NASCAR Media Conference
January 9, 2008
HERB BRANHAM: We're joined by driver Casey Mears and crew chief Alan Gustafson.
50th running of the Daytona 500. Last year you pulled off a pretty cool win in one of NASCAR's major events. What would it mean for you to win the major event in NASCAR?
CASEY MEARS: It would obviously be huge. Runner-up here one year. Definitely want to top that with the win. I think, you know, the guys, Alan, all these guys have done an excellent job this year with the cars in the off-season. I think they've really done their homework.
Obviously working with this new car, it's a whole new set of challenges. I think these guys have done a great job. We've come here and right out of the gate shown that we have some speed. It's not the only thing you need at Daytona. You also have to have your car handling well. And I think we keep chipping away at that.
The other two guys that are here as well with us, with Jimmie and Jeff, have done a really good job, feeling like they're getting their cars working real well in the draft. We're going to get out here this afternoon and work on that a little bit more. But it would be huge. I mean, it's obviously the biggest race that we run all season long and we'd like to win it.
HERB BRANHAM: Alan, even more so for you since you're from the area.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I mean, growing up here as a kid, coming to a lot of the races here, it's definitely a special place. A lot of friends and family that are close by. You know, it's the biggest race in our sport. It's a very, very tough race to do well at and to win. It's something that when you start out in your career, you always dream of doing, and something that I'd love to do for our team and Casey and Mr. Hendrick.
We put a lot of emphasis on it. This is the kind of the place where all the teams, everybody tests here, you bring the best of the best. You work on the wind tunnel, your motors, your cars, how they drive. It would be real nice to win it for that reason, too, because you know everybody's bringing their best stuff.
HERB BRANHAM: We'll take questions for Casey and Alan.
Q. Can you both talk about maybe being a little bit under the radar this year, operating that way, and what you've learned about each other so far.
CASEY MEARS: I don't know, it seems like I think with the way that my career started, getting involved I think in NASCAR at this level so early, you know, before I was probably prepared to be here, we came in with kind of a splash and then it kind of mellowed out and I've been under the radar ever since.
I think, you know, for us, as far as I'm concerned, you know, the biggest thing I'm concerned with is that we have all the same tools that everybody else does - and we do. We got all the parts and pieces we need. Rick Hendrick makes sure that all teams are equal. I think internally, you know, we all are going to work well together. So far the little bit limited of time I've worked with Dale so far, the communication has been so good. With Jimmie and Jeff, it's already there, and their crew chiefs. I'm not really too concerned about where we're at as far as that goes.
I am more concerned with how we're going to perform on the racetrack. And I think, you know, with the history that Alan and everybody's had with the 5 car, for me it's a great opportunity this year. Obviously last year we came in and had a last-minute crew chief change. We did a lot of team building the first part of the season that kind of got us behind, where although we had a couple minor changes with the team, for the most part the 5 team is still intact and we got a great group of guys. They work really well together. I've gotten to know some of those guys throughout last year so it's not completely a new experience.
And the biggest thing that Alan and I got to work on is just getting our communication down. That might take a little bit of time. But for the most part things are going well. I'm just excited about it. I mean, maybe the fact that we're under the radar a little bit gives us an opportunity to focus on what we need to do and not worry about any outside issues.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I mean, I think for obvious reasons some of our teammates draw a lot of attention. I think to put it in perspective is that's really not the case for us. You know, if we're the champions, as Jimmie and Chad are, or you're 20th in points, fifth, where the 5 ended up last year, you're very focused on what you're doing to be successful.
There's a big demand, you know, for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jr., which is great. For each separate reasons, that's very deserving on their parts. I completely understand that. But it doesn't change anything that I do. I still want to win. I still want to compete. I still want to be the best.
If we're Nextel Cup, I'm sorry, Sprint Cup champions next year and nobody writes about us, that's fine with me because that's what I'm in it for, is to be the champions and do the best job I can for Mr. Hendrick and Casey and Kellogg's and Carquest and my guys.
It's not a big deal to us. I think it's kind of funny. It's neat. You learn a little bit. And it's cool, my neighbors are asking me about my teammates, this, that and the other. But that's about as far as that goes.
As far as what I've learned about Casey, you know, I had a really good idea. I was fortunate enough, we worked side by side for a year. We've been around each other a lot. One of his first functions at Hendrick Motorsports, we spent a two-hour flight together. We both had an appearance to do in Orlando. We got to sit on an airplane and sit and talk for two hours down and two hours back. It's gone well.
You know, it's a little different situation than just coming in cold, you know, so we're right on schedule. I'm very pleased with where we're at.
Q. Alan, I don't know, do you have any background as a driver in any series?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Well, yes and no (laughter). Nothing to speak of. You know, when you're young, growing up, I raced some go-karts, did a few short track things here or there. Some of my friends growing up in this area, actually Todd and Troy Flis, who road race still, did some road racing with them. I learned pretty quick that I wasn't very good at it, so I decided to go a little different way to make my living.
Q. The reason I ask is, I want to know how important, if important at all, it is for a crew chief to have some sort of driving background to be able to properly communicate with his driver.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I think that helps definitely, you know. You've got to understand dynamically what's going on with the car and some of the situations that they may face. You know, I don't know to what level. I never competed on a high level. Some guys have who are crew chiefs. You know, Billy Woodruff comes to mind. He may be better to answer that question.
But I think the more information you have and the more you know, the more knowledge you have, the more situations you've been in, that's something you can reference back to and is going to make you better.
I think it would help. I think I've got enough to do the job successfully. So maybe I'll take him -- we'll go to a go-kart track and I'll beat on him or something, make sure our communication is good (laughter).
Q. Alan, Casey is known for being kind of even-keeled, laid back, where your former driver could be somewhat outspoken at times, a little fiery. I was wondering, how would you explain the difference between the driver you used to deal with compared to the one you deal with now? Does that make the job any easier for you?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: I think, you know, Kyle was young and had to go through some situations that arguably he handled wrong or not necessarily the right way in some people's eyes. I'm not judging him. I think Casey's a little more mature. He's seen a few more things, been through a few more experiences and is in a little better situation to handle them.
On the track, I think they're - as are all good Sprint Cup drivers - are very good, very professional, from Jeff, to Jimmie, to Casey, to Kyle, to Dale Jr., Terry Labonte, on and on that I've been around. When those guys are in their racecars, they're very focused, they're very determined and they're very good at what they do. In that regard, I think they're all very similar. Each driver has his own little idiosyncrasies. But some of the off-the-track stuff, which I think you're referring to, Casey's demeanor and experience may help him a little bit.
Q. You're going to a team that made the Chase the last two years. Do you feel you have to win this time?
CASEY MEARS: I've always felt like I need to win, you know, I mean, from the time I started in racing. I've never raced and been satisfied with being mediocre at best. I think ever since I came to this level, you know, with the first team I was with, now being at Hendrick Motorsports, anything that I ran before I came to this level, we won races and did well. It's been frustrating the first few years I've had in this sport.
But now I really feel like being with Hendrick Motorsports, got a win under my belt last year, obviously I think going into this year, like we've said, I feel like we're a lot more prepared to be successful out of the gate. The fact that they've had the success in the 5 team the last couple years doesn't make me nervous, it kind of makes my excited. I get really excited at the opportunity, the fact that these guys have been there, done it, the experience is there.
I think that, you know, we can definitely make the Chase this year. I think we can win races. You know, we can contend to win the championship if we make it inside the Chase. We got to take it a step at a time, get through these first couple races and just kind of feel everything out.
Obviously our goals are high this year. We want to make the Chase. I feel like we definitely need to make the Chase, and then we'll go from there.
Q. Casey, correct me if I'm wrong, you have been doing a little bit of drafting yesterday. We've heard a rumor the cars are sliding a little bit. Is that happening to you? Also your impression so far of this new chassis out there drafting.
CASEY MEARS: I think so far, you know, it's not bad. I mean, it's definitely something that we can work with. I think initially a lot of the guys that went out, I talked to a lot of the guys last night when we were doing the FanFest, things like that. Everybody was having a little bit of an issue with the cars being loose at times depending on where guys were around you in the draft. I think there's going to be those little things that are different about this car that are going to take time to kind of filter out.
I feel like we've got a pretty good handle on that, got a pretty good understanding of what's going on there. But there was a little bit of a trend with almost everybody I talked to. People kind of getting loose more unexpectedly than they have in the past. But I think as guys have more opportunities to work with this car and make it better, some of that's going to go away just because it is new.
But, you know, we had a limited timed on the track yesterday. I think looking at what Jimmie and Jeff have done the remainder of yesterday, this morning so far in the draft, they feel like they've got a pretty good handle on that now. It's not something that's not fixable, but definitely a tendency with this car to maybe get a little bit more loose at times.
Q. Alan, Casey had a tire go down yesterday and got broadsided to the wall. Comparing last year's car to this Car of Tomorrow, I know it's a little premature to tell how it's going to be to put it back together, but do you anticipate having that car back here for Speedweeks? What is the turnaround for damaged cars?
ALAN GUSTAFSON: We do anticipate that. That's actually a really good question because that's something we're going to try to work through ourselves. As strict as the certification process is on the COTs, that's something we've never gone through. This is a light brush with the wall. Minor suspension damage. We're going to fix this car, going to fix the clip, take it back to be recertified.
But what we don't know is, is that frame rail moved 30 thousandths, 60 thousandths, 80 thousandths, which we would have accepted with the old car as fine on our fixtures, is that acceptable to them. So that's what we want to go through and see.
We're going to fix this car, take it, get it recertified. Besides the recertification process, there shouldn't be anything that we can't fix. But that's something we've never been through before, and this is really the first time we've had a light brush and we'll take that car back there.
Fortunately John Darby saw the car after it hit. I don't expect it to have any issues there getting it recertified. If there is, that's something we can talk to him about and work through.
Q. (No microphone.)
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Yeah, they do a really good job. Jerry runs that department over there. He's very accommodating 'cause we'll get into situations a lot of times where something will change on our side where we need the car certified quicker or push it back because we've got to get a body or in this situation where we have to take this car and get it fixed, that will shuffle some of our cars around. So we just call Jerry and say, Hey, this is what we're looking at.
Hendrick Motorsports as a whole, the 24 may have a slot on a Friday for one car, we can say, Hey, we're going to shift that and put our car in there. They're very accommodating. You just call Jerry and you basically get an appointment like you're going to the dentist or something, get in there and get it done.
Q. Casey, much has been made about your new teammate. If Dale Earnhardt, Jr. comes in, doesn't perform as well, a lot of heat will be on him. Not much has been talked about on the flipside. If Dale Earnhardt, Jr. comes in and does really well, wins races, 24 and 48 continue their performance, but you're not doing quite as well, does that put more pressure on you or is it almost like a win-win for you because people will be paying attention to Junior and you can go at your own pace?
CASEY MEARS: I think that's probably a better question if it actually happens (laughter). I mean, let me go back 30 minutes, think about it, I could probably come back and give you a really good answer.
Right now we're so focused on just doing well that to think about right now running bad, it just isn't in my vocabulary right now. Right now there's so many good things going for us, I think the fact that he's coming in is definitely going to be a positive as well. You know, I mean, it never looks good if somebody's running way better than you are all the time on the same team. That's a given. That's an obvious.
But I think that, you know, right now I just don't see that happening all year. Right now we're focused on running well. If that happens, ask me through the middle of the season how I feel about it because right now I'm planning on running good.
Q. Casey, last year you had a manufacturer change, a team change, took on a crew chief, who had won a Daytona 500. This year you take on a guy who has about 15 wins in Busch and Cup. Do you feel like you upgraded? How many guys came over from the 25 team necessarily to the 5 or were retained at the 5? It takes continuity to have a championship-contending team.
CASEY MEARS: Sure. I mean, first off, I think Darian Grubb did an excellent job coming in late last year, working through some of the challenges we had at the beginning of the season. Obviously to come in and win a race was a huge deal, especially in that short amount of time that he had to prepare for that season. Probably one of the most talented guys that we have at the shop and definitely going to be a valuable part of the team still as well.
The thing that's exciting about working with Alan is the fact that he has been a crew chief a solid four years. Having that experience, been through it, there's nothing -- you can't replace that experience. I think that Darian would add a great opportunity down the road to continue to grow and get better and learn more about the crew chief position.
I am excited about being part of the 5 team just because of the experience and depth that's there. We did not bring anybody over from the 25 team. The 25 team essentially became the 88 team. I think some guys came over from DEI, as well, kind of made up the 88 team.
Alan can tell you probably a little bit more about the team changes that we had at the 5.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: We're very similar to where we were. We were fortunate that the Busch team that we ran last year that we were very successful with kind of disbanded and I was able to absorb some of those guys into the 5 Cup team. They were involved previously, but now their full-time responsibilities will be with the 5 Cup team. We've stayed the same for the most part. We've had a car chief change and we've had a front tire changer change and a jackman change. Besides that, the 5 team's the same. Some additions from the Busch car. One of my race engineers came over from the Busch team. The car chief on the Cup car came from the Busch team. Mike Bumgarner, he's been there longer than I have. He's been there for nine years so he's been around for a long time.
HERB BRANHAM: Thank you, guys, very much.
CASEY MEARS: Thanks.
ALAN GUSTAFSON: Thanks.
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