NASCAR Media Conference
November 14, 2013
KERRY THARP: Welcome our third‑place driver coming into Sunday's race, winner of last Sunday's race, Kevin Harvick. Our second‑place driver is the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. He has won more races this season than any other driver. Welcome Matt Kenseth. Our points leader has won five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships and enters the season finale with a 28‑point cushion. Please welcome Jimmie Johnson.
Before we talk to our three contenders, we'd like to bring up Brett Jewkes for a special announcement.
BRETT JEWKES: Before we make this announcement, I just want to thank all of the media and our media partners for a great season. Thanks for all the great work. A season where there's been a lot of on‑ and off‑track news, we appreciate your hard work. Our fans have been well‑served.
At Champions Week in Las Vegas, NASCAR will announce a number of different significant changes to the Hall of Fame selection process and eligibility. There is one we want to announce today because it's relevant to the proceedings that we'll have on Sunday afternoon.
As we meet to select the 2015 Hall of Fame class this May, NASCAR will become the first major sport to include a current competitor on the voting panel. Moving forward, the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion will have a vote for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. One of these gentlemen will be invited into that closed‑door meeting and cast one of those precious votes to seat the 2015 class.
We wish all of you guys good luck this weekend. Thank you.
KERRY THARP: Let's get started with Kevin Harvick. Sunday's win put you back into contention for your first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Are you looking at this race as a nothing‑to‑lose opportunity?
KEVIN HARVICK: I think we have to. As you approach the last race of the season, know you're at a deficit, we approach it like we did last week, we have to go out and score maximum points. We have to figure out how to do that throughout the weekend.
Hopefully we can have a good weekend and control the things that we can control.
KERRY THARP: Matt, you're one of the true veterans of the NASCAR garage area. Doesn't seem like you get too rattled out there. You have a large hill to climb to overtake Jimmie. You've done it before. In 2011 here at Homestead you gained 28 points on Jimmie Johnson. That's what you're behind right now, so it can be done. You've been great at these mile‑and‑a‑half racetracks. How tough is it going to be to make up this deficit?
MATT KENSETH: Obviously we're not going to make up the deficit on performance. I think Jimmie could run 28th through the grass or with three wheels on (laughter). He's going to have to have a mechanical problem or crash to make something happen. We'll have to be up in the top five to hold on to second or to overtake Jimmie if he has a problem.
KERRY THARP: Jimmie, what do you have to do this time around to defend this points lead?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Definitely in the position I want to be in. Defending is the place of control of the points lead. We can control our own destiny. It does come with a price. There's a lot of pressure on myself and the team to get things done. We'll deal and manage that as the weekend goes on.
But excited to have this opportunity. Again, we're in the position that we want to be in, that I'm sure any driver would want to be in.
KERRY THARP: Jimmie, you've won five championships. What do you think about being able now to have the opportunity possibly of having a Hall of Fame vote?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's a huge honor and pressure in a different way that none of us have experienced before.
Quickly thinking about it, I think it will help ingrain the current champion into the past and understand more about the history of the sport, the people that came before us. I think it's a cool opportunity for whoever the champion is.
KERRY THARP: Matt, what would you think about having the opportunity to vote for the Hall of Fame class?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, I think it's a cool idea. I think anytime anybody asks your opinion, actually listens to it, that's always neat (smiling).
I think it would be neat to be part of that. I think it probably would also teach us more about the sport. I think we all think we know about it, but I think you'd learn more about it and probably appreciate it more.
KERRY THARP: Kevin, talk about what that would mean, if you were able to have that opportunity?
KEVIN HARVICK: Well, I think as you look at the sport, obviously there's a lot of key participants that have been a part of the sport for a long time. I think having somebody on that panel that may think a little bit outside of the current known drivers, crew chiefs, team owners, might bring something else to the panel to think about. It's pretty cool.
KERRY THARP: We'll open it up for questions now.
Q. Matt and Kevin, are you coming here with the possibility of winning a title fairly realistic in your mind, something that could possibly happen? Do you let yourself think about it? Or is the points gap such a longshot that you can't visualize?
KEVIN HARVICK: I think for us, we've had so many strange things happen throughout my career at the last minute, you at least have to play everything out. Just the type of team we are, we race up until the last lap. You just never know what's going to happen.
Realistically the only things we can control are what we do. It's definitely a really, really longshot. But we'll control the things that are in our control and see how it all falls.
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, what he said (smiling).
No, I mean, really, pretty much exactly what he said. But I think you got to take it serious. You got to control the things that you can control to the best of your ability. You have to go out there with the idea of trying to win and run up toward the front.
Like I touched on before, we have to outrun Kevin to maintain second. If Jimmie does have a problem, he's so far ahead, the problem needs to be fairly severe. If it is, you need to be pretty far toward the front because hypothetically he could have a problem, if Kevin and I are running around 12th and 13th, Jimmie could still win.
We have to go out with the idea of trying to win the race, lead laps, be in the front group, trying to get the best finish we can.
Q. To me at the end of the season it seems like you are laughing amongst each other and that the relationship is you're all enjoying it from the inside while we're all covering it. What is the relationship between you guys as you head into the final race of the season?
MATT KENSETH: Well, we're not laughing amongst each other, we're just laughing at you guys (laughter).
KEVIN HARVICK: I think for me, I feel like I have a good relationship with both of these guys. I feel like there's a mutual respect for what everybody's accomplished, just always can have a conversation with both of them. For me, process has been fairly simple.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, definitely, as Kevin said. One thing to add. This is the situation we all want to be in. I think we all take a lot of pride that we're all here at the end of this year at the press conference. I can vividly recall missing the press conference in 2011. But I'm happy to be here.
It's easy to be more relaxed. Friday I'm sure that will change the environment a little bit. As Kevin pointed out, there's a great deal of respect between all of us and I think we're all happy to be here.
Q. Jimmie, how long did it take to get over last year's lost opportunity or is it a case that it just diminishes a little bit over time but it's still always there, just as 2004 is always there?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think 2004 affected me more than last year. 2004, there were so many emotions riding on things, with the airplane going down... The momentum we had, it seemed was on our side. The 97's wheels fall off. We were coming from the back. We were in position all day long until the last restart. That one hurt more for a lot of reasons.
Last year we lost control at Phoenix, which kind of started the process. We were in position here to win the race, put a lot of pressure on the 2. We made two mistakes.
Stuff happens. It is a team sport. That's one element that I think gets overlooked in our sport a lot. But I feel like last year, I did some of the best driving that I've done, and I felt like I was a better teammate than I'd been in years past.
When the dust settled, the job that I did, being a part of my race team, I had a lot to be proud of. We had a great year. It still hurts. You hate to miss an opportunity because you never know when they're going to come again.
But it was more of a slow burn from Phoenix to Champions Week. You just about get over it till you go to Vegas. Then you go to Vegas and you're reminded you didn't win the championship.
Q. Jimmie, back in 2010, Denny qualified 37th and wrecked early trying to come through traffic. How important is qualifying on Friday and how much emphasis are you going to place on that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Qualifying is so important. Here it seems we have a lot of green‑flag runs. If you start down on track position, don't have your car right come race day, don't make the most of Saturday, you're going to have a long race, put a lot of pressure on yourself that you don't want.
The race does start with qualifying on Friday. The one thing that's different for me this year is with the new testing policy, we're able to save a test session. I felt like we had a productive test session. We're eager to get going and it does start on Friday.
Q. Jimmie, Chad was talking about how you had the same car from Texas. It's the fourth time in eight weeks you're actually running this car. Do you have any input on what car he brings to the track? What do you like about this car? Do you have a name for it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No name. We just go off the number system with the car.
The car I think I ran at Dover earlier in the year and the car performed very well. Michigan in August I crashed in practice in our primary car and this car was the backup. We got it on the track, made a few laps. Right away there was just something that felt really good about it. We don't know why. We look at all the numbers from aero, all the things that go with it, all the tools we have to measure, and there's nothing that stands out.
It just feels better. It's a more comfortable car for me to drive. That alone is what kept this car in rotation and why we're bringing it back.
The performance at Texas and Dover the second time certainly helps. But I told Chad after the Michigan race, Let's put this one on the side and use it as often as possible in the Chase. That had a lot to do with it.
Q. This is the 10th year of the Chase. I wonder what your opinion of the Chase format is, what you like about it, if there's anything you don't like about it.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think it's great to have our sport relevant to others in the fact that we have a playoff system. I think that's one key component.
MATT KENSETH: I guess if you're running well and you feel like you have a solid team, a solid year going on, that kind of gives you some Mulligans earlier in the year. You can have some bad races, have things go wrong, kind of get reset when you get to the Chase.
The one thing that I don't like it there's one guy that thinks he has to win every single one of them. Doesn't leave much for the rest of us (laughter).
KEVIN HARVICK: I agree, I like the format. Things I don't like about it are the same racetracks year after year. I think it would help our schedule, it would help some of the racetracks, help build some excitement around some different racetracks. I think there needs to be a road course in it. I think there definitely needs to be some things mixed up in it. I think the format is great, but I think the tracks need to change on a yearly basis.
Q. Kevin, you've mentioned several times this season about people writing you off at the beginning of the year. I was curious, at the time you didn't know what all was going to transpire this season. But why were you confident that you and Gil and Richard would be able to go through this season and not have things fall apart?
KEVIN HARVICK: Well, I think obviously you look at Martinsville, I wish that whole situation hadn't transpired. But I think from the time we moved from it, I think we had conversations and talked about a lot of things. You realize it makes you really think about things that have happened in the past. Just talking amongst ourselves, with Richard and myself, you realize how successful we've been in the past. Along with that process, you also think about all the mistakes you've made along the way, the things you would have done different.
So we've been through a lot of scenarios that were a lot tougher than starting with my job ending after this week at RCR. The way that it started at Atlanta, really Rockingham in 2001. We've been through a lot of hard situations before, had committed to each other to fulfill our commitment throughout the year.
The guys in the shop, they don't care. I always tell people, It's just as hard to run last as it is to run first. All those guys were onboard. Everybody knew the scenario.
In the end for the company, our car had to run good. They had a lot of change, a lot of things going forward to make right. No matter who drives it, what number's on it, the car needed to perform well this year.
It had to have the right amount of effort. They couldn't just write it off and hope for better things next year.
Still probably the most stressful year on the racing side I'd ever had with all the different scenarios and different things going on. But in the end you put all that aside and you get to do what you like to do in the racecar, be around the guys in the garage that really don't care about the politics, they don't care about contracts, they don't care about scenarios. They put 12 hours seven days a week, sometimes more, into those cars, and they want to see them perform. They don't care about the rest of it.
That's really what drove me, were the guys on my team. They look at you and expect you to get in that car no matter what's happened, they expect you to get in that car and give it 100%, even though it's (indiscernible) (smiling).
Q. Matt, talk about Phoenix, having such a great season, how devastating last week was.
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, I mean, it was obviously a really poor performance all around. It was probably our worst performance of the year and really couldn't have came at a worse time.
On the other hand, that says a lot about our season, how great our season has been, that that was our worst race. Shouldn't say we still ran 23rd or wherever the heck we finished, because that's obviously terrible. It was a tough week.
We went back and tried to figure out what went wrong. We think we have a handle on what went wrong, tried to figure it out for the next time. Certainly wanted to win. We still have a chance to do that if everything plays out right in our favor, I guess.
But either way, it's been obviously an incredible year. It's been probably the best year of racing I've ever had in my career. It's been a lot of fun. It's been a great challenge personally and professionally. I've had a great time this year. I'm looking forward to this weekend, closing the season out. I'm actually already looking forward to next season, as well.
Q. Jimmie, what would winning a sixth championship mean?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't know. We'll see if I'm fortunate enough to be in that position at the time. I'm just focused on getting in the car and doing all that I can on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, minimizing the stakes, all those types of things. I've really tried hard not to go down that road and think about those things. I think it would be a mistake.
I'm going to focus on Sunday's race, do my best job then. What happens after that, we'll all find out.
Q. Kevin, do you feel like you're at a bit of a disadvantage because the two guys next to you were at the test earlier in the month?
KEVIN HARVICK: Not really. We went and tested at Texas and didn't run very well. Well, he went and tested at Texas and dominated the race.
If we do everything that we've done, I feel like this is probably the best car from an aero standpoint they brought to the racetrack. We might hit a few bumps in the road to start the practice, but I think we'll be fine.
Q. Jimmie, you just said obviously you don't go down the road in terms of thinking championships. Somewhere down the road, have you thought of your place in NASCAR history in terms of, I want to get to Richard Petty's reaching seven, eight? Are there goals in your mind long‑term as you move forward in this sport?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I've not been one to look at stats and pay attention to what's been ahead of me and use that for motivation. I think a lot of it's due to the fact I didn't win a lot growing up. I didn't grow up thinking that way.
Things have changed dramatically since I've gotten involved with Hendrick Motorsports, pairing with Chad Knaus, doing what we've been able to do on the track.
Of course, yes, I'd love to win this year. I'd love to win a seventh or an eighth. You go on and on. That's what you would want to do.
Is it realistic? I have no clue. Honestly, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it. I had a friend tell me something that sticks in the back of my mind. I try to think a little bit and dream because he told me, Limits begin where the vision ends. There needs to be a vision of some kind.
But I'm really one that lives in the present, focuses on each week. That's just the way I've been. Just show up at each racetrack each week, 36 or 39 of them, you hope you have a shot at the end.
Q. This is clearly a sport undergoing a youth movement. Sam has been around for a while. All three guys left standing here are middle‑aged guys with kids. What does that say about being able to compete at the highest level as you go forward in this sport?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm thinking of Junior Johnson, something I saw on television, where he didn't win until he was in his 30s. Generations before us, Terry, Dale Sr., most of them were older champions. There's really something for experience in our sport. It really makes a big difference. Youth is important. Jeff Gordon won at a young age. We need that in our sport, it's very important.
But championships are so hard to get. I think all of us, and I remember saying it myself getting started, I would trade my age for experience any day. There's so much you learn over the course of a career, a decade in the sport now. So much better as a competitor.
We're able to prolong our careers more than stick‑and‑ball sports. Mentally we're getting into a strong period of time is probably the biggest thing.
Q. The past contenders' press conferences have been a little more exciting in terms of, I was reminded when Kevin leaned in and said for Denny it started on Thursday when you messed with him the entire time. There was a little bit of that with Brad. You guys are kind of like a bunch of old boring dads up there. Nobody is trying to play any mind games or anything like that. Is that because you are steely veterans, have been here, done this before?
MATT KENSETH: Or maybe because he's ahead by 28 points (smiling)? If he was building his own engine, I'd be messing with him right now.
KEVIN HARVICK: The old boring dads? How did the ones before this go (laughter)?
Q. Kevin, I was looking at your finishes. In nine races you have two wins and seven top 10s. What the heck do you have to do to win a championship? You're still 34 points back. Do you wonder about that?
KEVIN HARVICK: We were talking about this earlier. I feel like we as a team have done better than what we've done in the past as far as the Chase goes with winning, which is what we felt like we needed to win a race or two in the Chase.
I think we've averaged like a 7.5 throughout the Chase. I felt like after we left Loudon, one of these guys was going to have one of those Chases that was going to take a 4 or a 5 average finish to make it happen and probably going to win a few races.
We knew going in we couldn't make any mistakes because you're racing against guys that have had a great year, are capable of winning every week. So we knew when we left Loudon that we had made a big mistake. That's just the way it goes. You just have to race every week. We've had a good Chase.
Q. (No microphone.)
KEVIN HARVICK: Well, that's his fault. He set the bar that high. Carl lost it with, what was his average, 5.2 or 3 or something. It takes 10 weeks to put them all together.
KERRY THARP: Thank you very much, everybody.
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