NASCAR Media Conference
October 18, 2005
DENISE MALOOF: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome back to the NASCAR Nextel teleconference. First, our usual bit of housekeeping. This week's NEXTEL Wake-Up Call begins at 10 a.m., Friday, at the Martinsville Speedway infield media center, and Jeremy Mayfield is the guest. Today we're joined by Jimmie Johnson, who's fresh off last Saturday night's victory at Lowe's Motor Speedway, his fourth straight in five races there. The win vaulted him from second place in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup standings. He's actually tied in points with Tony Stewart. They both have 5,777 points, but Tony retains the lead because he has five wins to Jimmie's four this season. For the second straight week, Jimmie is our defending race winner. He won at Martinsville last fall, part of a four-win-in-the-last-six-races-streak that propelled him to a second-place finish in the final standings. Jimmie, I assume you'd welcome a similar kind of streak this season.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I would love to have that happen. I'm not sure if it will. Didn't think, you know, that anybody was capable of it last year, and we were able to do it. We have great tracks coming up for us, and, you know, it's really anybody's championship at this point. I think after five races, I'm shocked just like everyone else how close the championship race is. I think that over the next five, it's only going to be more interesting, more aggressive, more stress and pressure, and it's going to be, you know, right down to the very end, I think.
DENISE MALOOF: Sounds good. Let's take some questions for you.
Q. Congratulations, Jimmie, on your win.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thank you.
Q. I'm wondering, to what extent do you think that wrecks are a part of the appeal of NASCAR to fans, and how do you feel about that? Does that bother you, I guess?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, it's part of our sport. I mean, it's kind of like going to a football game and you hope to see a big hit through the night or a big tackle or something that comes up. I think that it's part of the feel that's involved with our sport. It's part of what draws fans in. If we're out there in go-carts running 10 miles-an-hour, they wouldn't be watching. So, you know, it's part of the risk. Of course I don't want anybody to crash, I don't want to crash, but we've made a lot of gains in the safety department so that we are having big wrecks and everybody's walking away. There's a lot of pieces to that pie, and everything's working well right now. We don't want to see issues like we had Saturday night. I don't think NASCAR, the drivers or owners or teams, a racetrack, tire company, any of those people want to have something besides racing causing the crashes.
Q. Great point. Thank you so much.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You got it.
Q. Hey, Jimmie. Are drivers still angry about everything that went down on Saturday, or do we all just kind of forget about this the next time one guy throws a helmet at another guy's car?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think one of the good things about our sport is there's always next weekend. There may be some lingering effects at the start of the next race weekend, but then it disappears. In everything that I have seen or read based on Saturday night's race, all the drivers and owners and everyone recognizes the hard work that went into trying to have a good race, a safe race, no tire issues. But they popped up. I thought that there may be a blood bath in there for someone, it's really been, you know, a decent situation for everyone afterwards. I'm proud of everybody for handling it the way that they have.
Q. Is that a good thing, that sometimes stuff like that gets shoved off the radar screen by some other controversy and we kind of forget about it, nothing changes?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think there's so much that goes on during our races with 43 different teams, different suppliers and manufacturers, personalties, everything that takes place, I'm sure each week there's quite a few things that would have been good stories that then get pushed to the side. I'd rather have those other stories come back and not have a controversy on tire track or all the accidents that we have.
Q. Jimmie, you had a problem that you overcame at Charlotte and still won. What is it like having momentum and maybe some luck on your side in the second half of this Chase?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, momentum is an important thing. We're happy to be winning already in the Chase. Last year we won four; this year, so far two. So it's coming at a good time. We had a slow couple months before the Chase started. We definitely have things going in the right direction right now. But it's tough to carry momentum from a mile-and-a-half track to a half-mile track. It's totally different. Luckily, for us, it's a track that we've won at before. We know how to race there and what to do. I feel very good with all the races in the final 10. Phoenix is our only weak spot, I think, and we're going to be testing out there. So, hopefully, you know, we get everything under control and win a championship.
Q. When are you coming out here to test?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think in two weeks. Over the next four weeks, I'm not sure where I am. I'm just going to get on the plane and take off (laughing).
Q. Obviously, controversy makes sports more interesting to fans, but have you ever seen -- it seems like there's been a different controversy each of the Chase races. I know you were involved in one of them. Is that good for the sport? Have you ever been in a situation where there's been so many different things going on week to week?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, I haven't. There's so many different stories taking place. Through every different form of racing that I was in in my career, I thought, "Wow, this is bigger and better, and there couldn't be anything more intense or more looked at than this." And as I kept climbing the ladder, I realized that everything else was kind of small. Really, from the Busch Series to Cup, it increased tenfold versus what I was experiencing on the Busch side. There's a lot of attention, a lot of people watching. It says a lot about our sport, the growth of it, the fan base that we have. But at the same time, you've got 43 independent teams doing their own things and at the end of the day really only one person is happy. So there's a lot of stories throughout all that.
Q. If you were betting, what would be the controversy in Martinsville? We've had tires, shock absorbers, multi-car teams; there's been a different one each week. What would you anticipate at Martinsville?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think that Martinsville is a place where contact is going to come into play and tempers are going to be high, like a Bristol. There's a lot on the line for Chase contenders. It's a track where you can never get away from lap cars or cars that you're racing, so the potential is there to have contact and problems. The track, since they resurfaced it, it's really a single-file track on the bottom. The way you make your position is by somebody making a mistake, or you help them make a mistake.
Q. Jimmie, you've obviously said in recent weeks pretty much how hard or how much the odds would be against replicating a four-out-of-six streak like last year. How much do you think the tragedy of last year fueled everything from the focus to the abandon almost with which you drove in Atlanta, for example? I guess what I'm trying to ask is would replicating last year's streak be harder than without that tremendous focus caused by the tragedy, or would it be easier under happy times to replicate that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't know. I would think it would be easier under good times than bad. There was so much going on through everyone's mind, so much pain last year with the tragedy. You know, we didn't want to go to Atlanta. We knew we had to, but we didn't want to be there. You know, the race weekend wore on. The first day was tough. The second day was a little bit better. Then the weeks to follow were that way, too. You know, it did at the end of the year give us a lot of pride to know that we went out and we won Atlanta, we were able to win at Martinsville, that we honored our friends. And as a team, really all of Hendrick Motorsports really performed. We had two cars in the last lap of Homestead with a shot at winning the championship. So there was more pride than anything. The four races we won, I couldn't believe it then. There's guys that have been on different streaks this year where they've won quite a few. It's not impossible, but when it's going on, you don't know why it's -- you know the hard work the team's put in has gotten you to that point, but you don't know how long it's going to last or how long you're going to keep it or how to keep it. You just hope for the best, and that's kind of where we are now. We feel we're hitting our stride at the right time, and hopefully we can rattle off a couple wins, if not top fives at this point. I still feel that it's about not losing the championship versus winning it.
Q. So was last year's streak more in spite of, because of the tragedy then?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah, I think it was tougher times for us.
Q. You've been to Martinsville since that accident, in the spring. But is there a sense of going back on the one-year anniversary?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, definitely. Back in the spring, all the emotions came back. Went back for the test last week, and you can't help but think about it. Atlanta is going to be that way, too, pulling into Atlanta. Just it's hard to forget those things, you know. One thing that I feel so -- and that's coming up, all the families, dealing with this one-year anniversary, it's going to be so tough for all of them. I know they all do different things to help the anniversary pass, and with as little pain as possible. But another person that I'm going to be thinking of quite a bit is Brian Vickers; it's his birthday. The anniversary of the plane crash is on his birthday of all things. So as a teammate and as a friend, to be there for him as well as the other people that lost loved ones on the flight.
Q. I know you never get over the losses, but has Hendrick Motorsports recovered, do you think, from it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I think that, you know, it's a testament to the people that were working here. They made sure their departments were able to run and advance and find things without them being an eagle watching over the top of everything. Definitely we wish we had everybody back; there's no doubt that we've lost something. But the people in place did such a good job of training their team that we've been able to move along, win races, and still fight for a championship.
Q. I have a question about what maybe should have been done. I know that John Darby had told me that they bring restrictor plates to every track (inaudible).
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't think so, because the restrictor plate would obviously slow us down. At that point, we wouldn't let off the gas. I think we would punish the tires just as hard, if not harder. If they put just a little smaller -- if they put a small plate on there, or I guess it would be a big plate, where there was a small change in performance in engine, I think it would have been tougher on the tires. Everybody could have flat-footed it then. You know, would have had to slow down the cars quite a bit to take tire chip out of them.
Q. Alan Gustafson (phonetic) said he thinks the solution is to put down force in the cars. With this situation in Charlotte, they had problems at Chicago, you could, quote, list 10 racetracks that they would have maybe some problems with tires. He said the cars need more down force with harder tires like they had in 2003. Do you agree with him?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: He brings up a good point. I think that everybody right now is searching for an answer, and I hear good arguments on both sides. You know, that's a good perspective to look at. I think that the way the track was before, it was really abrasive and it would wear the tires out. Even though we were having these tire problems, tires weren't wearing, they were just holding a lot of heat in them. Then eventually the rubber would start to pull apart and rip apart because the tire was so hot, it wasn't wearing. So whatever we need to do to get them to wear. (Inaudible) that I told him before the race, I said, You need to find some type of mix that we used at Darlington, and his eyes about popped out of his head. I said, Listen to me, in my opinion, the tires need to wear, we need to have falloff, we need to make handling important, and that's how you're going to have side-by-side racing. When you have a big speed dropoff, then there's enough room on the racetrack to run side-by-side. Last night, or two nights ago, the speeds are so high that you just don't have enough room around the racetrack to run next to one another.
Q. Jimmie, looking at the points standings with you and Tony tied, with the tiebreaker going to the fact that he had more wins than you do, I guess that really answers the question of consistency against victories because should the season end this way, he would win the championship.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, you know, that's a good point. One thing I was thinking about is the fact that our championship is based off of a 10-race schedule. And the fact that the tiebreaker would be based off of the entire season, I kind of question that a little bit and wonder if it needs to be a tiebreaker based on the final 10 instead of the whole season. I can give everybody something to write about and talk about. But that's a question that I'm going to talk to Mike and see what their point of view on that is and just get some clarification on it. But it's been a long season, and at the end the numbers are overlaying and you've got two guys that have been able to win a lot of races and that also show consistency. This year's been a good year. I think it's tough from year to year to have the stats stack up like you would want, where Matt a couple years ago won one event and took some criticism for winning the championship and only winning one race. But he earned it, and he did his job. So this year at least everybody will look back and say it was won on hard racing.
Q. Everyone's been talking about the potential cap on ownership. They act like a multi-car team automatically equals success, but most of them seem to struggle. What does it take - the 5 and 25 are better this year - what does it take to get all the team's cars running the same?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: That's tough. It really is tough. I mean, when you have so many people on payroll, so many different personalties to worry about, then on top of that you hire crew chiefs and engineers to help advance the cars, so you've got at least one engineer and then a crew chief per team, and everybody has ideas, everybody thinks up new ways to do things. It's a team owner's job to try to find the best things that are being provided and then make all the teams run them together. And, you know, Rick really started that trend and I think does the best job with it. But in my mind, there is some sort of cap out there right now where a team owner can only own two vehicles. Rick Hendrick owns the 24 and the 5. Papa Joe owned the 25, and now his wife does. And then Jeff owns the 48. I don't know how they're going to police this, one; and, two, we kind of have something in place to protect that. Granted, there's ways around it, but what's to stop an affiliation with another team? Say Hendrick Motorsports has an affiliation with MB2. Where is the line going to be drawn? This is the question I have. Five cars that Jack has, he's done a good job. I mean, he's worked hard to put that stuff in place and he's done a good job. I don't have a huge complaint. I know it's tougher for the smaller teams. Right now, if you limit Jack Roush and a couple other teams down to three, you might not have enough cars in the field.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about the feeling around the team last year as success built over the final five to seven races? Was there an air of confidence building at the same time? What was going on?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, we were working through our pain, the tragedy. Really, we felt that we weren't even -- didn't even stand a chance to win the championship. So it was about rebuilding for the next year, finding our way to Victory Lane again. And once we did that once, we were like "Hey, we're here to win races. There's no way we're going to win this championship, let's just win races." Then we show up at Homestead and we're like, "Wow, actually we can win the championship." So it did build confidence and taught us a few lessons about our sport, how difficult it is, and how things can change in a hurry for the good or for the bad. So just gave us some more experience and taught us a few lessons.
Q. If you don't mind, I wanted to go back to Charlotte real quickly and something you talked a bit with Claire about. It was said after it was over basically don't worry about this anymore because we're going to resurface the track immediately and that will solve everything. My impression was that resurfacing by definition makes speeds go even higher. So it's a real simple question about what is the general incentive resurfacing, and did that, to you, seem like an automatic fix or panacea for Charlotte?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, it's not an automatic fix. Somebody was touching on it earlier where Chicago, we had some problems blistering right rear tires as well. Some of the faster tracks that we run out there, there is a potential for tire issues. Again, I think that it's the sustained speed that you have. If you look at Atlanta, Atlanta has been the fastest track, but it's abrasive. You have a huge dropoff in tires. Speeds, you know, you lose two seconds on a run, and it's because the tires are wearing down. As the tire's sliding across the road, it's peeling off the rubber and changing the performance of the car. The driver senses that and you can't go as hard. With the tire we have now, it doesn't peel the rubber off, it doesn't wear the tire out, the performance does not change. You keep running harder and harder, and now this tire is holding all of that heat in it and the heat makes the tire fail. So resurfacing can help it if it's done in the right way. But it's hard for a track owner to say, "Okay, I'm going to resurface my racetrack and I'm going to put something that looks like 20-year-old asphalt down," and people are going to be going crazy, but that's where you have the best racing, that's where the tires aren't an issue. We'll go to Atlanta and, again, you can hurt a tire at any track, but Atlanta, we don't hurt tires because you have to slow down.
Q. Hi, Jimmie. Congratulations on your win.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thank you.
Q. How does the experience of the hectic win pattern of last year play on you and your team as you win yet again at Lowe's Motor Speedway and look to winning more in the final races in the Chase to the championship?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's just confidence. It just builds confidence and helps us believe in ourselves, believe in our team, and just stay focused on what the job is that we have to do.
DENISE MALOOF: Thank you very much. Thank you, Jimmie, for joining us.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You got it. Thanks, everybody.
DENISE MALOOF: Good luck on Sunday at Martinsville. Thank you, everyone, for your participation. We'll see everybody again next week.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thank you.
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