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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
February 26, 2008
HERB BRANHAM: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to this week's NASCAR teleconference. This week we're in advance of Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That's the UAW Dodge 400.
Very pleased today to have as a guest a driver who knows all about winning at Las Vegas and all about winning, period. We'd like to welcome our reigning and two-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to the call. He's also the three-time defending champion of this week's Vegas race. Jimmie is currently eighth in the series standings after two races in the 2008 season.
Jimmie, looks like you pretty much got back on track at California after a somewhat disappointing start to the season at the Daytona 500. Maybe comment on that and also give us an idea, what's the outlook going for an incredible four in a row, three in a row is incredible enough, but going for four in a row at Las Vegas this weekend?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We were definitely disappointed after the Daytona 500. Qualified on the pole and then just didn't have the car that we needed and the speed we needed in the 500 itself. Then crashed, came out of there with a bad finish.
But to go into California, we were really concerned about that event. Through the course of the limited practice we had on track, we found some things and really got a good direction of where to go with the setup of the car. Had a great race over the two days we raced in Fontana. Got a decent finish out of it. I think we still have some room to go with the setup. But, you know, good performance with a car that was really, really loose.
I think going into Las Vegas, we'll certainly be able to challenge for four race wins out there. It's going to be tough. I see a lot of fast cars and I know a lot of teams are going to be smarter next week after this opening round of downforce racing tracks.
I'm excited moving forward and looking forward to Vegas. Just really can't wait to get out there and get to work.
HERB BRANHAM: Obviously no panic on the team coming out of the 500, although it must have seemed a little weird to see the point standings and have to look up so much.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We try to stay calm and relaxed, but we're aware of where we were in the points. The last thing we want to do is get off to a slow start. I look at some of my teammates and the situation they're in at after the crash the 5 and the 88 had. That's a position we didn't want to find ourselves in as the 48 team. If you get behind early, it's really tough to make up time and make up points as we get rolling here.
I'm happy to be where we are, breathing a little easier after this race here we had at California Speedway. That was a track we were pretty nervous about. Testing didn't go like we wanted to. We're glad to be through it with a strong finish.
HERB BRANHAM: Very good. We'll go to the media now for questions for Jimmie Johnson.
Q. What are the logistics involved, because the race ran on Monday, for the haulers to get to Vegas? Are they going all the way back to Charlotte, then coming back to Vegas with new cars?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I unfortunately don't have a clue. As far as the transporter, I believe it's going back, but I'm not certain. I do know, and I spoke to Chad today, the crew guys have gone back. They are preparing and finishing up the Vegas cars and the Phoenix cars.
I know that our vehicles are still in North Carolina. But are they going to meet the trucks somewhere or is there a secondary truck gonna come out and trade out racecars and equipment? That makes sense to me, but I don't know for sure.
Q. What do you make of the balance between makes now that after two races a Dodge and a Ford have won as opposed to Chevy with the domination they've had?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think with the Car of Tomorrow, the make of vehicle is much, much less important than it's ever been. From an aero balance, they're all the same. It seems there are some engine -- some different brands have a little more horsepower based on some numbers we all saw in Daytona.
It's real early in the season to tell. I think now, more than I've ever seen in the sport, the makes of cars are more equal than they've ever been.
I think we still have some room to go with our Chevrolet engines to build more power and reliability. I think we were down a little bit by the numbers we saw in Daytona. But still a lot of racing left and we're still working hard to close that gap and find ourselves ahead of everybody.
Q. You're just saying you're not really worried because it's too early. Is it kind of surprising to you how quickly other teams were able to catch up from last year with the Car of Tomorrow, especially in light of the dominance y'all had last year?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I mean, we've really had two races, and to be honest one race at California, that is what the season's built on. We've said all along we've recognized a lot of teams have been right there. We did win a lot of events, lead a lot of laps last year at Hendrick. But there were a lot of teams right there on our heels. It's a little early I think to place judgment in either direction.
When we get back to the short tracks, we hope what we had last year still works and that we have good-driving cars like we had last year. But the intermediate tracks, it's all new for every team. So it's really a race right now in between the teams to find the right setup to establish the dominance or some type of advantage early in the season.
So it's real early to tell. Daytona, you've got to throw out. It's just a restrictor plate track. All the cars are extremely equal. The rules are very limiting. But as we get into California, Vegas, the other races, I think four or five races from now we can form an opinion as to what company, what race team is the strongest.
Q. You said your team was building cars specifically for Vegas, that you didn't know if they were going to come out and meet you or what. So teams are still building cars for particular racecourses?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, we certainly are. I wouldn't say the design of our Vegas car is any different than our California car. It boils down more to the fact that you can't count on a car living and surviving an event. You know, you need to have a car sitting there ready to go, dedicated for that next event.
There was no damage to our racecar. We could technically race it again, the one we ran in California. With the travel, all that's going on, we have cars that were dedicated for Vegas and for the Phoenix test. Not that they were built solely for those tracks, but they're dedicated to those slots.
But we still have road course cars, short track cars, speedway cars that we're building. It's not as important as it used to be, but there still is a little bit of room we can work on the cars. The updates that went on over the off-season, even at Hendrick Motorsports, we're just still trying to catch up and build a legal inventory of cars because things have changed from last year's Car of Tomorrow to this year's. We're still trying to catch up with all four teams right now.
Q. The car you used at California, the one you'll use at Vegas, is it a nuance kind of difference? If you had to, could you run the California car at Vegas?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We certainly could. But with the travel and all that's going on, it just would be impossible to do it.
Q. Unlike many drivers who aren't champions, you don't have to ask yourself what would a champion do. But are there times on and off the track when you recognize that you really drove like a champion or in public you really spoke like a champion?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, driving-wise, I'm out there doing what I can each week. There's certainly better performances than others, especially fighting back through the Chase, winning the four races we did, that stretch there certainly felt that way.
As far as speaking like a champion, man, I don't know (laughter). Sometimes you feel like - especially in hospitality tents - I feel like I'm saying and doing the right things. Other times, the crowd is still asleep and I feel like a fool out there. I can't say on a speaking note I could say one way or another.
Q. When you look at the other teams outside Hendrick, which teams or cars have you been most impressed with to this point?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: In the testing that we had, the 99, 17 and the 11, the 20 and the 8 team really kind of set the pace. I think the 24 was close to those guys. But the 99 really stood out and the 11, I'd say, as we went to Vegas and Fontana.
The race this last weekend, it was a surprise to me to see things spread out so much up front. I expected there to be a lot more cars up there. The 99 had great pace, the 24, us, the 18 was there for the short run and the 9 car showed some strength.
I think all the big teams are getting close. I saw I think great improvement from the Evernham group. The 9 car was strong and I think impressed me more than anyone, just because they're trying to rebuild and come back from a tough season last year.
Q. It still being early on in the season with Vegas coming up, what have you been able to take from what you've seen from those other teams for what you can do at Hendrick?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, we take everybody so serious. We've had great success, victories, have been put in this position of kind of evaluating the industry, for whatever reason. It's flattering, but at the same time we know how difficult it is out there, how little it takes to be on or off. You see guys that are off a 10th of a second. Oh, man, we're killing them. But a 10th of a second is as long as it takes to blink an eye. We're living it every day. We're in the trenches. It doesn't seem like a huge advantage that we've had. I see a lot of teams as threats.
I think that the Car of Tomorrow's going to help that. It's gonna be tough at first to figure out what the car wants. But we're very limited in the areas that we can work. So you might see an early lead by a few of the teams, and then it's all going to equal out over the course of a year or eight months or something like that.
They're all a threat. That's the way I want to live.
Q. Do you look at the competitive gaps being closer than the last couple years right now?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's tough to say. With the separation we had at the front of the field at California, I'd say it's probably not that close right now. I think we had -- granted there were a lot of lead changes, but it seemed to me one guy would get the lead and lead until the next pit stop, then the next guy would lead to the next pit stop, and we were kind of spread out up front.
I felt like the old car, we had more time to work with it and the gap was closer from 1st to 43rd. The early stages of this car, it's just going to take a while to get that sorted out.
Q. You mentioned that the car was loose. Many drivers really have pointed out that this new car is kind of loose. Is that going to be a problem for all the tracks that this car has not run on or have the pit crews learned enough to solve the problem?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We're learning more every week. The reason the cars end up so loose is that the design of the car and the downforce in the car, the percentages front to rear, make the car extremely tight. So in order for the car to run a decent speed, we've had to loosen the car up so much just to make it rotate the center of the turn, that the entry and the exit is really a handful.
The car isn't balanced well - especially with the setups that we're used to running and have developed over the years. Things are much different. So we're all trying to get the center of the corner to work for us, but we've lost a lot of grip on entry and exit in the process.
Q. That's got to be a scary feeling for not only you, but all the other drivers. You're out there with 43 other cars, you're feeling yourself loose. Isn't that sort of a touch situation?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's just what we do. When you're out there racing, you just get what the car can give you. I think if we're at a test session or qualifying where it's one lap, you're trying to do everything you can, you're probably a little more concerned about it. But in race conditions, the cars never handles perfectly.
The thing we notice more than anything is how slow the car is through the center of the turn compared to the car of last year or the car of the past. It's more of a reference that you have. Even with the old car, you could have the car extremely loose or extremely tight and have your hands full.
Q. You elaborated about the changes to the Car of Tomorrow. What has been your biggest adjustment as a driver to get used to this car, especially maybe on tracks that will be new to you with the new car?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: There's a couple things. The first thing is that we've lost quite a few tools to make the car handle. That's really brought the corner speed down. So our eyes and our senses tell us that, you know, the car has X amount of grip and we should be able to go through the corner at whatever speed. Now we have a car that's much less than that. So just trying to adjust mentally and drive the car at the pace that it's capable of cornering at is a tough thing to find. That sweet spot I think a lot of us are still adjusting to.
On a technical side, the aero balance is much difference. There's a lot of factors, a lot of different things going on there. But one of the toughest issues we have to deal with right now is that the front travel these cars have had, we now have half of that distance. So to get the car to ride right, to get it to handle correctly, is really difficult because you have half of the distance to work with to control the loads, the bumps, all the issues that you find out on the racetrack.
Not only does the driver struggle with corner speed and his senses, it's very difficult to know what the car's doing underneath you because that travel distance has been cut in half and now you're hitting the splitter on the ground, now you're hitting bump stops. So there's some sensations going on that it's really tough to understand what in the world's going on underneath you right now.
As difficult as that is, I think it's a great challenge and I think it's a great opportunity for whoever figures it out first. Whatever driver understands those sensations first, the teams that can adjust to that is going to come out and really get off to a good start here at the start of the season.
Q. In order for the fan maybe to relate to you guys each week, what would you equate to road rage on the racetrack similar to what an everyday driver on the highway would experience?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: There are similar things that irk people and set you off inside the racecar. One of the big differences is the fact that you can really get hurt. You're sliding around at 200 miles an hour. The move that frustrates you is a lot less than what you experience on the road. Somebody cuts you off blatantly on the road, you get upset. But if somebody kind of cuts you off in a car at 200, it's magnified. It's a lot more intense than what you have on the street.
One of the bonuses I think of being in a racecar is you can nudge the guy, you can run into him, you can show him that you're not happy with what they've done by putting a bumper to him.
Q. You've had a similar run at Lowe's Motor Speedway with consecutive wins. You're heading into Las Vegas in hopes of getting your fourth win. Can you compare those two emotionally because one was a track with your home sponsor on it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think that the experience at Lowe's has helped me moving into this weekend's race in Las Vegas. It's tough to remove the emotions and excitement to maybe do something that's either never been done or something that hasn't been done in a long time.
So I'm excited about that. But the more I can rule it out of my head and not think about it and just stick to the basics, driving the racecar, just trying to win the race, the better.
I think I was a little too focused on some of those things at Lowe's Motor Speedway. We still went on a great roll and have had great success at the track. But there's no need to put more pressure on myself than I already would. And if I can keep it in my mind more like it's a normal race, and I found this also with the championship last year, if I just keep it simple, I stay in the right mindset and focus on the right things.
Q. Herb mentioned following behind in the points. You and your team have done this before in the past. It seems like you and your team find a reservoir of ability always. Do you ever worry you might not find that reservoir?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I like to keep myself on edge and worry about a lot of things. I feel that worrying about stuff keeps me focused and keeps me paying attention to the right things.
Daytona is such a tough event, even Talladega, it's not what the bulk of the season is built on. Experience has taught me not to get too emotionally involved in those events. If you win, fantastic. If you come out of there with a good finish, the points are needed for everyone. Everyone is worried about the top 35. Then you get into the Chase, worrying about being in the top 12.
Those concerns are there, and they're there early. But we build a lot of confidence knowing that the season's based on other races. There's short tracks, they're intermediate tracks, a lot of other events that take place. So we try not to panic too much.
But I'd be lying to you if I said that we weren't worried when we left Daytona. I mean, that's just our mindset. We're worried about every point. You never know what's gonna happen in Richmond. We want to have ourselves in a safe position going into Richmond.
Q. Every driver I guess has a favorite track, one that they thrive at more than others. You look at your record at Vegas. Have you been able to really break down the little nuances about that track that you just look forward to racing every time you go there?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The track's changed. They reconfigured it. We were still able to win.
With the old track, yeah, there were some things that really popped out that I was excited about and knew would help me with marks, how I drove the track and attacked the track. But it's changed. I had to learn with everyone else last year about what the track was going to do.
It's so early in the season and I feel like the team's trying to get into a rhythm, I'm trying to get into a rhythm, that it's not been a race that I've gone into saying, All right, we're in our stride right now and we're going to win in Las Vegas. It's just worked out that way. We've usually finished second in Fontana, leave Fontana with some good thoughts, good direction, then head on over to Las Vegas and win. I hope we can do that again.
I really feel at this point of the season, it's about hitting your stride. Vegas seems to be a track where we get things rolling and moving in the right direction.
Q. So it's more a matter of just the time in the season rather than anything about that particular track you like?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think so. I really do. When I think about tracks that I really look forward to going to, the Vegas track is not one of those. It's because it's early in the season. There's a lot of doubt in my mind. There's usually new things with cars and setups, new crew members. There's really a lot of doubt surrounding Vegas; it's so early in the season.
So, unfortunately, I don't think of Vegas when I think about tracks that I look forward to going to, and I should. I've had a lot of success. It's a great facility. Mentally I guess I'm focused in other areas.
HERB BRANHAM: Thank you to Jimmie Johnson for joining us today. Busy week ahead. Short week because of the rain delay we're coming off of. We appreciate you taking the time out to visit with us. Best of luck.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No problem. Thanks, everybody.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to all the media today. Nice turnout. As always, we appreciate the coverage.
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