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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
November 3, 2009
HERB BRANHAM: Thank you very much, and good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today's NASCAR Cam Video Teleconference. We're in advance of Sunday's Dickie's 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Great event, which is the eighth race in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. We have a great competitor with us today, our three-time defending champion of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Jimmie Johnson. He's joining us from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters in Charlotte.
Jimmie comes into Texas leading the series points by 184 over second place Mark Martin. Jimmie is trying to set an all-time series record by winning the title four years in a row. He shares the current of three straight with Cale Yarborough.
Jimmie, I know you're getting asked a lot, but what's it like to be so close to such an enormous accomplishment still three weeks to go in the season?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, it's an exciting time for sure. There's still a lot of racing left, and things can go wrong. We're in as good of a position as we could have ever hoped to have been in. So there's levels of excitement and emotion that comes with that. But I'm really trying to keep my head down and keep this team focused on doing the job the next three weeks. Not only do I feel it's important to do that for the championship's sake, but there are also some really good tracks for us coming up. I feel we could win one or two races here with the tracks we have left on the schedule, and we just need to keep going
What got us in this position was racing hard and going for every point, and until it's mathematically locked up, we're going to keep that mindset and try to get every point that we can.
Q. Looking ahead to the Phoenix race in two weeks, it'll be the first use of the double wide restart rule at PIR. Two-part question: Do you think the inside or the outside line will be favorable, especially because a couple of years ago the wall in turn 2 was moved back a little bit to open it up? And the second part of the question is considering that Hendrick Motorsports cars have won the last five Cup races in a row at PIR, even if you have a bad result at Texas, does that previous success at PIR give you a little more comfort level going into that race in terms of the championship?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I would say that looking at the schedule, the best track remaining for us would be PIR. We had a really fast car in the spring and had some different issues on pit road and some bad luck with the timing of the caution that kept us back in the pack, and still ended up with a reasonable finish but we passed a lot of cars, and in our opinion felt like we had the strongest car.
So going back to Phoenix is exciting for us, and it's one of the tracks I was mentioning in my opening statements there that I feel we can get a victory at, and hopefully make some more cool things take place in the points
For me it's a great track but it's also a great track for Jeff. He runs very consistent there, and then Mark won in the spring. The two guys I'm trying to stay ahead of in the points have that track as a strong one, as well.
At the end of the day I feel very confident. I feel very strong about the performance Hendrick Motorsports will have. I just hope it's the 48 car on top of the heap. But the double file restarts will be interesting. The bottom will probably be the preferred line. I think in turns 1 and 2 the outside will do a really good job of hanging on and can maintain down the back stretch. But in most cases the bottom of 3 and 4 is the preferred line, and we'll probably end up prevailing through the length of the race.
Q. As you've said, nothing is certain yet, but four years ago would you have thought a driver winning four straight titles was almost as unattainable or untouchable as Richard Petty's 200 wins?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I'm not sure what I would compare it to, but I didn't think it was possible. I looked at what Jeff had accomplished, race wins and four championships, and that was probably the last we'd see something like that with how competitive the sport is. I'm blown away and honored and enjoying every minute of what we're doing here, and hopeful that we can do it right these next three races and do something that's never been done before.
Excited about the potential that's out there, and no way I thought that it was possible, let alone with my situation. I know that people may find it hard to believe, but I've only been in a stock car really for 10, 11 years, and then in the Cup Series, this is my eighth season now. To have all this take place, it's pretty shocking to me, and I've worked very, very hard to get to this point, and so has this team, and we're enjoying every minute of it.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Chad: I know it's well documented you guys had a rough patch there before you started your run of championships, but what has made you guys work at this level for so long? I know there's days you want to kill him, but then last week you said you wanted to kiss him. How were you guys able to manage that relationship at this level?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I would say that the fact that we're so different really helps. If we both had similar personalities, I think we really would kill one another, so I think over time, the fact that we're so different but have some similarities and the desire to win and commitment and focus and all those things, and we share the important common things, and the other stuff that really annoys each other, we're probably more different than any driver/crew chief combination out there, and I think that's been helpful to us.
I'm pretty patient; he's not so patient. And in more instances I find that -- in a normal relationship outside of a working relationship I should say, patience really prevails, and I think my patience and kind of letting him have space at times to blow off steam and reevaluate and things like that is helpful, too.
At times I feel like I'm a psychologist with all that takes place on the race team and trying to manage emotions, and I certainly know Rick does, as well, and I don't want to leave him out of this. He's a big part of keeping our chemistry together, and back in '05 when we were really trying to kill each other, he just had a great way to connect to us and help us understand each other and work through some of that stuff. It certainly has worked.
Q. What does he do that really drives you nuts, that annoys you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'd say more than anything, it's when he is on the box and he's frustrated that the car is not going anywhere, and he thinks that I'm sitting on some speed and I can just magically make the car go a little faster. Those are the things that frustrate me in the car more than anything. He doesn't even have to say it. I think it was Charlotte maybe, I could just tell in his voice by how he was reading lap times to me, and he got under my skin and I threatened to strangle him. That worked well because he stopped talking and we got our stuff together and came back and won. I am learning how to handle him more and more each year that goes by.
Q. I know you had talked about what to do about Talladega, you had some good comments after the race, until they blow the track up and fix it, but given that may not happen, if you were NASCAR, looking back, what would you do? You heard all the fans talking about it, options of continuing to enforce harder regulations that they didn't seemingly enforce that much, but what would you do if you were NASCAR now coming back out of Talladega the next time we return other than tear the track up?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, there's a couple things. First of all, bump drafting hasn't been allowed in the corners for some time, so they didn't allow push drafting. Mike wasn't sure what phrase to use in the drivers meeting because it's kind of a new thing that is a product of this new car. So I don't think that that had as big of an impact on the race as people want to make it up as.
The real impact was we didn't want to wreck. We knew we were going to wreck. We knew we were going to cause a big wreck, it's just what that racing does, and everybody was minding their manners and be responsible up until we could see the checkered flag essentially and that's when things started to get crazy and we crashed.
NASCAR we're on a different style of car that was supposed to make the racing more exciting at these bigger tracks and really all tracks, and it has made it more exciting and allows us to close and make passes on the restrictor plate tracks, but it also is the exact thing that causes the big wrecks. We went to a smaller restrictor plate to help keep the cars on the ground and make them safer. That didn't work.
At the end of the day I hope people realized we have messed with enough in the garage area with cars, threatening drivers, regulating -- some people think they're over-regulated, other people think we're under-regulated, but the bottom line is we're going to have these issues until we're required to let off the gas going into the turns. I don't see any way possible with the safety rules that we need to pay attention to for the safety of the drivers and the fans and the way the cars are built that we can do that without eliminating banking in the corners.
I was just on a phone call with Mark Martin not long ago, and he said for 15 years now, he's been saying to people that would listen, they need to take the banking out of the corners and make us lift. I think finally the overwhelming public is understanding and starting to recognize that you can't change the cars anymore. You can't scold the drivers almost. We're going to ride single file for 490 miles and make it boring and then wreck everything at the end. So the only way we can get the racing to change is by changing the track. It's the only thing left. We've messed with every other area and nothing has worked.
Q. And how do you balance what the fans want and the crashes and the drivers not liking cars going end over end, the balance of what makes Talladega in some sense maybe really attractive to fans?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The bottom line, somebody is going to be unhappy. The fans that want to see the big wrecks and want to see four and five wide are going to be upset, and right now they're upset because we were responsible as drivers and tried not to wreck earlier in the race. Now it looks like we've got both sides unhappy. I guess it can stay this way and it probably will stay this way, but the only true fix is changing the racetracks.
And then the people that enjoy Talladega and enjoy the big wrecks and four and five racing, they won't see it. It will be more like a two-mile track like we see at Michigan or California Speedway. So there is no way that anybody is going to be happy in this. Right now because we're trying to be responsible, we have more people upset than we've ever had before.
Q. We've probably talked about this back when you were winning your first or second championship, but provincial question, take me back to your racing for the Herzogs back in the Busch Series and what impact did they have and how important were they to where you are today?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: They are largely responsible for where I am today. The offer of racing when the Craftsman Truck Series came along back in the day, '95 or whatever it was, off-road truck racing, that whole series -- there was a few series at that point in time. They literally went under as a result of that. The manufacturers found a better way to market their trucks, they were spending less money and getting more for their dollar, and the off-road industry started to implode. So through that I knew the Herzogs kind of in passing, and when they moved to the Midwest to start racing in really the last remaining form of off-road truck racing, I had GM support, they were looking for manufacturer support, we were able to marry things together and get things going for the '96 season. And at that point we shared a common goal and dream to get to the Cup level.
They spent a lot of money, a lot of time, and put a lot into me through their own family's emotionally -- they gave me everything they could to make me succeed in the sport. So we went through off-road days, ASA, Nationwide, and then we all know the story and the fact that the sponsorship wasn't there and the great opportunity I had from Hendrick. But they developed me, they finished the details I needed as an off-road truck driver, prepared me for stock car racing and then completely taught me how to race stock cars, and we did it together. We were both rookies to it. But through the years in ASA and Nationwide, developed me as a stock car driver.
Q. Is there any one thing they did, any -- what did they teach you? Do you still have things in the back of your mind when you're doing something that came from them?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, there's a lot. I mean, they didn't work with me on the technique of driving the car. They gave me the opportunity to go out and learn, and they gave me all the tools and resources that I needed and the team needed to be successful. But I think more than anything, they taught me how to really commit. They taught me how to do it right. They've been very successful in their own right, and they've done it with class and style and being a man of their word. It's very, very important to them.
So they taught me in a lot of ways how to be a man in the business world and how to be a man in the race car and own up to things and carry myself in the right way and act as a professional should. So I owe them a lot.
Q. So you went to Hendrick, you went with Jeff, you had an agreement with them that you could do that? Was your contract up with them, or what were the mechanics in you moving on to Hendrick?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, in 2000 it was our first year of Busch Racing at the time. We had "Alltel" on our car. Alltel was going to leave and sponsor Ryan Newman's car at Penske, and we didn't have a sponsor. And through that there were opportunities that were coming my direction. I didn't know what to do, and Jeff gave me some advice and also mentioned that they were thinking of starting a fourth Cup team. And as that developed, I went back to the Herzogs and explained my situation to them. It was actually at the Bristol race that followed, the August Michigan Race, and I laid it out to them. I said, "Look, I've got all these opportunities. There's one that's really special with Hendrick Motorsports, where are we at, what should I do?" This is where I say they taught me a lot about being a man. They both sat there in the transporter and said, "This is a deal you can't refuse; you should take this. As much as it pains us to do it and we've come this far, you need to take this opportunity."
And at that point I agreed to move forward with Hendrick. I still had another year left on my contract with the Herzogs and finished up with the 2001 Busch season for them and ran a partial schedule with Cup and then 2002 was my rookie year in Cup.
Q. Just wanted to get sort of a sense from you of what you're doing, if anything, to sort of not let your guard down with three races to go and having such a big lead.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Really just treating these races as if they were other races, any other race. I know it sounds stupid and corny and almost predictable, but it's the truth. I mean, the way we have prepared to this point has led to the points lead that we have and the race wins that we've accumulated over the year, and we need to do more of the same.
From my standpoint, studying my notes from the previous races, working with the engineers, understanding the setup that we're taking, understanding what we're trying to qualify and what we're going to try and race trim, and being up to speed on all those potential changes that we can work on and understanding what we're hoping that they will do, that's all part of it, and I think this weekend will be a lot easier for me than Talladega because I'm going to be working on things that actually make a difference
At Talladega there was a lot of free time for my mind to worry because the rules are so specific and there's not a lot you can think about from a driver's standpoint. But this weekend it should go fast. As soon as we get in the car, be focused on how the car is handling and adjustments that we need to make right on through the race.
I'll just try to fall into all of that and just live and breathe the race car as much as possible so that my mind doesn't think about outside things.
Q. With you getting out of Talladega and actually padding your points lead instead of potentially losing points, does that make it harder to stay on your guard, just the fact of knowing that you got screwed there the way you did?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It could, and I'm preparing for that, but I'm not sure. I don't want to open my mind up to too many things and let my guard down and I make a mistake. The same for the team. We still have a lot of pit stops that could be costly. If they lose their focus, they would miss something on the race car. From a mechanical standpoint and a handling standpoint, we really need to keep our heads down and treat this as if we were behind and chasing so that we cross all the T's and dot all the I's
Q. Even if Mark leads the most laps and wins the final three races, all you have to do is finish tenth in each race to clinch the championship. Do you plan to play it conservative at all, or do you plan to just go all out?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We're showing up to win races. Finishing tenth isn't as easy as it sounds. If Mark did everything right. It is a tough field of cars out there, and we need to be on our game. So with that in mind, we're going to race as hard as we can these next two races and see what happens for Homestead and see where we're at.
Then at that point I think we can look at more of a specific strategy. But with three to go, we need to race these next two as if we're behind in the points and get every point that we can.
Q. I'm sure you've probably gotten this question before, but I'm just wondering if I were to say a year, if you could tell me what is the first thing that comes to your mind about that championship, whether it's a couple of words that describe it or something in particular. If you could just go down your three championships for me.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: 2006 was stressful. I think about getting the monkey off our backs, sort of say getting that first championship because we had been close. And I think comeback, as well, because we were so far down in the points and were able to rally back.
2007, I think more along the lines of managing two cars. We have the split season, and the challenges that went with that, and how impressed I was with the team to understand the technology because the cars were so different, to show up and remember that it sounds easy, but yes, we're working on this car, these adjustments work. This car, the complete opposite adjustments work. So that was something I was really impressed with.
And last year I think I've come back in a little bit of a different way where the start of the season we were just out to lunch. We had to test 26 times to catch up, caught fire through the summer, and then we got into the Chase and had a great averaging finish. Our average finish in winning races and stuff.
To turn around the season in '08 -- we thought we would start '08 and everything would be fine and we'd continue on running competitively, but we were just in big trouble. So that's kind of the way I look at those three years.
Q. I'm sure you know as well as anybody that to win the championship you've got to have skill, you've got to have team work, and you've also got to have luck. Outside the way the race finished at Talladega last week, what are some other times this season where you've felt like you've had some exceptionally good luck?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Man, I don't know off the top of my head. I guess I haven't thought about it too much. I can say that the thing I'm really proud of through the Chase so far is that some people may say Talladega was a lucky race for us, but I see how we earned this thing and made good decisions. There's only one race I can say where we left something on the table, and that would be Kansas. I thought we had a much better finish for ourselves there and tuned ourselves out at the end of the race.
Even Talladega, Chad made a decision to pit for fuel, and that decision put us in position for a good finish. It wasn't a lucky call where Chad had to make the call and off we went. I feel from that race the luckiest thing I had was not being back one more row and collected when the wreck started. The 82 car was cleaned out behind me, and I was lucky to not be him.
When I think about luck, it's hard for me to think too much about it. I guess I'm maybe trying to ignore it in some respects and focus on the things I can control and what the team does and just haven't paid too much attention to those things.
Q. And also, I mean, potentially approaching this fourth championship, a lot of people who have accomplished what you accomplished say when it's happening they don't ever have time to enjoy it, but looking back, they can. Are you at a place where you can really enjoy and embrace what's going on right now?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, I do enjoy it. I enjoy it in the car more than anything. Being in these moments, I've always watched sports and wondered what it would be like to pull something off in the final few seconds of a game, the fourth quarter, whatever it may be. I think we've all as kids watching sports have wanted to be in that moment and experience it.
I feel very fortunate to be experiencing those things. I am guilty that I don't reflect back a lot on what we've done. I assume at some point I will, but I guess it's a good thing that I'm not doing it yet. That might be a sign that you're ready to hang it up, and I feel like I'm pretty far away from hanging it up, and I'm still looking forward instead of reflecting back right now.
Q. Rewinding to Talladega and the talk about the banking, would it make any sense in your opinion to put a chicane on the back stretch? Would that slow the cars down to justify removing the plates?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It would slow the cars down, but we would have a 43-car pileup first attempt trying to get into the chicane. You've got to think about what it takes to stop a car on a Superspeedway. The cars are very slick so there's no downforce in them, which really affects the braking a lot. On top of that we're running small brakes. Just one thing after another from a mechanical standpoint, just two totally different worlds. I guess we could put all the beefy stuff on it; it wouldn't be a possibility to make them stop and last. But when you have all those cars in a big kind of running down into a braking zone, guys would be five, six, seven wide and tires locked up and running through one another, there's just no way. It would not be able to happen. If we're going to reconfigure it, there is a road course in the infield and just make it a road course race. You couldn't have a combination of 2.6 mile speedway track with a chicane in it. It's just two different worlds.
Q. Also there was no chatter during the race on Sunday that maybe a lot of the single-file racing we saw could have been some type of former driver protest against restrictor plate racing. Is there any truth to that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, there's no truth to that. That really is, when we hit single file like that, we just know there's no need to race at that point. All that matters is from that last pit stop on. I've been joking for years saying we just need a 23-lap shootout and it will be exciting and everybody will be happy and we'll hurry up and wreck the cars and go home. That's really what took place. Nobody was willing to race that hard and make those risky moves for the first 490 miles. So much so that our strategy, thinking that somebody would wreck, didn't pan out and we were sitting in a really bad situation at the red flag.
The fans can be upset and be upset at NASCAR, but at the end of the day, the reason we weren't three and four wide is because we didn't want to be. We wanted to ride single file. We wanted to log miles and have a better chance at finishing the race.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to Jimmie Johnson for joining us. Best of luck as you come down the stretch here and chase this tremendous bit of history.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Appreciate it. We'll see everybody soon. Thank you.
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