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NASCAR Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Stock Car Racing Topics:  NASCAR

NASCAR Media Conference

Jeff Gordon
Jimmie Johnson
January 10, 2006


JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm very proud of this race team year after year. They want to compete for a championship. I think it's something that we're all focusing on. I think everybody saw the intensity in how bad we wanted the championship last year. It didn't come through and it was very frustrating going through all that. But it just wasn't our year. And I've said it and it's something that I do believe in; that when it's meant to be for me, and if it is or isn't or whatever, I'm okay with that. I'm showing up every day and giving 100% and I know my team is. We'll just keep plugging away. It's got to happen sooner or later.

Q. Inaudible?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: We really tried to improve from August on. It seems from Brickyard, it starts right around Brickyard time frame is when things slow down for us. Really last year, our enter career, it's been that way and our last two or three seasons we've been trying to ramp up and pinpoint and test and be ready for that period of time and not have us lose our momentum, and it's happened for whatever reason. And this year, again, we've got our eyes focused on that, of course we want to get off to a good start in the first 26 to try to secure ourselves a spot in the Chase. But we're focused on let's get off to a good start and let's try to ramp up as the year goes on, instead of starting off so strong and trailing off and then trying to turn the corner and get things going in the read direction again.

Q. Can you talk about the new testing procedure, how does that hurt a driver who perhaps your weakness is not one of the five tracks you're testing at, how can you get better at a track that you have no ability to test at?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: That's a great question. It really changes things. I'm not sure how it's going to play out. I think the rookie drivers are going to have a little bit more of a struggle than rookie drivers in the past, for one. And then two, if you're off on a certain program, if it's road course racing, if it's short-track, whatever it is in the season and you want to go make your team better, you're really limited to how you do that. I personally am not a huge fan of this new testing plan that's taking place. I understand the reasons behind it, but I hate that if a team is in need, they can't go out and try to better themselves. It's very tough and when we show up and we have a couple hours of practice, you're not going to try new things to develop your race cars. You're going to come with what's known, and if it's 20th place, you hope that week it's 15th and you do what you can to make small adjustments and make the racing go on from there. So if you're off, I don't really see a lot of chances where a team can pinpoint their problems and work through them.

Q. If there was one thing about last year that you could change, what would it be?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: There's a lot involved in making this request come true, but I wish that I was a champion. There's a lot of other details in there that would have to add up to that. I look back, and I look at the Homestead event, and I didn't have a soft tire, I didn't have a flat tire but there was something wrong and the tire did explode. And I turned around and hit the wall. Looking back, Tony did not have the best night that night and is there was an opportunity for us there to have a Top 3 night and maybe be the champion. So I look back, and definitely disappointed that -- we talked about it on the radio, and I did have a soft tire. I'm just disappointed that I didn't in my mind say forget it, whatever the penalty is, one lap, two laps it's better than crashing, come to pit road and change the tires.

Q. To follow up on the other gentleman's question, last couple years you've been right there in the Chase, with what you've been through, going into this year, do you see a mindset change, anything you'd like to change over the past couple of years to get you over the hump? And second, how do you feel about the impound rule at some tracks?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think that every year I'm smarter, the team is smarter and we try to make the changes necessary to win the championship. So going into this year, we're looking at different ways to approach the season, different mind set. I feel that we're a smarter team this year. Last year when the shock rule came along, after we won at Dover, we had a lot of time invested in the back of the car to do things to do things, to get the right aero. From that point we've been trying to go to the front of the car where there are not any other rules to get what the other teams have had. So it's where people had their time invested. On the technical side we've been working very hard over the off-season: Chad Knaus, Steve Letarte, Alan Gustafson and Lance McGrew, those guys have been -- every device or machine known to mankind that you can strap a race car to, they have been working on it trying to understand how to make the front of the cars work right so that we can get the right aero attitude back and have the appearance of the 20 and the Roush cars at the end of the season, because they were good and had it really dialed in right. We were getting it done, but with the back of the cars. We are doing everything that we can mentally, technically, everything that we can to do it and to be the champions -- and now I'm struggling with the second part of your question. The impound races, that's right. From what I understand, I've been out of the country so I haven't been paying to close of attention to things. I do know the majority of the races will not be impound races and that is one positive thing that goes in line with the testing. If we had impound races with the testing rule, that's less track time for the teams to development their equipment and I think it would make things a lot more difficult for teams.

Q. While you were out of the country, there was a lot of static about your crew chief, whether he was going to be back, talking about teams and all this stuff, can you talk about your relationship with Chad, which has been obviously perceived as a strength throughout your career, how has that changed, is it any different, is there a lot -- too much being made of the whole situation? Just that sort of -- an update on the situation with Chad.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: To be honest, the rumors were kind of a surprise and something that we were laughing about. I think it started banquet week, and I think he called me and asked that my fired him, and my response back was no, are you leaving, there's two rumors, one that you're going to Evernham. Last year was tough at the end. We were frustrated. I think you guys, everyone in this room and the fans listening, people are smart to know that it's just frustration or if there's more to it. And we were really frustrated last year and working hard. I give Chad a lot of credit for how hard he was working. It just didn't give us the results that we wanted. I think from the frustration being visible last year to the opinions were formed and then the rumors kind of generated from that. And really, there was not any internal talk, there was not any discussion about a different crew chief, ever, and those rumors were something that we kind of laughed about and joked about. This year we want to make sure that we're mentally able to make it through all 36 races and especially in the final ten, regardless if we're on top of the world or if we're going through a tough time. If we can stay even keeled, I think we're going to make better decisions. And we were frustrated through the end of last season and I think that, you know, at times it hurt our decision-making process and that's something that we're really focused on this year.

Q. Inaudible?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Oh, yeah it definitely affected our performance in the championship in certain ways. You know, we went with the other packages that we felt that our teams were using, and we were competitive, ran Top-5, Top-10 but didn't have that race-winning performance like we hoped for. As an organization, the 24 was trying new things and they made their change with Loomis and put Steve Letarte in, so they were working on new ideas. The 5 was working, instead of 25 and us, and we literally would just all get together, say, who is working the best, who feels the best about their package this weekend. What was frustrating at Dover was we were told that everything was perfectly legal and then it was taken away from us. So it was hard to really grasp that. I know it looked fishy and drew a lot of concerns in everyone's eyes; how can something be perfectly legal and then it's not allowed? So that was something we struggled about and tried to talk to NASCAR about but it's a rule that they made and we went on. One interesting thing just from a technical side, the way the rules read and still do read, the way the shocks should work, we were perfectly legal as we know. But on the front of the race car, limiting the travel is illegal, and if you look at coil binding and understand what the term coil binding means, that's technically an illegal thing to do. But I guess it's overlooked and not really a problem in NASCAR's eyes where there seems to be a lot of money invested into it. So my assumption is that the shocks look like a potential cost for the team, for other teams to ramp up and try to use those things, and that's why they pulled him off the cable.

Q. Last year you took your share of criticism from your fellow drivers. A, does that weigh on you at all, and B, what do you expect this year as far as that's concerned?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think that criticism I took was really at Talladega at both races there. Outside of those two races and the plate races in general, I think I had great competition, great balance on the track and didn't have any flare-ups or issues with anyone. So I'm not really concerned or worried about anything being there. Obviously on the plate races, you know, for the first Talladega, a lot of stuff came together and a wreck happened. In the second one, I just got in the back of the 38, got too close, got the aero loose and got in the back of him. I learned my lesson from that. Even if I'm at the front with somebody I thoroughly trust in the draft, you still have to be very careful and leave space and allow -- to prevent from getting somebody aero loose. So this season on the plate races, maybe I've gotten too comfortable with the area around my car and need to add a couple inches in there and give myself more space so I don't have those problems.

THE MODERATOR: We're joined by defending Daytona 500 champion, Jeff Gordon. Jimmie is going to stay with us.

Q. Speaking of the devil, I know you probably haven't spent much time around the shop, do you see some indications that the 24 team is going to be more consistent this year?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Without a doubt. I look at the end of the season last year and the races, one or two -- one, the race they won, everything that went on, absolutely. The performance is going to be there, really for the whole organization. I think Kyle has shown his abilities and I think Brian Vickers also is going to have a breakout year and hopefully we'll have all four cars in the Chase and given Roush a run for his money.

Q. For years there was talk about how the same crew stayed together year after year for you guys, I guess there was changes this off-season, how do you see them affecting the team?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I really don't see them affecting the team. The changes that were made, there were some guys on our team that wanted to work a little closer to home and took some other opportunities so they would be around their families a little bit more. Our truck driver was driving over an hour and a half each direction, coming to the shop back and forth and he's been doing it for years. His move was more along the lines of being close to home and being around his family a little bit more. David Bryant left and went to Robert Yates Racing -- I'm sorry, to Ray Evernham, and it's a good opportunity for David and we support him 100% on his move. The bottom line on the moves taking place, a lot of guys have left to better their careers or better their lifestyles and it's something that we support and wish them the best. The new guys that can have come on, they are all very talented guys, majority have been in Hendrick Motorsports and show a lot of promise and they are now on the road with us and they are going to do a good job.

Q. Jimmie just mentioned Brian, what do you see in Brian that leads you to think, his third year might be the year that he really picks things up a notch?

JEFF GORDON: I would certainly put a lot into just the total organization of the 25 and the 5 teams and how they have really come together, and I think that their cars are getting better and more consistent and just allowing Brian to focus more on driving. It means he's obviously got the talents what he did in the Busch Series and we've seen glimpses of that in the Cup series. And I think that -- get the team behind him, as well. And I think like Jimmie said, he definitely has the potential to step out there and have a good year, as well.

Q. When your team has an off-year, I'm wondering whether it affects your confidence at all as a driver, and also I'm wondering if at this point in your career, do you need anyone sort of encouraging you as the season goes along about your abilities, or is that all sort of self directed, you're beyond that now?

JEFF GORDON: I'm not beyond anything. I definitely think that when you're having a bad year, as the races, one after another, especially if they are not good ones, then your confidence level definitely goes down. Doesn't matter how much success you've had. It's inevitable. So it's important to not lose sight of what you've done. I found myself over the years when I have had tough years of trying to regroup in my own mind, okay, don't do anything different than what you've done in the past. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Just try to do what you know and what you feel and apply it to the car and hope that the car responds. And if it doesn't, just continue to try it get that feedback to the team. My experiences also have been that by doing that, and then we get the cars that do what I'm looking for, all of a sudden things start to click. And I've been fortunate where when I've had bad years, we've usually ended those bad years with something positive to build on in the off-season. And that's what happened to us last year is we made -- we missed the Chase. Made a lot of changes and then changed some cars, changed some different things; and all of a sudden seemed like the chemistry started coming back and the feel that I started looking for was coming back and we ended up ending the season on a good note to come to this season and have the confidence and not be really scratching our head questioning too many things. Obviously mile-and-a-halfs are still something that we need to get better on, but Homestead was really promising for us with the way the car felt and the speed that we had.

Q. I just wanted to ask you if you could talk a little about Steve Letarte. He pretty much grew up at Hendrick Motorsports, I think he started at 16 years old under Ray Evernham. What do you like about him and what do you think about the season with him?

JEFF GORDON: Obviously, we're both sort of learning together. I've known him for a long time. He's known me. Personality-wise, I've felt like we've always gotten along well. He's always been just a great asset to the team. He's always got that positive attitude, he works hard. He doesn't ask to be treated different or given anything special. Everything that he's gotten, he's earned from hard work, and I think he brings the same work ethics into the crew chief job. I think the toughest part of it was when you put him in that position, how does he go from being one of the guys to all of a sudden the boss. Those are the unknowns of how he's going to react on the box when it comes to making the call and then dealing with the guys, you know, like I was saying. That's the part I've been most impressed with is he's been pretty sharp in business away from racing, as well. And he's treated this like a business which I think is smart. And he came right in there and took control and got the guys that support him to support him more and the guys that didn't to either support him or they were out the door. We're definitely going through some changes in the off-season, and I think they are all positive ones that just build around Steve as the leader of this team and given me the cars that I need and us and all around the best effort to go out there and win races in championships. I don't think that we're there today, but I think by the time the Chase comes around, I think that we will be.

Q. Do athletes -- one of the things you hear all of the time --

JEFF GORDON: Are you considering me an athlete? I appreciate that.

Q. Do you have to have a chip on your shoulders to be motivated in sports, and particularly as a race car driver? You hear athletes talk about special motivation, and for someone like you who has won as much and accomplished as much, a lot of people wonder how you keep motivating, how you find that drive inside of you to just keep pushing?

JEFF GORDON: That's a good question. I mean, I never thought of it as an analyzing it as a chip on my shoulder but maybe it could be. You know, for me, it's when the end of the day comes on Sunday and you look at the results and you drove your guts out and you finish 12th or 15th or it's your fifth straight crash in a row. Those are the types of things that motivate me. It just makes me angry and I know what we're capable of. I think that when you come to work at Hendrick Motorsports, especially in the 24 car and the success we've had, there's a lot of pressure that comes along, and expectations. You either step up to the plate or you have got to move on. You know, I think that I take those things and I motivate myself from them. You know, I'm not out there to prove anything, to beat any statistics or records or anything like that. I've far exceeded anything that I ever dreamed I would have had accomplished in racing. Now it's just about giving my best every single weekend and hoping that that does it to get to victory lane and to win championships, because I know that I'm surrounded by the best, the best people and the best equipment and that we should be running good. I think that my motivation really just comes from lack of success knowing that I've had success, and I think this team really motivates themselves the same way. They just know what we should be capable of and what we should be accomplishing.

Q. Inaudible?

JEFF GORDON: Exactly. It's not that we should win a championship every year, but we certainly should be contending for race wins and on a fairly consistent basis and we should be up and battling in that championship in some way throughout the year. That's what we should be doing. That doesn't mean it's going to happen every year. But when it's not happening, when we're not living up to our full potential, to me that's what motivates us. Yeah, tears our confidence down a little bit and it makes us scratch our heads and sometimes we don't always go in the right direction. But we never stop searching for what we've got to do to turn it back around. Sometimes you've got to take big steps to turn it around and sometimes it's just right there and you're just missing one little ingredient.

Q. I'm wondering if the -- this is going to be his first full year, is he ready and experienced enough to guide you to a championship, or is there a bit of a transition?

JEFF GORDON: I have no doubt that he's got plenty of experience in racing. He just has not had the experience at making maybe that final call when it comes down to the end of the race and championships on the line. I think if you look at our organization as a whole and the depth we have there, if we get the right cars out there on the racetrack, those calls are a lot easier to make. I do, I believe he's capable of it, and I don't know if we had to go win a championship in February, if that was a final event that would be ready for that, but I really believe that just in the last ten races of last year, you know, what I saw in Steve was unbelievable, and that really has me excited about getting this season started. And then over the off-season, just seeing some of the changes and the way he steps up to the plate, that's something you would never expect for a guy that's as young as he is, with the amount of experience that he has, you would not expect a guy to come in to a big organization like ours and start making some of the calls that he's made. He believes in himself, I certainly believe in him and I certainly feel like this team believes in him. Only time will tell what we're really going to be capable of this year, but right now I feel like we're as good as anybody out there.

Q. With your relative success over the years, how have you seen things change, even in the last few years, maybe from inside the car, on the track or just the different driver demands on the information, the feedback you have to give the crew or being a leader or being less of a leader, what are the things you feel like you need to change even a little bit more going into this year?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I think the change I've seen since I came into the Cup Series is the lack of it being a marathon race or each race being a race of survival. These days, it's just basically run as hard as you can from the beginning of the race to the end of the race. And the cars have changed so much and the aerodynamics have changed so much, how hard you have to push, not just throughout the race, but each lap, whether it be qualifying or the race. So I've certainly seen that trend continue on and I think in the last three years, I've seen it take bigger strides than I've ever seen it take and just how aggressive you could drive the cars and. I think that that only allows younger guys to come in here from the Busch Series and be more successful from the start because the more aggressive you have to be, the more the youthfulness can pay off for you. I think that obviously with the big networks coming in and taking over with the sport, the demands on the time and the marketing side of things have changed a lot. So balancing out your schedule has become that much more important. There's a lot of guys out who maybe don't want to or don't enjoy doing the marketing side of things, the commercials, the photo shoots; some do. But the bottom line is, if you're going to be in this sport and you're going to be one of the top guys you're going to have to deal with it some way, some how and it definitely does affect the chemistry with the team. If you run yourself down doing all of those things, it can affect your performance on Sunday.

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