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NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Pepsi 500

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Stock Car Racing Topics:  Pepsi 500

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Pepsi 500

Rick Hendrick
Jimmie Johnson
Chad Knaus
August 31, 2008


FONTANA, CALIFORNIA

THE MODERATOR: We are now joined in the infield interview room by tonight's winner of the Pepsi 500, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Jimmie Johnson Foundation Chevrolet. Jimmie, tell us about your run.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Just an awesome race car all night long. It was really good in the sun, and fortunately, we tried a couple of things from time to time to see where the track was going adjustment-wise, and certainly hurt our car. Really just put it back and we found a direction with some tire pressure that worked and really didn't touch much all night long and the car was really fast and good.
I think the track came to us. Instead of us chasing the track, changing, it came our direction. The car was just awesome all night long.
More than anything, I'm happy to close the deal. It's very, very rare to have a car that dominant. In most cases, you end up doing something stupid, and I'm guilty of that in the past so. It was nice to close the deal and lead all those laps and win the race.
THE MODERATOR: We are also joined by tonight's winning team owner, Rick Hendrick.
Mr. Hendrick, your thoughts on tonight race.
RICK HENDRICK: Exactly what Jimmie said. Usually when you're that good, you wait for something to happen, and when you have a car that good, it's hard to capitalize every race, especially a 500-mile race here. Hopefully we can take this momentum into the Chase.

Q. Does this victory tonight maybe portend for when you get into the Chase? Could this be the start of something?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I hope so. Just not sure how it's going to shake out. The weak spot for us has been the mile-and-a-half, two-mile tracks, and the Chase is loaded full of those tracks. And our results at the start of the season and early summer, there were some flashes of hope in there, but we weren't where we needed to be.
Just before Chicago there were a couple of races where we were competitive and running well. I think Michigan was really the first sign that we were working in the right direction. We've been getting better each week, and this car is still so finicky. The second Michigan we got a little more aggressive with the setup of the car thinking we could get away from it, and it turned away from us and was loose and got into bad position there. The last couple races for us have been odd tracks for us and crashing and all that stuff.
I'm happy to win and win on a big track, because of the bulk of the races are on these big downforce tracks, and I feel like we're doing the right things to have a fighting chance at the championship and that's really all we can ask for.

Q. You said the track came to you; where did it come to you, what part of the race, and how much confidence does this give you going into the Chase?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Really throughout the night as the sun set, typically expect the track to tighten up for you. And the track started off a little tight in the first couple of runs, and the track seemed to free up and was coming our direction to where we didn't have to adjust as much.
At the end of the race I was loose off both ends of the track off the two and four, so I'm glad that we proved it out tonight what went on, because what went on last night in the Nationwide race, we couldn't get the car tight enough; and we expected the car to tighten up all night long, and it never did and we started the car way too loose and fought it. Tonight's race helps my mind-set for how to come back here and set cars up going into the evening.

Q. This setup -- (no mic).
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Looking back on it now, I went back to the bus frustrated and didn't really think there was much to learn from it. Now it kind of seems like there was.

Q. In a race that was so dominant like tonight, do you learn more about your team from this performance tonight, or do you learn more in the races that come right after, as to how you feel the team is going ahead?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: That's a good question. I think that you try to find lessons in either situation, and tonight being up there with a lot to lose, I think had our guys in a different -- under a different form of pressure than what they felt in a while.
And to win this Chase, you're going to have to fight for wins every week, and every pit stop is going to count, because you're going to have at least the 18 and the 99 to have to deal with, and I would expect a few others to have their stuff in order.
I think tonight was a really good night for our guys to feel that pressure and to go through that. And for myself inside the car, it's been a while since I've been in a situation to blow it or throw away and to really work on that mental toughness in those situations is important.
We have been working on the other side of the line in finding speed and putting in the hours and dealing with those emotions and not being where we want, but it's hard to maintain when you have your stuff right. And I think that speaks to how impressive the 18 season has been and the 99 and in a way, what we have done over the past few years and it's tough to stay on top of this thing.
THE MODERATOR: We are now joined in the interview room by tonight's winning crew chief, Chad Knaus. Tell us about your view from on top of the box.
CHAD KNAUS: Everything is great. We made it through, to that's cool.
Man, it was a great night. I just couldn't be happier for all of the effort and reward that everybody got from Hendrick Motorsports because we have been working pretty hard. We've been testing a lot, and it's definitely paid off for us tonight.
It was difficult. Like Jimmie said, it was -- I was sitting there thinking to myself with about 15 to go, if a caution came out what was going to happen, and it had been in a long time since we had been in a situation like that where we had a car that was that dominant and we could have thrown it away.

Q. Of your 36 wins, have you ever had a car that was this dominant and was this good, and you had something for everybody tonight?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think of one other time, and I blew the opportunity. Indy this year, we had a very, very good weekend. At the end, the 99 was putting a lot of pressure on us, so I think we dominated a large portion of the race but not all the way through.
I think this is the most dominant car and victory that we've had. The 609, I think it was my rookie season, right, rookie season or something, or sophomore season, the 300 the one where I slipped through the pits and lost.
CHAD KNAUS: Rookie year.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: That was the rookie year. We led 300 laps and I slipped at the end and it cost us the race. Yeah, this is the most dominant one for sure.

Q. Correct me if I'm wrong, but one of the final pit stops you were kind of talking about whether or not to come in, and I think Chad told you, "If the others come in, then you come in." But if you're leading, how do you know what they are going to do? How do you guys determine that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, there was a couple from the end I guess, and we just ran a few laps. I think actually that's a stop where we took four and a lot of the guys took two. I just didn't want to lose all the track position -- (static predominates) -- you could see that there were a lot of guys wobble and swerve off of pit road and swerving off of that commitment, and I wanted to make sure we pitted and fortunately everybody followed us down. A lot of guys took two because they had only gone a few laps and we went with four.

Q. Rick, the 48 and the 88 have been consistently good for the most part of the year, but the 24 seemed to struggle with some of the setups at tracks they have traditionally been strong. Have you guys got an answer for that, or tell me what you've been going through to try to close that gap.
RICK HENDRICK: It's been frustrating. They are working awful hard. They are testing. The car is just, I think Jimmie said it a minute ago, it's a fine edge, and you can't, what works for one driver doesn't work for the other driver. You have to tune the car to the driver.
We have got some really good tracks for the 24 coming up, but we've definitely got to get better on the mile-and-a-halves. We've had unbelievable things happen, breaking suspension pieces, but we just haven't been as good, nowhere near as good as he was last year, and we've just struggled.
We are going to keep going, keep working, and nobody is giving up on that team, or any of our teams. We work hard together and we'll keep testing. It's almost like the light comes on. When you find a package that's good for that driver, and that's what we've got to figure out.

Q. Speaking for the fans they may say, don't tune the hotrod so well; wondering if at any point you sort of felt lonely out there, because you didn't really run in much traffic tonight.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, I just fell into this rhythm with Chad giving me lap times and trying to run as hard as I could to make sure at the end -- I didn't think we would stay the dominant car for long. These guys on pit road do a very good job of closing the gap, and I didn't want to run around at 80 percent and have them running to 100 percent and tune their cars right and at the end us not having the car where we needed it to.
I just ran hard and there was one segment where we were concerned about fuel, and at that time I kind of slowed down. But other than that, I ran real hard all night long to make sure at the end if there was a shootout, that we had a car that we needed to, to win, so no.

Q. Between you guys, Kyle and Carl, the three of you guys combined to win almost 70 percent of the race this is year which is not typically the type of domination you see by three teams. I just wanted to ask you first off what is it that you see where it's just the three guys seem to be dominating wins, and second thing, everybody talks about this finicky car. With what you found tonight, do you have confidence that this can carry over to some of the bigger tracks later in the season as it might have with the older car, or are you almost back to square one?
CHAD KNAUS: I feel like -- it's going to sound kind of contradictory saying this, but I think the driver/crew chief relationship is one of the things that sets the car apart right now. And Kyle and Steve hit it off well right out of the box and their communication level was high and Kyle explained to Steve what the car was doing -- (static predominates) -- I think we saw when Bob left the 99 car, the 99 car's performance dropped dramatically. I think when you look at what's going on, it's the driver/crew chief communication level and confidence in one another that carries that thing up a little bit higher.
But no, it is extremely finicky, but you can fix it. And I think if you're going to try to count out the 24 or the 20 and the 17, any of those guys, the 9, going into this Chase, I think you are just fooling yourselves. The 99, the 18 and us, we could walk in there with our shoulders back and thinking we were going to whip everybody's butt, but I think that's pretty cocky to even think that.

Q. Do you feel like this is helping you in the bigger tracks in the Chase -- would that have been the case with the older car?
CHAD KNAUS: Every track is a little bit different, especially with this race car, more so than the cars we had last year with the Monte Carlo SS; we were able to run a basic package and tune it from week-in to week-out. With this car, we are changing quite a bit from every racetrack, so we'll just have to wait and see. Stay tuned.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: That's the million dollar question we are hoping for the answer for. I guess the purse, it's like, what, an $8 million question? (Laughter).

Q. With about 20 laps to go, I think one of the crew members from the 16 came down to talk to you, I think it was about the stuff that was on Greg's front grill. Could you just talk about what they were asking you?
CHAD KNAUS: Yeah, they asked us if we would back up and try to help them get that paper off the grill. I said no. (Laughter) I mean quite honestly, 15 laps to go, I just looked at him and I said look I know what you guys are going to be fine running for a water system, you'll be fine, 265 degrees for 15 laps -- (laughter) -- whatever it takes, I just told them no, you can't do that.

Q. There's a line between sportsmanship and helping your competition, at that point --
CHAD KNAUS: Put it this way; if he would have caught us and then stopped and then went back to the two seconds we were ahead of him, then that would have been okay. But I'm feeling that that's probably not going to be what happened. (Laughter) I'm pretty sure he would have got on us and dogged us a little bit and tried to get by us. Jack's not a big fan of ours. He throws zingers out there about me and our sport, why the hell should we help him. (Laughter)

Q. Your times were 14.0, 14.0, consistently for tire and fuel pit stop; is that part of your success is the consistency of the pit stops?
CHAD KNAUS: Yeah we had one bad pit stop today where our jacks had got caught up in the hose of the rear tire changer and slowed us down pretty good, but the other stops were very good, very competitive. You know, depending upon the way that you time the stop, it shows different numbers, but our pit crew does a very good job, very solid group. We were hoping maturity and experience would come into fruition and pay off for us and it's definitely working in our favor right now.

Q. When you came out sixth and next thing you know you were back in the lead, what were you saying to yourself and how were you handling the car to do that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I felt like we could get back to the front. I thought it was going to take a little longer myself. But I went through turns one and two and I'm just flying by people and I started smiling, like, okay, this won't take long, and we were back to the front. (Laughter).
It doesn't happen often that you can have a car that can drive through dirty air like that and get to the front. Just a lot of hard work paid off tonight.

Q. What would it mean to you to be the only crew chief in NASCAR history to win three consecutive championships?
CHAD KNAUS: I don't know. Come see me November. (Laughter) Because you know, I don't know. I've been real fortunate to have had a lot of success and a lot of cool things happen in my career. That would be another one. That would be a huge milestone and something that I would definitely like to figure out the emotions after it happens and we'll just have to wait and see.

Q. There are four drives right now outside the Top-12 who have won a race this year including the Daytona 500 winner. Can you imagine winning the Daytona 500 and not being in the Chase this late in the season?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: That's a tough one. The one part that I'm sure is in the team's mind is the Daytona and restrictor plate racing is much different than what the bulk of the season is based on.
So when you're living in the world that we are in, when we won the 500 in '06, we left there and it's like, great, this is a special event, but, doesn't mean that we're going to be a shoe-in for the Chase or any of those things and we had to get to work in other areas: Road courses, downforce tracks, short track, all that stuff.
Shocks me to see some of the guys that are outside that cutoff zone right now. Some great teams and drivers that you fall into a rhythm of thinking they are kind of guaranteed for the Chase.
So, it keeps us on our toes. It keeps us humble and you've heard us make comments throughout the year that our first goal is to make the consideration and you don't know what type of luck you are going to have and if you get a couple bad weeks at end of the season, you can be in trouble.

Q. You've won twice in the old car and one in the new car, are you feeling more comfortable in the old car?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, the other car we had scienced out really, really well. We finished second here at the start of the season and that was kind of the highlight of the first quarter of the season for us. Outside of that, we were terrible on the big tracks.
Coming back there's nothing comfortable about driving this car. This thing is never going to do -- complete a lap and have everything work out right for you. You're going to have to compromise somewhere. We're doing the right job of making the compromises and finding the speed in the right areas. This car is not comfortable, and I don't think it ever will be, the lack of downforce, higher CG and all of the things, which is just like NASCAR wanted it. They wanted it to be to the driver's hands, and they made it hard to drive, that's for sure.

Q. I heard you get asked about all of at tension that the 18 and 99 are getting and saying that you understood that they deserved it and that they were the focus and that you understood why. You also joked in here on Friday about being the PC guy, that maybe no one is really paying attention to you as much right now. Do you feel like you're under the radar a little bit, despite the fact that you have a chance of doing something that a lot of NASCAR greats have done before, winning three championships in a row; does that eat at you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, the PC side -- I'm myself, and I guess I choose to say the right things more times than saying the wrong things, and I certainly have my spats and make my mistakes.
The PC side was relative to the 18 and the 99s issues at Bristol and what went on there. Those guys, I'm sure they will both remember what went on, and I'm sure Kyle is going to wait for that right opportunity to get those points back from Carl if he can.
But moving forward into this Chase and where those guys are at, they have been out there winning the races. I guess Kyle has eight and Carl has six, man, they deserve all the props. They are out there earning it. We have three now so we are halfway to Carl.
I'm happy to see people are considering us as a realistic chance for the Chase and a championship contender because our results have shown that, and we have been chipping away at it and getting closer to those guys. They have set the world on fire. Between the two of them, they have dominated the first half of the season. I recognize that and give them the respect that they deserve for that. I don't like it and I want to be that guy myself.
And we still have 11 races, a lot of racing left in the season, almost a third left, and hopefully we can switch this around and finish up the season as the dominant car.

Q. Mr. Hendrick, when you look back at the beginning of this season, can you talk a little bit about all the work that has gone in to the three teams that you have that are on the verge of making the Chase? It seems with the difficulty with the car and so forth and the amount of testing that you've had to do that to get to this point, has it been more difficult than years past?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, you know, you remember when we did the media tour and we finished first, second, and had, what, 18 wins last year, and everybody thought, well, can anybody stop us this year.
I had this feeling that, you know, we spent a lot of time in the old car in the Chase, building new cars, and we got behind. I didn't think we'd struggle as bad as we have this year, and we worked harder this year than we did last year I think, and more testing, just trying to figure it out. And it's been frustrating, because other cars and other teams have run well.
But I think you can look at the other teams, the 99 and the 18, the other cars on those teams are not as dominant as those two cars are. And so it's just this car, I've never seen since I've been racing. It is so temperamental and you just have to figure out crew chief and driver what they like, and we worked harder this year -- I can't remember testing any more, more meetings, throwing more things at it to try to get better.
Sometimes the harder you work on this car, the further backwards you get. And sometimes, and I've talked to Jeff about it and I've talked to Kasey and Dale about it. Dale was Top-5, Top-6, Top-7 beginning of the year and we were running first at those tracks and now everybody else is running that much better. And if you had a bad spit stop or track position or a bad stop again you get back there. Seldom do you have a car this good; we haven't had one.
This thing has made a lot of people pull their hair out, you know, and we've been on the top of the list because it's hard -- I mean, this guy left his vacation and twice came back, and I think, what, 18 and 19 times at tracks that were not NASCAR Cup-sanctioned tracks. It was supposed to have been easier than this.
THE MODERATOR: Gentlemen, thank you very much and congratulations.



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