NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Teleconference April 27, 2004 This week's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Teleconference featured Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet Monte Carlo and his crew chief, Chad Knaus. Johnson and Knaus discuss the season...
NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Teleconference
April 27, 2004
This week's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Teleconference featured Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet Monte Carlo and his crew chief, Chad Knaus. Johnson and Knaus discuss the season to date and the upcoming NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race at California Speedway, the Auto Club 500. Johnson's first Cup career win came at California in 2002. With his fourth place run at Talladega, he jumped to 2nd in the '04 series point standings. He has already posted one win this year, which was at Darlington.
ON THE RECENTLY ANNOUNCED REVISIONS FOR THE UPCOMING NEXTEL ALL-STAR RACE AT LOWE'S MOTOR SPEEDWAY
"It sounds like some interesting changes. When the fans do the random drawing, you know it's going to be a full inversion. It's a bit predicable. Finding a way to create a different random draw is the key. It sounds like it's going to head that direction. With a $1 million on the line, it will be exciting again as usual."
WITH A GOOD FINISH AT CALIFORNIA, YOU COULD COME AWAY WITH THE POINTS LEAD. DOES THAT MATTER RIGHT NOW? WHY DO YOU DO SO WELL AT THAT TRACK) "You always want to be on top. Even with the point system this year where it all starts over and there's not a huge advantage to being on top, there's a lot of pride and a lot of work that goes into it. You want to be up front all the time no matter if it's practice or qualifying or points, you want to be at the top of the board. There is a lot of motivation to do that. California has been a good track for us for a few reasons. Chad Knaus is one of the smartest crew chiefs out there who understands the aero vs. the mechanical balance needed on a race car. He does an incredible job of putting a solid car underneath me. We have great power from the engine shop it seems like at every California trip. We usually end up debuting a new package. We're going to take some more horsepower with us this year. It's a great combination. It's a track that I like. My hometown (El Cajon) is all fired up to be there. All that stuff clicks and makes for a good performance."
AFTER THE FAN DISPLAY AT TALLADEGA LAST WEEKEND, SHOULD ALL NEXTEL CUP RACES BE COMPLETED UNDER GREEN?
"The thing that I look at as a competitor is consistency. NASCAR has set a mark that if there is a caution after a certain lap, they won't red flag the race in order to finish under green. So from the competitor's standpoint, we need something to build our strategy on and know what is going to take place. What they've been doing, they've been doing consistently. I don't think you'll find a driver who complains about it just as long as it's the same. I know the fans were upset because we didn't have a green flag finish, but the sport was founded on being a certain number of miles per event. It's my assumption that the sport was founded on each race being a certain amount of miles. When they say it's a 500-mile race, it's going to be a 500-mile race. That's the way it was designed and they are still following that mindset. If it's a green-white-checkered finish, that's fine with me as long as it's the same all year long. We're calculating fuel mileage to the last drop to finish these races. We just need a consistent format."
DO YOU THINK THE RULE CHANGE THAT PROHIBITS RACING BACK TO THE YELLOW IS A GOOD ONE?
"I think it's a positive change for the sport. It's a safer change. The top priority is for nobody to get hurt. I'm happy to see it. I'm also happy to see the detail in which NASCAR goes back and reviews things. I felt I was in fourth spot after the caution flag came out. Original NASCAR put me in third and I went through all the post-race interviews. I wasn't going to say, 'Hey, he (Kevin Harvick) was two inches in front of me'. If that's how it was, I was going to let it work out as it was. I was later informed that they reviewed the tapes and I was in fourth. I'm happy to see that it's fair and legitimate for everyone. That's what we're after. Consistency and that it's fair for everyone."
WITH NASCAR BECOMING AS MUCH OF AN ENTERNINMENT EVENT AS A SPORT, DOES THERE NEED TO BE A CHANGE IN THINKING ABOUT FINISHING UNDER GREEN?
"I would think there would be a change. The reason I say that is because that the decisions that have been made such as our point system and many other aspects of the sport, are based on the entertainment value. In some respects, it really isn't about racing anymore. It is racing, it's what we do, but our sport is driven by corporate involvement and fan viewership and there has to be a good show to watch. With that in mind, it wouldn't be outside my thoughts that there would be a change to that. I don't anticipate it happening during the season but maybe next year."
IF YOU DO WELL AT CALIFORNIA AND RICHMOND AND CHARLOTTE IN THE SPRING, DOES THAT SET YOU UP FOR THOSE TWO RACES IN THE FALL WHEN THEY ARE PART OF THE CHASE FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP?
"It just depends on where you are. Right now we're pretty comfortable and we're structuring test sessions to be later in the season and taking some risks on preparing for Fontana and for Richmond. We're just kind of biding my time. If we were 350 points out right now, it would be a different situation. For the Lowe's team right now, we're in great shape. We've been competitive everywhere we've been so far and we're going to take that knowledge we've been gathering on the l.5 mile stuff and take it to the first 2-mile track. Martinsville was good for us so we're taking that car to Richmond. We're learning our lessons from the races and budgeting our test sessions for later. But if we have two our three bad races, it might be a little different story for us."
AS A GROWING DRIVER, HOW VALUABLE IN LEARNING HAS JEFF GORDON BEEN FOR YOU?
"I've talked about this a lot. He's been one of the major reasons why I've been able to step into the top division of our sport and be competitive on the track and know how to handle things off the track like the business side, the fans, and the mental aspects. When you have somebody who is as humble and good as Jeff Gordon to pull from and learn from, it's been one of the biggest assets I could have ever hoped for on top of the fact of driving for Hendrick Motorsports. There are a lot of mental things that take place. I know I can go to Jeff and get a straight answer from him - even if it's a competitive advantage that might result in my beating him in the race. He's completely open and honest with me about what he's doing with the race car. I reciprocate with the same things. It's a unique teammate situation in NASCAR. I don't think there are many teams that work as close together where literally our teams are in the same shop. It's been a huge asset."
HAS HE GIVEN YOU ANY POINTERS ABOUT CALFIORNIA SPEEDWAY IN THE YEAR YOU WON THE RACE?
"Oh yes. In the beginning, I probably asked too many questions. He was nice enough that he didn't chase me off. I was burning his phone up and visiting his bus to try and get answers from him and find out what to do."
HAVE YOU NOTICED THAT EVERYONE IS BEING MORE AGGRESSIVE IN THEIR DRIVING BECAUSE OF THE CHASE FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP?
"I wouldn't say so. We had a lot more action going on at Talladega. Bump drafting worked in the past, but you were afraid it would damage your car and you didn't want to take that risk. But now you have guys who are a little bit more aggressive on the plate tracks. We've literally had to build these huge steel reinforced bumpers with steel plates to keep the shape of the nose so you can blast people like we have been. Everybody is running the same speeds and that's the only way you can really shake things up on a plate track is with bump drafting. It would set off an air bag in a passenger car we're hitting each other so hard. Bumping in the corners is on the verge of causing a big wreck. We're lucky we didn't have too much of that. We had one incident that I was real close to that took place. But we're just all very competitive. In a plate race, if you're in the 10th spot, you're just really fearful you're going to be where the big accident is that you get desperate. You almost create the accident because you're trying to shake things up to get inside the top five where it's supposedly safe. From around the 400-points mark - give or take 100 points on each side - is where you're going to see more aggressive racing. Otherwise, I don't think it's any different than in the past."
DO YOU THINK DRIVERS WERE OVER-AGGRESSIVE AT TALLADEGA?
"There is no doubt. I left Martinsville with one donut on the left side of my car from racing with Rusty (Wallace) for the lead. We've got a race car that we brought home from Talladega that needs a whole new body. And there's a big difference in the race tracks. That's what happens on those tracks. You're in tight quarters. You have to be aggressive. You only get a few opportunities to make moves so you've got to kind of lean on people and push people around to create a lane. On top of that, bump drafting is the only way you can shake things up. You've got to get in there and run into people to make it happen. With the rules changes of the bigger plate and bigger spoiler to institute more passing, that allows us to close faster and to stay in a pack together so we have more contact. We're in a no-win situation. If you make the rules so you can't pull up to each other, you're going to have a single file race that's boring and the fans are going to hate it. Drivers will like it because we're comfortable. Well, when you fix that and make us all run in a pack so there is more action for television and the fans, we're going to be running into each other. It's just a cat and mouse game that I don't there there's an end to."
IS THERE A WAY TO TALK TO THE DRIVERS TO GET THEM TO SETTLE DOWN? IS THERE A SOLUTION?
"There isn't one. There is nothing anyone could say to change that. It might last for a few laps but we're all racers. The only way I see a way is to make the handle so poorly or create a reason why we have to get out of the gas. If we have to lift on those plate tracks, it will change. The fact that we can run around wide open will keep us bouncing around in a group forever."
WITH NO SOLUTION, ARE YOU IN FAVOR OF KEEPING IT HOW IT IS NOW?
"I have no objections. I haven't hit anything hard yet either. I'm not too worried about it. I've had some decent finishes. It's in somebody else's hands. If I'm voicing my opinion on it then it's just in a big circle. We're going to chase ourselves in a circle. It's just an inevitable cause for chaos."
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT LEAVING TRADITIONAL TRACKS LIKE ROCKINGHAM AND DARLINGTON BEHIND AS RACING CONTINUES TO EXPAND NATIONALLY?
"It's hard to say. It's important to hang on to the tracks that have supported our series to what it is today. But when you have a facility that isn't sold out and such a hunger across the U.S. for races, you've got to look at what's the best thing for the sport and the growth of is. That means, unfortunately, that some tracks are going to lose dates. The sport is growing and you have to have attendance up. There are a lot of other things besides what we feel needs to happen that are taking place and making decisions for NASCAR and the sport. I hate to see some of the heritage go away. But when the stands are at three-quarter capacity, you have to look at that."
WILL YOU MISS SOME OF THOSE TRACKS THAT HAVE TO DO WITH WHO IS BEHIND THE WHEEL INSTEAD OF SOME OF THE NEWER TRACKS?
"I think they're all drivers tracks to a certain extent. If it's Daytona, it's the mental aspect of knowing how to place your car in the draft so people don't have an option but to help you and follow you. At Martinsville, it's totally different. But you still have a lot of work to do from a driver's standpoint. There are different styles of racing and the driver works at a premium everywhere we go."
HOW SPECIAL IS CALIFORNIA FOR YOU?
"It's great. I'm going back to my home state where I got my first win. It's very special. It's usually a lot more work because there are more friends and family and fans that I need to see. It isn't a relaxing weekend because there are a lot of demands on my time. But it's nice to go back and hopefully I can leave there with another new trophy that I can bring home to my new home in North Carolina."