Daytona II: Johnson Thursday wake-up call



YOU DON'T HAVE YOUR WINNING DAYTONA 500 MONTE CARLO SS BACK BECAUSE IT'S OVER AT DAYTONA USA. IS THAT A BIG DEAL TO NOT HAVE THE CAR FOR THIS RACE? In some cases, I think so. Going into Talladega, we were a little bit more nervous about that. We didn't have a chance to take the car to the wind tunnel to really refine that race car. We still had a great performance and won. I didn't think we had the overall speed to dominate all day long. But the way things worked out, we had a fast enough car to win. That was really the bullet we had to dodge. Since then, we've been able to take the car to the wind tunnel a couple of times and really massage the car and work it over. I know from the numbers, that we have a better race car now than what we did in February when we were down here.

So I give a lot of credit to the team. They've worked countless hours on a car that's already won and showed a lot of strength. They've continued to work harder on it and make it better. All indications are pointing toward a better race car and we'll find out in a couple of hours (during practice). But we're really excited coming into this race.

EARLIER TODAY, BRIAN FRANCE TALKED TO THE MEDIA ABOUT MAKING SOME ADJUSTMENTS TO THE CHASE. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT? haven't heard those remarks. But the Chase has done great things for our sport. There is no doubt about it. If I am in the situation to have a nice point lead going into the Chase, I think that's one part of the Chase that could be adjusted and made a little bit better. In my own mind, I also think that making it within 400 points of the leader and not really worrying about 10 cars being in it, would be more fair to the teams that have had a great season for the first 26 races.

Now if any of that comes together, I don't even know what his remarks were, but I expected over time there would be some small changes and that would help. But we've got a great product right now and the last three years the Chase has been really exciting.

WITH CHAD KNAUS BACK AND EVERYTHING GOING GREAT, YOU HAD TO ALTER THE CAR AGAIN AS A RESULT OF PRE-RACE INSPECTION LAST WEEK AT INFINEON. DO YOU SOMETIMES THINK THAT WHILE IT'S NICE TO HAVE A CREW CHIEF WHO PUSHES THE ENVELOPE, IT WOULD BE GREAT TO HAVE JUST A COUPLE WEEKENDS IN A ROW WHERE THE INSPECTORS ARE NOT ALL OVER YOUR CASE? No. I'm not sure you understand what took place last weekend. The officials made a mistake and came over and said our fender on our car was l.5 inches too wide and was illegal. Chad, the 'new' Chad, we call him, takes the car and pushes it behind the transporters and cuts the entire fender off of it. At that time, an official comes back and says, 'Oh wait, we're sorry. We were reading the fenders the wrong way like we do for an oval track. We measured it wrong and we've got to go from the right side. Your car is legal and you can put that fender back on.' So now, here we are with the right front fender cut off our car and we're thinking well, how do we fix that? We're kind of stuck in a situation now. Every crew chief -- every time they go through the technical inspection -- they're job is to push it right up to the line and they've got to do that. Now Chad has stepped over the line. We've had some issues. We've dealt with the consequences that come with it. But I think the lessons that have come because of that have made us a stronger race team, a better race team, and hopefully a team that can now win a championship. If you look at any strong businessman or strong athlete, there were trials and tribulations and issues that took place -- not always good -- that made that person or group stronger. I think we've been through that and we are stronger because of it all.

WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT THE 'NEW' CHAD COMPARED TO THE 'OLD' CHAD? HAVE YOU HAD A CHANCE TO VISIT THE MONTE CARLO SS AT DAYTONA USA AND IS IT IN ONE PIECE? No, I haven't had a chance to go over there. I think we have something coming up Saturday morning or tomorrow morning with the 500 winners. So I look forward to going over there and seeing the car. I'm also going to do a live XM Satellite Radio show over there tomorrow evening, I believe, so I'm looking forward to that. Last time I was there, I didn't have a lot of sleep and vaguely remember the six o'clock interviews I had to do. Chad is a very intense guy as we all know. He has changed in ways where he is able to deal with the situation a little bit better. We all have that blow off valve in us and we all do it in different ways. Chad is still the very intense guy that he's always been. He's just on different outlets to release it. I give him a lot of credit. He's worked really hard to make some small changes to keep the team closer together and working stronger together. Also, at different times where it may show on television or radio where he is not keeping his composure, he's working hard on that too. So we don't want to change him. We just want to redirect that blow off mechanism to be away from the race track and race team because you've got to get it out of you. Everybody has that. There's just some way you've got to let go and release. He's working real hard to do that in the right way. At the same time, he's still working as hard as he ever has, which I truly enjoy.

SINCE CHAD'S SUSPENSION, YOU SAID YOU WERE TAKING ON MORE RESPONSIBILITIES. WHAT ARE THEY? It's not that I wanted to be involved in the day to day actions of the race team and making decisions and patting myself on the back and thinking I've helped implement this or that. But I think that in our sport, the more the team communicates internally through the team, the better you're going to perform. The competition side and crew chief side -- those guys have done a great job deciphering what the drivers feel and what they experience and what's going on in their minds and have been able to implement that in our race programs and on and on. But I think there is more that the driver can do and that's what I've been challenging myself to do. It started in Daytona. I've had a little bit more of a role in decisions and more of a team leader role and more of a voice that's heard. It's just one thing. It's just a more active role in the race \program. The last thing I want to do is be somebody that's crew chiefing the car from the seat or trying to micromanage my race team or advise the management on what they need to do. But I have a vantage point and I've been given an opportunity throughout Hendrick's management and the crew chiefs to throw out my opinion -- throw it against the wall just like all the other opinions and ideas and there are different things that I can see and help advance our race team. That's really what I've done. I'm letting my voice be heard. They're giving me a chance to express what I feel and think and we just add that in to all the other ideas and start make decisions from there.

BRIAN FRANCE SUGGESTED THAT THE FIELD FOR THE CHASE COULD EXPAND BEGINNING NEXT YEAR. WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IF THERE IS A LARGER FIELD? IS IT REALLY A BIG DEAL? I think it makes a major impact (if you expand the field) to the way the Chase is raced -- especially if you look at last year's Chase and Jeff Gordon finishing 11th. If you look at how he came back in the Chase and won some races. It's so tough to be a champion in our sport and the season is so long to have it all re-racked in a sense, with 10 races to go and you're separated by five points per position. It's great for the fans. As a competitor, I think you have a much different opinion than maybe even what Brian would have -- being the sanctioning body and trying to put on the best possible show for the fans. As a competitor, that's bad news. I don't want to hear that. I don't want to see it expand. I would love to see it be a five-car race. If you earned that right over 26 races to be in the top five percent of our sport, then so be it. We know that it's better for our sport to have a Chase situation and let them race for the championship. But expanding that may be great news for the fans but it's bad news for the competitors.

DO YOU SEE GREG BIFFLE AS ONE OF YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGERS? Yeah, I really do. And I think Greg has had a lot of bad luck. At the start of the season he had a lot of really strong performances that should have him easily inside the top 10 and really some more race wins in the win column for himself and the team. I definitely think he's a huge threat. He's been very successful through the Truck Series. Everybody had a feeling he would be very strong in the Cup Series. It's almost been 2.5 or three years ago that he's been winning races and competing for the points and he's a huge threat for the championship, without a doubt.

YOU'RE LEADING THE POINTS. YOU HAVE TWO WINS WITHOUT CHAD AND ONE WITH HIM AT A RESTRICTOR PLATE TRACK. WHAT STRUGGLES DID YOU AND YOUR TEAM HAVE TO FACE AND OVERCOME BECAUSE OF THE SUSPENSION AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SEASON? WHEN YOU WON AT TALLADEGA, WAS THERE ANY RIBBING FROM THE OTHER TEAMS? As far as the teams go, they understand the situation and the fact that our penalty when we were here for the (Daytona) 500 was in qualifying. Our car after the race passed inspection and went through everything fine. It was the same in Talladega. Inside the garage, they have a better vibe of what's going on and a better understanding, so the opinions aren't as extreme as maybe some of the fans and people outside of the sport. We as a team, took that chase to give Chad a hard time and say we've won two without you (laughs) and we're glad that you could be here (laughs). So there is some internal ribbing that every team goes through. I'm happy to know that it looked like we didn't have any struggles when Chad was gone for those four races. That says a lot about our race team, and about everybody stepping up in their roles that we can go through times like that and not have it affect us. Sitting here today, I can tell you it was probably one of the toughest things we've been through. Daytona wasn't as tough because the car was here. The strategy is simple when you're in the draft. But when we went to Fontana to start over a brand new season with a new Monte Carlo SS body on the race car and an entirely new design of race car and set-up underneath it for the No. 48 team, and to come out of there chasing those guys down and finish second -- threatening to win -- really meant a lot to us. That was probably the toughest for us this year was Fontana without Chad. (With) all these unknowns, we were able to perform. At that point, we built a lot of confidence in ourselves and today we can do this. We're short-handed. We're not as strong as we could be, but we can still do this.

YOU'RE IN THE CATBIRD SEAT RIGHT NOW, BUT IN THE BACK OF YOUR MIND DO YOU WORRY THAT MAKING THE CHASE IS NOT A DONE DEAL YET? I certainly know that it's not a done deal for the Chase. And for us to even say that this is our year to be a champion, I hope we're doing the right things, but to predict that it just way, way too far out. We still have plenty of opportunities to get in trouble and not make the Chase. Our mentality is to act like we're in the Chase, in a sense, and make sure that we're collecting as many points as we can every week, and really just points-racing. In years past, we had a nice margin and elected to try new things and to experiment and we lost something. We didn't find what we needed. And we lost some momentum. And then the pressure started to build and we thought we were dealing with it well at the time, but looking back, it couldn't have been a positive. It couldn't have been a good thing. We still are trying to develop our cars but we're just a different race team right now. We're a different race team this year than last. We have more experience knowing how to deal with pressure and working with the set-ups with the race cars. We're doing a better job right now in keeping the right momentum going and that's really what we're trying to do -- is just keep picking away at this deal race after race, top 10's, and try to keep as many points rolling as possible.

JUNIOR SAID HE CONSIDERS HIMSELF A LOCK FOR THE CHASE. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THAT? There are just too many variables in our sport. He's in a great position. I feel like I'm in a great position. But if you hit three or four races where you're crashed out early -- and we all know about plate racing -- and you can find yourself in trouble in a hurry. Look at Jeff (Gordon) and how strong he was running -- or even Greg Biffle at the start of the season -- Greg led the most laps three or four races but something broke or something happened where he didn't finish the race. That can get you in trouble in a hurry.

HOW IMPORTANT IS QUALIFYING FOR THIS RACE AND HOW MUCH EFFORT IS YOUR TEAM GOING TO BE PUTTING INTO QUALFYING WELL TOMORROW? I could be wrong, but I feel the teams asked for impound races because of all the work and effort that goes into plate racing and qualifying. Having this be an impound race is so much easier on all the teams. We're all going to qualify with our race stuff in there and it's going to be a much more enjoyable weekend for the crew members -- a lot less stress and we're just putting our best piece out there -- the best piece that we know we can race with come Saturday night. And it's going to be a lot easier on everybody.

YOU SAID WHEN YOU CAME ON THE SCENE IN 2002 THAT YOU HAD TO BE POLITICALLY CORRECT AS FAR AS YOUR SPONSORS ARE CONCERNED. NOW THAT YOU ARE ONE OF THE TOP DRIVERS IN THE SEASON, WHAT CAN YOU DO NOW THAT YOU COULDN'T DO BACK THEN? At the end of the day, I still know that I have to act a certain way and be a professional. But when you're a rookie, you're so concerned about doing the right thing, coming off the right way, and being in the right place at the right time. There is just so much pressure from a lot of different areas that you maybe lose a little bit of what's inside of you and letting that come out and showing the fans and media.. At the track, I have been guilty of putting on this business hat. And from my simple background growing up in El Cajon, California -- my mom was a school bus driver and my dad was a heavy equipment operator -- we didn't have the finances to take me racing. So the way I found my way into the sport was by being a good spokesperson for major corporations and being the all-American kid in a sense, to get my chance. I still am that guy and it wasn't an act by any means. But through it all, you get more occupied and worried about acting a certain way and forgetting about who you are at times. I've been guilty of that. Anymore, a lot of it I've realized through my XM Satellite Radio show that the response I was getting from the fans and just telling stories like I typically would to a friend and having my high school friends come on and say things about me I wish they wouldn't, has also helped. It's been a great experience. I feel I'm more comfortable in this situation. I thought I was comfortable in this situation being myself. It's been a lot of fun this year.

NOT LOOKING AT JEFF GORDON AS YOUR FRIEND AND TEAMMATE, HOW BIG A THREAT DO YOU SEE HIM FOR THIS CHAMPIONSHIP? AND, IS IT AMAZING TO YOU THAT SOMEONE MIGHT NOT GIVE HIM THE CHANCES THAT HE'S TYPICALLY HAD IN THE PAST? It is weird seeing him not getting the respect that we've all seen him have over the years. I think he's a huge threat. He and that team are growing. They're strong. If I look at him like I have Greg Biffle, he's had a lot of really strong runs and race-winning runs, and has had some bad luck. I still think he's still a big threat -- trying to remove him as a teammate and friend. Knowing him as that, and knowing his team as well as I do, and then seeing the effort they're putting into it -- we were just testing the last two days in Milwaukee; all of Hendrick Motorsports was up there -- and to see how hard they are working and the gains they're making and understanding the race car and getting what Jeff needs underneath him -- they're right on the brink of doing some good things. So not as a teammate, it worries me. As a teammate, I'm a little worried but then I'm happy that he's getting his stuff together and Hendrick Motorsports will have at least two, and maybe three cars in the Chase.

NOW THAT YOU'RE BACK IN DAYTONA, HAVE YOU NOTICED A CHANGE IN CHAD ABOUT COMING HERE? IS HE MORE DETERMINED? No, this is just another race. Last weekend when we cut a fender off the car and then were told we could put it back on, and he didn't explode, that was proof to me that he's handling things in the right way (laughs). And there have been other challenges along the way where the new Chas has been tested.

LAST YEAR YOU FACED CRITICISM FOR SOME OF THE WRECKS IN PLATE RACES. HOW FAR DO YOU THINK YOU'VE COME SINCE THEN AND WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHANGES? I think I've come a long way as a plate driver. I understand the flow of the race and when I should make a move and how to build friendships out there in the draft. In the past, I've been real worried about being up front and trying to lead laps because I know how hard it is to get to the lead. We saw Tony Stewart last year a couple of times -- and even Junior -- once they got on point, no one could get by them. Watching that, I felt like if I could get on point as soon as possible, that I could then defend it and win the race. But in the process, I made some mistakes and on top of that I was caught up in some racing incidents where a big wreck started and I was right in the middle of it. So, coming into this year, I'm just letting the race develop on it's own. I know I've got great equipment. I understand the draft. I've always been able to lead plate races -- just not at the right time on the last lap. So I've made some adjustments. The last two races, that's worked. That strategy might not work this weekend. We'll just have to see, but I feel much more comfortable and confident in the way I'm entering this race than I did in the plate races last year.

WITH EVERYBODY QUALIFYING PRETTY CLOSE TO RACE TRIM, WILL THIS BE A CASE OF WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET EARLY IN THE RACE, OR IS IT STILL GOING TO BE AN UNPREDICTIBLE SCRAMBLE? I've got mixed feeling for that. It's not like Talladega where you can get shuffled around very easily. Handling is very important and a good handling car here after a few laps on a longer run, will gain you a lot of position on the race track.

I think that's something that the No. 8 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) knows with all the success he has had here and his father and that company, they know they need a good driving race car and they're willing to sacrifice a lap or two for the long haul -- for a car that drives well. So plate racing in general -- especially in impound trim -- the fastest car is going to be up front and so forth. But I think there is an exception where somebody like Junior -- he's very sharp in the draft and knows his way through the draft and the team knows how to plate race. Even with the No. 20 (Stewart) -- I've noticed that he sometimes doesn't qualify the best on a plate track, especially here at Daytona, but then he's leading the race with 10 laps into it and he's untouchable. So there are some rare cases in there, but in general I think the car with the most speed is going to be up front and then come on down through the line.

YOU MENTIONED EARLIER THAT TO GET INTO RACING YOU REALLY HAVE TO BE AN ALL AMERICAN GUY. YOU NOW HAVE TWO YOUNG TEAMMATES. WHAT ADVICE HAVE YOU GIVEN THEM ABOUT HOW TO BEHAVE AND ACT? DO WE PUT TOO MUCH PRESSURE ON YOUNG DRIVERS COMING INTO THE SPORT TO BE WELL BEHAVED AND NOT JUST DELIVER RESULTS ON THE TRACK? When you get to this level, there are responsibilities that come with it and you need to act a certain way. You're representing major companies. There should be pressure on you to act as the owner sees it and what fits the sponsor. That's the key. Dale Junior's relationship is much different than my relationship with Lowe's. He has a lot more freedom to do other things than I do. It's just the company that you are a spokesperson for. As long as you fit into that criteria, that's the expectations of the team -- there is a lot of pressure on everyone to compete and I have to admit that I'm shocked to see young guys come in -- especially Kyle (Busch) with the limited about of racing that he had in stock cars, come in and be as fast as he is. At 22, I was still racing off-road trucks -- trying to convince owners that I could drive a stock car. I don't think I was even in a stock car until I was 22 or 23, and it was driving a Late Model and I had three ASA that Chevrolet was putting me through just to give me some extra experience. So I'm very shocked to see guys come in and deal with the pressure and perform like they do and race for championships. It's really surprising to me.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE THEM? Each situation is different. I always share what has helped me. The biggest thing that's helped me -- whether on or off the track -- has been patience. If you're patient on the race track and hang onto a car, you don't get into a bad point situation. Or you get to the next pit stop and make it better. If you're patient, the guy in front of you might make a mistake that you're chasing for the lead if you put enough pressure on him and you're patient and you may have a much easier pass at that point. Off the track, sponsors, fans and everything that I look at, the more patient I am, the better I do. That's just what I try to pass onto these guys. It doesn't matter if it's a teammate or someone driving for another race team that's looking for advice. When I came in, I was asking everyone for their opinion. Some guys would share it, and some wouldn't. But I try to make sure that I help anybody who comes by and asks.

YOU MENTIONED JEFF GORDON BEING A THREAT. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON BOTH HE AND DALE JR. BEING IN THE TOP 10 AT THIS POINT? "I think all of us expect them to be in the top 10. So it's good for them to be there. Last year, them not being in the Chase, showed the racing community and fans in the world that to be in the top 10 in the sport, there are no guarantees. It's not a predicable field. There is a lot of talent out here. It's tough. This year, we've all seen how hard Jeff has worked to be in the top 10 and the issues that he's been through. Again, that just validates the product we have every Sunday afternoon. It's a tough, tough sport.

-gm racing-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Tony Stewart , Greg Biffle
Teams Hendrick Motorsports