Can you talk about that a little bit?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, it was different. We gave a little toast to him, a little salute, talked to him on the phone, you know, started celebrating and trying to look at all the positives instead of the negatives.
Like I said earlier, it was really, really tough on him. Today, unfortunately, is going to be tough on him, I would imagine. So, you know, like I said before, we're just trying to deal with it.
One thing I want to point out that's kind of been tough for us, we were penalized, what, a week, two weeks ago, after qualifying, and then we were hoping for a ruling to come out on Tuesday, it hasn't. So now this afternoon something's going to come out. Another black cloud is going to be following this victory.
You know, I'm disappointed in that. I know we're all going to regroup things here shortly, and it's going to be harder on Chad yet even again.
Q. One of the things that Mike Helton was talking about all week, not so much the bump-drafting, but the respect factor that you have for each other on the track. I'm wondering your take on that following Sunday's race, considering some of the incidents that did occur, particularly with Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You just want me to start talking about it?
Q. I'm just sort of curious. Mike was talking about, we won't have these issues - obviously you were there in these drivers meetings - if you maintain respect from one another. From our perspective, it kind of looks like maybe there wasn't a lot of respect out there for each other. I think we narrowly missed what could have been a nasty accident when Tony and Matt got into it. I'm curious about your take on the respect factor going out there on the track right now.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, we get riled up at times, as you would expect. Things get interesting and heated out on the track. I think NASCAR did a great job of coming up with a solution. They didn't want to be put in the position to make judgment calls. As things unfolded during the race, they saw the lack of respect, they penalized a few drivers. I think that's a good move on their part. That's a judgment call. I'm sure at some point they'll be criticized for it. Their in a position where they have to do something.
I'm glad we don't have any other crazy rules like you can't bump-draft or side draft or whatever. It's really what happens on a restrictor plate track and that's the only way you can pass.
From my standpoint, I know there's some crazy things going on, but I felt like the race was more in control than I've seen in a long time.
Q. Today we expect the penalty to come out. What do you think would be fair? You've kind of dealt with this head on. What do you think would be fair in this situation?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: My version of fair is probably a lot different than anyone else's. I just said being without my crew chief the biggest race of the year, you know, told we're being penalized for something that took place in qualifying, we served our penalty, went to the back of the field, worked our way up through the duels, went on from there.
With that in mind, that is how I would like to see things, we served our penalty. But knowing that there's past history, crew chiefs have been sent home for four weeks, I just -- I think that NASCAR is in a position where they've got to be consistent.
I could say that I'm preparing for it to be that, and our team is as well. We're hoping --
(Interruption in Jimmie Johnson's connection.)
Q. I think you were answering the question of the penalty.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm sorry. Line got cut off.
I think from my standpoint, we've been through a lot already for a qualifying infraction. But I also do know that NASCAR is in a position that they have past history, and they have to be consistent in their rulings.
So we're preparing for a four-week suspension based on that with what happened with Todd Berrier. I'm mentally preparing for it, the team is, but we're obviously hoping for better than that and we'll have to see what happens.
Q. Did you have a meeting with a rules change within the company? Will there be different policies as a result of this?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's within each crew chief's mind how hard they want to push the limits, what they want to mess with and play with. I haven't been home. I flew straight up to New York. I'm not sure what kind of discussions have taken place between Rick and management and stuff. I don't really have an answer for you.
But I could tell you that after this, what this experience has taught us, we'll be walking on the right side of the line for sure.
Q. The reaction to the fans, the whole qualifying thing, you said you're not proud of it, that you hate it happened, it's unfortunate, you're disappointed, all that kind of stuff, but they haven't really heard you say the words, "I'm sorry." How remorseful are you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I guess if -- I don't know where I did anything. If I need to say I'm sorry, I guess I'll say I'm sorry. I just got in the car and drove around the track and got out of it.
I can tell you that Chad Knaus is sorry, and he's in a position and ready to make some statements, from what I understand, later today. We're living with it. You know, if there are fans that want to hear that I'm sorry, I'm sorry, and I'm doing everything I can do represent this race team and do the best job possible.
Q. With Roush Racing being in kind of a transition mode, do you think Hendrick is going to be the dominant team this year and do what Roush did last year?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, we're really hoping so. Our goal this year is to get all four cars into the Chase, and hopeful that one of the cars wins the championship, and also the Busch championship.
Rick had a big meeting at the shop, put a lot of money up on the line as incentive for the shop and the organization to get all four cars in the Chase, try to win two championships. It sounds a little greedy, but we want to set our expectations high and go after something that we feel we can do.
Roush did a great job last year. From what I saw in the pre-season testing, I think they're going to be real strong, as well.
Q. Having so many strong teammates, does it help you a lot to have those guys around you, racing with you, even though they're trying to beat you and are capable of doing it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I've got great teammates. We've been able to really push each other hard and get the most out of one another, also communicate well. Our crew chiefs have been working really hard to make sure the equipment is as even as it can be, and we're also advancing our equipment, making it better and better.
Q. Casey Mears has been real complimentary of you in the past couple days, really speaking highly of your win. The flipside of that is he's your good buddy, coming off two big showings himself. Talk about the strides he's made in NASCAR?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Who is that?
Q. Casey Mears.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm sorry, the phone broke up.
I am so happy for Casey. He's been through a challenging career where he was at the top level in the open-wheel world, left that, had to start over and come into the Busch ranks. I think Tony Stewart is probably the only guy to really go from the open-wheel world into stock cars and have a successful career.
I'm happy to see it for him. He's been a very close friend of mine. I know that he's going to be winning a lot of races this year, hopefully be a hot commodity and be in a great situation as his career develops.
Q. Did you ever have to offer him any pep talks when he was really struggling there?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, we talked a lot, and I would give him advice. But Casey always has such a great outlook on things. I've never really seen him too down and out. He's always believed in himself. He knows what his abilities are. He knew he was (inaudible) to these cars and needed to learn a lot. He's always had a great outlook on things. Even in the toughest times where it would be easy to be down and out, he's always been very positive.
HERB BRANHAM: Jimmie, just want to thank you for joining us. I know you've been really busy post 500. Thanks for taking time out to join us on the call.

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