Jimmie Johnson met with the media at Phoenix International Raceway to discuss the final two Chase races, racing at Phoenix and other topics.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT RACING AT PHOENIX?
“Great track for us. Excited to get on the track and get going. Obviously, we've got some work to do and a points margin to make up. Just excited to get out there and stop thinking about things and just get to work.”
DO YOU VIEW THIS RACE AS A "MUST WIN" FOR YOUR TEAM?
“We have to beat him (Denny Hamlin). I'm not sure where they're going to finish, but again, we need to expect the best out of them and that's going to be those guys running up front. We need to lead a lap, hopefully lead the most laps and win the race. Again, at the end of the day, it's relative to where he's running or where he finishes and we just don't know until we get on the track and get out there and see what goes on in the race.”
WHY IT IS SO HARD TO MAKE UP POINTS THIS LATE IN THE SEASON? DOES THAT CONCERN YOU?
“I really don't focus on stats all that much. I had heard about that stat coming into this weekend. I don't know why, I certainly want to believe that it is possible to come back, especially from such a small margin that we have right now. I'm not sure why it hasn't happened. Honestly, we had six Chases, so not a lot of time. Things can change pretty quick with only six years of having the Chase.”
WOULD YOU HAVE ANY PROBLEM CONTRIBUTING TO ANOTHER HENDRICK TEAM WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP FOR THE ORGANIZATION?
“There's no doubt that if we were out of the points and didn't have a chance to win then I would do anything I could to help my teammates win. Without a doubt, if the roles were reversed, I would offer the same thing up for Jeff Gordon's team or Junior (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) or Mark Martin's. Without a doubt."
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE CRITICAL COMMENTS MADE ABOUT YOUR PIT CREW SWAP BY DENNY AND HIS CREW CHIEF, MIKE FORD?
"I think that at the end of the day, the comments made, they are to be expected. You have a team that's fighting for their first championship, they won the race and did everything they needed to do and we certainly didn't have the day that we wanted nor the situation that we wanted on pit road and we did something that was different. I think amongst all that, it was very easy for Denny and for Mike to give some comments. I would have to imagine that anyone in that position would take an opportunity to put some heat on the 48 team or if the roles were reversed.
"I expected some comments, there certainly were some comments. We don't necessarily believe in the fact that we're taking something away from our guys. We are Hendrick Motorsports – that 24 and 48 shop is one unit. Yes, it is not the ideal situation, but if we win the championship, everybody is going to be there in Las Vegas having a great time and celebrating as a team like we always would.”
"There's been plenty of references to the comments made. Guys are thinking about it during their sets in the gym, when they're changing tires on pit stops, there have been e-mails internally – it's been a great motivational tool. We certainly hope to show it this weekend.”
HOW MUCH ARE THE COMPETITORS AFFECTED BY MIND GAMES DURING THE SEASON?
“From a mind game standpoint, we don't intentionally do much of it if any at all. I think we've been very fortunate in the past to have our performance on-track speak for us. There just really hasn't been a need and we really focus on doing our jobs to go out and win races and lead laps and put pressure on the competitors. I'm not smart enough to play mind games. I just get in the car, do my thing and I go. The fact that people think so much about what we're trying to do ends up being a mind game in it's own. They are almost Jedi mind-tricking themselves.”
WHAT TYPE OF LEARNING CURVE WILL TRAVIS PASTRANA FACE IN THE NATIONWIDE SERIES?
“We've been talking a little bit and I knew NASCAR was a big interest for him. I talked to him maybe two weeks ago and he mentioned that he might run some races and asked what my suggestions might be. Of course, it's seat time. We've seen more examples of people coming in that are very talented from other forms of motorsports, come in and struggle. I have just been advising him to get as many laps as he can. It doesn't matter if it's at a local late model track, if it's in the Camping World East or West Series, but when you go into the Nationwide Series, you have to show up ready.
"I certainly hope he will take all the steps necessary and you would think with the partnership with Michael Waltrip that they are very aware of that and have the established team. I'm excited for him and with all that being said, you won't find a nicer guy out there and somebody who really cares about motorsports. I think it will bring in some new fans to our fan base here, he is plenty colorful and will keep everybody entertained. I'm excited for him.”
HOW HAVE YOU HAD TO ADJUST YOUR THOUGHTS FOR THESE FINAL TWO RACES?
“Every year is going to be different. Last year we were in a different position coming out of Texas and kind of on our heels a little bit with the crash we had. Other times we've been here, we're really wanted to race hard and win the race and separate ourselves from the 24 (Jeff Gordon) one year and even the 99 (Carl Edwards) in the past. I feel like I'm in familiar territory although I am in second and behind the 11 (Hamlin) right now, it's about performing here. It's really simple with the small margin we have, we still feel like we have plenty of control and just have to win this championship. If we go out and do our jobs as a team, lead laps, win races then we can be the ones sitting at the head table in Las Vegas. We firmly believe in our hearts that we can do this. We're looking forward to the challenge.”
DID YOU WANT TO USE YOUR REGULAR PIT CREW THESE LAST TWO RACES AND IS THERE ANYTHING YOU ARE DOING TO GET TO KNOW YOUR NEW PIT CREW?
“I know all the guys who are going to be pitting the car this weekend. It's just tough. There's a lot that went on and took place at Hendrick Motorsports among all the department heads, crew chiefs and the guys themselves as to what this week is going to look like and moving forward to the end of the year at Homestead. We feel that the change this weekend has brought a lot of excitement to the race shop and sometimes just changing things around a little bit works well for teams.
"We've seen it with the RCR (Richard Childress Racing) guys and I could say that whoever would be pitting the car this weekend is really genuinely excited to win the championship. The guys who are going to be doing it this weekend – they are fired up. We feel that we're going to get the best out of them. Certainly a tough decision and my heart's out to my 48 guys who won't be crewing the car this weekend, but its go time and we need to make a decision and hopefully the decision that's the best for our race team to win a championship this year. Only time will tell what that decision turns out to be.”
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE IN SECOND PLACE IN THE POINTS?
“It sucks. I don't want to be there. Every year feels different and it does feel different being here this late in the game. We all know how special a run we've been on and how rare it is in sports, period. In my mind as the years have gone by, I have really tried not to get used to it.
"I've always tried to be fearful of not being there and I don't know if it's just getting myself prepared for the day there's a really big challenge or what, but I'm not as panicked as people may think. I think a lot of it boils down to the fact that I know how good my race team is. I know how good we're going to do here and in Homestead and I'm just trying not to over think it and just go out there and do my job.”
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS THE UNDERDOG?
“Hell, I don't know. I don't care. I'm not sure where I see myself. I know I'm down and I need to get back on top."
CAN YOU KEEP THE BLINDERS ON TO OTHER COMMENTS?
“I am personally, because as you guys know, especially when we're in the Chase, I don't follow the coverage. It's just so easy to be distracted from what really is important and what's on your mind that I just don't get engaged. I'm not involved with that stuff. I'm very involved with my team. I know where Chad (Knaus, crew chief) is mentally, I know where my guys are and that's my reality. That's what I need to worry about and focus on. We are in a great place and we're ready for these next two races.”WHAT DO YOU THINK OF CHEVROLET GOING BACK TO INDY CAR RACING?
“Wasn't aware of it, but very excited. I've again been completely disconnected from things here in recent times, but just happy to hear that the bowtie will be back. Maybe that will give me a chance to go race there [Indianapolis] someday.”
WHAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF RACING AT PHOENIX AND WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SET UP A FAST CAR HERE?
“I would say one of the most difficult things is the sun setting toward the end of the race when the sun is going down, it is really difficult to see where you're going into Turn 1. Then from a setup standpoint, it really is a track of compromises. The radius of the turns in 1 and 2 is a lot tighter and there's a lot more banking than what you have in 3 and 4. There's less banking and a larger radius and you can't get the car perfect and you really have to play those compromises against one another.”
HOW DO YOU CONTROL YOUR EMOTIONS IN THE CAR?
“From the emotion side of it, I think years of racing has helped me be where I am today and to manage my emotions through the course of a race. I don't do a good job of it all the time and I can look at some examples through the summer where frustration got to me and I made mistakes inside the car. We talked about that – when the Chase started that seemed to be a popular question. A lot of discussion about it. I have good days, I have bad days just like anyone, but I think it's just something I've learned over a period of time and it's also fitting to say that my personality fits into that as well.
DID 2005 HELP TEACH YOU HOW TO MANAGE THE CHASE?
“Yeah, and I maybe haven't felt like that moment in '05 helped me with the last four years, but it's in my mind this year that anything can happen in Homestead – and you can't assume people are just going to have great days.
"We went down there assuming the 20 (Tony Stewart) was going to have a great day, had some discussion over the radio about the tire going down and if it was soft or not, what was really going on. Because we thought the 20 was going to lead all the laps and win the race, we were out of character and we tried to limp around on a bad tire and caused a problem.
"I guess all that together makes me think – yes, statistics show certain things, but until you go run the race, it doesn't matter. It's about what happens now and the performance you have now. If there is trouble like had in 2005, you have to get the car fixed and get back on track – anything can happen. Then the part that I really focus in on is that if we would have stayed on track and if we would have played our game right and put the pressure on the 20 like we needed to, I think there could have been a different outcome.
"We blew that opportunity. I don't want to blow an opportunity going into Homestead or during Homestead. I don't want to blow an opportunity this weekend, so it all goes back on the character of the race team and myself and what got us into this position and to not change what we're doing and who we are. That's a lesson we learned in '05 and we are using a lot this year.”