Let’s roll right into our post-race for tonight’s 53rd annual Bank of America 500 here at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and our race runner up was Denny Hamlin, and he drove the No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and Denny right now is third place in the points, he’s 15 points behind Brad Keselowski and he is eight points behind Jimmie Johnson. Denny, talk about your run out here this evening and how you thought things played out.
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, yeah, we had a good run, obviously, and put ourselves in position with those guys all day. It was good to have a fuel-mileage race somewhat go our way, and Darian made the gutsy call to bring us in and lose all of our track position in the middle of the race, which I was kind of frustrated with. But obviously he knew what he was doing and we saved the fuel that we needed, and we slowed down just enough to finish second. But it’ll be interesting to see how much fuel we had left and whether we could have cut the reins a little bit sooner and passed the 15. We just needed one more lap.
Q. How difficult is it as a driver to run a fuel-mileage race when you know that the main objective is to save gas, and when you want to go and chase after the guy in front of you, you’ve got to keep an eye on your gas tank and go against everything that is natural to you and conserve and lay back?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, you’re just running the race backwards basically. You’re just seeing how slow you can go and maintain your track position. It’s just these cautions are falling. I think this one was a debris caution, but it was like right where it puts everyone in kind of a weird window, and so it’s – we had to prepare for it. We did prepare for it a lot better.
But it’s tough because I’m sitting there thinking, I can go by this 15 or catch him just about any time I want, but Darian is screaming at me to back it off.
As a race car driver, anyone can really save gas and be efficient with it. It’s just a matter of how close is the guy behind you and whether he’s going to pass you.
Q : Joining Denny right now is our third-place finisher in tonight’s race and that’s Jimmie Johnson. He drove the No. 48 My Lowe’s Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie is now second in points, seven points behind Brad Keselowski. Jimmie, talk about your run this evening at Charlotte.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Went in a bunch of circles, and we’re done, and I made it on fuel.
Q. How did you think the team performed out there tonight?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, it’s just weird running so long, saving fuel like we had to at the end, and the two segments’ worth. But there’s some tracks and some conditions where that’s just the game you have to play. The thing I’m excited about is that we’re now as a 48 car, myself as the driver, able to do that when needed.
We’re still learning. We don’t have the confidence just yet that we see the 2 car show in some situations how hard they can run, but we finished two fuel mileage races here and stretched it much further than we have in years past.
I feel like we’re becoming a stronger race team in that department. We had speed tonight. It was pretty cool to see the 2, the 11 and the 48 running 1, 2, 3 through a large portion of the night, and then with two stops to go, the opportunity developed, stayed green, and just arguing with yourself lap after lap how hard to go, how much fuel you’re using, then you’re wondering if you used too much or not enough. It’s just a big head game. That’s why I was giving you a hard time when I started.
Q. Question for both of you: If you’re even aware, what goes through your head when you see the points leader run out of gas?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Live by the sword, die by the sword (laughing). I saw him, he was going down the back and had a lot of speed, so I figured he was going to be fine. I don’t know how much it hurt him at the end of the day. But he was still rolling pretty quick.
I don’t know, I’ve been doing this long enough, too, when you see something happen, in your mind you’re like there’s an opportunity and before you know it happens to you. I still had a few laps to go. I wasn’t really having bad thoughts or too excited seeing him run out because I didn’t want to run out myself.
Q. A couple of things: For Jimmie, you took two tires earlier in the race, and it seemed like that wasn’t the move to make. Could you talk about your feelings about that call and what it did to the car as far as what you all had hoped you would get out of that? And also, both of you were involved in a restart with Greg Biffle when it was three wide. Is that just something that we’re seeing in the Chase because you’re only going to get so many chances to get out front and you’re going to take more chances?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think so. I think what hurt me more than anything was being in that three-wide situation and the car in the middle usually is in a bad spot. Once we got through 1 and 2 and those two guys went around, I felt like my car was decent, and then I was trying to shut the door on the 55 into Turn 3 and I think there was a little contact and it shot me up the track, and I lost another chunk of real estate at that point.
I think my lap times were competitive but just couldn’t go anywhere. I lost the track position. I don’t think the call was a bad call, I just didn’t get a good restart, and I’m real shocked that Greg got to my outside as fast as he did. Denny and I were side by side trying to get up through the gearbox. I think he lagged back and left a good gap and rolled up on me pretty hard to do that.
Just one of those things. He was able to pull that off and get away with it. Normally you get in trouble if you leave a big gap like that and roll up on the guys.
DENNY HAMLIN: I was nervous because he was right on my door. When he finally got to my outside, I was super loose because he didn’t leave a whole lot of gap to my outside door, and usually the outside guy pays the price when that happens. But he’s racing to get back in this hunt and try to get all the positions he can. So can’t blame him for that.
Q. Can you just kind of talk and assess where you’re at right now in the Chase and your thoughts overall about how you feel about where you’re at?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I feel great, and I think that we see three very equal teams and cars, and teams and cars that are showing up at the racetrack ready to go each week. This has been a lot of fun. I think we’re probably at the halfway point now, to have us three this tight, the good, hard competitive racing, the respect for one another, I’ve had a lot of fun over these five races and I know the next five will be great, too.
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I think we’re just rewinding where we were in the points two races ago. I think that’s right where it was. I think I was 16 back and he was like five or eight or something like that, and it’s right back where it was two races ago. We made up Talladega and we made up one other racetrack. So it’s good, you want to close the gap, especially for myself, knowing that we’re hitting our best racetracks later in this Chase and not at the beginning.
Q. Denny, two weeks ago everybody was thinking Paul Wolfe and Brad were geniuses with the fuel mileage. Your teammate was screaming at TRD about fuel mileage and now you guys are out there winning a race with what Toyota did with fuel mileage. Is it just where you start saving than it has to do with the engine and all that?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it has a lot to did with when the cautions fall. This time around everyone had two runs to prepare for this fuel-mileage finish, so we really had one run at Dover, so that was a lot different.
Obviously the fuel mapping pace is a lot of what happens with your strategy, whether you choose to go full rich or not. But it’s just everyone ran this last 120 laps or something three-quarter throttle. Nobody was able to really push it because nobody was comfortable with where they were at with the fuel mileage. I think this big difference was that we pitted with a group with us, the 48 from 10th on back with that last caution, and so it gave us a bigger opportunity to make it in those top nine cars.
And so we automatically knew we were going to be close on fuel, so I didn’t see how anybody in the front group was going to make it. Really we just had 120 laps to save fuel to try to make it to the end. And so with all that time, obviously you’re able to make up a little bit more difference than you would otherwise.
Q. You kind of made light of the fact that it wasn’t that big a deal out there when you first came in, but how unusual is it that you got a top-three finish in a fuel-mileage race?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Man, I think at Phoenix in like ’09 we finished a race and actually won on fuel somehow. Every other attempt we’ve come up short and been out. I certainly think of Michigan, multiple times at Michigan running out, Chicago comes to mind, as well. It’s just really not our deal. We all have the same stuff at Hendrick clearly with all six cars including the Haas cars, and it’s amazing to look how good Tony does even when they’re full rich qualifying runs. He gets so much better gas mileage than I do, and I guess I drive the car a lot more with my foot and the throttle and use more fuel as a result.
I’m the worst out of our group. Within the race there’s a lot of little victories here that we’ve got our tough better from the car standpoint than when it’s time to save fuel. I’m trying to retrain myself here and in general use it so that I always have that working in my favor. But I still have my habits, and I’ve got to really talk myself through that lap after lap.
Q. For Jimmie or Denny, the 2 has been so strong like on strategy it seems like, not just during the Chase but the last couple of months. Is it encouraging at all to see that they can make an error and allow people to get back in it?
DENNY HAMLIN: You know, they have, no doubt about it. I think in a few situations they’ve been ultra – what’s the word for it? They’ve just been getting the right breaks at the right time. Really a couple of these – there was about a 15-lap stint or whatever that a caution comes out, they are just buried in tonight’s race because of their having to try to stay out, get the track position, all that. They’ve been fortunate that the cautions haven’t fallen where it’s hurt them. Every time I do that I get that caution and it just kills us.