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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
January 7, 2008
HERB BRANHAM: We're going to start with our first press conference of 2008 NASCAR pre-season. Here is our two-time champion of the series Jimmie Johnson.
50th running of the Daytona 500, what is the outlook, even though it is early?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It is early, but we've had a great practice session so far. I was really surprised how much handling was a part of today's speed. Typically when we come to the restrictor-plate tracks, it's about making the cars slick, they all drive about the same, they're fine. This car, first time being here on such a rough surface, there's a lot of speed in making the car drive right. It's been fun. I didn't expect today to be this much fun and really be challenging as a driver and challenging as a team in finding the right setup and balance of the car.
Excited the way things have gone and I'm really excited for the 50th running. I feel fortunate to have won the Daytona 500 and hopefully can hoist the trophy up again this year. I mean, it will be a big year for whoever wins it. This race is always big for the winner, but to win it on the 50th anniversary will be a huge mark.
HERB BRANHAM: Very good. Questions for Jimmie Johnson.
Q. Getting out here, getting the cobwebs off, coming into the first race of the season, how important is it to get out there and find out how these cars are doing this early?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: This track is so different than the other places we run on, typically you just kind of remove your head from this track. From a downforce perspective, handling perspective, you look to California and on. You just treat this as a one-off event.
With the car being so new to the big tracks, I feel we will be learning some things here that we can take elsewhere on the bigger tracks. So it's a good test actually. I think these three days will be well used by all the teams. Again, I'm shocked how much information we've learned this morning already and how different the setup has been.
Daytona 500 is the biggest race that we have in the Sprint Cup Series. If you can come out and win that, it just sets the year off on the right pace, right tone. You don't need to do that to win the championship. We proved that last year. I know there's been other champions that didn't win the 500 and went on. There's not a bigger race and everybody is gunning for it. Then we get into the grind of the season as we move on to the next races.
Q. Very few drivers can ponder the possibility of a third championship. Do you want another one as much or more than the other two championships?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: More than. I've enjoyed this. These last two years, it would be hard not to. From the first championship to the second championship, I've had so much fun. The first year was so stressful. Being close, working on it, getting close, losing it. Then to get it done took a huge amount of stress off our shoulders.
Last year we had a great time. I only anticipate this year being better. We feel, looking back on last season, we made some mistakes, and we can still be stronger yet. And hopefully we can apply that this year and be stronger and better. I think we're going to have to be.
Looking at the Chase, how good Jeff ran, looking at the Roush cars coming on at the end, you know, it's going to be a long, tough year. I feel that we'll be there at the end and have a shot at it.
Q. Can you tell us what exactly happens during the test season, especially when you're just getting in the car for the season? What are your thoughts about climbing into the car initially, returning to the race car? What did you work on, without giving away any secrets?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I can't tell you how happy I am to get off the couch. If I sit around and eat any more food, drink any more beer, I won't be able to get back into my suit and my race car. We've enjoyed the off-season, celebrated the championship. I'm excited to get back to the track. I was down here yesterday driving the Rolex car. Had a blast doing that.
Now that we're back on track, typically here you're focused on single-car runs and body changes from the puffs that we put on the sides of the cars. And this year the rules for the bodies are set. You see a lot of painted cars, which is rare. I mean, there's nothing really we can do. Unfortunately, the cars drive -- ours drove terrible the first time out. We really need to work on the suspension, and the way the springs are working, the bump stops, all that.
As the day has gone on it's been a fun challenge. While there's still some speed left, it's still not right. But we're making some good progress and having fun with it. Usually it's long and boring, you sit in line, wait for your turn, make your three laps, come in. This year so far it's been pretty challenging.
Q. What are your expectations for drafting on Wednesday, and based on what you've seen so far, what kind of differences do you think you'll see between Talladega and the 500?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think my car still isn't right to be in the draft yet. I don't feel that it would be safe or comfortable around two or three other cars, especially two- or three-wide. So I think all the teams have a lot of learning to do to get the cars driving right.
In two days, I'm pretty sure we'll get there. Once we get out and get going, I think the draft here is much different than it is at Talladega. Talladega, the track is so smooth and forgiving and wide, you can really go anywhere. This track has so much character to it, so many bumps, where you are -- with track position, how your car handles is really, really big. It's starting to remind me of Atlanta in some ways where it's abrasive, it's rough and you really need to handle. That's our focus down here. If we get it right, whoever gets it right, is just gonna walk away with it. That's the challenge right now.
Q. You dominated the Chase last year. You won five of the 16 Car of Tomorrow races. You have to have a ton of momentum coming in this year. Talk about that a little bit.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We feel really good about the year. I think as a whole, the company is carrying a lot of momentum. But we know it's a new year. We know during the off-season teams were working hard to get their cars right. We saw Roush really coming on strong at the end of the year. I would be foolish to sit up here and pound on my chest and say we're going to continue where we left off because I really think the competition is closing up and I think that guys have been pretty motivated over the off-season to get their cars better.
I anticipate an exciting start to the season. I'm coming into the season optimistic, but putting my guard up and knowing that we've got to work hard and try to find speed and continue to develop the car throughout the course of the year.
Q. You said, probably jokingly, that you spent the off-season on the couch. What did you really do? Given this is the shortest off-season in sports, is it really long enough where you're eager to get back behind the wheel, or is it a situation where, I can't believe I'm back here already?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Mine was really busy. Maybe it's just who I am and the fact that I love being in the car and being out and about. But I had probably nine or ten days to myself with nothing to do. And after the second or third day, I was going crazy. I need something to do, especially relative to racing. I need to stay after it. I just enjoy doing it.
From Christmas to New Year's, coming down here, it was great. I enjoyed myself. But I'm like, all right, there's only so much celebrating you can do. There's only so many phone calls and friends you can talk to, only so much time you can spend on the couch, and it's time to get back in the car.
I was really excited to get down here and drive the prototype yesterday, and knowing it was coming into a three-day test session for the Cup cars.
Q. Why do the Rolex? Is that your fun racing? Why do that? I'm assuming Dan Gurney was somewhat a kid in Southern California that you grew up with, this has to be cool racing with his son?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It really is. The reason I run the Rolex Series, actually a couple of them, one is it really is the premiere form of road racing in North America. The competition you have, the equality through the different makes on track, through the different manufacturers for each car, they've done a really good job of creating parity, creating fun cars to drive. So that's one. It's a great series.
The other part of it is that I love the challenge. I love driving different vehicles. I feel that as a kid racing so many types of vehicles helped me become the driver I am today. And with as many Cup races as we have, I don't have a chance to get out and do other things. I really commend guys like Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart who go out and drive these different vehicles, dirt cars, off-road trucks, whatever it is. One, you have fun at it. Two, it's working on a different skill set you can apply at different times to the Sprint Cup car.
There's a couple things there and the challenge of it all. That Rolex win, I finished second, I guess maybe '04, '03 or '04. Being so close to winning that race, it being such a big race here in the States, I want that trophy. I want to win the Rolex 24. I feel I've got a great, great opportunity with Bob Stallings Racing. And then with Alex Gurney, the history of his father, I've admired his father, everything he's done in the car for a long, long time. Jon Fogarty is a fantastic driver. Teammates with Alex through the Indy Lights, Toyota Atlantic Series. Jimmy Vasser, he's a lot of fun and a guy that I've watched through the years racing open-wheel cars.
All in all, it's really just a good time to sum it all up.
Q. At this very early stage, what has life been like in the Hendrick garage with Dale Jr. on board, and what have you done to welcome him and integrate him into the system?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think Tony Eury, Jr., coming into Hendrick when he did was a huge help. And it really let us-- it let him watch the systems of Hendrick, put his crew together, get things going. As Junior came over, the official contract time at DEI was over, he moved over to Hendrick, it's going to be as seamless as we could ever hope for.
He's down here today for the test, which is a huge, I think, credit to his commitment, wanting to be here. It's painful watching other cars go around the track, especially here at this type of test session. For him to come down, show the team how committed he is to being up front, winning races and championships, says a lot to the team, his teammates, to the team members and I think to the racing public, that he's down here, ready to go, ready to get after it.
I look forward to it. I think we're going to learn a lot more in Vegas and in California when we get out to those test sessions. That's the part of the teammate, driving the car, sharing that information, that's the part I'm most excited for. We've talked a few times about how we think our styles are similar and we can't wait to see the data traces, get inside each other's heads and really pick that apart.
Q. You said earlier that you made some mistakes last year. Given the kind of season you had and the way you finished, what were some of the things that you thought went wrong and what are some of the areas where you're looking for improvement this year?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Getting through the first part of the season, there were some tracks we struggled at: Sears Point, Bristol. Dover, we have a race in the spring and fall. Dover didn't really work out for us. So I look at those tracks. I look at the problem we had at Indy, but there's not a lot we can do about that with blowing the tire. First there was some contact that led to the blown tire. Look through the weak part of the summer and think how can we do a better job. It's something we've tried to address each and every year.
Then as we get into the Chase, one race that I thought was really going to keep me from winning the championship was at Lowe's Motor Speedway when I spun out. Had a great, great car, probably one of the best cars I ever had. Trying to come through the pack after some tire strategy, I lost it. I lost it the night before in the Busch car, did it again in the Cup car. Fortunately I didn't hit the wall too hard. We were able to come back and have a decent finish.
I look at that one and say that was my bad. I mean I had a car that could win that race and I made a mistake. I'm hanging onto that, trying to remember that, so when we get into that pressure situation next year, I don't get ahead of myself and don't get too aggressive and make mistakes.
Q. A year ago off-season you tried to surf on top of a golf cart. Didn't end well. Anything bizarre this off-season?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: So uneventful. I'm not broken or anything (laughter).
I did play some golf, which was fun. I walked all the courses. I didn't even get in a golf cart, so that was helpful. I did some great things through the off-season. I had a chance to play Augusta National, which was a killer experience. Had no business being there with my golf game, but it was a lot of fun to see it and experience it.
Went to London for the Race of Champions event. Ran terrible over there, but had a great time. Enjoyed London. It was my first trip over there. Really enjoyed it. And then spent some time down in the Bahamas. Really just enjoyed just hanging out, having some fun.
But as New Year's wore on, I was ready to get back in the car. It was time to get back in the car and start driving again. Don't have any big issues for this year.
Q. With the Car of Tomorrow being seen as a homogenous item, is teamwork even more important in developing the car or different driving styles play a factor?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think that as time goes on, everybody sorts the cars out, and that gap gets closer and closer together. You look at it a couple ways. One, like what we have now being here with the Car of Tomorrow the first time, then going to California, Vegas, those test sessions. The closer the teams work together, the sooner you can find the common ground and find the best package. I look at it on that side.
The same thing, if you really get inside each other's heads, as the car is developed, you're looking to split hairs, if you really know each other then, you know what each other is looking for, you've built that foundation and belief on the teammates, the engineers, all that stuff, you can split those hairs and get it right.
So I think through all stages of it, being good teammates, understanding each other, working together, is really important in all phases of racing. And I think Hendrick Motorsports has done a really, really good job of that. In other years, I can remember Roush doing a better job. It was '05. Really made us all step up. I think this last year, especially the way the 24 and 48 worked together, I think we've put the pressure on the field to step it up another level. We know that and we're ready to step it up another level on our behalf.
Q. Essentially you're kind of chasing history this year. I think Cale Yarborough is the only one that ever won three straight championships. What would that mean to you to be in that kind of company?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Be unbelievable. I think every year I look for different things to motivate me. In a sense, chasing history is that. I would love to win three in a row and be one of two guys to ever do that.
I look at Jeff with four championships and think, you know, I've got a lot of years of racing left in me. Is that a mark that I can get to? So I look for things to motivate myself and I'm putting those two marks ahead of me. Not standing here saying I'm going to Babe Ruth this thing, call it, get it done. But everybody needs something to motivate themselves. That's my motivation. I want to win three in a row, then look for a fourth and keep rolling if I can.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to our two-time champion.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thank you.
HERB BRANHAM: We're joined now by our four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon and three time champion of the Daytona 500. Jeff, we'd like to hear a little overview and outlook of winning the 500 again. First I understand you have something regarding the Jeff Gordon Foundation on your test car.
JEFF GORDON: You know, for the last few years, we've seen where we've had paint schemes on our test cars down here. I guess it kind of came about with Action Performance, now Motorsports Authentics, wanting to do something for the fans. We just wanted to take it to the next level this year. We actually not only are creating a die cast with our test car that has Jeff Gordon Foundation on it, the Jeff Gordon Children's Hospital, just a way for us to create more awareness for you all, the kids that we're fighting for, why we have the Jeff Gordon Foundation, the fund-raisers that we have.
It's been fun to be able to do this this year and the car looks really cool. We haven't had it on the track yet, though. We're going to draft with that car. We've just been running laps by ourselves with the other car.
HERB BRANHAM: The 50th running of the Daytona 500. What would it mean to make this one your fourth 500 victory?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, you always want to win the Daytona 500. It's the ultimate. But it's certainly cool when I come in here and I see the trophy. It makes for a lot of incentive. I'm fortunate to have a few of these, but none of them have gold on it.
I think obviously NASCAR and Daytona Speedway are doing a lot for the 50th running. I've been a part of some of that as well. So we know how big of a deal it is to be running in the 50th anniversary race, as well as how big it would be to win it.
HERB BRANHAM: Questions for Jeff Gordon.
Q. What do you expect on Wednesday in the draft? What do you expect the difference, if any, to be between the 500 and what you saw at Talladega?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, it's going to be a lot different. I think we're actually going to get a chance to get out this tomorrow and do some drafting. Hopefully we'll know before Wednesday. But just already right now, like at Talladega, it's so smooth, corners are so big and wide, that you really can just set the car down on the ground there, where here, the transitions are a little bit more drastic. There's a lot more bumps here, some big swells actually through both ends of the racetrack. And so, you know, it's really much tougher just to get the car to drive better, not to mention drafting.
So, you know, right now we're just trying to get the cars to drive the best we can by ourselves so we can get prepared for the draft and to try to find speed as well.
I can't really answer that question till we get out this and draft. I can tell you one thing, it's going to be a lot different than Talladega. You're not going to be able to hang out in the back all day and cruise. Track position's going to be important. I think that it's going to be a lot harder to pass. I think the handling is going to be an issue. So, you know, it's gonna be a little bit more typical Daytona.
But with these cars punching the hole that they have, the restrictor plate we have, that's the unknown that I'm not sure about, is how good they'll suck up and pass.
Q. I remain a bit confused about the Car of Tomorrow. At a basic level, could you explain whether it enables the most skilled drivers to show their ability or whether it sort of equalizes the ability among all drivers.
JEFF GORDON: Well, I'm glad you're confused because so am I (laughter).
I'm not really sure. I mean, it equalizes the cars, which means that the little details are what matter most. So I think the driver definitely plays a big role in that, but I think the team still plays a huge role in it, too, because if on our seven-post rig that we have at our shop, which a lot of teams have that now, or in the wind tunnel, or in computer simulation, or during testing, you know, if we can find something that allows us to get an edge, then that's going to be huge because the cars are so close.
I think that it doesn't necessarily -- if one team or driver does well with this car, it doesn't necessarily mean that driver is better than anybody else. It means that maybe he just adapted to this car better. It's not an easy car to get through the corners. We're just so limited on the things that we can do to it, to really make it handle the way we'd like it to.
So I think that the driver and crew chief and team communication is probably more important than it's ever been in the past, and I also think the engineering that the teams come up with is more important than it's ever been before.
I don't know if I really answered your question, but that's the best I know how to do it. I'm confused, too, so...
Q. You've seen enough drivers come and go at Hendricks. How long do you think it will take Dale Jr. to acclimate to the equipment. Do you expect him to be up front right away or is that not fair?
JEFF GORDON: Obviously, there's going to be a lot of focus on that, which is one of the reasons why I really applaud the move that he made because, you know, he could have been just kind of sitting comfy at DEI and just have his normal pressure of stepping it up.
Now he goes to a team that's won a lot of championships, won back-to-back championships, and so now it's like, okay, this is the true test for Junior. And I don't think that's necessarily fair in a way because, you know, it still takes time for the team to gel. Just because the equipment is there, it doesn't mean everything. You know, you have to have all the people working in the right direction.
But I think the fact that he's here today means a lot. It shows where his focus is and how fired up he is about this season. I think they're going to have a great season. What that necessarily means, I don't know. I think -- I mean, we'll just have to wait and see. I know that the equipment is there. Everything is there. But you've got to get the chemistry and you've got to get all the another ingredients that it takes to be successful.
And now, as well, with the new car, I don't even know what we call this car anymore, because it's no longer the Car of Tomorrow, it's the current car. You know, with this car, it equalizes the competition so much that what advantage we may have had in the past years at Hendrick, we might not have that advantage this year. I guess everything is just going to have to be compared to the other drivers at Hendrick. That's probably going to be the true measurement.
Q. At this point, leading up to now, talk about the anxiousness of getting back in this car.
JEFF GORDON: It seems like yesterday we were in Homestead. I mean, things just fly by so quick during the off-season, I cannot believe that here we are testing, getting ready for the new season.
But I'm excited about it. I think when you have the type of year that we had last year and you come up a little bit short, especially with your teammate, I think it just makes you that much hungrier to go out there and try to get one, get one step closer, or get the ultimate trophy.
You know, I think our team has been working hard. I've had a chance to get away, relax, spend time as a dad, with my family. I'm certainly energized and ready to go. Things are going well so far today. I'm looking forward to next couple days, see what we've got. Really looking forward to Vegas and California tests because that will truly show what we've got. Here it's a restrictor plate, so it's kind of hard to gauge what we're going to have for the whole season. But those other tests should show us.
Q. Were you surprised to see Junior here today? Secondly, how can you and Jimmie and Casey kind of help smooth that transition? Are there things you can do to make him feel more part of the group or is it just like when a baseball team like the Yankees signs A-Rod, you put him in the lineup, he fits right in?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I was surprised. Most drivers, if they're not here testing, they don't want to be here. So I was surprised. I think it says a lot. And it's smart, you know, on his part. So I'm really proud of him for doing that because he's going to be here without his teammates next week, however the points thing worked out the way it did. We've got three of us here and one of us next week.
I think, you know, it really shows a lot, that he's here. I think that was a really smart thing on his part.
I mean, as a teammate, you know, you have to welcome them in, you have to support them. That's certainly been the case with Junior. But he's got to make that extra effort, as well, to get to know us as teammates as well as his own team. That's just going to take time.
So far, I mean, the transition, everything I've heard -- it helps a lot that Tony, Jr. is there, as well. That bridges the gap at the shop with the guys there, with the other crew chiefs, the other teams there. That really allows things to come together a lot faster.
He came to a bunch of races with us last year, so he got a chance to see everything that goes on through a race weekend. So it will take some transition period to get through some actual races, go through the debriefs and stuff with Junior, as well, before we can really tell what kind of chemistry we're going to have. But so far it's gone really well.
Q. Jimmie was on a little while ago, talking about going for three straight, four championships overall. Are your feelings mixed on that or is it all good?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, I would think that that should be his goal, to win the championship every year. He's certainly been able to be the best out there the last couple years. You know, my job and my goal is to go out there and to the same for our team.
I think that in some sense what we've accomplished at the Dupont 24 team, you know, is a bar that is set and a goal for a lot of people, and that's very cool. That's something to be proud of. To me, you know, your goals every year are just to go out there and win races and win the championship. That certainly wouldn't surprise me with Jimmie. He's the best. That team's been the best. I think we all look at them as a team to beat for many years to come.
Q. You've conquered challenge after challenge. Are the challenges of a new season greater now or is it more like business as usual?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, with the new car I guess it's a little bit different. Typically we'd come down here and I'd be bored to death already with the Daytona test because we're making qualifying runs. With the new car, it does present a new challenge that makes us excited and anxious and all those things. It would be the same way throughout the week when we're drafting, then it would be the same thing when we go to the Vegas and California test. It's going to be that way at every track we go to that's a new track that we haven't run this car on.
Then you throw in the other challenges of being competitive, trying to win races, be a threat for the championship. So all those are unknowns. I understand that testing is a crucial part of that as well as a lot of hard work that goes into the off-season, but you really can't truly know what position you're in, how competitive you're going to be, until you start running the races.
So right now, you know, the challenge and the focus is to put as much effort into these tests to try to make us the best that we can be.
Q. Obviously a great year last year by every estimation, calculation, but you didn't win. What did you learn coming out of last year and where is that last little bit? Have you changed anything?
JEFF GORDON: Well, you know, again, this is the different car, so that's going to change things a little bit. But I think, you know, looking back, there's not a whole lot we could do different. I think the only thing maybe we could have done different, you know, was be a little bit more aggressive in the setups. I mean, looking back on it, you know, Jimmie was a little bit faster than us really throughout the year. We were just more consistent. I attribute that to the great work that Jimmie and Chad and that team did. Chad is not afraid to push the limits on the setups, and Jimmie's not afraid to drive them. Chad's really good at convincing him to drive them, too. I think that that might be the only place where we missed out a little bit, was that we probably didn't push those limits far enough.
You know, I actually told Steve, I was like, you know, Don't be afraid to push me a little bit harder when it comes to some of those things. Sometimes he's got to sell me and other times I've got to sell him. That's what makes great chemistry among crew chief and driver. I really believe Steve and I have tremendous chemistry. I think that might be the only thing this year that we just push the limits to get more speed out of the car.
I will take the consistency that we had last year, and I would take it again this year. Knowing that we got beat having that kind of consistency, it's going to push us to try to get more speed, which is our job every year, try to go faster.
Q. Jeff, the 50th Daytona 500 is coming up. I'm sure everybody is aware of that. Looking back at your first win here in '97, do you ever think to the pass you made on Elliott in the middle of the barbecue pits?
JEFF GORDON: I just wish they never put that yellow line down there.
Q. When you think back to that over 10 years ago, do you shake your head at that pass? What do you think of it from this far away from it now? Think back to what that win meant for your career overall at that stage.
JEFF GORDON: Oh, no, it was a great win, to win the Daytona 500 for the first time, and doing it in that type of fashion with an exciting pass, that's your dream. That's what you want. From the driver's seat, that wasn't as crazy of a move as they made it out to be or what it may have appeared to be on TV.
When you know what the car is capable of doing and there's that much room down there, then you use it. Now we don't have that capability any more, so we make the most of what we can now. It's harder to make passes because that line is there.
But when I do think about it and look back on it, it was cool. It was cool that it kind of came down that way. Had I not made that move, then I might not have won the race. I certainly wouldn't have done it any different.
HERB BRANHAM: Jeff Gordon, thank you.
JEFF GORDON: Appreciate it.
End of FastScripts