NASCAR Sprint Cup Series post race press conference Michigan International Speedway
An interview with: Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski
THE MODERATOR: At this time we welcome Jimmie Johnson, who finished second in today's 42nd annual Pure Michigan 400.
Jimmie, talk a little bit about the race.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The start of the race was pretty tough for the Lowe's team. We had a pretty well-handling racecar, but then had a mistake on pit road. We took the first third of the race to get the car right. After we got the car underneath me and I had confidence to race side-by-side with the other competitors, I think I started last or tail end because of a penalty we had to serve and drove my way into the top 10 or top 5, something like that.
Once we had the car under me, we were in the game, had a shot at running in the top three. With the call that Chad made coming to pit road before the caution came out, that gave us a chance to win.
Wish I could have hung on. We had some debris on the grill. The car was much looser than the run before. Some of it was due to the debris on the nose and also clean air. I got away from Kyle, but as I was pulling away, I was sliding the car pretty bad. I knew that my rears weren't going to last long enough. 24, 27 laps around here is a long run.
Eventually he got to me. With that last restart I had a shot once again, got a good restart next to him, but couldn't make it happen on the bottom down in one and two, brought it home from there.
All in all, a very strong performance from us, a very big day for the confidence for the team, myself, and our ability to really recover from a slow start to a race and turn it around.
THE MODERATOR: We also welcome at this time Brad Keselowski, who finished third today.
Brad, your thoughts on those last few laps.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Last few laps? There was a lot more to the race than the last few laps.
THE MODERATOR: Then talk about it.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Okay.
We were decent today. Probably not as good as we needed to be to run with the 48, the 24, 18, those guys. But probably a 5th to 10th place car. Just executed really well. Had some good restarts. Had some good moves in traffic. Good pit stops, good strategy. Found our way up into the top 5 there with 75 to go. Just really solid effort. We need just a little bit more speed. Seem to be executing fairly well with our team. I'm proud of that.
Wish I had something more for the 48 and 18 there at the end, but it was just really kind of watching and hoping someone would make a mistake. I couldn't do anything on my own merit.
Still a fun race, proud of the effort. The last few weeks are more than I could ever ask for.
THE MODERATOR: We'll open it up for questions.
Q. Jimmie, Brad is almost certainly going to make the playoffs. You never raced against him for the title. What do you think about him in the Chase and how you race somebody like that that's new to it, that has a lot of enthusiasm?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Can you put your ear muffs on, Brad (laughter)?
When we get to the Chase, the guys that make the Chase, they are all very capable of winning the championship. When you go through and you look at the guys you're racing against, I think drivers that have won championships at a high level, you have to take and see them first. Guys that have won Cup championships, I've said this in the past, doesn't mean that a guy, a rookie, because everybody has to win their first. It's not excluding that.
But the Chase does something to everyone, the pressure that's put on the drivers, watching your life's work come to work over a 10-race period of time. As the races click off, it comes down to two or three races left, it does weird things to people, outside the car, on the pit box, things happen. We've seen that.
The thing that I've been able to pull back on and fall on was my past history. Brad and what he did last year in winning the championship, he'll fall on that. He'll fall on the shoulders of Penske Racing, his guys, who he's around.
I'm very interested to see how this Chase is going to go. I think it's the hardest one to predict. It's going to be a close one. I don't know who to make the favorite. We'll just have to see how everybody responds to pressure when it really kicks up.
Q. Brad, is this a matter of just the confidence boost that you're getting from running week in and week out at the front or are the breaks finally going your way after a bad start?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: I don't know, but I wish I could bottle it up and save a little bit of it (smiling).
I don't see where I'm doing anything a lot differently, I really don't. I don't see where my team is doing anything a lot differently. I think we have good speed. I think Jimmie or anyone else in the garage would tell you that speed is the foundation of a good team. I think that good speed is what you need.
If we'd have had great speed, maybe we could have won today. We've had good speed over the last few weeks. From there, you have to execute as a team. We've done that.
As to why now and not before, I couldn't tell you. I look at some of the races where I felt we were really, really good at. The 600, where I felt like we ran top 5, top 10 all day, at the very end we're in position to run second or third, someone runs out of gas in front of you. Kind of weird things have happened to us the first third of the year. Sometimes people forget about you when you have those things happen.
For our team, probably the biggest thing I could say is there's certainly some confidence and snowballing going on. One good run breeds another good run. I'm not sure how to quantify that, how or why. I think I'm probably a little too close to the fire to truly understand it. But it's been amazing. It's been more than I could ever ask for and exactly what we were looking for out of our team here at Penske Racing and everyone that supports us.
Q. Jimmie, you've known Kyle his whole career, since he first started. You've seen all the ups and a lot of downs. How much has he changed? Last week with everything that happened, he really might have gotten upset about that in the past. Seemed to take it well. How much has he changed and is that a factor in how well things are going for him now?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm not too close to he and his organization to see what happens behind closed doors. It could be different there, who knows. We all have that anger inside of us. Some have been able to have a filter, wait till they get home, maybe kick the dog or something instead of doing it at the track.
I've worked with Kyle as a teammate in the past. I understand his passion for racing. I certainly know that he's not afraid to stand on the gas and can really drive the car to its potential week in and week out.
I said this about him a while ago: Once he figured out how to win races, he'd win a lot. He certainly has done that. His big test is for a championship. Once he understands that and figures that out, I think he'll win a lot of those, too.
He's got a lot of talent. When I think about his age, I didn't come into the sport till I was 25, 26 was my rookie year. At the time I thought that opportunity had passed me by and I wasn't sure I was ever going to get a shot. But looking back, I'm very thankful getting my late start. It helped me mature in a lot of ways. I made my mistakes more on the lower levels instead of in the spotlight with the pressure of the Cup Series.
He's getting into that in his mid 20s now. So he's getting into his sweet spot, I think.
Q. Jimmie, hindsight is always 20/20. Is there any hindsight here? You said you slid around your tires. You briefly did have an advantage that was fairly enormous. Were you damned if you did, damned if you don't? Any regrets at all?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No. The only regret is just not winning. I don't think I could have done much different. I mean, I changed my brake (indiscernible) around, turned the fans off, did everything I could to tighten my car up. I knew what was going to happen from there.
You're kind of doomed at that point. Certainly tried and did everything that I could. I moved around a little bit on the track. That helped him get to me a little quicker because I made some mistakes and ran some slower laps.
I had every opportunity handed to me. Chad made the awesome call to get me to pit road before the caution came out. I had a second shot at him on the restart and didn't have enough to get by.
No excuses. I just wasn't able to get him today.
Q. Jimmie, at the restart after caution four, lap 172, you pulled quite a gap to Kyle Busch. Also you said earlier you had debris on the grill and the car was loose. How was this possible when the car was handling not so perfect?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, clean air puts more pressure on the nose of the car, plants the nose. When you're running in traffic, you keep loosening your car up to run in dirty air. Once you get clean air, the balance is too free.
I was in traffic all day long. Then the debris on the front of the car actually puts more downforce on the car as well. It was overheating, water temp and oil temp. My hat's off to the engine and motor shop. We ran 20 laps with that thing just cooking. Happy the motor survived.
But I got off to a quick start. But I think what helped me get a big lead was the 17 I think was in second and he was racing with the 18 and the 24. Those guys were running side-by-side. I was able to get away from them. Once they got in single file, I think Kyle started clipping off a couple 10ths on me a lap and it got to me.
Q. Brad, you said there would come a time when you would win races with pure speed. You said in June that, We're not quite there yet, we're on that pathway. What's happened in the last two months that now we're talking three top fives or three top threes in a row?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Well, I mean, obviously there's been some growth within the company at Penske Racing. I kind of walk a line there with how I say that because we've made a step forward, which is great to do and has created the results we've seen over the last few weeks. But I think we need to make another step forward. That's a big, big goal, lofty goal.
To be a championship contender, we need to make that next step. We've made a step forward, kind of the specifics of which I'd probably rather not go into details of. I think that you can see it with our team, obviously. You can see that Penske Racing has what I feel is two equally competitive teams. I'm not sure exactly what happened to Kurt today. I know he ran real strong the early, middle section of the race.
It has gone down to a matter of getting everything to click. Hate to get into any specifics of the other reasons.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Please do.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: I'd have to kick my dog, and I like my dogs (smiling).
I'm not going to go into those parts. But pretty happy with the growth.
Q. Jimmie, you talked a little bit about Kyle's maturity level, having to get there before the wins would come. What does it take, because you know better than anybody right now, to win those championships? What will Kyle Busch need to differentiate himself from the other 11 guys?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: My experience, the championships, especially with the Chase format being so short with 10 races, you are going to be tested in all areas. We all have weaknesses and we all have strengths.
Really the bottom line is being strong or adequate in your weakest areas, raising that part up so your average is high enough to perform. I think you have to win a race in the Chase to be the champion. I guess you don't have to the way the rules are written, but I think you need to win. It's really about withstanding the pressure in all areas.
The first race starts off, I guess it's in Chicago this year. You kind of get a feel for where things are at. As time goes by and there's less races, you're towards the top of that sheet week in and week out, the voices start, the thoughts start in your head. You will be challenged in every area as an individual and as a team.
In order to win a championship in today's world, you've got to be rock solid. We will all learn in time who that guy is this year. We've been it the last five. Doesn't mean this year is our year. We've got to go out and earn it, or whoever else will be the champion.
Q. Brad, how is the ankle? Good showing in front of maybe some home fans. Was there a lot of family in the crowd watching your race?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, it was a great showing, by far the best run I've ever had here, which is something that I'm going to personally reflect on tonight over a beer or two. It's been a lot of fun. I feel good. Not as good as I'd like to feel, but good enough to not sit here and whine about it.
It's been a great day for our team. It's been a good weekend. I wish the truck race would have gone better, otherwise it would be an awesome weekend. Pretty happy all in all with the efforts. It's always good to run well in front of your home family, your hometown. I'm sure Jimmie could elaborate on that, what it's like to win at California for him.
It's been great. This is gonna be a weekend I'll never forget, that's for sure. But now you just got to come back and run better again and win. Sounds really easy, but just really happy with the performance in general, though.
Q. Brad, how is the back? That was giving you more trouble perhaps than the ankle.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, it was. I made pretty good progress this week with some different rehab stuff that we did. Been feeling pretty good. I'm not going to get back to a hundred percent probably till Daytona of next year. Good progress so far. We'll just take it one step at a time.
But, you know, I definitely felt the best I have. As far as during the week, I ran the whole race without a brace. Maybe regret that just a little bit. Making progress, and that's good. I need to. We'll just have to see how it goes week by week.
Pretty happy. Didn't feel like it affected me in the car today.
Q. Brad, about a month ago people were wondering if you were going to make the top 20. You're 12th in points now. You could make the top 10. Honestly a month ago did you think you had a shot at the top 10? Talk about the incentives now of making the top 10.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Well, I think after Loudon I was really, really nervous. We popped the tire there at Loudon, knocked the wall down, just had a miserable day, fell back to like 23rd in points. We were definitely a top-15 car. Certainly weren't as competitive as we wanted to be. Seemed like we kept taking one step forward, one step back, a good run, a bad run, a good run, a bad run. You can't do that with this new points system.
After Loudon it was a big step backwards. I'd be lying if I didn't say I was nervous after that race. Like I say, we're clicking now. That's all that really matters. Just glad to see it.
Q. If you get two wins, you make the top 10...
BRAD KESELOWSKI: The seeding obviously is a huge advantage. Those points are great. But I don't think we've seen a year yet where those points have made the difference over who wins or who doesn't. It seems like we all talk about it at this point in the year.
But when the Chase comes, who's going to win it is going to win it whether they have the extra points or not. Who knows, maybe one year it won't turn out that way, and this could be the year. That would be about my luck, wouldn't it (smiling)?
I would like to make the top 10 on our own merits if for no other reason than to push away all the naysayers of the wild card system, not to have to hear that.
It's going to be good either way. I'm a big fan of the wild card. It's going to be something that's going to reward me. I think it's a great way of showing a commitment to our fans to rewarding those who can win races. It serves the sport well accordingly.
I'd be proud either way to be in the Chase. It would mean even more to get in through the top-10 system.
Q. This was the last race here before the repave. Knowing what you know about repaves at other tracks, in a perfect world, when you come back here next June, what are your hopes for the repave? Are you apprehensive or optimistic?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't know what their overall plans are from a banking standpoint, how the progressive banking will work out. I would assume it would still be something like that.
Either way you're going to have to bring your big boy shoes here when the thing is repaved. We run a really intense lap now, even in race trim, a lot of throttle around this place. Depending on the tire they give us, you would assume we could come close to flat-footing it.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: It's going to be awesome (laughter). I think it's going to be cool.
I know I've spent some time talking with Roger Curtis, the track president, about it. There are a lot of drivers that discouraged the repave. He assured us it has to be done in order to make sure we don't have a Daytona situation. We can't have that. Our sport, it's important we get it right when we get here and have fans in the stands.
I respect his commitment to doing that.
Q. Jimmie, with the Chase starting in a few weeks, the amount of intermediate tracks that make up the Chase, wondering how your performance today at Michigan serves as a gauge for you and your team for the Chase?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, it's a step in the right direction. I look at some intermediate tracks. We've been very competitive. I look at Kentucky, here falls into that category, then I think of Kansas from a negative standpoint because we were just terrible there.
It's kind of inconsistent. We're still working hard to build that consistency into the car. But every good race, it just kind of builds a direction and helps us reinforce the areas we're working in.
We certainly need to do better on the mile-and-a-half's. That's been our bread and butter over the years. With the Chase being so heavily weighted in those races, we need to be competitive there.
Q. Brad, in the championship, how do you beat Jimmie Johnson? How do you keep Jimmie Johnson from just intimidating people when he gets there? He already started on you about hearing voices.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Hearing voices, man (laughter). I was wondering when he was saying that where he sleeps at night.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Just wait.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: I don't think I'll be hearing any voices. The voices that I heard early in my career were, You're never going to make it. Everything from here on out, you know, is peaches. It's good.
I think with Jimmie, the biggest thing I can say about Jimmie is that, you know, I'm sure a lot of people in the garage would say his last championship was the most impressive. I think the key, again, goes down to speed is the foundation of our sport. Up until maybe last year I think a lot of people would tell you that Jimmie had the fastest car. I don't think that was the case last year and he was still able to get it done.
When you look at it in that way or that manner, it's usually a good indicator if you have the fastest car through the Chase that you have the highest odds, the best opportunity to win the championship.
I mean, I think that's probably the baseline right there, you need to work with your team and have speed. From there, you know, you just got to execute. You can't make any dumb moves. I was going to say something there I probably shouldn't say. You got to make things happen without compromising your situations and so forth.
To beat Jimmie, I mean, the foundation starts within your own team. I think that's what's so encouraging to me about the progress we've made with the 2 car here over the last few weeks and this season. We'll just have to see how it plays out, whether or not we can start the Chase with cars that have good speed. That will be key for us to have an opportunity, as far as I'm concerned. Then from there, it's going to come down to pit crew and myself executing it.
I think the foundation has been speed. I hate to wear that out on y'all, but that's the truth. From there, you have to execute it. You can't run into walls, get penalties, anything of those things. To beat Jimmie, you're going to have a fast racecar and out-execute him. I think he's proven just having a fast racecar isn't going to beat him, but if you're going to win the Chase, you are going to have to have cars like what Kyle had through the race.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you for your time today, gentlemen. Congratulations.