Championship contenders pre-race press conference, part 1

NASCAR Transcript: Championship Contenders Press Conference November 18, 2010 An interview with: DENNY HAMLIN JIMMIE JOHNSON KEVIN HARVICK RAMSEY POSTON: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of...

NASCAR Transcript: Championship Contenders Press Conference
November 18, 2010

An interview with:

RAMSEY POSTON: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of communications. Thanks on behalf of the France family and the NASCAR community for attending today's championship contenders press conference here at the Hyatt Regency, Coral Gables, which is hosting us for the third consecutive year. I also want to welcome everyone who is tuning in live on SPEED TV, Sirius XM 128 and

The stage is set for an exciting season finale for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Ford 400, the highlight of the speedway's Ford Championship Weekend, will be the last race in what we like to call NASCAR's playoffs, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Is this the best Chase ever? I think most people would agree. Our three drivers still in contention for the series title are separated by just 46 points. So close you can cover them with a blanket. It's going to be exciting, fun on Sunday.

First a couple quick words about today's format. After introductions and some short opening conversations with our contenders, we'll have a general Q&A session with the media here. That will be followed by a separate breakout interview session with each of the contenders.

Before we get started, I'd like to introduce a special guest with us on hand today: NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, Bobby Allison. Bobby, welcome. Bobby will also be available in the breakout session immediately following this.

Again, I want to thank the Hyatt Regency Coral Gables and its staff for its hospitality and acknowledge the City of Coral Gables for once again in the way they've welcomed us.

It's now my pleasure to introduce our guest MC for today's program. He's one of the most recognizable voices in all of motorsports. His broadcasting style reflects our sport. He's all about enthusiasm and energy. Yes, I'm proud to report that he continues to live his life shootout style. He's also one of the true gentlemen in our sport. Please welcome today's host from Motor Racing Network and Sirius radio, the Postman, Steve Post.

STEVE POST: Thanks. It is great to be here. I can't believe Ford Championship Weekend, Homestead-Miami Speedway as we wrap-up what arguably is the best Chase in the history of the format.

When you think about it, 26 races to determine the Chase field, nine exciting, thrilling, topsy-turvy playoff races. It all boils down to this, one day, one race, 400 miles, and three drivers: Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin. They're the last three still standing.

Face it, folks, this season has been tumultuous, it's been adventurous, it's been wild. You pick the adjective, and that can describe the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. Wild, zany, take a pick. This will be remembered as the season where the drivers took the racing into their own hands, and then they proceeded to take their best shot at each other.

It all kind of started before the season with the tone NASCAR set with one simple phrase that defined the boundaries of the interaction between the drivers. That phrase: Boys, have at it. And did they ever. Take a look at this.

[Video shown]

STEVE POST: With that as the backdrop, I'd like to take this time to formally introduce our special guests here tonight. Starting on my immediate right, this driver is looking to give team owner Richard Childress his seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and first since 1999.

Amazing tenacity when we think about this team, not only across the season, but each individual race as they scrap for every point and every week made their racecar better as the race went on from beginning to end.

Here he is, with three wins this season, third in points coming into this weekend's race here in Homestead-Miami, 46 points out, welcome Kevin Harvick.

Talk about needing no introduction, to the far right of the stage from my perspective, here is our four-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. He's made history in recent series and looking to duplicate and increase upon that history, would shock nobody if he did. In fact, in seven years of this Chase format, every season he has come to Ford Championship Weekend in contention to win. That's amazing. Second in points, 15 points out of first. He has six race wins this season, which is second on the series. Here he is, welcome our reigning four-time champ Jimmie Johnson.

And finally the man in the middle, kind of in the first class seat as we go into this weekend, leading in the points, also leading the series with eight victories. Pre-season he was considered by many of us to be most likely to take the championship from Jimmie Johnson. As the season went on, not only did he have success, but he persevered. Thinking back to March when the knee injury took his beloved game of basketball and maybe bit him a little bit, put him on the sidelines from basketball, but he persevered through that, won races, put himself in the Chase, and over the last nine races has gone toe-to-toe not only with Jimmie Johnson but with Kevin Harvick. Welcome, please, current points leader Denny Hamlin.

We're going to start with just a couple of questions before we get into the informal question and answer session. I'll start with Kevin.

Kevin, you dominated the regular season. Now you find yourself playing catch-up here with one race to go. What's it going to take to get back to the top?

KEVIN HARVICK: For us it wouldn't be right if we weren't coming from behind. Seems like that's kind of the way our whole year has gone. We've always had to overcome something.

I'm proud of everybody at RCR for everything they've done. For us, it's all positive from here. We're going to finish either where we are or better when we get done. So we're just going to go out. The guys have done a great job. They brought probably the best car we've taken to the racetrack all year as far as everything we have to measure it as far as dynos and wind tunnels. We'll just go out and see what happens.

So we'll race hard and go from there.

STEVE POST: Kevin, when we talked about tenacity, Talladega, damaged racecar, last week the miscue on pit road, yet to be able to come back and turn a negative into a positive, talk about Gil Martin and you as a driver and the success you've had in the second half of these races and rocketed through the field, most weeks you find yourself in good shape at the end.

KEVIN HARVICK: We've had a lot of practice from passing cars from qualifying bad. I guess you just call it a bad qualifier from my whole career from go-karts up.

But, yeah, they've done a great job. Nobody gets too wound up about having something go wrong. Obviously, this isn't the first time we've all been a part of something like this. Everybody on our team has either raced for Nationwide championships or been a part of this before.

It's fun. This is what we're supposed to do. For us, there's not a lot for us to lose. Obviously these guys are a few points ahead of us. We just race as hard as we can. Winning a race makes things a lot better for us. So this has been statistically, which I know you guys all love statistics, this is definitely our best racetrack as far as statistics go. So that's a good thing.

STEVE POST: Kevin, congratulations on an amazing season. Best of luck Sunday.

Jimmie, turn it over to you. A rare situation for you, coming in not the points leader. What is it like trailing coming into this race?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's different from what we've seen the last four years. Through my career, my Cup career as well, there's been five other years where I wasn't in this position, wasn't in the position of leading the points at the end. It's different of recent time, but it is what it is. In professional sports, things aren't always going to work out as you hope. I wish we were leading the points and had the pressure of defending a championship down here.

But I'm making the most of where we are. It's not far from where we are to where Denny is. We're going to have to go out and have a great day on Sunday afternoon, take it from there, see what happens.

STEVE POST: I know your preference would have been to wrap it up at Texas or Phoenix. A lot of times you've come in 26th, having to do this, having to do that. Is there something maybe not easier but simple knowing that it's pretty much toe-to-toe, you just need to score more points than Denny Hamlin? Is it something simpler coming into this weekend with this scenario?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, I don't know if it's based on experience of being here in the last four years or the situation of chasing. But I'm in a very, very good place racing for this championship, and really enjoying it. I see how it's good for our sport. It's good for the champion, whoever that guy is going to be. I'm excited for it. Man, I am a race fan at heart. I'm enjoying being a part of something as cool as this.

We'll buckle down and do everything we can. For my sake, I certainly hope to come out on top.

STEVE POST: Congratulations on another spectacular season and best of luck on Sunday.

Let's focus on attention on Denny Hamlin, leader in the standings. Denny, the championship is so close. What is it going to take for you to bring it home on Sunday?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think for us, it's about going out and performing like we have every Homestead race I've ever ran. The two bad finishes I do have is my very first start at Homestead in 2005. I got caught up in someone else's wreck. The other was a fuel mileage race. Every other time we've been in the top three. I actually remember just about every year Kevin is right there with us at the end of the race. So I know he runs well there. So for me, just go out there and pretend that I got to win the race. That's all there is.

I'm in a good spot knowing that I just have -- I can control my own destiny and not have to worry about anything else. If we win the race, it's a moot point.

STEVE POST: You're the reigning champ of the Ford 400, 36 races ago. A lot of changes within the sport. Is there comfort knowing you won last time here or does that time and all those changes make it concerning? How do we not mess this thing up from a winning car last year?

DENNY HAMLIN: Well, things have changed so much in our sport since then. Obviously the spoiler change has changed the dynamics of the setups. I feel like the cars are much better than what they were last year. Everyone's car is. The speeds at every racetrack really are higher this year than what they've been in years past.

All these teams continue to get smarter. We're not going to fool ourselves into thinking we can just put last year car's setup on it. It's going to take work, without a doubt. We usually qualify mid 30s at Homestead. But we always seem to race well.

We hope not to get ourselves in that hole this time around. You can continue to stay focused and get everything we can.

STEVE POST: Congratulations on a great season thus far, and good luck on Sunday.

At this point in the agenda, I'd like to turn it back to NASCAR's Ramsey Poston who will conduct a question and answer session.

We'll now move into our Q&A session.

Q: All season the three of you have been the three best drivers. How important is it from each of your perspectives that the three of you are going to decide the championship?

KEVIN HARVICK: I think that's the way it's supposed to be. Even with the Chase, you let I guess nine other guys back into the championship hunt, and the three cars that have run the best all year have risen back to the top.

For me, I think it's fun to be able to challenge yourself and race against the best guys that have been the best all year to see where you stack up in the end. I think it's the best way that it could have shaken out.

DENNY HAMLIN: I would have said the exact same thing. I mean, there's three drivers and teams right here that have won roughly half the races this year. I don't think how you could put it in any better situation. This is the same standings I think we started the Chase, if I'm not mistaken. So through all of that, everything that can happen in the course of nine races, the three teams have continued just to step up.

For me, I'm just really lucky to be a part of it. As a race fan, this is the best that you could ask for. The race fan in me is excited to see the three best for the entire 2010 season are going to decide it in one race.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: A lot of things, they've taken it all. They're right.

Q: Two of you have beards, one does not.

DENNY HAMLIN: I'm a Gillette Young Gun.

KEVIN HARVICK: Don't they kick you out when you're 30? I thought that was the way it was supposed to work.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Newman hit 30 (smiling).

Q: Jimmie and Kevin, you came through Camp Hornaday, slept on his couch. Denny, we found out earlier this year you consider Kevin your closest friend in the garage. Is it ironic the three of you sit up there together with one race to go, winner take all, the ties that you three share for one reason or another?

DENNY HAMLIN: I don't know. This has been one of the most awkward 30 minutes I've been through, to be honest with you.

But, you know, my relationship with Kevin really probably started about a year ago. He's got that kart racetrack at his house. I proceeded to spend a bunch of money and take a go-kart there and race it a little bit. Obviously got to know him a little bit more through that. That's where that's came from.

Really, you know, Jimmie, our relationship has been professional for the most part. Obviously I think there's a lot of respect between all of us. We understand that each have the same goal and we're all going for it. That's where the intensity that you see, whether it be back and forth comments, it comes from.

When you have three drivers that tight, anyone is searching for an edge anywhere they can. I think that's where you see the competitive nature of us.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Just to add to that, I think it's cool. I see Ron, Lindy walking around. Not only from Kevin and I's perspective of being there, growing up at Camp Hornaday, there's a lot of guys walking through the garage area that Ron and Lindy helped out, gave a start to.

I think it was an All-Star Race a couple years back, Kevin won, I ran second, I saw Hornaday. I said, How cool is that? Two guys that came through your house racing for one of the biggest paychecks in the sport?

I think it's great. A lot of fun. Kevin and I go back from Ron's house way back. I got to know Denny here in the recent times, all that. I think it's cool that we're representing California like we are.

KEVIN HARVICK: Obviously, there is a mutual respect between the three of us. But in the end, I mean, it's what's best for your race team. I think we all understand that the friendships off the racetrack don't follow onto the racetrack. We have to do what's best for our teams.

Obviously, the Hornaday factor with Jimmie and I is something that's fun because Ron is still a part of my everyday life as far as our race teams. But I think probably the biggest thing we learned to do at Ron's was drink beer. That will carry over well to next year (laughter).

Q: Do you find it awkward, as Denny said?

KEVIN HARVICK: Like I say, he definitely seems like the most nervous, though (smiling).

DENNY HAMLIN: I'm between you (smiling).

KEVIN HARVICK: I told my guys on Tuesday, I said, This is something that we all like to do. But this is what you race for. We can all be friends and acquaintances, but it is a little bit awkward when you're in situations like this. You still have to do what's right for your team, and that's whatever it takes to win on the racetrack, so...

Q: Denny, I want to ask you a little bit about a year ago when you won this race, you climbed out of the car in Victory Lane, you said you felt you learned what it took to win a championship. Having not yet won one, what is it that you felt like you had learned? Was it something that was self-taught through trial and error or something you learned from watching Jimmie win four in a row?

DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think most of it was just the last five races of last year we really came on strong. We had a different mindset. It was crazy how our mindset got pushed back after we had two blown engines in a row, then a wreck, all in sequence. We went from having the highest to starting the Chase in 2009, thinking we were going out there and competing for a championship, to going out there and staying within our means the last five races, being very successful doing that.

I feel that was our first win at a mile-and-a-half racetrack at Homestead last year. It was just a turning point, I guess. Just figuring out what it took to win and close was the biggest thing. So since then, it's been good.

Q: This isn't likely to happen, but it could come down to two or three of you guys racing for this over the last four or five laps. In that kind of situation, do you feel comfortable with almost any kind of aggressive move, fenders in the doors, this sort of thing, considering the 'boys have at it' approach?

KEVIN HARVICK: I know what my approach will be, so... You do whatever's best for your team to win a championship. That's whatever it takes.

DENNY HAMLIN: I'd agree with that. Same thing. You know, you would do what it takes to win a championship.

All these teams have worked very, very hard this whole year to get to this point. For the driver to be complacent, just not want to ruffle feathers, not causing drama, I think I would take the repercussions of that for a championship.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I have to agree. After 38 races or 36 points races at this point, the dreams of winning a championship that we all have, you'll do anything you can to win.

Q: At one point Jimmie talked about being talked off the ledge, asking his spotter to sing to him and stuff like that. When it's so close, not the mental game of mentally gaming each other, but what part of it and what do you deal with what you're going to have to do in the racecar during all of this with all of this going on, how you plan to deal with that?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, you know, there's different pressures that we all have on us going into this final race. From past experience, the last four championships, distractions have been good for me to take my mind off of the obvious. Some people need to really focus hard, spend more time in that space trying to be more engaged, involved in what it is.

I'm the other way around. I need to break it up. It's natural for me to be in there and overthink things. Joking around with my spotter, finding different things to occupy my time during the week or weekend to take my mind off racing has worked great for me.

At the end of the day, you can't escape that pressure. When you go to bed at night, your mind starts to slow down, it's inevitable. The thoughts of pressure and championship come to mind. I've experienced it every year I've ever been in the hunt for a championship.

After a while, you kind of get used to those feelings, nerves, all that stuff, try to corral and deal with it to the best of your ability.

DENNY HAMLIN: Well, inside the car, I mean, it's really all business. For me, I'm a lot the same way. The busier I am outside the racecar, probably the more focused I'd be inside the racecar on a race weekend.

I try not to give myself too much time with myself. You know what I mean (smiling)? I'll just stop there.

KEVIN HARVICK: I think for me, I was more nervous about starting the Chase and more uptight as we went through the first five, six, seven weeks about not being able to be in contention when we got to this point. Sure, we're 46 points behind, but I was more nervous about failing to get to this point than I had been last week or this week.

I've been more relaxed this week than I have been the whole Chase to be honest with you, because this is the moment you live for. This is the easy part, in my opinion, to go out and race the car for a championship. This week you get all the things that you asked for. The only thing that's not guaranteed is the championship.

But for our team in particular, you look at last year, it was just a total disaster. It was the worst year that we've ever had at RCR. So it's a win-win situation for us. There's no losing in a situation for everybody at RCR and myself. We've learned a lot of things that can help us go forward. Dealing with the pressure is easy at this point. I was more worried about failing to get to this point.

Q: Denny, last year you were comparing your style to Kyle, especially on being aggressive and on restarts. You said throughout our careers he's always going to be a guy that will have more race wins than I will. If I am going to win a championship, I need to run top five every week. I don't need to win every week. If that's the case, how do you explain how you've had so many wins this year, specifically more than Kyle?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think we've been fortunate to get some of those wins, to be honest with you, whether it be cautions coming at the right time. We've had other wins that we felt like we could slip away. Maybe it was last week. Maybe it was at Atlanta where our car was good.

I don't know. At that point I never seen the speed in us of what we've had this year at that point that I did that interview last year. Once again, I feel like I found another gear somewhere middle to end of last season, whether it's in my cars or in myself. Ever since then, we've had the speed that Kyle's had.

On restarts, I still haven't found it. We've gotten much closer. I think it's just my mentality and my probably conservative approach on the racetrack most times that I say I probably will never win as many races as him because he puts himself out there at risk a little bit more than I what I do.

Sometimes it will pay off and sometimes you'll finish 30th because of it. I'm just more the consistently top-five guy. That's pretty much been my MO for my whole career.

Q: Denny, can you talk about what you did this week as far as to handle the pressure? Sunday night, did you do anything to release the frustration of the day? Assume you can't play basketball, so how have you been dealing with all the pressure?

DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I mean, it was frustrating for a little while. I got the bloody knuckles to prove it. It's just part of it. It's part of our sport. We're all going to have emotions on those kind of days.

For me, when I said I was leaving Phoenix, I left Phoenix, it was over with, it was. It was completely over with. The only time I relived it is when I got home, I do my normal thing, always rewatch the races no matter what to learn as much as I can. Once that I was done, turned the TV off, it was done. I thought about it a little bit before I went to bed. When I woke up the next day, just kept myself busy.

For me, I got a lot of encouraging text messages talking about, This is a great situation you're in. If you said going into the Chase you'd have the lead, would you take it? I would have definitely said yes.

We've all had opportunities, all three of us had opportunities to break away from the pack at times. It seems like the other two constantly just make that tough and continue to put themselves in position to gain ground.

It's fitting that we're in the situation, all three of us, with this one race to go.

Q: This particular race, going into the last race at Homestead, I think about the way this race starts, the way the practice sessions go and everything. When practice starts, everybody kind of runs on the bottom and middle of the track. Qualifying you run on the bottom and middle. Every single time when this race starts, I think Darlington. When the race is over in Darlington, we see three-quarters of the field with the right side of the cars tore off, pretty well destroyed. This particular race, going into it, looks like those corners have the possibility to be a little bit treacherous. Is that on your mind going into this race? You got good pit stops, good drivers, that's in your hands. Is that something that bugs you?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, the track has a lot of racing room on it. I've had success running the bottom here before. The top seems to be kind of working of late. I think with the race being in the sun, we're going to be searching all over for clean asphalt.

I think you're going to have to have a car and the mindset that you need to search and move around and be comfortable with that, within your own means of driving the car, work on a racecar that can do that in practice.

Anymore, it seems like that last six inches near the wall there's a lot of grip at a lot of tracks we go to. You run up there for a while, the whole field is there, then pretty soon that area is slick and you have to move on somewhere else. It could be exciting. Guys will be up there chasing that last little bit of grip.

I'm not too concerned about it, to be honest with you. There's a lot of room on the track. Doesn't look like it, but it's kind of that Michigan mentality where if it's not working here, I'll move somewhere else and try it.

DENNY HAMLIN: I agree. There's a lot of room at this racetrack. That's what's going to be so fun about it. You'll see us two, three, four-wide maybe at times on this racetrack because you can race from the bottom to the top and change your car.

Like I say, I've been successful at top and at the bottom. I think it depends on where you're at on the racetrack at any given time. The top is a little more risky because it leaves your room for error a whole lot less. You have to be a little bit more careful. When you hit it right, the reward is worth it.

KEVIN HARVICK: I think the biggest key is the daytime start. When you look back at these races, you see cars you've had to set up for the night, otherwise you'll be wait too tight. You do everything you can to tighten your car up at the beginning.

I think the daytime start is a much bigger factor than what we've had in the past. The cars, you look back at the beginning of a lot of these races, are sliding around in the beginning of the race is when a lot of that happens.

For me, I'm excited about the daytime start because we always seem to run a lot better during the day. These cars are tough. You can bounce them off the wall. At Texas I hit the wall so hard, I thought we were done. Knocked the bolts out of the thing, knocked the spoiler over. The car got a little bit tight.

Especially in our scenario, we can take that risk of running high. That seems to be our kind of preferred groove this season, to run really high. We've gotten a lot better at it. You can scrape it off the wall a few times. The daytime start, in my opinion, is the biggest factor in everything.

Continued in part 2

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Kevin Harvick , Jimmie Johnson , Bobby Allison , Denny Hamlin