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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
October 9, 2007
DENISE MALOOF: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup teleconference. For those of you who are covering this weekend's Bank of America 500 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon, the current leader in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup will be the guest for the Sprint leader chat. That will be in the media center at 5:30.
Our first guest today ahead of Saturday night's Bank of America 500 is Denny Hamlin driver of the No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet.
Denny gained three spots in the Chase standings following last Sunday's fourth place finish at Talladega Super Speedway, and he's in eighth place as the drivers prepare for their fifth event this week.
What is your strategy this week to continue climbing up the standings and keeping that momentum?
DENNY HAMLIN: That's going to be the most important thing for us. We've had a really tough, you know, last couple months, or even the month leading up to the Chase, just, you know, string of bad luck. It seemed like we couldn't go one week without having a pit road incident or a flat tire or bad luck or something on the racetrack or blowing motors. Last weekend we were somewhat in the big one. We didn't get a ton of damage, but enough to the rear to really affect the car when it was by itself. We battled back from that to get a fourth place finish, which is a huge accomplishment for this team, even for being on a Super Speedway because we have a tough time finishing those races anyway. So we definitely will take this one and try to carry that momentum on to Charlotte.
Q. What's your outlook on your chances now? Is it better than it was a couple of weeks ago because at least you're not 12th, or do you feel like you guys are logistically out of the picture for the championship?
DENNY HAMLIN: For all realistic purposes, I would say we are out of it. We had a great run and didn't gain or lose on the leaders. We were on a pace there we were losing 100 points a race or whatever it was and stopped the bleeding, and now to try to get blood back in us, we've got to have days where the 24 and 48 have days like we had two or three weeks ago.
It's tough watching back on the race and seeing, you know, my deficit was 250 going in, and all race it was 120 behind or 130 behind. You know, those guys are just laying back there and when they made their move, it made it hard on us to try to try to gain points. They played their strategy out and it worked to pretty much perfection
And ours pretty much worked to exactly what we wanted to do. We stayed up front all day, and you know, we kind of avoided the big one like we planned on. So really, like I said, we stopped the bleeding, but we've still got to get some life back in us to get back in this Chase.
Q. You look at the last three weeks, we've had 20 and 14 and 20 cars involved in accidents in the last three races, which is an increase from the races before that. Any idea what's causing this and will we see this the rest of the year?
DENNY HAMLIN: You know, tough to say. The Chase last year was kind of filled with uneventful races, you could say. Guys were really playing it conservative.
But I think this year, guys that are outside the Chase are now starting to be maybe a little bit more aggressive. And even the guys in the Chase know that they are fighting ten other guys or 11 other guys now instead of nine. So they are maybe trying to get a little more aggressive because they know in order to keep up with 24 and 48, it's not going to take just consistent Top-10, Top 15 runs. They know they are going to have to get Top-5s and Top 3s.
So I think the pressure is on in that sense.
And now I think -- I don't see the trend really changing that much, because now you've got a whole other group of guys, myself included, that feel like, we've got to make something happen or else we are totally out of the Chase picture or championship picture. Us and probably the sixth and seventh on down, we are going to be more aggressive than what we normally would be, and someone like in Clint Bowyer or Jeff Gordon's spot, they need to take the conservative approach and get the best finish they can. We need to go out there and get wins.
Q. At Lowe's this weekend, would you say that this is one of the most important races of your career?
DENNY HAMLIN: No, I wouldn't say -- it's pivotal, yeah, but I don't think it's the most important. Last year, Homestead was definitely our most important race, because we were still part of the championship picture. We were only 90 or so behind, so a good day or bad day on one other person's part was going to put us right back in the Chase or right back in the championship.
It's tough to really compare that. But, you know, we shifted our goals, definitely, from you know, back from 12th or the first three races, we said, let's just get back to the Top-5 in points. And that's a goal of my career is to be Top-5 in points every single year, I don't want to be outside of it. You know, right now, we're heading back on track to get that.
So we know this weekend at Charlotte is going to be a huge stepping stone for us to get back in. We are only 60 behind fifth right now. So if we can have a good, strong run this weekend; we know there's going to be attrition and we though there's going to be another three, four, five guys that are going to have bad days and it's just the way it's laid out and how tough Charlotte is.
Yeah, it's important for us, especially this weekend, to get away unscathed.
Q. Consistency is everything in racing over a season. What do you and your team do best when consistency seems to collapse?
DENNY HAMLIN: Trying to keep guys pumped up is the hardest thing to do when you're having a down time. The thing about it is, you know, I don't know that I would call this a sophomore slump, because we made the Chase; we ran strong all year. Leading up to the Chase we were second, right there in points, it felt like for 15 weeks. It seems like when Chase time came around, we had tough luck, and that's something I didn't have last year.
So really, this year has been a struggle just trying to keep everyone's head up, including mine, because I've never had to go through a struggling time like this. I mean, really all of my career, I've been successful at every level that I've been to. I've never had just struggling, hard, back luck year, and this year seemed to kind of plague us at the wrong time
That's been our biggest hurdle I would say for the most part is trying to keep everyone's head up and. A run like Sunday's was will get everyone's morale right back up, and that's kind of how you get your stride back.
Q. With the Chase becoming so doggone popular, do you see starting next year, maybe NASCAR might say, well, let's add more cars to it or change things around because of the popularity of it?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don't think so. I mean, I think it definitely loses it's elite category of Chase drivers; that if you increase the number -- however, we saw three races in, you know, six, seven guys within 20 points. I mean, that's what the Chase was built on right there. That's what it's all about.
So, I mean, yeah, I definitely want to see them, you know, keep that number at 12, or even reduce it back down, because ultimately, you know, you kind of lose sight of your elite group.
But, ultimately, you look at last year, and even the year before, there were 14, 15 teams good enough to be in the Chase; not because they were consistent all year. They were race-winning teams.
So someone has to be odd man out for sure. If you increase it to 15, then you're going to say, 16 cars should have made it. It's just tough to say it should be any more than what it is now. And really, it's just the format. It's going to be tight all the way to the end, whether it's a two-car race or a five-car race; at the end, you're going to have a tight finish no matter what. It's just the way the system is laid out.
Q. Maybe cutting the field in half after a couple of races, you wouldn't want to do that right this minute because you wouldn't be in it; that's what the NHRA has adopted for their drag racing stuff. Do you have any thoughts on something like that?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don't know. I've never really heard that scenario of dropping guys out. You know, maybe it's -- I don't know. It's tough to say. I mean, sometimes you'll see in the Chase guys really perform well right at the beginning of the Chase, right off the bat. And then us like last year, we start performing five races in. So it's tough to say you could really do an elimination process, because then you're going to have guys that you're going to say, oh, they are eliminated right after the first race -- first, second, or third race.
Our season is made up of 36 races, so it's tough to cut someone's season totally short after three races because everyone has a bad three-span; even the 24 and 48 have had it this season
Then you start back to thinking, this is a long season. So we need to think about our overall championship, not just the guys that can perform well right at beginning of fall and right at the beginning of Chase. I'm glad that it is not an elimination process and it's a ten-week span where you can get an idea of who is the overall champion
Q. The 24 and 48's success week-after-week, does that grind on guys' morale as much as anything?
DENNY HAMLIN: It might. Yeah, I definitely think it's tough, because you know you can perform as good as, you know, 95 percent of the guys out there. But those guys just seem to perform every single week. You know, it's tough to say that they just don't have -- they have got everything together. They have got two great crew chiefs. They have got two awesome drivers. It's tough to beat that, it really is.
But that right there forces myself and Tony and J.J. and Kyle next year, that's going to push us to be better. It's going to make us a better team, because ultimately, if we were out there and we were just winning all the races like they are right now, you may get a little complacent. So right now, I think, may, you know, we're probably not going to be championship contenders this year. But you know, in the off-season, it's just going to push this whole team just to work harder to keep up with those Hendricks guys.
Q. Speaking of Kyle, with him coming in as your teammate next year, what is your general impressions of what he'll bring to the team, and how well do you get along with him and how much does that change the personality of the team?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think really and truthfully that Kyle is going to make myself and Tony push harder to be faster and make us better. Because you know, could you probably ask 90 percent of the garage and they would say Kyle is one of the Top-5 talents in the garage. And to have, in my opinion, Tony, which is definitely a Top 3, Top 4 driver in the garage, and Kyle on my team, that's going to make me better.
You know, to have two of the Top-5 in my opinion on my team, it's going to push me, because if I see that, hey, Kyle is able to run that speed in the same equipment that I've got, then maybe I need to work on myself. So I think that's what it's going to bring to the table. I know it's got to be -- he knows a lot about his race cars, so it's going to push us to be better.
And as far as off the racetrack, there's really nobody that I have a better relationship with than Kyle. You know, we fly together just about it seems like every week now, so we have a good relationship there. Really, even though me and Tony, we communicate well at the racetrack, me and Kyle communicate well on and off the racetrack, so I think that's going to make us good teammates.
Q. A lot has been said about Joe Gibbs Racing drivers having like personalities; how much do you agree or disagree with that?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, he's definitely got a couple head cases for sure in me and Tony. You know, we're moody at times, I guess you could say. I know I get really hot and cold, and Tony is the same way. J.J. is the more level-headed of all of us, but it's just the pressure to win as drivers. And we've been successful at everything that we've done leading up to the Cup Series.
So it's not enough to come in here -- and if you're not winning races or dominating, we don't feel like we're doing our jobs. So we're hard on ourselves and then we're hard on everyone else around us. So it's tough for us to really show how we feel and come off as, you know, a likable guy, and this, that and the other when we are so competitive and it's not like we are trying to shut everyone else out around us.
It's just that that's our personalities. We're so competitive. We definitely saw it when me and Tony got into it at Daytona. Even though we are on the same team, you have two of the same competitive spirits that wreck each other, that's tough. We didn't care whether we were wearing the same colors or not. I think that's just what it is.
And I think Kyle, I think it's going to be the same with Kyle. He's the same as me and Tony, and Kyle is a guy that races seems like four times a week. So he's got the same competitive nature that we do, and that's what people see more so than the person that we really are outside of racing.
DENISE MALOOF: Denny, thank you for joining us today. We appreciate your time and good luck this weekend.
We are now happy to be joined by Jason Keller, driver of the No. 1 11 Sweet Baby Ray's Chevrolet in the NASCAR Busch Series. Jason, welcome.
JASON KELLER: Thank you. Appreciate it.
DENISE MALOOF: Jason drives for CJM Racing and is on the verge of breaking a record in the NASCAR Busch Series this weekend. If he qualifies for Friday's Dollar General 300, he will make his 418th career start, which will break the record set by one of the series early standouts, Tommy Houston, who will also be at the track on Friday, and he will be driving a pace car during the warmup laps Friday prior to the event.
Jason you have a lot of excitement heading into this weekend. Your thoughts as you approach this milestone, and particularly with having Tommy there in attendance.
JASON KELLER: Pressure, that's the only thing I've been thinking about.
No, it's definitely an honor to be part of the Busch Series as long as I've been. And to have Tommy there, when I first came into the Busch Series, I raced against Tommy a lot. Definitely respected what he did for the series, and now that it's grown so much, it's really because of people like him and some of the guys that originally started. So very honored and very proud and hope that we have a good night on Friday night.
Q. You have obviously a lot of history in the Busch Series. Can you compare your experience with your expectations of the future of the Nationwide Series coming up next year?
JASON KELLER: Well, I definitely hope I'm going to be a part of the Nationwide Series in years to come.
I've made a home in the Busch Series now for 12 to 14 years, so it's been a great series for me. That's one of the things about getting to a milestone like I'm getting to this weekend. I don't want people to view that I'm at the end of the road. I want people to view that, you know, that I've got a lot more years left. I'm only 37 years old, so in the whole scheme of things, if you look at a lot of the Cup drivers that are in the prime of their career in their mid 30s, hopefully this is a new era for me, and I can be part of the Nationwide Series for many years to come.
Q. Given the Busch Series profile compared to the Cup Series and everything, have you ever really thought about the fact that fewer people are watching you and everything or has it just been racing that's been the important thing and you haven't really thought about whether it's a feeder level or contributing level to the Cup?
JASON KELLER: Well, I think I've always viewed the series as an individual series. I haven't viewed it as a stepping stone into Cup.
It's always been a place for me to get in competitive situations and competitive rides. It is different than the Cup Series. I mean, the Cup Series is the premiere series. I mean, there's no questions, media-wise, exposure-wise, and really across the board.
But the Busch Series is a great place to race. We race now at tracks now with 100,000-plus fans, and we are recognized in a lot of ways. But it's not as high-profile as the Cup Series, but I've never really focused on that. I've just focused on trying to do my best in the series and do my best with the car owners.
I was asked the same question, you know, what did I think about the two series, and can I end any career being a Nationwide Series driver now. And I can, because I just try to do my very best I possibly can and not focus on the exposure that we have or a little bit behind the Cup Series.
Q. What's been the biggest benefit of racing in Busch? I mean, of course, the schedule is less, but what's one tangible thing that you would look back on to say, you know, 'I'm glad I'm in this series?'
JASON KELLER: Well, for me, it's all a sacrifice as far as time away from your family. But the Busch Series has allowed me much more time with my family than some of the Cup drivers have with theirs.
So you know, would I go and be a Cup driver? Sure, if the right opportunity presented itself, I would. But the Busch Series has allowed me to coach my kids' basketball teams. I mean, I coached my daughter and my son's basketball teams last winter because I did really have a busy winter going on.
So, for me, I look back at those things and those are things that trophies can't replace and money can't replace, so I'm very proud of that fact that I've been able to spend a lot of time with my family. And as I have gotten older, I realize how much more valuable that is.
But I've been able to race for a living, and that's one of the things that the Busch Series has allowed me to d
Q. When you see Dario Frank Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve lining up to get Cup rides, do you ever ask yourself, 'Why those guys and not me?'
JASON KELLER: No, not really. I just hope that they are treated like -- I say this carefully. I talked with Jeff Gordon how he felt about Jacques Villeneuve, coming in, and I just want them to have the same standard and same entry into Cup as everyone else has had to follow.
No, they are very recognizable names. You have Formula 1 and open-wheel, and I think it's kind of like an evolution. I mean, it used to be all of the Cup owners had to pick a Sprint car driver. When Jeff Gordon was picked and Tony Stewart, it was like the Cup owners had to have a Sprint or open-wheel midget driver.
Now it seems like since Juan Pablo has come in and had the success that he's had, now that kind of seems to be the fad, if you will, that these owners are saying, okay, now I've got to have an open-wheel Formula 1 or CART driver, I've got to have one of those guys. It's just the way the series goes.
I don't look at why not me. I just try to position myself and hopefully I do someone a good job and the owners a good job and that way they can see that it's all about the recognition that you can give them and the performance you can give them on the racetrack.
Q. Congratulations on making sure you're able to spend more time with your family, especially with your children and their games, because I know it goes by too quick. My question is: Do you think it's fair, really, that the NEXTEL Cup guys are allowed to race so much in the Busch Series?
JASON KELLER: We've always had Cup drivers racing the Busch Series. Dale Senior, Mark Martin; those guys have always raced in the Busch Series.
The reason that I think that the success has kind of gone over to those guys in the Busch Series over the last three years or so is now you've got the Cup teams coming in and saying, okay, we want to use the Busch Series as a way to practice for our Sunday races. We can take information that we've learned and translate it to our Cup car. You know, it used to be Mark Martin and those guys, Dale Senior had his own Busch team so it wasn't a -- it wasn't such a huge gap. I mean, those are the best drivers in the world, but it wasn't such a huge performance difference.
I'm concerned about the numbers of Cup drivers in the Busch Series just because the Busch Series is just that. It is a feeder series. It is a series that people have different agendas, but they may be, you know, just using it as a stepping stone, or myself, using it as a home.
There are so many agendas in the Busch Series, I hope that we maintain enough spots for all those agendas and not just become a series with 25 or 30 Cup drivers on a Saturday, and then just a couple of spots just left for everybody else. That's what concerns me.
I mean, I think the series is great when you have 12 to 14 or so Cup drivers, because they are more recognizable. They are more known to the fans, and that brings notoriety to our series, so I'm all for that. But when you start getting up to the 24, 25, even higher, numbers of Cup drivers in the series, it kind of puts it over to one side and that concerns me a little bit.
Q. Your job is all about tough decisions. What prepares you most for that?
JASON KELLER: My wife keeping my grounded, I think is the thing to say.
No, my faith. I just try to know that there's only so many things that I can control, and a lot higher power than me has control over a lot of the decisions. It's just the faith and that you just try to do your very best and know that God is in control of the rest.
Q. As a veteran Busch driver, do you see anything that could be done to enhance the series, maybe change the face of it and maybe reestablish its identity?
JASON KELLER: Well, I think there should be some type of Chase in the Busch Series. I think there should be some type of Chase in the series. It adds so much excitement to the Cup Series.
Now, what the parameters of that need to be, I don't know. I don't think it should be only Cup drivers in that Chase, but like Brian France or not, he has added excite to the end of the Cup season because of the Chase. So sometimes the Chase I think would be nice to add some excitement. You've got a runaway points championship now and you have for the last two years. So the excitement needs to maintain itself throughout the season I think.
Q. Your thoughts of different cars in the Busch Series?
JASON KELLER: I look at that differently because I think the Busch Series has been stronger when it had its own identity. Now the cars are so similar with the exception of the Car of Tomorrow, and I know we are going into a different era with the Cup Series.
But when the cars were different, you didn't have such an influx of Cup teams in the Busch Series.
So I'm all about the safety of the cars, and I love what the Car of Tomorrow brings from the safety aspect. And I hope that we implement that in the Busch Series, but I don't want the cars to get back to being very close technology-wise. I think if we can have the pony cars, so to speak, or a different version of the Car of Tomorrow, to maybe where the same shocks and springs won't translate from Saturday to Sunday, I think the series would be a little bit stronger and the guys would say, okay, they don't drive the same; I'll race the Busch Series car or Nationwide Series cars because I enjoy racing and I love racing, not only to help my Cup Series. I think as long as we keep those two cars separate, the Busch Series will get back to its own identity and hopefully to grow.
Q. How tough is it for to you run a few of the races when you had so many years where you were running them all?
JASON KELLER: It's tough because I want to be a part of a series week-in and week-out. I mean, I equated to only playing golf once a month. It's hard to get in a rhythm. It's very tough for me to get in a rhythm over the summer months because I raced for a couple of different teams. I mean, there for two months, I had a team for every other week and a different spotter every other week, and some of the small things that go along with that -- it's just it's hard to get into a rhythm.
I've been with the same, my CJM team currently for the last month and we've had great success. And you're racing against guys that are -- that don't need an advantage. These drivers and these teams in the Busch Series don't need any type of advantage. And when you don't compete week-in and week-out, it's tough to compete with them.
And I think that's the biggest hurdle for me is just the competition side of it to try to get into a rhythm and hearing the same crew chief on the radio week-in and week-out and if I say it's tight or loose, and really just the communication aspect of it
Q. When you went from full-time to part-time, did you ever say, 'My God, what did I do wrong?' Because you had a great year and you had a great team, especially with Greg Pollocks.
JASON KELLER: Daily I ask myself what I did wrong. When I was driving a forklift with my dad's company, I was asking myself, what in the world went wrong here.
No, there again, you just have to have focus on how you do things, and I couldn't change and I can't change how I do things. I may not be the most flamboyant person, but I mean, when I got released from the race team I got released from, we were the second-highest regular Busch seem.
Having said all that, change was made and I was the change and that's just the way the sport is. So you'd better accept it and figure out how to adapt, or they are going to throw a green flag and a checkered flag with or without me. So hopefully I can get us in a position to do that with me instead of without me.
DENISE MALOOF: Jason, thank you for joining us today and giving the time. We appreciate it. Good luck on your impending record
JASON KELLER: Thanks for everybody's questions today, and wish me luck, thanks.
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