Jimmie Johnson met with media Wednesday. It was before practice, so no mention of the Hendrick engine issues. I've tried to pull some of the more interesting quotes for you.
NEW SEASON NEW YEAR, BUT IT LOOKS LIKE THE SAME OLD THING FOR YOUR CREW
“It’s way too early to say that to be honest with you. We had a great test session down here and we felt like we had a shot at the pole when we came down and we were able to do that. We’re qualifying so different that the race here and then this race in general is so different that what we have the rest of the season. So we’re excited, we’re happy where we are at but we know we have a lot of work ahead of us.
DOES THE NEW CAR EVEN OUT THE FIELD AND BRING SOME DRIVERS BACK IN FOCUS THAT MAY NOT HAVE HAD A CHANCE?
“It seems to me like it has limited the big teams from getting further away and its confused the big teams, even in Vegas and Fontana. Everybody was really confused, even fast guys were confused about what the car was doing. So right now it seems to have closed the gap, but I think that over time the big teams, and the good drivers and the good crew chiefs will continue to rise to the top.
DO YOU THINK THE NEW DESIGN WILL WORK?
“It’s still way too early to tell. On the short tracks, we were still able to put on good races. We all have a lot of fears on the big tracks, being the downforce tracks like California, Vegas. What’s going to happen when we try to pass someone. We found in the test session that we could only get probably within six car lengths of a car and then you would stall out. With the old car is was two car lengths, which you would still stall out. There’s a lot of learning to take place still.”
YOU HAVEN’T BEEN HERE ALL THAT LONG BUT DOES THE POLE MAKE THE KIND OF STATEMENT THAT YOU GUYS REALLY WANTED TO MAKE? TWO DEFENDING CHAMPIONS AND YOU ARE RIGHT BACK WHERE YOU STARTED IN NOVEMBER?
“To be honest with you we just did all that we could. We kept the same approach that we had through our career as the No. 48 team and that is to show up and give 100% and see where that puts us and it got us the pole. We didn’t think of let’s make a statement, let’s do something along those lines. We all did our jobs and we got the pole.”
HOW DO YOU EXPECT THE CAR OF TODAY TO PERFORM ON SUNDAY?
“I don’t really know. I think we had a good race in the Shootout. I think the Duel’s will show us a lot, but I have not been in a 43-car draft yet to understand exactly how it works. The cars have been more difficult to drive and I think they put on a little better show. The car has been moving around a lot, they have been a little sideways, and I think that’s good for the fans, good for the sport. So hopefully that all transfers over to a good race for the 500. I am concerned as we get to the downforce tracks where you don’t want the draft where you do need the air pushing down on the car. I’m a little concerned about that with what we saw in the Vegas and California test, but we will know a lot more once we get out there and get racing.”
WHAT IS THE MAIN DIFFERENCE FROM THE CAR OF TODAY FROM LAST YEAR?
“It’s just the grip level that the car has and there is probably now less downforce, higher center of gravity, different shape on the body. There’s a lot of things that take away what the feeling of what we had in the past was. We’re probably driving 30 to 40% less of a race car than what we had with the old car so it’s not any particular area it’s all the way through the corner.”
WHAT IS THE RECEPTION OF HAVING ALL THESE FOREIGN OPEN-WHEEL DRIVERS COMING INTO THE NASCAR CIRCUIT KNOWING HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO THEM TO GET INTO A DIVISION THAT’S FAR MORE POPULAR THAN WHERE THEY ARE AT ONE POINT?
“I think it’s been a decent reception for those guys. Just like any sport. If I was to go to Indy car, F1 you have to go into that sport and earn respect and I think the drivers that have shown up worked hard on that. Juan (Pablo Montoya) went through that last year where he was fighting for respect week after week and won a race. Now the new crop is coming in and they got to go through the same thing. And it just takes time. I think there are some people that feel – US based kids that come up through our system should be in those cars and not foreign drivers, but I think that’s thinking small-minded. It’s a big world. We need diversity in our sport and drivers from all disciplines.
“So I’m excited to see them here, but as I watch them I know they have a long learning curve ahead of them. It’s not taking anything away from them, its just they have never been in these cars and its going to take a while.”
WILL WE SEE TEAMWORK BETWEEN YOU AND DALE EARNHARDT JR. TOMORROW IN THAT FIRST DUEL?
“Yeah, with all the HMS cars. Really it just boils down to where we’re all at and if we can help each other. And in the Duels if I had the option to push the orange Home Depot Toyota or the HMS, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of my teammate, so it was a very easy decision of who I was going to work with and help. If I had had the chance to get the win I would have taken it but the opportunity just didn’t present itself.”
YOUR TEAM IS STRONG WITHOUT JUNIOR BUT HOW MUCH STRONGER DOES HE MAKE YOU GUYS, HAVING HIM IN YOUR STABLE THIS YEAR?
“We’re learning every day. He’s great with the draft and we have all known that for a lot of years. I think he’s going to have a much better showing in the 500 and on the restrictor plate tracks just out of numbers. He has more teammates working with him than he’s ever had and in the past I can say I didn’t want to help him because then I would have to beat him and now that he’s in a Hendrick car I find that I’m looking to help him more often and help him out where when he drove for DEI it didn’t do me any good to help him and he had no reason to help me. He’s done a lot with very little teammates out there on the track and as we work our way into California and Vegas I know there’s going to be more things that he can certainly help out with.”
DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT AT ALL WINNING THREE STRAIGHT CHAMPIONSHIPS?
“Sure. It’s only been done once and I’d love to be able to do it, but I know there’s a lot of racing between now and then so I’m not too focused on it yet. I’m more worried about today’s duties than what that can be down in Homestead.”
CAN YOU EVEN DESCRIBE HOW MUCH HARDER IT WOULD BE TO DO IT NOW THAN WHEN CALE DID IT TWENTY YEARS AGO? SO MUCH MORE COMPETITION, THE CARS ARE SO MUCH MORE DIFFERENT. HOW MUCH TOUGHER WOULD IT BE THAN WHEN HE DID IT?
“I don’t think I can shed enough light on that. It would take someone like Cale or even Darrell Waltrip that’s raced and seen the evolution of it all. My focus and scope of NASCAR is very small in the scheme of things. Until, I guess probably ’97 I didn’t really know much about NASCAR racing. It just wasn’t on the West Coast where I was. I was engaged in all the off-road racing. I didn’t know much about it, so all I know is this current era and I don’t think I could give the right perspective on it.”
AFTER THE SHOOTOUT, RICK (HENDRICK) SAID HE THOUGHT THE 500 COULD BE ONE OF THE GREATEST 500’S EVER. BASED ON JUST ONE RACE AND A FEW PRACTICE SESSIONS WHAT ARE YOU SEEING AS FAR AS RACING, HOW IT MIGHT GO?
“I think the cars close up easily, so there is going to be a lot of opportunity to pass. Surprisingly, as bad as they drive you can still save it. The cars are very uncomfortable, we can all see them bouncing around, moving around, but once the car takes off we’ve seen plenty of great saves. It’s like the side plate or end plate of the wing catches the air and the shape of the side of the car does and it straightens the car back up.
“So, it made the cars a handful to drive which puts on a better show and the fact that we are not crashing them once we are sideways will lead towards a better 500.
HAVE YOU EVER TAKEN A SWING AT ANYBODY? WOULD LOWE’S NOT APPRECIATE THAT?
“No, I haven’t since I’ve been racing. In school, fights come and go in high school and junior high school and stuff, but never in my professional career. I’ve only been in a truck I think once or twice as far as on track run-ins with someone. But outside of that, I haven’t been in that position.”
DO YOU THINK NASCAR WANTS YOU GUYS TO BE A LITTLE BIT MORE FORCEFUL?
“We’re all learning exactly what that statement meant (laughs) as time goes by and the season unfolds. Casey Mears had one of the best ideas. He thinks we should just set up a ring on the front stretch and switch to pay-per-view afterwards, and anybody that had a complaint should just put some gloves on and go out there and get a couple shots at each other. I think that would be great (laughs).”
HOW DO YOU LOOK AT THE DUELS?
“We want to be careful and I think initially when we won the pole we thought let’s be smart, let’s not race. But then as a couple of days have gone by, we have an amazing back-up car. There is a trophy out there. We want to win the race. And we’re going to go race for it. If there is something that’s going on I don’t like, I’ll obviously find my way out. That’s no different than what I’d normally do. I think our starting position, and my teammates that are up there with me, hopefully we can stay up in the first few rows and be in a smart position. I think the crazy position is going to be wherever that cutoff point is for who is going to make the 500. We’ll be well-aware of that and who those cars are and what they’re doing and try to be smart with that too.”
IF CHAD KNAUS WANTS TO SAVE THE CAR LIKE A CREW CHIEF WOULD, AND YOU WANT TO RACE FOR THE TROPHY, IS THERE SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN FOR YOU GUYS?
“Well it kind of boils down to if we don’t race and really see what the car is going to do in the draft, racing with the good cars and stacking up against the good cars, we might fool ourselves into thinking we have a better car than we do and then enter the 500 not up to par. So the bottom line is, the only way you really know what you have is to get in there and race with these guys and that’s what we’re going to do on Thursday.”
WERE YOU PLEASANTLY SURPRISED AT HOW RACEY THESE NEW CARS ARE HERE, ESPECIALLY AT THIS TRACK?
“They put on a good show, so far. They’re not easy to drive. It’s not a big problem, but the thing that’s surprising to me is how far sideways you can be and the car won’t spin out. If the old car was sideways like that, you’d be around and gone and cleaning people out. Thankfully the car catches itself once it’s so far sideways.”
THERE ARE A LOT OF SUCCESSFUL CAR OWNERS OUT HERE, YET THEY HAVE CONSISTENTLY BEEN BEATEN BY RICK HENDRICK OVER THE YEARS. WHY?
“It’s Rick’s commitment to the sport. It’s not just something that is a business opportunity. This is what he loves to do. Yes, it is a business and he runs it like a business, but his heart is in it because he loves Motorsports. He loves racing. He loves winning. And I think that really sets him apart. When you look at guys, even like Childress and Yates and guys who have been in the sport a long, long time, they’ve been in it because they love it. They may not have had the overall success, but they’ve all had a lot of success through their careers as owners. And that’s what separates them. They’re not guys that look at this as an investment vehicle and come in and spend a couple of years and get out. The reason these guys are in it for so long, year after year, is because they love it.”
THEY ARE NO LESS DEDICATED, YET RICK CAN BEAT THEM
”I don’t know. When you’re in are shoes, we realize how vulnerable we are. We know how close the gap is. We’ll stumble onto something that will give us a small advantage and it’s up to the drivers to make the difference and we do it somehow. And it’s not just one person. That’s why it’s hard to give you a straight answer because it’s just the passion, internally, from everyone. And another thing I feel too that’s amazing with Rick is he is not comfortable sitting still. He knows that what worked last year or the year before may not work next year.
“And we’re always involved in changing the company and the team and maybe that’s something the other guys haven’t had the luxury to do or been able to think down that path.”