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October 11, 2011

Jimmie Johnson

ASHLEY JONES: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to today's NASCAR Cam video teleconference in advance of Saturday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Our guest today is Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Jimmie is the five-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and currently sits third in the points standings, just four points behind leader Carl Edwards. In 20 starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmie has won six times, which is tied for the most all-time of Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and future Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip.

Q. Who do you feel is your biggest competition in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I think it's still too early to pick a favorite, but the two guys ahead of me, Carl and Kevin, have done such an awesome job through the regular season and then in the post-season. They've been very consistent, as well. They both had races not going their way in Kansas and found a way to pull out good finishes there. So I've had a close eye on those two all year and continue to.
But I still look down there at Kenseth and even Kyle Busch and a variety of guys that are still within striking distance. You know, there's a lot of racing left, and anything can happen. It's not time to focus on any one driver yet. We still need to make sure we're getting all the points we can as a team each and every week.

Q. Two weeks into the Chase, everybody was writing you off, and I guess I wonder if that's fair because you didn't have, I guess, a dominating Jimmie season, or if people just keep writing you off too quickly and maybe you're getting a little frustrated with that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, not necessarily frustrated with any of it. I just hope people understand and use me as an example and to not jump too quickly on any driver moving forward, that there's just a lot of racing left. We had a very good chance of winning the regular season if I didn't try to retaliate on Kurt Busch at Richmond it was. We would have won the regular season and gone into the post-season as No. 1, not necessarily the seeding process but in the points collection process.
Then we started the Chase, and we ran really good at Chicago, didn't finish well because of fuel mileage, and then New Hampshire ran fair but had a bad result because of some contact, and then Dover and Kansas speak for themselves. I guess through all of that, it's really so tough to pick a favorite, and we're asked this weekly as the drivers where we stand, what do we think. I think media is also in a position where they have to try to write a story about who that person is going to be weekly, but it's just so tough to predict, and I honestly feel that guys that are 20, 30 points out right now still have a chance. There's six races left, and this championship is still wide open for anyone to get.

Q. Do you feel like after all you've accomplished, it's the 48 team's to lose until somebody takes it away?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff. I mean, it's flattering to hear at times when I hear that phrase or quote. The competitors in the garage area know what we're capable of, and I hear things that they say, that they still consider us a threat. I respect that and appreciate that, and I know that they have respect for what I'm capable of and my team is, but at the end of the day you've got to go out on the track and earn it, and that's where my focus always has been, and I don't spend a lot of time really worrying about things that are said or get frustrated by it because at the end of the day you've got to go out and earn it and prove it on the track, and that will change anyone's opinion. You go out there and take the checkered flag home and it fixes its own problems.

Q. Thanks for taking the time today. Over the past five seasons, is there some sort of maybe intangible groove that you guys seem to fall into where everything is working, nothing can go wrong it seems like, and do you feel after the past couple of weeks that maybe you're falling back into a groove like that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I definitely feel that our groove is here, and it's been slowly building. In some respects I wish it would have got here a long time ago. If you go back to the regular season and how we ran in Atlanta, Richmond was going to be a strong night for us. We had some good momentum in the three or four races coming into the start of the Chase. Chicago was a great race for us. And then I'm speaking also for the pit crew, as well, not only on track but on pit road, as well. We've been slowly building in these last two weeks. It's hard to argue with a second and a first and all the laps that we led, what type of performances we've been having.
I'm excited. I feel that we're where we need to be. We're in a groove of sorts, but this year it's been tough to stay consistent, not only for ourselves but for all the drivers, and I think it's going to make for an exciting Chase as we go here, and that's why you can't pick a favorite at this point. We're going to have to get three or four more races behind us to kind of see the picture who's going to be racing for the championship.

Q. One of the odd stats that has come out of this year is the fact that no driver has repeated a victory on any 1.5 mile track, and here we come to Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track where you've won so many times. Do you think maybe you can become the first guy to repeat on a mile and a half track, and do you think you can find what you once had at Charlotte before they repaved it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I think we're going to be a threat. When I go back to Chicago, Kentucky, Kansas obviously, our mile and a half stuff has been coming along pretty good over the last two or three months, so I feel good about it. Charlotte, with that asphalt that's down, it is its own environment and really tough to get your car right from the start of the race to the end of the race. So I feel like directionally we're going the right way, but until I get on the track this week and understand what our grip level is and what our issues are, it's hard to build too much confidence. But it's been that way all year. I mean, it's so tough to take what you learn at one track and carry it to the next, harder than I have ever seen it in our sport.
After talking to other teams and drivers, I feel that a lot of people are going through this in the garage area. Use this last weekend as an example. When you look at the Happy Hour sheet, and you would have sworn that the 33 or the 99 was going to run away and win the race on Sunday, then on Sunday both of them had their issues and couldn't perform. It's really tough to even go from a Saturday to a Sunday and hit it anymore. It's been really hard this week.

Q. With Chad kind of talking about how fickle the cars are right now and obviously with the amount of fuel mileage and the kind of impact of two-tire and four-tire calls, I'm curious if you feel like you're in as much control of your destiny this year as in past Chase years.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't think a team is. I think pit road, you kind of have to look at it like the majority rules or majority wins. If everyone is taking two, it's real safe to take two. If you're the only guy that took two and you're lined up first or second and everybody is on four behind you, you're going to have your hands full and have some issues. When you're leading a race or dominating a race -- the field is going to do the opposite. That's their chance to beat you. We saw that at Dover at the spring race where there was a couple cars that checked out on the field, and we came in for four. I was one of the three cars that had good pace, and the rest of the field went for two, and we were mired in traffic and couldn't go anywhere because the numbers worked against us. There were more guys on two in front of us and we just lined up too deep in the pack.
That's the floating variable that you can't predict. It's easy to make that call when you're running tenth, but when you're in the top three -- and also pitted early on pit road, it is so tough to get it right because everybody is going to scan and watch what you do that's pitted further down pit road and call an audible on you.
It is really tough, and it's hard to have the confidence in what you're going to do from a tire strategy standpoint at tracks like Charlotte and even Kansas. A track has a fair amount of wear on the tires, and we took two early in the race and made it work. So the game has changed a bunch, and it's added some frustration for sure.

Q. In past Chases you've kind of rattled off a bunch of top 5s and stuff. Do you feel you're at that kind of a point now as far as your team and your performance right now?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I do. I really do. When I look at the four Chase races, I think the way I see it, the worst we would have finished would have been tenth based on speed. Clearly the results are different than that, but I know what we're doing on pit road and the cars we're bringing to the track and the speed that we have in our race cars. We can run top 5. We've got to go out and execute and get it done, but we have the equipment to do that, and now it's time to execute.

Q. The sort of good news this week is that you're looking out at everybody from the cover of SI. That could be the bad news, too. Do you have any feeling at all for the jinx that sometimes goes along with that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I was made aware of this jinx here at a function at the Hall of Fame on that today. That tells you how up-and-up I am on sports. I thought it was relative to the Madden cover of the football game, not SI.
I guess it's out there for some other sports teams, but in my heart of hearts, there is no way that a photo on a magazine is going to change the luck of a race team. If we lose this championship, it's because of what happens on the track, not because of a photo in a magazine. But I am hugely honored to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, was fortunate to be on it back in '08, and things turned out awfully well for me that year, too. I don't have any fears about this cover.

Q. You were talking earlier about decisions on pit road late in the race and that sort of thing. Is this at the point where you and Chad can sit down with a legal pad and say, okay, with 30 laps to go at Charlotte, we're going to do this or we're going to do that if we're leading? Has it come down to that sort of a precise decision, or is it still kind of a race minute-by-minute decision?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Man, it's tough to say. I still sense that it's more in-the-race gut feelings that make those decisions from our pit box at least. It's just tough to tell. We look at Charlotte, and I know -- we did I think at the All-Star race, I don't think we put left sides on the car unless we had to, and I would see two, three runs on left-side tires this weekend at the race because there is no wear on the tire and the tire is durable and tough that you'll just take rights.
So we know within reason what the overall strategy will be, but there still is a gut feeling that has to take place. You'd rather be on four, especially if you're leading the race and there's six or seven lap cars between you and second spot on the racetrack. You can probably take a gamble for four because you've got a big gap there and maybe you lose one or two spots instead of 10 or 15. There still is that gut instinct that has to kick in and make that call from the pit box.

Q. I wanted to ask you about Talladega coming up. You won there last year but a lot of changes coming up for the next race there in terms of the restrictor plate and the popoff valves and even now to no Pam spray on the bumpers. I was curious to get your thoughts as to how different that race might be this time and what you're expecting when you go back there.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, in practice we'll obviously learn a lot about push, and that's really what it all boils down to. The plates should give us an opportunity to pass more. I don't know what's going to happen with the pop-off valves. If we have to change our running position more frequently to not overheat the cars and the extra closing speed we have now with larger plates, it can make for some tense moments. I think that's my concern going down there, that I want to understand in practice and even at the start of the race how that environment is going to work on the track so I know where to race. You don't want to be tore up ten laps into that race and not score any points.
We'll go down there a little cautious and try to get a good handle on things, but I know I'm going to have a fast car. Dale Jr. and I will work together again, and hopefully one of our two cars wins that race.

Q. Last week or this past weekend, Gordon had engine problems. Do you put much thought into that, teammate problems during a race?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, without a doubt. My team didn't want to worry me with it, and I didn't see who blew up. I knew obviously we had a caution and there was oil down, but I didn't find out until the media center sometime after the race was over that it was the 24 that blew up.
Since there's a lot of things been going on to understand why and what went on, I've been busy all afternoon here at the Hall with some other things we had going on, so I wasn't able to take part on my team call where I'm usually debriefed on what issues existed and would find out about the engine trouble. I'll give Chad a call on the way home tonight and see where things are at right now. I have great faith in our engine shop, and with the fact that all the other Hendrick cars stayed running, I initially think that maybe it was a one-off fluke problem or maybe a part failure deep inside the engine. Jeff spoke about some issues that -- and the engine ran for quite some time before it finally let go.
So I'm hoping it's nothing. But it definitely worries us, especially in the Chase. That's the last thing we want to see is one of our engines going out.

Q. Do you want to know about these kind of things during a race or would you rather just not know?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'd rather not know, and I'm glad they didn't tell me. I had enough to worry about with Kasey Kahne chasing me around out there. I'm glad I didn't know about Jeff blowing up.

Q. At this point in the Chase is it time to drive your car hard even if your car doesn't feel right? If you've got a 20th place car and you're trying to maintain 10th place, for instance.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, that philosophy is so -- such a day-to-day thing now. You can have the car that's dominating the race and you lose track position and you're in the 20th and you can't go anywhere. So what I am kind of getting at is we as a group have been driving over our heads all season long to fight for 15th or fight for 5th, and it's actually easiest up front because you're in clean air and have all the grip that you can get at that point.
I know Tony has made some comments about the racing on the track and all that's going on out there and some of that gentlemen's agreement stuff has gone away, and I certainly agree. We're all driving over our heads the majority of the race, and it baffles me that we don't have more cautions. When I look in front of me, behind me, there are guys sideways about to wreck at all times, and I don't know why guys aren't turning around. I guess the COT is a little bit more forgiving from an aero balance standpoint when you get crossed up, and it's keeping us from turning around. But we're driving really hard every lap all the time.

Q. I wanted to ask you about Phoenix. I know you guys tested there last week. The repave seems like a drastically different change. What makes it so much different than other racetrack repaves?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, the track itself, they reconfigured it. I have to say it's a fun lap to drive by yourself. I just don't know how competitive we're going to be side by side. Turn 1 has been reconfigured, and I actually call it turn 1, you're not in that corner all that long. Usually there's a 1 and a 2. I personally call that old 1 and 2 just turn 1, and then the dogleg has been turn 2 to me because you only turn about two thirds of the way at the most, have a straightaway to the dogleg, which is the significant turn, and then come down the back into turn 3.
I know they worked hard to get progressive banking in turn 1 or 2 or whatever they call it, I call it turn 1. But you're not in the corner long enough to really need to use the outside lane. It'll be interesting to see.
The one thing working against us right now is the asphalt is so new that it's tough to get rubber down and tough to really kind of break the track in, and we only ran really a groove and a half all the way around the track was about as wide as it got. So I'm hopeful during this time between now and the race that they drag tires and do something to get rubber in the outside grooves, and then the series that run before us, they're going to have to feel things out and in some respects work in the second groove for the restarts. And that might be the only time the second groove gets used or worked in, but it needs it. It's awfully dusty and dirty out there, the track gets dirty, and it's just hard to get rubber into the track and create some of the lanes to race right now.

Q. Obviously the term "wild card" is going to get thrown out there because it's such an unknown. How much can you learn in the practices leading up to that weekend that you may not otherwise get, or are you just going to wait for the race to find out exactly how it's going to race?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, from a race standpoint, we just have to get into the race and see. The two days of testing that all the teams had was very helpful for everyone, and it showed me how much that track really changes when it gets rubber on it.
You're going to have to be smart when you go back for the race and not overreact to how your car is driving early in the practice sessions and almost have some blind faith that the track will come back to where it was at the test or where you think it should be and guess a little bit, because every lap we made or every hour that track was open, it changed again and again and again, and we're going to see that for a while until a track really breaks in.

Q. The Charlotte area, obviously teams and drivers, it's their base area for most teams and drivers, and it's hard to really get a hometown advantage, but do you think that in absence of having to travel and be comfortable at home that the teams -- if the team is clicking anyway and then you get that nice not-have-to-travel kind of thing, stay home, do you think that gives you any kind of advantage?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: If there is any advantage for being home, it's probably the same for everybody. There's something about sleeping in your own bed, seeing your family, being close to home, there's just a comfort that comes with that, so I don't see it really playing any way, shape or form there.
I think the guys that ran well the last time we were here in Charlotte in May, you've got to lean that direction first and say those guys are going to be quick and carry some good momentum, and then I think you've got to look at who's been performing recently on mile and a halfs and put us in that category and say that things have been working, it should work at Charlotte.
But when I say that, it's so tough to carry information from track to track anymore. Before you'd have a baseline set up that would work on mile and a halfs, work on one miles, work on short tracks, and anymore it's so specific per track. This car is so fickle that you work up a specific setup just for a given track these days. There will be a lot of questions answered once we get on track to say the least.

Q. And as far as Charlotte goes, you're obviously very comfortable with that track having won so many times. Why is it so comfortable to you? Is there any key that you can really put your finger on why you're so good at that track?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The surface that's down today, I just feel competitive there. I don't feel like I have an edge as I did back with the old surface and even once they levigated the track. In that period of time with the old car, too, I must add, we just had something working. I had a line that was fail-proof in turns 3 and 4 that I couldn't believe no one really had flushed out and found that was just instant speed and worked well for me, and we had an awesome setup under the car, and we could go there and really take advantage of things.
But all that's changed since they put this new surface now, and the edge we had has been pulled back. We're still competitive, but I hope to find an edge over there again. There's nothing like winning at home.

Q. Qualifying has been a little bit difficult for you this year although you were able to overcome a 19th place position at Kansas and come out with a win. Are you and Chad going to put any emphasis on qualifying at the end of the year?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We've focused a lot on it. Unfortunately we're not getting the results. A lot of it also depends on the schedule. When we have a schedule like we did in Kansas where Friday you have practice and then you qualify and then two race practices on Saturday, it's easy to divide up your allotment of tires, just focus Friday on qualifying, Saturday on race, but other schedules we have everything takes place on Friday except for qualifying, so you have the race practice, then qualifying practice, then all these other cars run, you come out and run two laps, cars race again, then pick your race setup for Sunday, and it's just tough to get it right. We've seen it play a lot of games with our team and with a lot of teams.
And I don't know what schedule we have at Charlotte. I would assume it's probably the screwy one. But I don't know.
I hope that we can just focus on qualifying trim on Thursday and worry about that only, and that should help us qualify better.

Q. Your win at Kansas was your 20th top 10 of 2011, and that makes ten years in a row where your team has had at least 20 top 10 finishes, and the only other driver to do that in NASCAR history is Jeff Gordon, who did it from 1995 to 2004. What are your thoughts on what has allowed your team to remain so consistently successful for so long?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: That's a cool stat I wasn't aware of. We have great equipment, which a driver needs to be sitting in great equipment to go out and do his job. I think our team has always been able to deal with pressure and then also recover from troubles in a race and rebound and make the best of a day. So I think those two or three elements really have given me that opportunity to go out there and get that stat.
ASHLEY JONES: Thank you, earn, for your participation today with Jimmie Johnson, and Jimmie, thanks for joining us, and best of luck this weekend in Charlotte.

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