NASCAR Media Conference
TRACEY JUDD: Welcome, everyone, to the NASCAR NEXTEL teleconference. Champions will be crowned in NASCAR's three national series at Homestead this weekend. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with up to three drivers in the running for the title will race on Friday at 3:30 p.m. That event will be televised live on SPEED. Martin Truex, Jr. clinched the NASCAR Busch Series last week but will look for win number seven on the season in Saturday's Ford 300. That race is live on NBC beginning at 1:00. And the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series will crown its inaugural champion with a sprint to the finish between five drivers on Sunday in the Ford 400. NBC's coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. The next leader bonus is up to $70,000 and will go to the winning driver if he's also the points leader at the end of the event. And the NEXTEL Wake-Up Call is scheduled for Saturday morning with breakfast at 8:00 and the scheduled guest is defending Cup champion Matt Kenseth who should be joining at 8:30. Our guests today are the drivers who are in contention for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup championship, and they're scheduled to be joining us in segments. We have Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to start up first, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Mark Martin and points leader Kurt Busch will be joining us in just a few minutes. Despite some schedule issues, Jimmie Johnson has offered to join our call for a few questions off the top before he has to break from us. So we do ask that you please limit your questions to one for Jimmie to start at this time, then requeue to try to get him once more, and we'll bring on Jeff as soon as we release Jimmie. Please let's open to questions for Jimmie Johnson, who comes off his fourth win in the last five races and stands second in the Chase, just 18 points behind Kurt Busch.
Q. Jimmie, can you talk a little bit about how your crew is on such an incredible run before the accident, has that kind of been a catalyst for your team to want it even more?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think there's definitely, you know, different emotions that have been brought up since the accident with our airplane. But I wouldn't say that it's changed the desire. Our race team, all the race teams, at Hendrick Motorsports are extremely dedicated and the desire is always there. I think that our hearts are heavier. We would now want to win the championship for a different reason. But I don't see that the intensity or the drive or anything would be any different. Our motivation, I mean, our teams are as motivated as possible, and that's just the way Rick, you know, is able to operate his race teams and the people he hires and how we all act. You know, I think we're racing with heavy hearts and looking forward to possibly having a chance of dedicating this championship to our friends that we lost on that airplane.
Q. Jimmie, there is a scenario in which you can win this race and Kurt can still win the points championship. What do you think of this system in that regard? Does there need to be a change in terms of the number of points given to winners of a race?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm sure we'll look back on it and think that there needs to be some changes to the points system. But, you know, before the system started, I think a lot of us had different opinions on the structure of it. I would say two or three races into it, I heard different opinions and even had my own. Now being back in the middle of this championship with the slow start we had for the Chase, I'm not so sure that the system, you know, isn't working well as it is. I think there's always been a need for the winner of the race to have a bigger point spread over second and third. I can see that possibly being addressed over the winter. When we get through this and look back on it, I think it just keeps changing. The position we're in, we've raced our way back into this championship chase. On our side, we've had some fortunate breaks; some other teams have had some trouble. We just have to keep racing hard. If we do our job Sunday afternoon, and race to the best of our ability, we may be the champion.
Q. Jimmie, other than the problems experienced by your competitors, what has been the biggest thing or idea that's helped you back into this title chase? How do you stay true to that idea this weekend with so much on the line?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I think mentally when we had our points lead earlier in the season, trying to hang on to the lead for that five-point advantage into the off-season, I think we kind of took on the mentality of defending and playing some defense. I don't think that our team performs to its best with that mindset. So as we've -- in a sense, in my eyes, we were eliminated from the Chase early in the Chase For the Championship, we switched gears in our heads and started playing offense, trying to win races, trying to finish up the season on a positive note. And if there were troubles, then we would be back in the middle of it. That's the way it's turned out for us. I think we have to go to Homestead with that same thing in mind, go out to win the race. Because if you look at the points, Kurt is in the lead, Jeff is right behind us. You're going to have to, you know, finish first or second to win this championship in my eyes. So going down there to run eighth or tenth and race conservatively I don't think is going to win the championship.
Q. In Atlanta you said you didn't want to lead the points until after the last race. I'm guessing you think you're in the perfect spot. You said someone has to finish first or second to win. How big is it to be in the lead and have an 18-point advantage?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I guess it all depends on where we all finish Sunday (laughter). It's hard to say now. But, you know, there's a lot of pressure that I feel the 97 team is under. We've been in that position through this season. We've had bad luck with that pressure on our shoulders. I like the position that both Hendrick cars are in. We're very close to Kurt in points. We just have to go out, be aggressive, race hard. That's what both teams are very good at.
Q. Earlier in the year you said you'd like to see the champion decided over the full 36 races. Now that you have the closest points race in history, has your opinion changed at all?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think from a purist standpoint, my comments earlier in the season, I still believe that in my heart. But, you know, I have to be a realist and realize that this points system has created a lot of interest, sparked a lot of new fans. There's a lot of hype around it. The sheer fact that I believe this points system is going to be in effect for, you know, many years to come. Dwelling on the old points system is not going to do me a lot of good. With this points system in place, I think our team still is going to be very competitive, and it will work for us. But, you know, in my eyes, I just have always wanted to be a champion under the old points system. That won't take anything away from, you know, the possibilities of this championship. But so if I look at it from a competition standpoint, I have that answer. And then from, you know, a fan standpoint or for the better good of the sport, I think what has been changed is very good.
TRACEY JUDD: Jimmie, I understand we had limited time with you. We appreciate the time you have spent with us. We'll let you get going and see you at Homestead. Best of luck to you and the 48 team there.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Awesome. Thank you very much.
TRACEY JUDD: On the line with us now is Jeff Gordon, four-time Cup champion, who is third in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. Jeff is only 25 points out of first place coming into Homestead.
Q. Jeff, I know you've been in points races of all different sorts and stripes. Could you comment just a bit about the different mindset of a driver entering the last race holding the points lead and in pursuit of the points lead.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I think it's nerve-wracking and intense no matter where you're at. If you've got a shot at that championship, then the pressure's on. You've got to go out there and run hard. I mean, the closest thing that I have to compare to this would be when Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and myself were going for the championship in '97. I had the points lead by a small margin, and it was a good position to be in because it was our championship to lose, and we knew that, you know, those other guys really had to be on the huge offense. We knew where we had to finish. Even though we didn't make it look easy that day, we struggled. It was very stressful and frustrating because we weren't as good as we wanted to be. You know, they all have their different levels of intensity or excitement and what's on your mind. But, you know, if I had my choice, I'd want to be in Kurt's position. I like the fact we get to go out there and go for broke, we know we basically have to lead laps and win the race. But, you know, I still -- if I had my choice, I'd rather be out there in front with a little bit of a margin, and then just go out there and perform. He's not so far ahead to where he can just relax, but he's far enough ahead that if he runs a solid race and keeps us in sight, then there's not much we can do.
Q. I know you were frustrated on pit road over NASCAR's monitoring of pit road. Was that just frustration at the time? How would you expect them to watch this race, such small things will make a difference in this final race?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, I was frustrated that we had our troubles on the pit stop and that played a little role. But I've had issues with pit road, you know, really ever since they started monitoring it the way that they do. I just know that there's no possible way that you can monitor the speed of each and every car on pit road by hand. You know, it doesn't make sense. I wish that we had a better, higher-tech system or advanced system of scoring to keep it on the level playing field. You know, I think what happened pit road, I lost enough spots as it was. I was ahead of Jamie McMurray as we got to the end of pit road, and he basically just stood on the gas and went right by me. I knew that I was already at pit road speed. You know, I lost a position because of it. It was obvious to me and felt like it was going to be obvious to them, but they put him ahead of me anyway. So it took a frustrating moment and just heightened it that much more. I was thankful we came back and finished third.
Q. Despite the drivers are the best in the world, the fans seemed to think there's a possibility with the points so close that somebody could try to take somebody out. If something happens, that's what will be said anyway. How would you expect people to drive around you and how would you respond to that?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I think, you know, this is a great way to look at things of how you run your season, how you race other competitors, and how it can all come down to one race and one position. You don't want to make enemies out there, that's for sure. You don't want to make them all year long where there's a possible payback coming at some time. At a crucial moment like this, you certainly don't want to do that. You want to have as many friends out there as you can. You know, I don't think anybody would intentionally do anything. I don't think any of the guys racing in the championship would intentionally do anything because you've got to live with yourself and your conscience when it's all said and done. I know for me personally, I don't want to win the championship that way. I want to win it by going out there and racing hard, doing our best, and finishing ahead of our competitors enough to win the championship.
Q. Jeff, is Homestead the perfect neutral track, given the lack of number of races that have been run there?
JEFF GORDON: Absolutely. I agree with that. You know, it's a great racetrack. The new design of it is fantastic. It's aged now a year. It's lost a little bit of grip, which is good. But I think, yeah, you know, if you look at the experience that all the teams have on this racetrack, it is a pretty level playing field. I think it's going to be a great place to end the season and to wrap up this championship and find out who the champion is because it's a track that you can race on. You can run side by side, you can run low, you can run the middle, you can run high. So, you know, it's definitely going to be a good test of, you know, car, driver, team, the whole aspect of it, and in a beautiful area, as well.
Q. You mentioned Kurt is in a good position now. I just wonder if you would assess how you think he's going to handle the week leading up to the race? Seems like a pretty even-keeled guy. Maybe you see something we don't see. How is he going to approach this week?
JEFF GORDON: You got to understand it's not just on his shoulders; it's the entire team. And they've performed very well this year. Certainly through this Chase they have done a great job. I think as a team, you know, they're going to be solid. That's why, you know, it puts myself and Jimmie, the rest of us battling for this championship, in a position to have to push really hard and, you know, take a few extra chances if we're going to win this championship. So, you know, he's handled himself well all year long. One thing that I like is that, you know, certainly you look at Jimmie's momentum, from the wins, he's got great momentum, but so do we. We finished third the last two weeks, and had a shot at winning this past week, and I feel like we've broken a little bit the momentum. And it seems like it kind of started at Atlanta, that Kurt had. So I feel like he knows that the pressure is on. He knows that we're breathing right down his neck, and that we're racing for wins, and we got Jimmie who is winning races and me who has led laps and had a shot at winning the last couple. That's a good place for us to be in, but I'd still rather be leading the points. I think that he's feeling the pressure and I think he'll do a good job with that. I don't know. It's hard to say. I think we'll all find out how well he handles it this weekend.
Q. Jeff, what do you think if Jimmie pulls out this championship it will do to elevate him status-wise in NASCAR? Right now it seems between you and Junior as being the upper echelon. Do you think this could propel him up almost to your status?
JEFF GORDON: Absolutely. I mean, you got to put Junior in a separate category when it comes to popularity. But, you know, I think Jimmie has proven himself on and off the racetrack. He handles himself well. He's a sponsor's dream, a car owner's dream and crew chief's dream. He's all around very well-balanced and a great driver. I think the fans, they respect that. They see it. The only problem has is that our fans are very similar. Or the problem I have, I should say (laughter). When our fans go to choose who they're going to pull for, it's kind of hard to pull for two guys, so they have to choose between me or him. Sometimes I lose fans because of it, and sometimes he loses fans. But it doesn't seem like we both, you know, gain fans. It's kind of based on reports and things that we've seen out there.
Q. In the past year or so, I'm sure you've done some joint things together, have you seen a lot more fans coming out this year?
JEFF GORDON: Oh, absolutely. All the time you see more and more Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe's gear. I mean, we handle the license and merchandising for that team, Hendrick. I see all the numbers. I see the things. His popularity has certainly grown if you look at the numbers, purchases. And, you know, mine has been pretty steady for a while. Of course, Junior, like I said, is in a different league. So he's definitely climbing up the ladder. I would say that probably Tony Stewart is the next guy maybe below me in popularity. I think Jimmie, with his record that he's had here recently, his surge, that he's definitely, you know, going to take a bite out of that.
Q. Can you talk about the emotions of dealing with the tragedy, going for the Cup at the same time? Also are you mindful of history and chasing Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for seven titles?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, I think Jimmie said it very well, that we're out there racing with heavy hearts, and certainly we want to go out and do this for a different reason now. We have always had motivation. The teams motivate themselves because they just have a drive and desire to go out there and win, win the championship. But when you take the tragedy that happened, it just takes that to a whole new level. We're doing it because we want to honor them. We feel a huge loss. There's no way to fulfill that but going out there and trying to bring this championship home to Hendrick Motorsports would just be an amazing way to honor them. As far as the championships, you know, I've always looked at it one at a time. I never dreamed I'd have four. Here I am with a shot at five. Seven to me, it's not really even something that I think about or a goal that I feel like I have to accomplish before I step away from the sport. I feel like I got a lot of good years left in me. We'd love to, you know, be able to get to seven, but I got to get to five first. Get to five, then I got to get to six. That's kind of the way I look at it is one at a time. If it doesn't happen, I can walk away at any time. I mean, I'm so fortunate to have had the success that I've had, you know, I don't need another championship. We want it because we're competitors and because we know how good our organization is, what we're capable of. That's why we go out there and battle for race wins and championships now, not just because we feel like we have to match what Earnhardt and Petty did.
TRACEY JUDD: We appreciate you taking the time to join us today in this format we have. Thanks for your patience off the top with Jimmie. We have Kurt Busch and Mark Martin on the line right now. We'll let you go, get ready for Homestead, and as always wish you and the 24 team best of luck at Homestead on Sunday. Thank you for your time.
JEFF GORDON: Thank you. I want to confirm, I'm 21 points out. I want to make sure I didn't lose some points overnight.
TRACEY JUDD: I didn't take them away from you. You're still good.
JEFF GORDON: Thank you (laughter). Bye-bye.
TRACEY JUDD: As we said, we've got Kurt Busch on the line now who, of course, is first in the The Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup heading to Homestead, and Mark Martin has also joined. Mark is currently in fifth place in the choice. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us today. We appreciate it.
MARK MARTIN: Good afternoon.
KURT BUSCH: Thank you.
TRACEY JUDD: Our media friends again, direct your question to either Mark or to Kurt so they know you are coming to them.
Q. Kurt, but Mark I'd be interested in your answer, too, with the points race so nerve-wracking and intense, I'm wondering if you or your crew chiefs, if you're doing anything to lighten the mood, to ease the tension so guys don't snap before the race?
KURT BUSCH: This is one line I can take from Mark Martin's team is the fact that we've worked with Jimmy Fennig in the past. We know what type of competitor he is. We know how even-keeled, what type of leader he is. That's the inspiration that I want to have within every one of the crew members. Right now with this championship drive for Jimmy Fennig, it feels like we're doing it for Jimmy Fennig. We've got all this inspiration to do it from him. So that's where I bank all of my type experience, too, the veteran type leader that he is, he's the one that got us in this position and he's the one we're looking up to.
MARK MARTIN: You know, Kurt is in a little bit different position there, but I think he's right on target with his guys. This is not Kurt's first time to race for a championship, it's just the first time maybe in Cup. You know, Kurt's got a lot of experience at racing and racing for points and all that stuff that dates way back from before we knew him. For me, we're in really, really good position because we've had such a fantastic year after a disappointing year last year. For us, this is all a bonus, just to be a part of it and to be running so well. I'm just tickled to death to be in this thing and to be a contender. We're going to go to Homestead and race for a win. That's what we did last week at Darlington. It was a lot of pressure for us to get into the Chase from where we were. That's where the really, really high pressure was for us. The toughest part of the season was the first 26 races, especially leaving Daytona 43rd.
TRACEY JUDD: Kurt and Mark, to let you know, Dale, Jr. has joined us now. We'll ask our media members who are queuing up to make sure you direct your specific question to either Kurt, Mark or Dale, Jr. Questions, please, for Kurt Busch, Mark Martin or Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Q. Mark, in this chase, you seem to be the guy going against all the young kids out there. How honored are you or pleased that you're able to run this well at your age, going against all these guys who have been there just a little bit less than you?
MARK MARTIN: Well, it's incredible. You know, I was afraid 2003 was going to be the -- was going to set the tone for the twilight of my career. I was really sick about that. It took a lot of hard work by a Pat Tryson and everybody at Roush Racing to get me in a position where I could go out here and battle these guys. I've got 15 years on most of them and more. I think it's pretty cool. There are some things that I could do 15 or 20 years ago that I probably can't do today. But there's some other things that I do pretty well. So, you know, I'm really honored to be driving the kind of equipment that will put me in a position to be able to race with them.
Q. Could you be specific what you think you couldn't do 15 or 20 years ago that you can do now?
MARK MARTIN: Well, you know, everyone learns from their experiences. I have definitely learned a lot of things through my life's experiences, as well as my racing experiences over the years. That sort of weighs in on your judgment.
Q. Kurt, are you comfortable, given how few competitive laps you had at Homestead last year, and the position you're in this year racing four guys for the title with a narrow lead?
KURT BUSCH: Well, it definitely is a disadvantage to have the laps that we made last year come into play this year. But as far as the outlook and the demeanor of our team is to approach this race as if it were a brand-new racetrack, which some teams can do because of the limited history that Homestead-Miami Speedway has. With the new banking, it's only got one race under its belt, but yet it's changed dramatically from last year with the amount of grip and just the level of intensity that this racetrack is going to have with these final competitors going after just the few select amount of points that are available. It's a whole new outlook the way that you can approach this race, the way that past history comes into it, and just the way that every team has is tested to their best possible fashion with the best car that they have. This is what NASCAR wanted with this new NEXTEL Chase for the Cup, an opportunity for five competitors to come down to the final race and to see who is the best man with the best possible finish winning the championship.
Q. What do you feel like might be the single most critical thing in this race? Is it going to come down to a late decision on pit or not to pit?
KURT BUSCH: Well, this is a racetrack that is definitely different from Darlington in the fact that you can race side by side, and track position will be important. But it will be a matter of how you protect that track position. Towards the end of the race, we know that pit stops can change -- have a heavy impact on how it changes the positions at the end of the race. So we're looking forward to having those consistent pit stops that we had from last week implemented into our program at the end of the day to see if we can come out on top. To gain bonus points throughout the race will be a key because of how tight the championship race is. To be able to execute properly at the end of the race is what it's going to come down to.
Q. Kurt, how are you feeling this week? Are you able to sleep okay? Is this stuff constantly on your bind?
KURT BUSCH: It's definitely been a different feeling this week from the previous week and the week leading up to the one that was before that one (laughter). It's been a great regular season for us, to race 26 races somewhat under the radar. As a regular-season approach, we did the best possible job I think our team could have done. Knowing that this playoff series was going to be as difficult as it's been, to lead the points, to race each race as if it were the last one, and the amount of pressure that's come our way, to be able to talk to the media eight weeks straight by being the points leader, it's something we've prepared ourselves for by just having a cool and relaxed regular season.
Q. Are you cool and relaxed now?
KURT BUSCH: Well, that's the focal point, is to be able to balance out the regular stress of the regular season as well as the high intensity pressure of this playoff atmosphere. It's been fun to be part of. No matter what the outcome is on Sunday, we've brought our team to this level, we've had a tremendous amount of fun being able to compete like this. If we win the championship, that is the absolute optimum goal. If we come up just a bit short, that doesn't really matter to us. We're having fun doing it.
Q. Dale, being a championship car owner who is kind of moulding a young driver with Martin Truex, Jr., contending for a championship at the same time, can you relate to where your dad was in 1998 through 2000, years when he was sort of running for the championship at RCR but also bringing you along, too?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, I mean, not really. I mean, what he was doing is a whole lot bigger scale than the Busch team I got. He was starting a whole -- he was starting a whole company there with the one car and everything. But it was kind of like that, I guess. But, you know, the Chance 2 program, I just can't believe how smooth it went from where it started. I mean, I expected there to be a lot more twists and turns maybe outside of the car, you know, off the racetrack for that company. But everything just kept piling on top of itself and creating, you know, this big head of steam. Before I knew it, we were going to run a full schedule with the team and all. But everybody's worked really hard, and they achieved winning the championship this year. I was just really -- really pretty surprised by it all, how it all happened so fast. But it's been fun. It's worked so well, it hasn't been a distraction at all as far as for me this year.
Q. Has it focused you a little bit more, being a car owner? Richey Gilmore said Sunday he's seen you maybe in the shop a little bit more, he's seen you with the crew guys, understanding the late nights they're putting in, the VI program?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Yeah, that was the whole -- that was probably the first thing that I realized early on when I started Chance 2. We had Hank Parker, Jr. driving the car, Steve Park drove it a couple times. Throughout all that, I was at the shop, on top of the pit box. I mean, to see it from that point of view kind of, I don't know, it matured me a little bit. I realized in a lot of areas how much of a brat I was about my expectations toward Tony, Sr. and Tony, Jr. When I see it from their point of view, I can kind of understand a lot of things they're going through and why I can't get everything I want under the snap of my fingers, you know, during the race or whatever. But it's definitely helped me understand. I don't know if it's made me a better race car driver, but it's just made me a better person in general toward the people I'm working with, you know, toward the business itself.
Q. Dale, every week at every racetrack, you have to deal with such a crush of people every time you step out there. I wonder, in a week like this, do you ever worry about that becoming a hindrance? Can you do anything to limit it and make it more low-key than it usually is?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, you know, you definitely can't hide from the popularity of the sport. I mean, I don't really have a problem with it. We just kind of maneuver through the whole weekend best we can. NASCAR brought in the hot passes, and that's helped a lot as far as being able to focus during practice and all. The fans are a big part of the sport. I try not to ever look at it as a hindrance or any kind of obstacle for me. You know, there's times when things can get overwhelming, but you just kind of got to buck up a little bit and be tough, deal with it best you can. A lot of times, you know, when things are going your way, when you're having success, nothing's a problem. But when you're not running good, a lot of times you just want to figure out how to get better and not worry about anything else. You know, the sport's in a mode right now, especially this year with the new system and everything, to really kind of catapult itself into another realm, into another level of popularity, be a bigger attraction and whatnot. We all got to pitch in a little bit.
Q. Kurt, about your Las Vegas past. Obviously, you've been around Charlotte enough to know how much focus there is on racing. What is it like in Vegas coming up and developing and growing up there?
KURT BUSCH: Well, it's definitely a unique opportunity to be able to have the chance to come from the west coast over to the primary background of where all of our racing began. To grow up in Vegas, to race some of the dirt tracks around the area, to have the backing of the local racetrack, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it was a great opportunity at the time, and things fell into place to help my career prosper in the positive direction. The town is a unique town to represent, there's so many things going on all the time in Las Vegas, it doesn't have the solid following that you would have from being from a small town in North Carolina. I think if we were to obtain the championship and bring the trophy back to Vegas, people would be more worried about where the next buffet line was or where they could get some free slots versus hoisting up the championship trophy with me.
Q. Kurt and Dale, Mark made an adage that you have to lose a championship at the top level before you can win one. How do you guys feel about that?
KURT BUSCH: I think I got your question, and it's to lose a championship at the top level before you're able to obtain one. With our heavy hearts, the way that most of the NASCAR family has pulled together through this tragedy, the way that we have thrown away a 96-point lead after the Atlanta race, you have so many different emotions and your heart can go in so many different directions, knowing that you've poured everything you have in your life out to these race cars and out to the team, it does take years to build that stronger feeling about every situation and what positive experience you can take from anything. To have our motor fail us in Atlanta and to have the 8 car have a problem, the 24, then to see the 48 come through, there were so many emotions in just that one race. I felt like we threw everything away, but yet some of it was given back to us. Just to have this opportunity again to be able to look at Homestead Speedway, to know we have a slight advantage over the competition to go into it, I don't feel like we lost it completely at Atlanta, but yet it definitely did feel like we let everything slip through, and now we've given a second revival on things.
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, I don't know. I'll say that, you know, when somebody says you have to lose one to win one, you have to know -- I think what that goes back to is you have to understand what all goes into it. I believe in paying your dues, you know. So I won't be miserable throughout the winter if I do lose this championship, I'll take that excuse (laughter).
Q. Kurt, even your fans are worried that somebody might try to take somebody out this weekend with the points so close, not one of the fellow Chase competitors. Maybe it's a conspiracy theory, maybe it's the closeness of the points. How do you expect people to race around you? Do you feel like a bullseye being the leader? How do you answer that question?
KURT BUSCH: I expect the racing to stay the same. I believe everybody at this level is very professional and will conduct themselves in that manner. We can't worry about what another driver thinks versus another guy being in a better position. I do have a better position, I could say, with having teammates out on the racetrack with being some of them in the Chase as well as a couple that aren't in the Chase. Just being able to race your car at the best of your ability, not worry about your competition as the focus. And you have to protect your car. That's what a driver has to do in these final 10 races to attain the most points at the end of the race, is to protect his race car and try to avoid conflicts out on the racetrack.
Q. Dale, how do you expect people racing around you? How would you answer that question that the fans were posing yesterday?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I don't think anybody thinks somebody is going to take somebody out. That's pretty ridiculous. We're all professionals. You know, we don't really drive like that. I don't think anybody's that crazy. Maybe 10 years ago, but not today.
Q. Kurt, I'm not maybe looking for a definition, but you are very well-spoken, could you talk about the top two or three qualities that you think makes a champion?
KURT BUSCH: I would say that you have to be well-balanced to be able to compete at this level. If you feel as if you're weak in one area, you look at other drivers and how they handle certain situations or how they've been able to do it in the past. Having such a great teammate as Mark Martin to look up to, it's helped me polish off some of my rough edges in balancing different areas, whether it's communication with the team, the competitiveness on the racetrack, and the other qualities to be able to obtain a championship is to have that drive from within and to have that focus set forth by a leader. I believe I have that with Jimmy Fennig and of course with Roush Racing, knowing what they did last year to win the championship, it's just so close to us this year. You have to have another ingredient, and I don't know where or what's more important next, but to be on top going into the final race, to have a controlling position I think is an element that you don't necessarily have from a certain key player, it's just a stat, it's something that the team arrived at. And we have that advantage going into the final race. I believe that's another key ingredient for the championship.
Q. Junior, what have you learned this year that you will kind of mull over in the off-season and be prepared to win the championship in 2005?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, I mean, a little bit as I predicted, I think that you don't have to take the first 26 races so seriously because, you know, with kind of the last couple weeks that Kurt's had, you know, he came kind of from the backside of the Top 10 to be in the mix of things. You know, you can really enjoy the season, enjoy yourself, let a lot more things kind of slide off your back, then buckle down when it counts. I think saving your tests is a good option, things like that. We're going to go test at Las Vegas and California, we're going to do that, but I think we should save all our other tests for the end of the season. But basically just kind of -- it kind of turned the sport a little bit into my favor as far as not having to take it so seriously all the time, not having to live and die by the sword, just going out there and having fun and racing. At least that's the way it will be for the first 26 races. If you're a good enough team, you'll make the Top 10. I think where my team is now, we can make it, we can make it no problem. So no matter who steps up or gets better, I still think we're good enough to be in there and we'll just have to, you know, have our ducks in a row when it comes time.
Q. What have you learned about the team specifically? You have the strategy laid down, but what have you learned about the team? How will the team regroup for 2005?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, we're still finding, you know, the Vegases and the Californias a big mystery. We got to figure out how to get around those places because it's terrible. It's embarrassing how we run there. We tested at Homestead. We kind of had the same issues that we have at those tracks. So, you know, we just got to work hard, get that right. It used to be one of our strong points. We used to expect to be able to run well at those tracks. We got better at other places we had problems with, and seem to have lost everything we gained at those tracks. There's a couple of areas. One thing, I mean, I really do like the relationship between me and Tony, Jr. is coming along. We both have given each other a lot more slack and we don't get on each other as much as we used to. I like how that's going, because I want to race with him for my whole career. At the rate we was arguing, I don't think we'd have been able to do that. But here over the last year, it's been a lot of fun. So I think I can see that as a possibility now.
Q. Junior, tell me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you're almost resigned that this is not your year, with Homestead not being one of your better tracks, and the position you are in. Is that the right take or do you still feel you have a good shot at winning it all this year?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: Well, I mean, I think we can -- you know, we're still in it. I mean, we got to go in there with that attitude. We're not racing just Kurt or just Jimmie. I mean, Mark, he could take fourth away from me or he could put me in fifth anyways. But, you know, we got to race hard because we don't want to finish fifth, we don't want to finish fourth, third or second. We're going to go in there and do the best we can. Reality of the situation is, you know, we didn't run good there last year. The test wasn't a 100% success. And, you know, so I don't live in a dream world. I know what the facts are. We just got to figure out how to get a better race car before the race starts because, frankly, I think we don't have what it takes right now as far as the way the test went. The car don't drive exactly the way I want to it. We got to work really hard during the practice sessions and try to get the car right. Those guys are going to have to have trouble too because we got to gain quite a bit of points on them.
Q. In terms of the pressure you feel, can you tell me the last time you felt this much pressure?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: I don't really feel a lot of pressure because, I mean, I think if I'm Kurt, I would be really nervous. And I kind of -- because he's in the situation where, you know, it's really basically up to him and his team to win or lose it. We just have to go out there and race as hard as we can and throw, you know, everything we got at it and see what happens. You know, that's really not hard at all. Kurt has to look ahead and look behind at the same time. That's got to be really tough. I'm sure he's going to be glad when it's all over with. So will the rest of us. But it's been a lot of fun. You know, it's been an honor to race with all these guys, and to be in the mix. You know, I never even anticipated getting this far in my career. So, you know, it's been fun. Kind of like Mark, everything's been a big bonus for me. I'm kind of just enjoying it. Even though we're not where we want to be, it's still fun.
Q. Kurt, can you talk about what's been your most meaningful or memorable championship in your racing career and why to this point.
KURT BUSCH: I'd have to back up to 1999. It was an opportunity to race in my second year in the southwest series with a car owner that was a guy that embraced me as a son, kind of similar to the way I feel with Jack Roush and Jimmy Fennig, putting together an effort that we go out to win races, to do our best. No matter what the outcome is, we get to learn something from it, and to have a point in the season that was a turning point, that was very pivotal, where we were second in the championship effort, to win a race out the Sears Point in California. It was just one of those races that you put up on a different stage. You have TV there. You're running a regional series. You've got the Cup owners and drivers watching the race. And that changed the way that our team viewed each individual member after that just because we had come up to a different level. And it was fun to be able to compete at that level, to finish Top 3 most of the rest of the year, to win four races in a row at the end of the year. I feel like that's what I'm up against right now with Jimmie Johnson. But just putting together a championship effort is something that is very memorable, and to have all the key ingredients fall into one place at the right time is what it takes to win one of those. It's something that I've done in the past, but of course not at this level.
Q. Mark, can you put into perspective what Jimmie Johnson has been able to do with four wins in five races? Obviously, something that hasn't been done in about five years. Everybody talks about how competitive this sport is, yet here is somebody who has gone out and won four of the last five.
MARK MARTIN: Well, it's pretty incredible considering the competition today. You know, there's just so many teams out there capable of winning. Those guys have done it all. They've done it based on performance. There are factors in every race that weigh on who wins the race. But those guys have been incredible. They have been really fast at the beginning of the year, and they went through the summer and had a spell where they weren't quite as incredible, but they were still really strong. And then, you know, once the Chase got started, they managed to get really back on a roll. I'm, like everybody else in the sport, very impressed with what they've been able to do.
Q. Mark, I asked Jeff earlier about Homestead. Is that really, given the fact it is essentially the newest track on the circuit, is it a perfect, neutral setting to decide the championship?
MARK MARTIN: Well, in my opinion it is, not because we haven't raced there forever, though. I just think that it's the appropriate place for the time of the year. You know, it's a good geographic location for mid November or late November. It gives you some kind of feel for the starting of the season in Daytona, finishing in Homestead somehow or another just feels right. It's really a cool racetrack. It's really an awesome place to go race. I think it's fantastic to end the season up there.
Q. Kurt, I was hoping you could talk about your relationship with Jack Roush, how you think he's helped you mould you into the leader you've become on the team, and if you've talked recently about how to run this last race and run with the pressure?
KURT BUSCH: It's definitely a unique opportunity that doesn't come along very often. For Jack to be in this position two years in a row, it's a testament to what he's put together, the effort of the drivers, the crew chiefs and the people that he's put behind him to develop that name. It's an awesome program to be part of and I'm privileged to be in this opportunity. He's given me a chance at a young age to drive competitive NEXTEL Cup cars, to go forthwith this final race. He's got his view and his method of how he would approach this race, and I have nowhere to look but to his direction. So this is the best possible car and we've got the best possible people. This is right now our finest hour. Whether the outcome is positive or negative, we've definitely been through a lot together and he's taught me everything I know about the professional levels of race cars.
TRACEY JUDD: Gentlemen, we thank you very much for your time today and of course for your patience with this format. Kurt, Dale, Jr., Mark, to you and your teams good luck this weekend at Homestead and thanks again.
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