HAD SOME TIME ON THE TRACK YESTERDAY WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS HEADING INTO THE WEEKEND?
“Yesterday was… actually I really like the schedule the fact that we were able to get out on the track yesterday and learn a little bit and then have the evening to think about it and apply some changes to the car. At the end of practice yesterday we got it in the ball park for sure. I would like to be a little bit better, but today’s practice is going to be an important one. I hope the clouds move out and the sun comes out and we get the conditions as close to what we will see for race day here pretty soon because we have such an early practice session this morning. Things are going well. We would like to be a little better, but we are definitely in the ball park.”
DESCRIBE TO US WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU TO WIN HERE AND WHAT IT WOULD MEAN TO GET A HISTORIC FIFTH:
“Fifth would be incredible. I can’t believe I have four of them right now. This track for one took me awhile to sort out. I was able to get a feel for things and start setting the car up for the proper line and driver inputs around here. Then things just started clicking for us and to do anything Jeff Gordon has done is huge. The guy is massive in our sport and had done so much. Truthfully somebody I looked up to as a young kid racing and still do today. He started off as a hero of mine and turned into a friend and a teammate. It’s been an amazing ride all along, but to tie what Jeff has done here at the speedway is just absolutely amazing. Also, to add Rick Mears to that as well, grew up in southern California, Rick Mears and the whole Mears gang grew up in Bakersfield. Watching Rick’s career and knowing that he came from my background inspired me to actually pursue IndyCar racing when I was younger. My opportunities led me to NASCAR and things turned out as they have. Long story short to do anything that either of those two has done is pretty awesome.”
GUYS WERE SAYING LAST YEAR THAT YOU WEREN’T IN YOUR OWN ZIP CODE YOU WERE IN YOUR OWN COUNTRY. HOW MUCH OF THAT KIND OF EFFORT DO YOU THINK CAN CARRY OVER TO THIS YEAR EVEN THOUGH WE ARE DEALING WITH A NEW CAR?
“Things are just so much different the tools we have to work with on the car that we had last year we don’t have this year. We are working in different areas and honestly NASCAR has taken away so much that it’s really small adjustments that we are working on to make a difference with the car and you start stacking those small adjustments to find a tenth or a tenth and a half. Where last year we got onto the skew thing and really were able to make it work here. They’ve eliminated so many areas to work in now that it’s hard to find a chunk of speed. When you have a few tenths on the field you know it’s not going to last long because the garage is smart they are paying attention. Things just don’t last as long as they used to right now because there are so few areas to work in.”
THIS SEEMS LIKE A RACE TRACK WHERE IT IS REALLY DIFFICULT TO SORT OF CHASE THE CAR. IF YOU ARE NOT GOOD KIND OF OFF THE TRUCK AND YOU ARE NOT GOOD EARLY IN THE WEEKEND IT BECOMES A STRUGGLE. WHY IS IT THAT WAY HERE?
“We get five sets of tires to work with to start the weekend and literally every lap you make it just tears the tire down more and more. If you come off the truck, like yesterday we had two sets of tires, we came off the truck we weren’t totally satisfied. Went to work on the car and we wanted to use one more set of tires and then leave three sets for today. We get to a point where you are adjusting the car on pretty old tires. As you wear the tires they develop a trend and it’s hard to adjust through that at times. We put our second set on and try to rebaseline with 10 minutes of practice left, but it was good especially having the night to think about things. We get one shot this morning to really work on what we thought through last night. Long story short it’s just a long race track, a lot of tire wear, beats up the tire, builds kind of a tight or loose condition into the tires. It’s hard to work around. When you have limited tires and laps and you don’t know the line you want to run and you don’t know the track it just makes it that much tougher for a rookie or for someone that is still trying to sort out the race track. That is truthfully why it took me so long. Even with testing up here. Unless you go sticker, sticker, sticker, sticker, every time you are on track it’s hard to know what adjustments worked and really to sort out your driver line.”
HOW DIFFERENT IS THE GEN-6 CAR HERE?
“It is different for sure. We are still trying to get the exact feel that I’m looking for. Again, last year we had so many tools to work with to help the car perform like we wanted to that we just don’t have that luxury this year. I don’t know what the speeds are, but I feel like we are a little bit slower than what I anticipated from a driver’s effort stand point. I don’t know what it says on the stop watch, but I thought we would be a little bit more on kill on a lap like we see on the mile and a half’s. We are not the fastest car yet, so we will work to get there.”
YOU GUYS HAVE THE PARTITIONS KIND OF BETWEEN ON BOTH SIDES OF THE CAR. THEY ARE NOT THAT MUCH TALLER THAN A PIT BOX THAT MOST TEAMS HAVE. IT WAS KIND OF STARTLING TO KIND OF SEE THEM. IS IT JUST A WAY TO GIVE KOBALT SOME MORE AD OR IS THERE ACTUALLY SOME SORT OF PURPOSE FOR THEM?
“Well NASCAR has given us an advantage to hide our stuff so that we can work in private and not let anybody see what is going on, but they won’t allow any other team to do it. It’s just for the No. 48 (laughter). No, honestly you might have noticed it over the last few years we have wanted to kind of spruce up that area and knowing that all the F1 stalls are the exact same and the way F1 does such a beautiful job of building out like a garage area, Chad (Knaus, crew chief) was just inspired to do that a year or two ago. Lowe’s and KOBALT provided all the stuff that they have in store that we can put right in our pit box. Chad even went through all the steps to get it approved with NASCAR coming to the track and all that kind of stuff. It’s really just to show off the great things that are sold in store.”
YOU MENTIONED THE REAR-END SKEW THING HERE. HOW FAR AHEAD OF THIS RACE LAST YEAR DID YOU GUYS KNOW YOU WERE COMING WITH SOMETHING THAT MIGHT SORT OF SET THE TONE FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR? DID YOU KNOW IT WAS GOING TO MAYBE HAVE THE AFFECT LIKE IT DID?
“Yeah you definitely need to bring your best stuff here and we are getting into the final few races before the Chase and you don’t want to start the Chase with unknowns. For us Indy has been a good time to debut things. Last year we felt like the skew in our hearts would be the direction to go. We saw that before when it was allowed through some other means in the back of the car. We developed that system to make it work under the current rules or the rules we had last year. We struggled with it at some tracks, but we came here and scienced it out just right and the track is very forgiving for how that system worked. You don’t have a lot of bumps or the big transitions in the corner and off. From the first lap on the track I mean it was like ‘whoa this is going to be good’. So from there we were able to continue to work with it and make it better. Also, this garage area is awfully smart and within weeks everybody else was working on a package very similar. It didn’t last long for sure.”
YOU GO TO A LOT OF TRACKS WHERE PEOPLE EXPECT YOU TO WIN. THIS IS ONE OF THEM. WHAT IS IT LIKE TO COME HERE ESPECIALLY FOR A BIG RACE LIKE THIS WITH ALL THE EXPECTATION SAYING BASICALLY IT IS JIMMIE JOHNSON’S RACE TO WIN?
“In my heart I feel like I need to come here and win. Its pressure I put on myself. I don’t know the outside pressure I haven’t paid too much attention to it. With how we have been performing and the history we have had here over the last few years I feel like we definitely have a shot and we should put that pressure on ourselves as a team and I should put that on myself as a driver that I need to come here and win the race and hopefully can. It’s an honor to have other teams and the media paying attention to what we are doing and say that we are the team to beat. We put more pressure on ourselves than what is surrounding or outside stuff is. With all that being said yesterday I didn’t think we had a winning car. We got close at the end. Today’s practice is really important and we need to get on top of things to try to get to Victory Lane.”
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR SCHEDULE SO FOR THIS MORNING (AT 8:00 A.M.); HAVE YOU CLIMBED A MOUNTAIN OR RUN A MARATHON?
“I got up at 5:30 a.m. and it was raining. I was supposed to run ten and I said, okay, that’s good. Thanks, rain; I went back to bed (laughs). It’s wet out there and I’m like yeah, I don’t want it that bad today. Once I’m up, I’m up. But the rain was like well, I’ll sit around and have some coffee and chill out.
JEFF GORDON IS LISTED AS YOUR CAR OWNER. WHAT IS THE DYNAMIC RELATIONSHIP THERE? DOES HE HAVE ANY REAL INPUT ON YOUR TEAM AS CAR OWNER?
“As car owner, yeah. He definitely does. He sits in meetings with Rick (Hendrick) that I don’t attend, on the direction of where Hendrick Motorsports is going and what each team is doing and budgets and sponsorship things; just stuff I’m not a part of because I’m just a driver. But Jeff made it known to me early on that I’m his teammate. It’s not an owner/driver situation. The first couple of months of being employed I would joke around with him and call him ‘boss’ and he’d quickly correct me and say, ‘No, no, we’re teammates, man. Don’t call me ‘boss’. That’s Rick.’ So, Rick and Jeff have a great relationship and Jeff has always had a very smart and keen business sense. And he knows everything that goes on at HMS. So, he’s kind of a hybrid. He won’t let me approach him as a boss, but he definitely knows the inner workings of Hendrick Motorsports.”
“Oh, it is. I’ve have to say probably every victory we’ve had, he’s been there; including the first, when we had one heck of a celebration (laughs).”
WHEN YOU WIN HERE, WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL OR UNIQUE? IS THERE SOMETHING YOU REALLY SAVOR WHEN YOU WIN AT INDIANAPOLIS?
“It’s a major for us. So it has that feel to it. And then for each driver, every driver respects this facility and respects what this victory does and can do and will do, and what it’s done for so many drivers. It doesn’t matter if it’s F1 or IndyCar. So we’re all very aware of that. And that rings a little different for Tony (Stewart) and a little different for Jeff (Gordon). You look at Dale Jarrett and just being a stock car guy when he won here and how special it was to him; even though he didn’t aspire to being an IndyCar driver, it still meant the world to him. It’s meant the world to me. I wanted to be an IndyCar driver growing up. My focus changed in my mid-teens and stock cars was the thing for me.
“One last aspect to add is at Daytona, you win the race basically on the decisions you make and the decisions others make around you to have the draft work in your favor. Here, it is solely the driver and team’s effort that gets it done. So, from winning both, there is a different feeling. You win a plate race, although skill and talent and all that from team and driver are very important and help win the race, it’s not all of it. So, it’s almost like a feeling in Vegas when you hit blackjack or something and you had four or five cards to get there. It took some skill and it took some luck, but you got it. Here, you know that you’ve earned it. It’s such a tough track to drive and compete on that there is a little different feeling. It’s hard to say which is more important. They are both huge races. In NASCAR’s history, it’s all about the Daytona 500, but winning here sits really deep in a driver.”
GOING BACK TO WHAT YOU WERE SAYING EARLIER ABOUT HOW NASCAR HAS TAKEN SO MUCH AWAY AND YOU DON’T HAVE AS MANY TOOLS. CAN YOU BE MORE SPECIFIC? IS IT REAR-END STUFF, SUSPENSION STUFF? WHAT COULD YOU DO LAST YEAR THAT YOU CAN’T DO THIS YEAR THAT PEOPLE WOULD UNDERSTAND?
“Yeah, the rear suspension is a big one. We were able to use a rear sway bar in a couple of different manners. One, to create the skew in the car. Or two, if you didn’t want the skew because the skew was nice to have in certain areas of the corner, especially center-off, but on corner entry it wasn’t real fun to drive. You’d let off the gas and the way things would move, it gives you a really loose sensation. So if you didn’t like that sensation, you’d go to a standard combination with your sway bar and just have it work through the center of the corner and off. We also were able to use bushings in the trunk arms that would allow, we’d mainly use the left side to move forward and aft and you could use that as a tuning tool to help the car in various parts of the corner. Because we were using all of those things to help twist the back end, NASCAR has taken all that away. And within that, there’s at least three, if not four or five, once you pile-up some other small things that you can do, that we’re not allowed to use anymore. And they were all very helpful tools at different stages. The thing is, we figured out how to pile them all up and create a ton of skew and then NASCAR said we’re taking it all away from you guys.”
DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT YOU WERE DOING 20 YEARS AGO WHEN WE FIRST RACED HERE? ON A BIG TRACK LIKE THIS, HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR TIRE-WEAR TO IMPACT THE SET-UP ON YOUR CAR?
“Twenty years ago, I remember seeing some clips and reading about the guys being on track here; Earnhardt being the first one out if my memory serves me right. And then the race, I remember Jeff (Gordon) winning. But it’s pretty spotty. Twenty years ago, the coverage of our sport was so different in Southern California that I’d usually catch it mid-week or late in the week. It was just on the late side all the time. But, I remember being excited for the test session and the coverage that came with it and knowing that Jeff won.
“In qualifying, your balance will change in the one lap you make, or one and a half laps you make. And you need a much different driving race car in Turn 1 so that when you get back to Turn 4, you can put the lap together. You might remember seeing, and you’ll probably see it today, you’ll see someone with a great (Turns) 1 and 2 and then get to (Turn) 3 and lose a little; and get to (Turn) 4 and lose a little just because the balance is changing. I watched the IndyCar qualifying and those guys have a lot of stuff that they can adjust in the car. And it’s pretty noticeable each lap they make; they have to make a significant adjustment. We don’t have those tools. But for one lap, you’ve got to compromise Turn 1 to have a good Turn 4 to put up a (good) lap.”