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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
May 19, 2009
HERB BRANHAM: Thank you, good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the first of I guess we could call a NASCAR cam video teleconference doubleheader today. It's in advance of Sunday's Coca Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina.
Joining us today for our first NASCAR cam from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters in Charlotte, we have three-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet. And he's a three-time winner of the 600.
A little bit later at 3:00 p.m. today we'll have another NASCAR cam. The guest will be the defending 600 champion, Kasey Kahne. We'll start off with Jimmie Johnson.
Big weekend. Obviously it always is this time of year for you and your team. Wanted to ask you first, I know you don't usually do a whole lot of differing paint schemes, but this weekend at Lowe's it's a little bit different. And what's happening this year with the 48 at the 600?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, this year Lowe's is going to run a special paint scheme, as you mentioned. And what's really cool about it is we're going to be honoring obviously the servicemen and women and especially the ones that work inside the Lowe's stores and for Lowe's. There will be 12,000 names on the hood and deck hood of the car of veterans or enlisted servicemen and women that work for Lowe's right now.
So just a fun event altogether. I have a lot of good luck with the special paint scheme at Lowe's Motor Speedway and I hope it comes together for a victory for us on Sunday night.
HERB BRANHAM: Questions for our Series champion, Jimmie Johnson.
Q. Jimmie, tell us about your overall record at Lowe's. The other night you showed some flashes of brilliance maybe getting that edge back before you got turned around. Just wondered, at one time you seemed to have a very clear-cut edge at Lowe's. Do you think in the last couple of years that maybe you and Chad have lost that edge, or was it just circumstances? And do you foresee, do y'all have a package that might get it back this weekend?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think more than anything, when they resurfaced the track, it made the track much more forgiving and the setup that worked so well for us didn't give us an edge at the track. The track was a little rough, abrasive, and our shop package and the line -- I also feel a big part of our success was there's a must-take line in 3 and 4 that I can always set our car up to run.
As soon as I would hit that spot, I'd fly through 3 and 4 and pass two cars at a time sometimes through there. So with the new surface, it changed the track and it also took away that edge, and I think made the track a little bit more forgiving in some respects.
It's been tough to get a comfortable tire on the car with the speeds we've been running. I think we're there now. The speeds are so high and the track is -- they almost did too good of a job repaving the track, and it took away the advantage that we had.
Q. Jimmie, can you talk about the endurance aspects of this race, and, you know, we have so many people running headlines and doing stories but obviously people who are not in the race car. Can you put in perspective, you've been successful at this race, the endurance part of it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, definitely takes more out of you. It's a longer event. You've got to focus a lot on hydration. You need to eat during the course of the race to make sure you have energy for the end of it when it really matters.
I mean, in today's driver lineup, everybody's doing some type of training. Guys that are running the Nationwide races and Cup races, it shouldn't be a big stretch for them. But in general we all prepare for it and it's not really that big of a deal.
I think it's more of a mental thing that our minds are programmed for 500 miles and when you hear halfway and you look up at the scoreboard and you realize you've gone 300 and you've got 300 to go, it's kind of a mental thing that you have to focus on.
Q. Following up on what Claire just asked, can you also talk about the importance of your pit crew and Chad and the longer race versus 3-, 400-mile races?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The strategy changes some. So from the pit box, the guys have to focus on that. There's certainly going to be more pit stops with the longer event. I think with the old track it was much more difficult for the crew members because whenever the pits were open we took tires. It was a lot like Atlanta.
Now the track we can go -- from what I saw the other night, some guys went two or three stops on the left side tires at the All-Star Race. I think the repetition may be down because of the tire and the surface combination, but it's a long race.
It's been a long couple of weeks at home. It's fun. There's a lot of energy. But at the same time it's all draining on the system. So I think that everybody will be excited to run the race, but when it's done, take Monday off, sleep in and charge the batteries and get ready for the next one.
Q. I just wanted to know, do you feel like personally that your driving style is more suitable for a longer race like the 600s or more of a sprint type of race like the All-Star Race?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, during my career I've had to work harder on qualifying and harder on sprints than anything. I feel that where I am now I can do both really well. But in the early years of my Cup career, definitely the longer races worked better. I think we showed that. Our stats would also reflect that as well.
I still think the 600 race is a good race for us. That's what we're known for, for the long, grinding races and always staying on top of the adjustments for the car. Hopefully we can do that again and make it happen this weekend.
Q. And is the 600 too long, in your opinion, and do you think there should be other races that long?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, it's a popular question. I do agree in general that we can shorten up a lot of the races. I do like the 600-mile race from a history standpoint. And I also like the challenge, to work on the car all night long. Start in the day, go to the night, the longer race, all the aspects that come with it.
Especially with the old track, when you finish 600 miles at the old Lowe's Motor Speedway you knew you accomplished something. In that respect I like it.
At the end of the day we need to make sure we have the audience captured for a period of time and keep their interest. If it was shortened because we needed to do that to help with the fan base, I would understand that. But I'd like to keep it at 600, if we could.
Q. Jimmie, two completely different questions for you. First, can you tell me something funny about Mark Martin that you've learned about him? Second of all, I wanted to talk to you about Stewart-Haas drivers. Are they teammates or competitors or both? And do you share information with Stewart and those guys?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Mark is an interesting guy. I've always watched in interviews and heard that he can have the best car and still think that his car's terrible. I've heard a lot of funny stories over the years and I've experienced it firsthand.
And I've learned that when he doesn't say a lot and he doesn't have a lot bad to say about his car, what's going on, then he's really got a good race car. We sat down in our debrief, didn't have much to say. Just said he didn't want anybody to screw it up for him. He didn't want anybody to touch the race car and mess it up. It was sort of positive, but didn't want anybody to mess it you. And he went on and dominated the night and won the race. So I found it pretty funny.
The Stewart-Haas guys, I know there's a lot of information being shared between the crew chiefs and engineers. From my standpoint I look at them as a competitor. I'm certainly happy for them and the success they've had and from a standpoint, friendship level with Tony and Ryan. And also knowing that affiliation is there.
But on the track, I look at them more as competition than I do the 5 or the 88 or the 24.
Q. You've got to have a great car to be successful. Do you also need good team chemistry, or can you win races and championships with a team that doesn't necessarily get along?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think you can win some races. I don't think you can win a championship. It's so tough. And the way the Chase works out with 10 races, takes a few months or if not more to run that, you know, the 10 races I guess three months basically.
You will fall apart. You will break down. You have to -- you don't have to be best friends and everything be rosy and great all the time, but there has to be a level of respect between many levels of the race team. It's not just the driver/crew chief level. It's a team sport. I know on Sunday it looks like it's maybe just the driver and the crew chief, but it's a team sport and it takes the whole team to make it work.
Q. So many of the fans right now, the way things are going that follow NASCAR, are surprised that this year no one has really, really dominated. We've got a different driver like winning each week. My question is: Could it be that now a lot of the teams have understood the proper setup of that new car and everyone is on the same driving page?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: NASCAR's worked really hard to build parity within the sport. It's something they've worked on really since the start of the series. And 60 years ago or whatever it is now. So that is their goal. That's why the Car of Tomorrow was brought into play, and we are seeing that.
So they're certainly accomplishing what they set out to do, and everybody at this level is very good at driving. And the teams and crew chiefs and everyone like that. So it's not a surprise to me to see so many different winners this year.
Q. About the hood paint schemes. Your Jimmie Foundation logo was on the hood of Tony Pedregon's funny car in the NHRA race this weekend. You also raced sports cars in Grand Am. Do you ever see yourself behind the wheel in a 300-mile-an-hour funny car?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't know. I don't think they'd turn me loose at 300 even though I'd like to experience it. But it was just a really neat opportunity. I can't thank Tony enough for the chance to put our sticker on the side of his car. He had a great race, made it to the finals. There might be a chance for us to be on the side of the car again. I hope there is not because that team deserves a great sponsorship, and the only reason I would be back on the side of it is if they couldn't get a sponsor here in the next short little bit of time.
It's cool to see it. I can't thank them enough. Tony and I talked again today, and with him having young children and us growing up in similar paths and kind of living on the West Coast, there's synergies there in giving back to the community and trying to direct funds and opportunities towards kids that kind of works between the two of us.
We also share the relationship of Stan and Randy Herzog and their family and their family's fondness of motor sports in general. I've raced trucks for them in ASA and Busch and now they're involved in that drag car as well. So this is a neat opportunity. And I've never really been in a dragster. But I love speed and power. So maybe some day I'll con my way into one.
Q. My question for you is one thing that's been coming up quite a bit about Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., this is Mark's first year with Hendrick and successful for three poles and two wins. Him and Alan Gustafson seem to be working well together. But yet Junior with the second year as Tony, Jr. as his crew chief is still struggling. Do you think the chemistry between Tony, Jr. and Dale, Jr. needs to improve or does Dale, Jr. just need to get a new crew chief and help him perform better?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't have the answer for you. I know it's a popular question. I know everybody wants a fix and answer. I can tell you that there's two guys on that team that are working really, really hard to do everything they can to win races and poles and championships and that's Earnhardt, Jr. and Eury, Jr.. Mark has done an amazing job coming in the 5 car. And those guys have really stood the whole industry up on their ear trying to figure out how where Mark came from in the 5 car.
So we're doing everything we can. Those guys are working extremely hard on getting to victory lane and we're supporting them the best we can here at Hendrick Motorsports. We'll just have to see what happens.
Q. A follow-up, did you buzz your hair on a bet? I got some e-mails on that. Is that true?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It wasn't necessarily a bet. I was at a friend's house for a barbecue on Sunday. And his kids thought -- there was a bunch of neighborhood kids they thought it would be a great idea to shave our heads. And one of the fathers agreed to do it.
Then once he pulled it off, he started harassing me to shave my head and the kids were there and they wanted to do it so bad. And I let them shave my head. So it was funny. Got some great photos and the kids all had a great laugh. Kids like four years old up to seven or eight.
And what the heck, it will grow back. It will take a couple of weeks and it will be back to where it was.
Q. Did you laugh about it later?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I did, when I first knelt down, my friend's daughter had the clippers, and I didn't think she was really going to go after me that quick, and she got my forehead and took a big chunk out and I stood up and looked in the mirror and I said I've got to do it now because I'm missing my bangs. So I let them do it. And it was just a fun moment.
My wife, she couldn't look at me for like 10 minutes. She was laughing. And once I get some sun on my scalp I think it will look a lot better. It's a little white and bright now.
Q. Jimmie, Kasey Kahne the last couple of years doesn't have anything like quite the dominance you had in your stretch, but have you observed from them, have you seen anything that is it possible that the 9 car may have some sort of an advantage they found or is that just circumstances?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I've been saying that for a year or two now. I don't remember how he ran in the All-Star Race. But in my mind over the last couple of years. I know Burton won and there's some other things going on in the track. Harvick won the All-Star Race as well. But the 9 car has been great, even if they've had a slow start at the season and even if they've left Charlotte and gone to the next race and been slow, they've been good at Charlotte.
In my mind I kind of think he in the last three, four years, whatever it is, has been the more dominant car than anyone and we'll see how they won this weekend.
Q. Considering your success and all the Cup championships you've won, what element or aspect of the Chase for the Cup do you like the most? And, conversely, if you could maybe change anything or tweak anything, what would that be, regarding the Chase for the Cup?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think it's worked well. I was pretty slow to get on board with the Chase when it started. I wish I would have won a championship at the old point system. I think it was a little more difficult to go the entire season and have everything go right to win a championship.
On the other side of that, Gordon says it's the opposite. He said it's more difficult now to win a championship. So I find that interesting to see somebody, like Jeff who has experienced that, say that.
Everybody has an opinion of it. I think at the end of the day it brings in new fans to our sport. And that is really the most important thing is that we continue to grow our fan base. I know that some of the fans, the hardcore fans weren't too excited about it and still may not be.
But at the end of the day we've got to keep growing this sport or else it won't be around. And I commend NASCAR for taking a big step out there to make it happen and it certainly has worked well for me.
Q. Jimmie, in the last segment of the All-Star Race, seemed to be quite a bit of passing, several lead changes and so forth. Can we sort of glean from that that the racing is maybe getting a little bit better as far as drivers' ability to pass at the intermediate tracks with the new car?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, it is getting better. I mean, NASCAR's worked -- I should say actually Goodyear has worked hard to build a better tire. We're making progress on that. The teams have had a couple of seasons to work on the car, make it better and more comfortable.
We're still fighting a lot of issues but slowly, but surely, we're improving the cars. We're making them more comfortable to race. I think the faster the track, the more difficult it is to run side by side and at night at Lowe's Motor Speedway, with the tire that they brought, it's a good tire and it's a fast tire. It makes that track really narrow.
And hopefully in the 600 we can see more racing like that, and certainly as we move forward through the year I hope we can keep putting on good shows. I think this crew does a great job on short tracks, at Talladega and Daytona as well, even the road courses. But the down-force tracks, it's such a big vehicle it punches such a big hole in the air that as you get further back in traffic the air is so turbulent the cars just don't handle.
And it was like that with the old car, not as bad because the cars were smaller and now with this car it's just made it a little more difficult.
HERB BRANHAM: Thank you, Jimmie.
End of FastScripts