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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
July 28, 2009
HERB BRANHAM: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today's NASCAR cam video teleconference. I guess you could call it a doubleheader. Today for our first NASCAR cam, from Joe Gibbs Racing headquarters in Huntersville, North Carolina, we have the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Denny Hamlin. At 2:30 we'll move over to Hendrick Motorsports headquarters in Charlotte and talk to Jimmie Johnson. He's fresh off that big win Sunday in Indianapolis.
Like I said, first up we have Denny, who is sixth in the series standings. Denny, we'll start off with a question from a fan. We have this from NASCAR's Twitter feed. Chuck in Minneapolis is a fan, and Chuck wants to ask, What is it that drivers and teams have take away from Indianapolis and apply to Pocono that might help them get to Victory Lane this weekend?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, the two definitely have a lot of similarities. But for the most part a lot of times people take the same racecar back-to-back weeks between the two because the corners, corner entry speed, is about the same at Pocono as what it is at Indianapolis. Those are very similar.
The braking, how much brake pressure you use, is very similar. What you need out of your racecar to get through the short chutes is the same like the tunnel turn in Pocono.
There are a lot of similarities. I think that's why you always see the guys that run good at Pocono run good at Indianapolis and vice versa.
HERB BRANHAM: Excellent. Thanks for that opener. We'll now go to the media for questions for our first NASCAR cam guest, Denny Hamlin.
Q. Denny, can you describe for us and the fans exactly what happened with your shifter. I envision that thing being welded to the car. Can you talk about that a little bit.
DENNY HAMLIN: What looked like happened was the same thing that we had fail during the All-Star qualifying. When I left pit road, the drive shaft, the yolk of the drive shaft, broke off. That was the drive shaft we ran all of last year. When we had that problem at Charlotte, we decided not to run them any more. We switched to a new style. At Indianapolis we had a vibration during practice, so we went back to that old style. It snapped again.
Definitely haven't had very good luck with those. So what happened was the drive shaft came apart, came from underneath the racecar, went up, hit the shifter and broke it in half basically right where it fastens to the transmission.
Q. Before Daytona you said, It's my fourth year, it's time to be a champion, not a guy that contends. If you look at it from that standpoint, how do you feel about this year so far? Do you still feel you're contending or do you think you can make that next step in the next 16 weeks?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think we need to get to the second half of the season starting now and become what I was talking about in the off-season about being a guy that wins races instead of contends for race wins. Obviously at the beginning of this year we had a lot of issues finishing races where we should. We had the best car, and not actually winning.
Yeah, we need to still work on that. There's a lot of things that I need to do to help close at the end, and there's things, other things, pit road, make sure we have our best stops at the very last stop of the day. It just takes a lot of good things to happen to win these Cup races nowadays. Need to start qualifying better.
As hard as passing has been at Indianapolis, it was going to take us all race to pretty much come from where we were, we started right around Jimmie, to get to the front. We need to qualify better. There's a few odds and ends we need to work on. We're still not to that level where I think we need to be at.
Q. J.D. said after the race on Sunday, outside Kyle's hauler, We might not have the best stuff right now. He felt the over week there had been some progress. Are you getting the sense you're heading in the right direction?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yes, we're definitely heading in the right direction. We're getting closer. I mean, week in, week out, it's a Hendrick car winning one way, shape or form. Pretty much they're taking all the top five spots, to be honest with you. We feel like we've got a tall mountain to climb, but we're almost there. I feel like we're three-quarters of the way there right now. I feel like we're the closest competitors to those guys on a weekly basis.
So, I mean, even though we're a little behind, we're still not too far away. And we can get there by the end of the year.
Q. Denny, I wanted to ask you about your program where you give away the tickets to NASCAR fans. I wondered what inspired you to do that. Have you had any interaction with the winners during the season?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, actually this week, as a matter of fact, I got a letter back from the winning fans. They were just excited. You wouldn't believe after reading their letter, just seeing how excited they were. Their seats were great. They were just amazed at how good the seats were. They were very grateful for those tickets.
It's definitely reached the right group that I was trying to reach at the beginning of the season with this whole ticket program. We've been able to give away a lot, a lot of seats, at least four a weekend, sometimes eight, sometimes more than that, if the tracks participating chip in as well.
But it's definitely working. It's a program I plan to keep working for years to come.
Q. As long as you come back to Pocono, you'll be asked about your rookie year there, winning both races. Can you reflect on that a little bit. I don't know how often you think about it when you come back to Pocono. Pretty remarkable thing.
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I mean, when we went to the Car of Tomorrow, we kind of lost our edge at that racetrack it seemed like we had with the older car. We've always been competitive there. Never got a shot, it seemed. The very first lap, had fuel pump issues this year. But really we always just run well there. I think it's a racetrack that just kind of tends to my style a little bit. We go there, Mike has a good feel for what we need in a racecar at that racetrack. So I think it's no matter what the car, we're always going to be competitive. It's just hard to repeat what you did in your rookie season when we had a car as phenomenal as it was.
Q. Looking back at Sunday, I don't think anybody questions now that Montoya was speeding. From a driver's perspective, do you wish the pit road speeding penalties weren't so punitive? Other sports, you lose 15 yards, two points, where Juan was taken completely out of the race by that. Do you wish there was another penalty system in that situation so you weren't completely taken out of the running like he was?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think it took him out of the running because of where we were. We weren't at a racetrack where he could make up that. Indy is the toughest place to pass that we go to on our circuit. With the speeds what they are, it's a one-groove racetrack. There's no doubt about that. These cars don't have any downforce. When you get behind someone, you just can't go anywhere. It's been proven.
You look at the lead changes, probably green-flag passes at Indianapolis, it's less than any other racetrack. It's just so tough there.
But any other racetrack he wouldn't have been taken out of the race. No matter what you do, if you have a penalty with 30 laps to go, you've made your day right there. If you did it 30 laps into the race, probably still could have made it up and have been a contender for a race win. But it happened so late in the race, no matter what you do, what kind of rule you try to implement, you're gonna get taken out. It doesn't matter whether they penalize you five spots, 10 spots, whatever.
I think the penalty is fair. They've got to set up black-and-white marks which you can't go. The problem is our racecars are so equal right now that nobody can pass so they're trying to get every inch on pit road that they can to maybe beat one guy out of pit lane.
He had a two-second lead or five-second lead, whatever he had, that don't mean the other car didn't beat him to pit road. I understand why he was pushing the limit. You always have to push the limit because we're trying to get everything we can. Because on the racetrack, we can only do so much. We don't have a car that can pass really well right now at that racetrack.
But I think it's getting better. NASCAR is definitely looking at what they can do to make it better, and eventually it's going to be better than what it was. When you have a penalty that late in the race, you choose your own fate.
Q. You were talking earlier about how Hendrick right now is so strong in the Cup Series. Joe Gibbs is super strong in the Nationwide Series. I know Kyle said the Toyota motor in the Truck and Nationwide Series is the dominant motor, but not able to be in the Cup Series. With the motors being so similar, why is that?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I don't know because I don't have a lot of experience. I'm probably not the best guy to ask. Those guys have been through several different motor changes since I've run Nationwide last early in the year.
I feel like our cars are just pretty good over there in the Nationwide Series. I don't think it's our motors that are better than everyone else. I think our cars are good. Dave and Jason over there, you look at those cars, look under the hood, look inside, it looks like a Cup car. They really spend a lot of time on the details of those racecars. That's why they run so well.
The problem with that is everyone has that stuff in the Cup Series because there's so much money in the Cup Series as far as the teams and sponsors are concerned. We're pretty fortunate with what we have as far as our sponsors in the Nationwide, so ultimately we're able to build new racecars, better racecars, lighter racecars. I think that's the edge we have over there. I don't necessarily think it's the motor. I have run some Toyota stuff for Billy in the Truck Series. I didn't think the motors were that much better than anyone else's.
Q. Right now you're pretty comfortable in points being sixth. Kyle got bounced out of the top 12. Is there anything at all as a teammate that you can possibly do to help your teammate get in during these next six races?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think Kyle right now is figuring out the things that he needs to do to finish races. I think he's trying. He has stepped it down. He's not going all out like he did I think before. He's trying to finish as good as he can.
Last week in particular, the right front just wore out. Whether it's our cars or what have you, we're not sure what it is. There's not really much I can tell him. He does a really good job. He has more raw speed than what I have. That's maybe why I don't get in as much trouble as what he does, because I go a little bit slower and take things a little bit easier, especially on corner entry I think. I think he runs a little bit harder into the corners than what I do.
I think it's just tough to say. Those guys are as deadly as anyone on the racetrack each and every week, as far as being able to contend for a win. But I think first they've got to get into the Chase and it's going to have to start with consistency and finishing races. The same goes for us. On paper it looks good that we're sixth. I'm not comfortable at all with where we're at.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Hendrick Motorsports. People are talking about Hendrick's dominance. Why do you think they're so strong? Is it management? Is it the satellite teams they've added to provide more information? From your perspective, what do you see that they've got?
DENNY HAMLIN: That's probably the best perspective I've seen someone have. That's pretty good work. Really, yeah, I think it's the satellite teams. They made their satellite team better in Stewart-Haas. Ultimately they're getting better feedback. I can almost guarantee you they use zero notes from the 66 and 70 from last year or previous years. But now we hear on the radio the 14 struggles or the 39 struggles, they just say over the radio, Hey, go get the notes from the 5, find out what he's running. That is big.
For us, all I have is Joey and Kyle to kind of lean on. Our setups are basically driver tuned and whatnot. But it seems like whatever they have over there, it's working for them everywhere, whether it be a front end setting or how they have their spring combination, something like that.
Their motors are very good. I feel like they're the best in the garage as far as the motors are concerned. I feel like their aerodynamics is a little bit better than everyone else right now. And their chassis, their aero platform is better than everyone else's right now. You put those three things together in a series where a 10th makes a difference between 10th and 30th, that's why you see those guys running top five every single week. The pick up most of the top five positions. Every now and then you get a Roush car sprinkled in there, me or Kyle in there, but for the most part every week you're fighting those same five or six racecars for a race win.
It's frustrating for the rest of the 36 or 7 of us, but it's up to us to work at it and get better.
Q. Can you do that? Can you beat them if you don't have the satellite teams? Is that rule then not fair because you can't compete against them if they have the satellite teams that are that strong?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, originally NASCAR set a rule on how many cars you could have. But I think with like Roush and that whole Yates thing, that's a link together. When we have the Hall of Fame deal, that was a little bit of that.
But those teams, the Hendrick teams, and Stewart-Haas, seem to be working better together than any satellite time I've really seen. Believe me, Tony has done a good job of doing it all on his own now, too. They're developing stuff just as quick as Hendrick is because they got just as good of drivers now. They got a lot of their personnel from there to come over.
Yeah, ultimately, Hendrick has a six-car team and all of 'em run competitively pretty much. When they do that, one finds a little advantage, they all get it, then you are chasing every single one of 'em. With no testing, I think it's going to be hard for any teams to really catch up to them until we figure it out on the racetrack, hit on something at a tire test or something.
Q. On the lighter side, I was wondering what your thoughts are on being the elder statesman at Joe Gibbs Racing? Has that changed anything regarding your overall role with the team?
DENNY HAMLIN: It's changed a little bit. I think I've taken more of an approach of trying to make our cars better meeting with department heads or what have you to make more of a forward role in figuring out what we need to do to get better. Because, believe me, I don't want to go to the racetrack every single week and say, Man, I know we can run top five, but are we going to have the best car? I doubt it. Probably a Hendrick car will have the best car. Probably one of those guys are going to hit it and we're going to be chasing them. I don't like that attitude and feeling that way when we go to the racetrack. I want to feel like we can win every single week we step in the car.
It takes me and Kyle and Joey to step up and kind of fill the gap that Tony left here as far as doing the hard work of going and doing some testing at these racetracks, figuring out what we need to get better. It's really on all of our shoulders, not just mine because I've been here the longest.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to Denny Hamlin, appreciate you taking time out to join us. Best of luck at Pocono.
DENNY HAMLIN: Appreciate it.
HERB BRANHAM: We've rolled up the road to Charlotte. We have three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Thanks for joining us, Jimmie. It looks like your usual second half roll is happening right now. Would that be an accurate assumption as we come out of that great win at Indianapolis?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, in some ways. We were able to deliver and get the win. But if I really look over the last couple months, we've led the most laps and have been in position to win races a bunch. Unfortunately, have just not been able to come home with the trophy.
Very proud of the team and the fact that we were able to stick around all day long and put ourselves in contention at that last restart and get the victory.
I feel like there's three or four that really got away from us. Wish I could have those back. But moving forward, we're only getting stronger as the season develops. The team is getting better and better. I think our equipment is where it needs to be. I certainly hope to put up a great fight for this fourth championship.
HERB BRANHAM: We'll go to the media for questions for our champion.
Q. You're having another good season, coming off a win at the Brickyard, second in points. As you look back over the last three seasons, competing for a fourth one, is it almost a surprise to you how well you do and how well your team does year in, year out so consistently?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, in some ways I am shocked and surprised. I know all the work that goes into it. On that front, we work very hard to be competitive. But it still surprises me. When I look at the 99, the 18, different teams that have been very strong in certain years, then things kind of slow down for whatever reason, it's really tough to tell why or what it is.
Our guys work really hard. I can't explain it. But I'm glad it's working for us like this. We'll just keep working hard and hopefully it will stick around.
Q. Many fans are now calling you a history maker. First was Cale, now you kissing the bricks back to back. You have a chance for the fourth-in-a-row championship. No one has been able to do it yet. You're sitting second in the points. How do you feel as a team of getting that done?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I feel good. The victory this last weekend is helping that a lot. We've been so close to winning races, but there's nothing better than pulling into Victory Lane and closing the deal. I look at Michigan. I look at Pocono. I look at Sears Point. New Hampshire we led the most laps. Just been a lot of races where we've been fast. I feel very good about what's been going on.
But to close the deal and to win a race just takes the confidence to the next level for the race team. It puts at ease some of the different emotions that exist inside everyone's heads on our race team. We have a confidence and presence that we know we can do this.
There's still a lot of racing between now and the Chase and then when the Chase starts it's a long 10 weeks. I know we've got a lot of challenges ahead. But I feel very good about where we're at. We'll use the momentum from this win to get our heads right and be prepared for the Chase.
Q. You're heading into Pocono, one a couple races there, you've never had a DNF in your career there. Does it hold something special knowing you're going to a track you have such great success at?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I know we won a couple races, but it's been tough on us since I guess the 2003 season, whenever it was. We've been getting closer to winning a race there. I think the spring race we were in contention and running second at the end, ran out of gas.
I'm excited coming off of Indy. Those tracks are somewhat similar. We'll see how it works.
Q. Jimmie, before Juan Pablo's problems in the pits, you weren't right up there at the front. What got you there? Was it just the way you drove or was it the pit crew? How does that have you set up now for Pocono this week?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, we started 16th. There weren't a lot of cautions to have a shot on pit road to makes up spots or on restarts to make up spots. Once the race got going, it was really tough to pass anyone.
It just took a lot of work from me on track and then the few opportunities we had on pit road we were able to make up spots there as well under the green-flag stops. It was just a long, steady grind. Luckily it was a 400-mile race because we finally got to the top two or three there on that last restart. With Juan's problems, it allowed us to start on the front row and have a shot at Mark.
Juan's misfortune gave me an opportunity. Our car was fast, one of the few cars that passed a lot of vehicles all day long. With that opportunity to start on the front row, I was able to make the most of it and get by Mark.
Q. How do you see yourself set up for this weekend at Pocono?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We should be good. We were just there a month or so ago. We're competitive. We're making some small adjustments from that setup and should be just fine.
Q. Many drivers have that favorite track and the tracks they don't like to run at. Can you tell the fans how a driver fires himself up for the various tracks? How do you set your mind for the different tracks?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: There's certain tracks that just work for you. You just show up and everything works well and you're fast and it fits. Then the tracks that don't, I personally like that challenge, like to find out where I'm weak and why I'm weak and be better at that stuff.
The tracks that we have coming up we're pretty good at. We've been able to get Bristol squared away, at least in the spring race, hopefully that goes better for us in the fall race. Sonoma has been one of those tracks for me, too. We ran in the top five this last time there. So I do have those tracks and I'm working on them and I enjoy the progress that I'm making.
Q. Jimmie, recently a TV commentator mentioned when you came into NASCAR you seemed to skip learning curves. Do you feel your career was absent a learning curve or you leaped over normal learning curves it takes at that level?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, I tore up a lot of stuff. I still tore up my fair share in my rookie season. Fortunately I've been better at that.
I'm very blessed because my entire career I've had to work so hard to separate myself to be noticed. Grew up on the West Coast, racing first motorcross, then off-road trucks, found my way into a stock car. First time I drove a stock car was I guess in the fall of '97. My first full season in a stock car was '98. I really haven't been driving on the asphalt that long, especially if you look at when I started in Cup.
But those years that were quiet, those two years in ASA, the two years in the Busch Series, I tore up a lot of stuff. The learning curve was very steep. Luckily it was under the radar, without the national exposure. If I think of somebody that's really dealing with it well and has a lot on his plate would be Logano. I knocked down all my walls without people really knowing or caring who I was. I came to the big stage. At that point there were some people saying, What are these guys doing bringing this guy in? What is Jeff doing hiring Jimmie? Rick as well. I was ready to go, showed up, and did my part. I give Joey a lot of credit for growing the way he has, winning the races he has. He's going at it a different way. He doesn't have an option. It's the cards that were dealt for him.
I'm very happy with the road I was able to go down. So happy to be peaking in my motorsports career at this part of my professional life at the highest level. I've seen a lot of guys peak at the Nationwide level, or maybe it's a level before. I feel very fortunate to have it all come together at the highest level.
Q. I wanted to ask you, do you ever take a moment or two to kind of reflect on how things are right now? You're really positioning yourself to not only be a champion but also be one of the absolute greatest this sport has ever had. Do you Sunday night allow yourself to reflect on what you've done in such a short amount of time really?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, it's been a wild ride. I definitely take time to think about it. I don't think it's my nature to think long about it, really focus on it too much. This week has been a great week, even though it's been a couple days now. I'm enjoying what went on at the Brickyard. We just had a big function with the race team, luncheon, all four teams, drivers, crew chiefs, all the employees of Hendrick Motorsports, we spent about two hours having lunch, telling stories and stuff.
To win a big race and then see all of these men and women that work their butts off to make our cars go, celebrate that with them, has made this victory even more special.
But looking forward, the less I let in my head the better. I don't want to think about these things. I just want to go out and drive and do what I know how to do. I'm better at reacting than thinking. I joke around with it a lot. I'm not good at thinking. I'm better when I strap myself in that car, go out and do what I know how to do. The distance between my ears has caused problems in the past, and it does to everybody, especially with the pressure of the Chase. If I can keep that stuff out of my head, not think about what could be or what I could do for myself and my career and status, the better I'm gonna be.
Nobody will be offended if I dodge questions and try not to let that stuff in my head. It's what I'm trying to do to stay focused on what I do best.
Q. A lot of people talk about the similarities between Indy and Pocono. Do you agree with that? Are there similarities? Is that just all hearsay? Is there something you can carry over from the race at Indy into Pocono this weekend?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The tunnel turn is similar to a lot of the turns at Indy. Turn three, the overall principles that work in turn three, also apply to Indy. But the thing that's changing is how rough turn one is. As time goes on, the bumps are getting bigger and bigger there. The springs and shocks we need to run to get through those bumps are much different than the Indy setup now.
We had a planning meeting this morning with the setup of the car, what we're gonna do. We just can't get to certain levels of spring rates and shock combinations and sway bar combinations because of those big bumps in one. So it's changing. I think we really have to look at our Pocono race in the spring versus the race we had at Indy for a setup.
Q. Are you going to be using the same car that you used at Indy at Pocono?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No. We're going to hang on to that car and use it in the Chase. It worked out where it debuted at Indy. We know it's a good car. We're going to hang on to it for the Chase.
Q. Wondering if you look at the history and the correlation between winning at Indy and winning a championship. You've done it twice. It's been done a bunch of times. What is it about that particular correlation of winning that race and going on to winning the championship down the road in the same season?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: A lot of people have been talking about it and asking that question. I'm not exactly sure why. But my two cents on this deal is that Indy is so tricky to figure out, that the team that is on top of their game can win Indy and be competitive at Indy, they're also the team that is on top of their game and can be competitive during the Chase and on the wide variety of tracks that we run at.
Indy throws a lot of curve balls at you. There's nothing else like it out there. If you can sort it out in the few hours of practice you have, be competitive in the race, you're on your A game and you're gonna be good for the rest of the season.
I know there's a great tradition there. I certainly hope I'm not the guy that screws it up.
Q. A lot of people talking about Hendrick dominance today. Can you talk about exactly why you think Hendrick is so dominant and what effect the satellite teams have had on the continuing or escalation of that dominance.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, we're still developing the relationships with Stewart-Haas. For a lot of years information has been going, not much has been coming back. But with how strong Tony has been running and Ryan, there's more information coming back. The fact that Darian is there, understands the Hendrick system, that's helpful as well.
I could say that for us we've been working more with the 5 and the 24 on their setups than really any other car out there, within our group. But we just had this big luncheon I was talking about. At the end of the day, the common message from all of the drivers, crew chiefs, Rick, I look to Rick's point of view, and also Mark, because Mark has been with another race team, Mark's message and Rick's was everybody has the same technology. The big teams have access to the same stuff. But what makes the difference is the people. Rick works really hard to let his people know they're important and they're the reason why this company is successful. To leave that building and feel all the pride, the desire to win from all of our employees, I think makes the difference.
We work hard, but so do a lot of other teams. I think at the end of the day, the respect and relationship that exists inside these walls at Hendrick Motorsports sets us apart.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to our three-time champion, Jimmie Johnson. Best of luck this weekend at Pocono.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thanks, everybody. See you there.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to all the media participating in today's doubleheader. As always, we appreciate your coverage. Thank you.
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