NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Auto Club 500
Topics: Auto Club 500
February 25, 2008
THE MODERATOR: We'll roll into our post-race press conference here for the Auto Club 500. Right now our race runner-up Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet. I'm told that in 11 races here at this particular speedway, Jimmie has seven top-10 finishes. Very impressive statistics. He moves now into eighth place in the championship points standings.
Jimmie, talk about your race out there. I guess over last few hours, it started out late yesterday, concluded early this morning. Your thoughts?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's been a great weekend for us. I really feel from the test session, even through the first and only practice session that we had, that short one we had, we learned a lot about the cars, made a lot of ground. So I'm very thankful to the effort Chad put in and also the 24 team and how hour teams worked together.
Jeff went out in practice on Friday and was at the top of the board. Very happy with his car. We were able to put the same stuff in, go out and run second and third with him and keep pace and run with him all day long.
I really feel we're getting on to things. The test session here was discouraging. The Vegas test was better. I'm excited to take what we learned today, actually the last four or five days we've been here, seems like a month we've been here, take that to Vegas and improve on it.
Very pleased. We were actually real loose as the day went on. Carl, probably two-thirds of the race on, his stuff was strong. It would give up a little bit at the end of the run, but he was so quick up until that point where as we'd run losing forward traction, getting sideways off the corners, couldn't hang with him.
Good rebound from Daytona. We'll roll on.
THE MODERATOR: Now we'll take questions for Jimmie.
Q. A year ago Hendrick dominated the COT races. Now there's talk you have some catching up to do. Has everybody caught up to you? What lurks ahead for you now?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I think it's a little early to tell. The downforce tracks are new for everyone. To be honest, we really didn't focus on it too much last year. We skipped that Atlanta test, focused on the championship, things we had to handle in '07. So we're learning. The 48 and 24 may be a little bit behind, but I think we closed up a lot this weekend.
When we get on to the short tracks, we'll see if what works there is still like we would hope. If we still have good driving cars there. But it's a new year and a whole new set of challenges that are being thrown at us. We weren't joking with everybody at the media tour. We entered Daytona feeling like we were tied for last. We knew there was going to be a lot of tough races ahead of us, a lot of teams and drivers getting stronger. We're seeing that.
We'll just have to see how the year unfolds, see who is going to be where. I think we all knew the Roush cars were coming. They were getting real strong the end of last year. They've showed that. I think Kyle has shown how capable he is to go fast. Doesn't matter what it is. Put him out there on a tricycle, he's going to haul butt.
Gibbs, I think he's going to make Tony and Denny drive differently, drive harder, elevate the status of that Gibbs Racing organization on his own. He's going to have a part in that.
It's going to be a tough year as things wear on.
Q. You said it felt like you had been here for a month. Describe what the mood was this morning among the drivers, crews, after a long wait last night. Was there a sense that everybody wanted to sort of get out of here today?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think on the 48 team everybody was excited. We knew we had a good car. We knew we weren't going to be sitting around all day long due to weather. There was a lot of anticipation, a lot of smiles, energy. Even when I woke up this morning, Heck, yeah, I see the sun, we're racing, and maybe we'll get a trophy today.
Q. I believe you sort of called Carl's dominance today. Back in the test you pointed out he was by far the fastest. You were so discouraged about your own test. Did it seem like coming into this you were worried you weren't sure if you were going to be able to match him, given you knew how strong he was?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I felt like after the test that Carl, a couple of the Roush cars, and then the 11 was really strong. The other Gibbs cars, as well. I believe coming out here we had our eyes on those teams. Jeff unloaded. We got on track, went to the top of the board, was pacing right with Carl off the truck. So at that point I knew that the 24 team had really got on the right track and expanded on the right things from the test session and we'd be close.
We started really close to what they had. Our cars really ran the same all day long. I feel we closed the gap. I was shocked the Gibbs cars weren't up there in the mix with us. But the 99 kept his pace from the test session.
Q. In theory this is a 250-lap race, but in practice we did only 163 laps today. NASCAR says they don't really want to shorten the races because it might take away from the excitement. I think we had a pretty exciting race today. What do you think about that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think if it's a five-lap shootout or 500-lap shootout, we're going to put on a show. From the driver standpoint, we're doing everything we can every lap. I think strategy may be different if it was a shorter race. Some things like that may make it more exciting. But from what we do in the seats, we're going every chance we can.
There's a good argument that the races could be shorter. I think that's something that needs to be looked at. I don't know if it's the answer, but something that needs to be looked at.
Q. Would you like shorter races?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Personally, no, because we usually do better in the longer races. We either have to make our stuff better or other people have a chance to hurt their racecars. I do better at the longer races.
THE MODERATOR: We now have our third-place finisher, Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet, his eighth top-10 finish here at this particular speedway. Jeff, congratulations on another solid performance. Your thoughts.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, no, coming out of Daytona with a rough finish, we definitely were hoping to get a solid one here today, and we did. Car was really good. That track position was real important. I thought we were going to be better during the daytime than we were. We struggled a little bit with it today with just grip, especially up off the corner. We played around with some things, some adjustments, had some great pit stops. But we just couldn't quite make it where we needed to.
Then that last restart, Jimmie and I were racing hard, having some fun out there. We tightened the car up a little bit to complete the pass, and track position was real important. Nobody was going to beat the 99 today. He was unbelievable.
We're happy to come home third and be running third. Then I blew up. White flag came out right before the caution, I blew up off of turn two. So we were very fortunate today to just finish this race.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for either Jeff or Jimmie.
Q. Can you talk about the mental up and down, back and forth with a weekend like this? Basically you've been here since Friday. Fits and starts. I know you want to learn so much early in the season. It was hard to get started this weekend, right?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, it's challenging. I feel it is tough for us mentally. But I feel worse for the crew guys.
As I start to go through the challenges of it, I can only imagine guys coming in 6:00 or 8:00, whatever it was yesterday, standing around till 11, 12:00, then back this morning. From our standpoint, I guess you get used to it when you're in the series long enough. You're used to these rain delays, things that come with it.
It is challenging. It is hard to turn your brain off and on and try to relax between the breaks that we have.
Q. This is the first race for this car at this type of track. It seemed like the racing seemed to be the same as what we've seen in the past. Was it that much different? Did you learn much today?
JEFF GORDON: I thought it was similar. I was really anticipating, you know, a bigger draft down the straightaways. The groove widened out like it typically did. So it was a pretty typical race to me.
I was very curious and anticipating a little bit more action out there. You know, right now I think what you've got is you've got some guys that are really hitting it with this car on this track and some that weren't. So it kind of spread the field out a little bit.
Plus, you know, track position on these big tracks is extremely important. Jimmie and I are both fortunate to capitalize on the points from last year. But going forward, we're going to have to really make sure we qualify good.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The other thing, I noticed the cars were much more sensitive. Racing nose to tail, you'd catch someone, get to a spot, difficult to run behind him. If the guy in front of you was smart, just look in the mirrors, he could run your line, screw you up, you'd lose 20 car lengths. Seemed to me like the aero was more important in this car than the other car.
It's still the first downforce race we've had with it. I'm sure we'll all make it better. As Jeff said, track position was extremely important - even more so than in the past.
Q. After testing at Vegas and having a couple more COT races, what are you expecting with racing next weekend at Vegas?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, I thought that it was really cool and windy and kind of strange when we tested at Vegas. I think there's the ability for a few more grooves to open up.
This place is kind of weird the way it's fast but it's kind of flat and the seams really bother you here, especially with the water seeping out of it.
But I think in Vegas, the only issue that we have at Vegas is the bumps going into turn one. With this car, it seems to upset the car a little bit more. But I think we're going to see a pretty good race there. I really do. But I also think track position is going to be very important and I think that's going to be the trend going forward with this car. I guess I thought that today the draft down the straightaways would really make up for what you're losing in the corners behind cars. That's what I was surprised. You could gain on the guy. But it's not like you just pull out and pass him, you have so much momentum where you can pull out and pass him. I guess I was expecting a little bit more of that. We just didn't quite see it.
Q. With the extended stay out here, does that affect either of your prerace plans for Vegas? Get into town the same you would have?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Same for us. Same for myself.
JEFF GORDON: I mean, you know, missed a couple Oscar parties last night. Gonna miss out -- I'm missing out on some snowboarding right now in Colorado. I was planning on going there for a couple days.
It's not going to change anything from when we get in. It's like Jimmie said, you know, we're the spoiled ones. Our schedules are a little bit different. The team, that's what I really feel for, those guys. We've got cars and equipment to turn around and get to Vegas. That just really shortens those guys' week up a bunch. We're already trying to shuffle and figure out how to get guys to Vegas early, see what we can do airplane-wise, figure out how to move people around, back and forth. There's costs involved, as well as the inconvenience. These guys are working on very little sleep.
It's about the team guys and the NASCAR officials that I see where this really affects those guys the most.
Q. This is the first time in history we've had a driver that's leading two different series and potentially by the end of the day could be leading three in Kyle Busch. Your thoughts about that.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I mentioned earlier when we started, Kyle is a huge talent. He's been able to show that in whatever he drives. It's awfully early in the year to put too much weight into it, but it doesn't surprise me because we've been teammates with him for a long time. The guy knows how to stand on the right pedal. No doubt about it. He's quick in whatever he's in.
JEFF GORDON: If that's the case in Homestead, I'll be really impressed (laughter). I mean, Kyle, you know, like Jimmie said, he's been our teammate. We know how talented he is. That talent doesn't surprise us because we see it. We've seen it all the time. But if he does that for the whole year, does it at the end of the year, then I'll be way impressed.
Q. How much can we tell from today, Jeff? Everybody kept saying when we get to California and Vegas, that will be the indicator of how the season is going to go. Did we learn enough today to see this is how it's going to go? Did we at least see Roush is going to be up there with you guys and maybe Gibbs?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, this is what we saw during the test. Other than, like Jimmie said, the 11, he kind of hurt himself early. But the 99 was the best car in the test. I felt like we were one of the best cars. I thought Jimmie was one of the best cars. Then there was the 11.
To me, yeah, today was a pretty good indication of what we've got. But this is just one race, one track. We only test at three tracks over the off-season that we are all together that we can have an indication. But from what we saw testing so far, Daytona, versus the race, you know, of course the Dodges didn't expect to win the race at Daytona, I thought the Toyota cars were strong, the Hendrick cars were strong, the Roush cars, especially the 99, and the Hendrick cars and Roush cars were strong here testing. I think you'll see the same thing the next week in Vegas, but from that point on who knows.
Q. Jeff, you talked about the toll this weekend took on your crew guys. Yesterday was a long day for the fans, as well. You had some insight into that because you were checking out the weepers. I assume you had some insight into the decisions that NASCAR made. Do you understand why they waited so long to try to get the race in last night? Did you agree with what they decided to do there?
JEFF GORDON: I will say in their defense, I know it didn't look like it was the most brilliant idea or way to go about it. But in their defense, I give them credit for putting every effort into trying to get this race off last night. They were bound and determined to start this race at 10 or 11:00 last night if they felt like they could have, but they couldn't. The moisture in the air, it cooled down, they just couldn't get it dry. I don't know if they would have kept working on it if we would have gotten it dry by 3 a.m.
I think they actually did the fans a favor, even though I know they were upset, I think they gave them every best effort to run this race last night and yesterday. I will say that I think the track needs to do a little bit of work to work on that drainage issue. We've seen it with other tracks before. Without the seepage, I think they may have been able to get this race off. That's to me the thing that's upsetting for the fans.
I've never seen people wait that long. I remember when I was walking to my bus last night, 11:00 or whatever, I looked up, I was impressed with how many people were still here. So I understand why they were upset. But I think you've got to see both sides of it. I felt like NASCAR -- I remember I saw the look on Mike Helton's face when they were getting ready to make the announcement. He was really disappointed because they worked so hard to try to get it done.
Q. Sometimes it's tough to turn the brain on and off, Jimmie, you said earlier. When you make the short turnaround, did you get normal sleep? When they dropped the flag today, did you feel "normal"?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't think I ever feel normal. I'm not sure what normal is (laughter).
Through the years, I think another thing that's helped has been the Rolex 24 racing that I've done. You only have a couple hours to rest between your call time back in the pit stall. You learn to try to shut that stuff out.
Maybe it's that. Maybe it's experience in general. But last night I took a nap laying on the couch just waiting for the race. Had my phone on my stomach, took a nap waiting for it to vibrate, ring, put my suit on, run out the door. You just get used to that cycle and learn how to do it over the years.
Q. A follow-up to last night. If you're thinking about the East Coast audience, we're talking about finishing a race at 4:30, 5 in the morning. Is there a point where you have to say enough is enough? Should there be a time limit somewhere in there?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: There is, but I think NASCAR is in a tough situation. You've got the people that work the sport. I know if we were done, on planes, home, getting cars turned around, equipment turned around, every hour is going to help and count. I know that NASCAR, their guys that actually work here have to go home, wait for their cars that finished today, certify and inspect them all before they pack up and come right back out to Las Vegas.
I think there comes a point in NASCAR's mind where they say, We've got to do this to keep the show on the road. It's not the best for the TV audience. We know that. But in order to keep the show going, we've got to run with it.
I think it surprised all of us, their efforts last night. It's the first time I've seen it since I've been a Sprint Cup driver. I think that's where they were in their heads, saying, We've got to get this thing going.
JEFF GORDON: I think Jimmie answered it well. They're balancing a lot of different things there. They're thinking about way more things than we can probably even comprehend. I agree really with what Jimmie said. Would you rather be up till 4 a.m. on Sunday night, Monday morning, or are they going to be not at all watching on Monday? So I think they're up against that, too.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Jimmie and Jeff.
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