NASCAR Media Conference
DENISE MALOOF: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the NASCAR NEXTEL teleconference. First some housekeeping. The NEXTEL Wake-Up Call is on hiatus until the series visits Dover during the first weekend in June. Also don't forget the upcoming 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge on Saturday evening, May 21st. Prior to the race, teams currently qualified for the event will test their skills in the NASCAR NEXTEL Pit Crew Challenge on Thursday, May 19th, at Charlotte Coliseum, a couple days before the All-Star race. Today we're joined by Jimmie Johnson, who leads the series standings by 130 points over defending series champion Kurt Busch. Jimmie is not only qualified for the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, but he's also the defending champion of Sunday's Dodge Charger 500 at Darlington Raceway. In fact, Jimmie won both Darlington events last season. Accompanying him today is his crew chief Chad Knaus. Chad, let's get started with an All-Star question for you. Both the Race and the Pit Crew Challenge spotlight team members. I'm sure your guys are ready to tackle both events. What is your strategy to try to win that All-Star Pit Crew Challenge on Thursday?
CHAD KNAUS: The guys have started going through some different practice drills. Obviously the format for that is going to be a little bit different. The car is stationary, so the guys have to kind of get adjusted to that. We're actually going to start preparing the race car that we're going to use. They've got to do a 40-yard push. Seven crew members are going to go out there and push the car for 40 yards. That's one of the deals they have to try to do once they reach the finals. We're trying to get that car to roll as easily as we can make it to try to get every little bit of advantage we can out of that. Other than that, they don't have to do a whole lot because they're going to be doing the same thing they do every weekend about eight to ten times. They practice regularly at the racetrack, then obviously what we do at the shop under normal practice.
DENISE MALOOF: Jimmie, back to Darlington. You're going to run both events this weekend, NASCAR NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series. Do you think you've tamed the Lady in Black?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No. The day you believe that or feel that you have, she'll bite you. I don't think I've tamed her. I've become decent friends with her and we'll just try to keep it that way.
DENISE MALOOF: Sounds good. Let's open it up to questions for both of you guys.
Q. Jimmie, with the two wins last year at Darlington, do you come in mentally better prepared or do you come in saying, "The odds have got to be against me because I swept it last year"?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't think we spend too much time looking at the odds and approaching things that way. I think we look at our past performance and try to see what we can do better. In looking at the Darlington track, it's tough to do better than what we did. We just look at it more in that light, though, is to come back and do a better job and try to take it from there. I don't really have a solid answer for your question except that the track itself is so unique and there's so many different things we have to deal with throughout the course of the day. Pit stops are very important with how many times I'll hit pit road in the Cup race for new tires with the cautions that take place. There's a lot of factors that play into it. It's a place where everyone really has to focus on their individual jobs and just do that job. If I get too busy racing other cars, you'll make a mistake. If the guys get worried about doing something else on pit road or being the fastest all the time, mistakes are going to be made. It's really about racing the track. You hear that old cliche there, but it's very true. Everyone just has to stay focused on their deal and race the racetrack.
Q. Chad, back to Talladega. With all the carnage there, there was one suggestion I read that it was time for NASCAR to look at changing the track in order to keep the packs from building up the way they are. What are your thoughts on that? Do you have your own thoughts on how we can prevent the carnage we're seeing?
CHAD KNAUS: It's pretty easy to blame NASCAR. I think if you look back over history, every time we leave Talladega or Daytona and we do have the "big one," somebody always says it's time for NASCAR to change the tracks. You've got to realize if NASCAR was to change those racetracks, I don't know that we would have the draw that we do to Daytona and Talladega. Obviously, the things that I would love for them to knock the banking down and make them a little bit flatter and turn them into more of a downforce track. I think that would be something that would be very unique and something that we could probably adapt to. But that's not what the fans want to see. The fans love seeing groups of cars running three- and four-wide. The only way to really spread out the field is to make it to where the drivers have to lift. It's going to be very, very difficult for NASCAR to do that. Ways in which they can do that is obviously to increase the horsepower to where the cars go faster, but you increase the rate of lift-off for the cars. You can't do that. So one of the things we've talked about in the past with NASCAR is going to a narrower tire, a tire that will give up more, wear out more, give less contact patch to the ground. I think that's something that they can maybe look into that would help that. But it's really difficult to say that there's going to be one for sure thing that's going to make the cars separate. We've got some pretty intelligent people that work on these race cars, and whatever the rules are, we're going to do whatever we can to make the cars as fast as we can. Ultimately we'll probably end up in the same situation unless we finally get to a situation to where we can unleash the horsepower and let the cars go out there. If you have 800 horsepower, a guy going into the turn, you're going to make the car have more downforce, he's going to have to lift, and different things will happen. That will be the best scenario.
Q. Jimmie, when you first broke into the sport, it was really clear that you and Jeff had sort of a mentor/protégé relationship. You are virtually now peers and equals. Is there a point in your mind when that began to change, when you started to look at yourself less as Jeff's protégé and more as a peer to him?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Not necessarily. I mean, I think there's been some natural evolution that's taken place. Our team has been able to provide and help the 24. Getting started out, we took a lot from them. As time has gone on, we've been able to give back. I think in that giving back thing, we respect each other, we respect each other's teams and abilities, and that dynamic has taken its own from there.
Q. When you first got in, how much of how you dealt with media and sponsors and hospitality came from Jeff's blueprint? I think Jeff said at Talladega he once said, "Don't be afraid to be outspoken on issues." How much did you take Jeff's key on the way you handled off-the-track stuff?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Fortunately, I think I see things the way that Jeff does. It's one thing when somebody advises you, but you see it in a different light. We kind of look at things the same way, have a similar style. It's been easy for me to listen and take his suggestions and adapt his outlook to my deal. I mean, it's just kind of worked well more than anything.
Q. Have you put more of your stamp on how you do that kind of stuff?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I think so. Everybody has their own style. Last thing you want to do is copy someone. I would be crazy to not take his advice. He's been very generous and helpful for me in the car and outside of the car. I've taken everything that he's advised me on and applied it to my style and my way of doing things.
Q. Your comment on the Chase last year got so much play. Was that the first time when you realized what you say can carry weight in the sport?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: That changes every day (laughter). I see different things that carry and run further. I thought that I've seen it all at different times, but it continues to grow.
Q. Jimmie, you get inundated when you go home to California Speedway with requests. Is there one childhood friend you look forward to seeing when you go back there and spend time with that comes to the track, you try to just spend time with?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I wouldn't say necessarily one person. There's a large group of people that I try to get with and see. Fortunately, they've been traveling out to races so it's not so overwhelming each time I go out. It changes each time. A few people do make it to races on the East Coast, so I'm not too worried about seeing them. I worry about the guys that haven't had a chance to make it out. It's always changing.
Q. Jimmie, you talked about learning stuff from Jeff. What did he talk to you about Darlington since he's had good success? Did he give you any advice racing the track?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think so. I honestly learn more from him by watching him and racing with him, kind of understanding the way he looks at things. Darlington is a place that his patience and his experience and knowledge really has helped him out in so many ways. I've noticed that and have brought that into my program. I think it was two years ago maybe I got into a little thing with Sterling from racing too hard and not being patient. From that point on, going back to Darlington, I really watched Jeff and paid attention to the line that he runs, how he approaches the race, when he races, why he races people. I've applied that to what I do.
Q. Last year you swept a couple different places. Where would you rank sweeping at Darlington as far as historically and in your career?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's massive. I mean, to be able to win a race at Darlington is a huge accomplishment. Personally I know that it doesn't have the luster of like the Daytona 500 or some of the other races from an outsider's standpoint. When you leave that racetrack, you know that you won, you are the guy that everybody chased, it means a lot. It's top of the list.
Q. A lot more cautions happening this year. What can you attribute that to? I know Talladega you're always going to have a big one, but other tracks seems like cautions are up. Are drivers becoming too aggressive?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No. That's what we're paid to do, is be aggressive. You've got new rules packages. There's a lot of things that are different. The cars are a little tougher to drive. Everybody's trying hard. I think the competition is closer than it's ever been. I think it's a little of everything to be honest with you.
Q. Jimmie, you talked a lot about Darlington. Is it overstating to say that Darlington is different from every other track and therefore sort of special, the kind of track that maybe NASCAR would want to keep in its circuit in the long-term? Is that kind of overstating it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, that's right on the money. I think if you read between the lines and the comments that are made from drivers and teams, and even NASCAR, they know that Darlington is such a unique racetrack. What it's done for the sport, I think it was one of the first three paved ovals that NASCAR raced on. It has a lot of history. It's very unique. I think that's why it's still on the schedule. I think we need to keep tracks like Darlington on the schedule. It may not fit the new model for a big racetrack, big market, all the different things like that. It's one of the tracks our sport was founded on, a very tough race to get around. I like that it's on the schedule.
Q. Since we have raced at Talladega, there have been so many calls and emails trying to place blame for what happened at a race at a restrictor plate race like Talladega. I would love to give the opportunity to Chad and Jimmie to talk about whether blame could be or should be placed for a restrictor plate race.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think everybody wants to put blame somewhere. It's just the way that everybody works. Now we even have the -- when you crash, they show the replay while they're interviewing you so you can place blame. It seems to be the new thing right now. Everybody wants answers as to why there's big wrecks. I think that our wreck on Sunday was a racing incident. If you took one of those three components out of what took place to start that big wreck, it wouldn't have happened. It's hard racing. You're an inch and a half apart from one another. Cars bouncing all over. They're hard to drive. It's hard to place blame on it. I think what took place on Talladega in the big wreck and with two to go that I was caught up in was hard racing. That's all that it was.
Q. Chad, could you follow up with a thought on that?
CHAD KNAUS: Honestly, I haven't looked at them that close. I know that we got in that wreck with just a few laps to go there. The earlier caution, I didn't see a whole lot of that one either. We got back to Charlotte, we got prepared, we're ready to go to Darlington. All that stuff is really behind us. We don't talk about it. We don't review the accident tapes or anything like that. That's what the fans do. We really don't do that. I don't really know what happened. It's hard to place blame on anybody when you're racing in a pack that is that close with the speeds those guys are running out there. For the most part they all do a pretty good job. All it takes is one little slip-up by somebody or by two or three people, you're going to have a heck of a crash. It's just unfortunate.
Q. Can you maybe talk about what the overall feeling was in the garage after the big one there at Talladega this weekend amongst the drivers.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: We weren't in that wreck, so I wasn't around afterwards to catch the vibe. When I left after I was crashed with two to go, you leave thinking, "Well, it's Talladega, it's Daytona, it's what happens." In a little bit of the interviews I saw, a lot of the drivers afterwards seemed to have that same vibe. You can play back last week's race and then maybe the last five years' worth of races at Talladega Superspeedway racing and you're going to see the same interviews and same comments made after every wreck.
Q. Looking at each other, what is the one thing that each of you brings to this team that's made you so successful?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Go ahead, Chad. I want to hear this.
CHAD KNAUS: I've got a great race car driver, just a great driver. That's what we've got there, a guy that can get out there, that can drive. If you've ever truly seen Jimmie drive, I'm not talking just in competition, when he's out there and he's practicing and what he can do and the way he feels the car, then the way he's able to communicate that back to myself and the other team members at Hendrick Motorsports, I think that's far and above better than any other driver out there. He can truly feel the car better than anybody else out there.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Not to follow up what he's saying, but I have to say that he can understand what I'm saying. That's the hardest thing. I think it applies in any sport or profession: communication is everything. He understands what I say and how I say it, what I'm feeling, and can fix it. That's the amazing thing. I thought I had all those crazy feelings in me, what the car was doing, based on past experiences, we couldn't fix it. But Chad can fix it. He can really visualize and see what the car is doing based on what I tell him, address it and fix it. It's amazing.
Q. Jimmie, back when the plans were announced, Jeff expressed some concerns, because Darlington is a unique place, that there might be a problem with things like shadows that would be unique. Is that something that you guys have been assured that's all been covered or is that something you guys will be watching for closely when you get on the track Thursday night?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I know that when Jeff practiced there, I think he did an exhibition of some sort, he was concerned with the lighting. I have to admit when we were back and raced and finished under the lights, I didn't -- I don't recall there being any issues with the lighting. So I don't know if they addressed something based on Jeff's comments then. But after our finish under the lights there last year, I thought everything was fine. I thought you could see the track well. Shadowing didn't seem to be a big problem. The hardest thing was the twilight hours, racing into the sun. It was tough going into turn three. Once the sun went down, everything seemed fine.
Q. Jimmie, we've been hearing pretty much since you were in diapers that this year is the closest competition we've ever seen. I think you even referenced it earlier. You look at the points, and actually between last year and this year, the difference between one and ten is about the same. It feels like the competition is harder. Can you pinpoint anything to answer that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think the reason the points may not be closer to reflect the competition is some bad racing luck for some guys, being caught up in things. For the most part we've been pretty clean. We crashed out of the race last week and still finished 20th. I know some guys have crashed out and ended up in the 30s and 40s. I think that the points don't really resemble what we're saying as far as the competition. I definitely believe the competition is stronger this year than what I've seen in my Cup career.
Q. Can you talk about the possibilities of what this month holds for you with the races at Darlington, Richmond, Charlotte, based on your recent results?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm really looking forward to it. There's some new things coming up at Lowe's Motor Speedway that I'm looking forward to our test session with our Busch car to see what's going on at that track. When I look at the calendar, see the racetracks that are laid out, I'm really excited. Definitely looking forward to things, and think that we can win some races that are coming up.
Q. Chad, I didn't hear your thoughts on Darlington. From your perspective, what are your thoughts when you look to Darlington?
CHAD KNAUS: I'm looking forward to it. I love Darlington. I think it's a very unique racetrack. I wish it was still on the schedule twice. I think it's one of the coolest racetracks we go to. I just wish we could work on everything around the racetrack and inside the racetrack to make it a little bit nicer. The garage area isn't real good for the guys to work in. It's kind of difficult for them. I know some of the seating arrangements for the fans is a little difficult. I think if we can make some improvements to the racetrack as far as getting in and out, the accommodations, it would be one of the top venues out there because the track's got so much history, and the racing is just so awesome.
Q. Chad, you once said you'd love to crew chief a Rolex 24 Hour race. Do you still want to play the strategy role in that?
CHAD KNAUS: Yeah, I'd love to do it. I think it would be a lot of fun. It's unfortunate that our NEXTEL Cup Series kind of crosses over into that. It's just not a real good idea to take away from that. Maybe one day maybe when I'm old and gray, I'll be able to go and give it a shot.
Q. Jimmie does it now. He's hardly old and gray.
CHAD KNAUS: Jimmie has a lot more free time than I do.
Q. Butch Leitzinger and Elliot Forbes just came back from their California portion of that and are third place in the points overall. Jimmie, are you going to be joining them at any time in the near future?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I hope so. I would like to race the 4th of July race, the Paul Revere race in Daytona. I think it would work well. I know Tony ran the Watkins Glen race. I've got mixed emotions on doing that, but I definitely would like to do the Paul Revere race if it all works out. I've put my feelers out there to the Crawfords and have let them know. We'll see if we can get something pulled together.
Q. Chad, a lot has been made recently of steroids in other sports. I was wondering if you think there's any possible way that steroids could help somebody on the pit crew?
CHAD KNAUS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Whether it's being practiced or not, obviously I have no idea. When you're using steroids, if I remember back to my wrestling and football days back in high school, what that would do is just kind of increase your burst of energy and your short-term impact. Obviously, that's what you're doing in a 12-second pit stop. But honestly I don't think that there's any of that out there. If there is, then I will be surprised. But, yeah, it could be a small gain.
Q. Chad, how much did the 48 team sort of lean on the 24 those first couple years? Was there a tangible point in your mind when the 48 team sort of found its own footing and could sort of begin to return the favor a little bit?
CHAD KNAUS: You know, honestly I think we started to contribute right out of the box. Our first test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Jimmie and I, we really tried some things that were a little different from the norm for the 24 car and for Hendrick Motorsports. We went to the racetrack, I believe it was the first seven weeks of our 2002 season, with the identical setup as the 24 car. Reason being is we knew that if Jeff rolled off the truck and he was fast, then we needed to be just as fast as he did. Basically that put the blame on Jimmie, and not on me (laughter). Beyond that point, after our first couple of runs, we'd see where we stacked up on the board, and then at that point we would start going our own direction of what we thought Jimmie was more comfortable with, what I felt the car would be faster with. So about seven weeks into it, that's when we really started to gain our legs and start running strong.
Q. How have you seen Jimmie sort of come into his own, establish his own identity as a driver and as a person over the course of his Cup career?
CHAD KNAUS: You know, as a driver, I think he's developed into one of the best drivers I've seen in the sport. I've been in the sport for quite some time. As an individual and a race winner and spokesperson, as far as I'm concerned, he's probably the best out there. I don't think you're going to meet a nicer, truer guy. He does his job right. Very untypical of him to fly off, shoot somebody the bird or jump up and down and scream, act like a child or anything like that. I think he's got a good package.
Q. Are you guys so close as far as knowing each other that you know what the other guy is thinking before he says it or even finish a sentence once somebody starts talking? Are you guys that close?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I wouldn't use those terms. I mean, we are close enough to know how each other really works and how we can lean on each other and get the most out of each other. I mean, that's more of the dynamic than anything. Something that I truly respect in Chad is if he doesn't think that we're heading in the right direction or that something's wrong, it's not that I complete his sentence or he completes mine, we'll tell each other how we really feel and figure out how to make it better from there. I think that's a key part to communicating, is standing up for what you believe in, having people understand it and see it with you. That's a hard thing to do.
CHAD KNAUS: Yeah, I agree. The thing that we've -- I think Phoenix probably started off to be a good example, but didn't end up that way. Jimmie could feel something in the car a couple years ago in Phoenix that he really, really liked, but it's away from what would make the car work. I really believed the direction we were going with the race car was going to be the way to go as opposed to what we had had a couple of years ago. Instead of him continuing to insinuate or pester or anything like that, he just said, "Okay, if that's really what you believe, let's go down that road." We've had to do that a few times. There's been times when Jimmie has said, "Look, I really think we're going the wrong way." We take and pay attention to that and we go a different direction. It's not so much completing sentences for each other, but I think it's more of looking in each other's eyes and knowing what they're truly feeling. He knows when I'm pretty upset. I know when he's pretty upset. Happy, mad, whatever it may be. I think that's what we've got more than other people.
Q. You read each other well without words been spoken?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Definitely.
CHAD KNAUS: I think he can look at me and tell if I'm pissed (laughter). I should say mad, sorry.
Q. Three of the last four years at Talladega there have been crashes involving more than 20 cars. Is it to the point you just have to accept that as part of racing or should that be something that forces the sport to take either a closer look or more action on that issue?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I personally don't know what they can do, what NASCAR can do or what goes on. When you're out there in the cars and you're drafting, bump-drafting three-wide, four-wide, the cars are being moved around. If you imagine driving down -- being on a boat and the wake coming off of a boat. When you try to cross that wake in another boat, it's difficult. Throws you all over the place. If you want to think of being out there with 42 other boats, you're trying to stay an inch or two apart from one another, stuff happen. It's very tough. NASCAR is in a corner where they can't allow us to run any faster to separate us because of safety issues of the cars taking off. We just kind of concede, we know we're going to Talladega or Daytona, there will be a 20-car wreck. We just kind of hope we're not in it. It's what we have to do there, unfortunately. I don't really think it's anybody's fault. We're racing hard. NASCAR, for safety reasons, have to keep the rules how they are. We just hope we're not in the big wreck.
Q. Everybody expected you to come out of the gate keeping the momentum you had last year. Largely you have. Yet the 24 team right beside you seems to have come out with even more momentum. Has that been a surprise to you guys, that the 24 team came out with your forte of winning races? What's going on with those two teams side by side?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't think anybody plans necessarily to come out with a certain style. It's more of how the rules are playing into your setups. There's so many variables that move around that give a team or an organization an advantage. I think you're dealing with Jeff Gordon. The man is capable of winning a lot of races. He has, and he always will. He's very aggressive. I think one of the bigger stories has been how Roush has been so competitive. Their whole team has been more of a surprise than I would say Jeff coming out strong. Jeff's always going to be strong. Things are working right for those guys right now. For us, as well. The first five races, we were in contention to win each of them. Last few weeks have been a little harder on us. We're still up there fighting for wins and running really strong.
CHAD KNAUS: I think obviously the communication level between the 24 and the 48 is as high as it's ever been. A lot of this sport is based on whether you want to call it momentum or confidence. Right now both of our teams have a lot of confidence and momentum on their side. I think that's playing a big role into it. When a driver goes to a racetrack, feels like he's capable of winning that event, that carries a lot of weight. Jeff and Jimmie both right now feel every time they go to the racetrack, they're capable of winning. Either they have won at that track or they've come close to winning at that track. Same with Robbie, his pit crew, myself and our pit crew with the Lowe's team. I think that's probably the biggest thing you're seeing is just a pretty severe level of confidence every time you go to the racetrack. That's really starting to play into it.
DENISE MALOOF: Thank you, Chad and Jimmie, for making time for us. Good luck in Darlington.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thanks.
CHAD KNAUS: Thank you.
DENISE MALOOF: Thanks, everybody, for your participation. We'll see you again next week.
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