This week's NASCAR Winston Cup Series Teleconference featured Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet Monte Carlo and his crew chief, Chad Knaus.

The series moves to Kansas Speedway next weekend for the Banquet 400, round 30 of 36 points-paying races on the 2003 circuit. A three-time winner this year (Charlotte and both Loudon races) along with The Winston, Johnson enters the Kansas event in fourth place in the standings. He has been in the top 10 for 29 race weeks, and is the only driver to be in the top 10 for the entire season. Dating back to 2002, he has been ranked among the top 10 for 62 consecutive race weeks. Johnson started on the outside pole at last year's Kansas race and finished 10th.

With Johnson's win at NHIS in July, he earned the 400th Winston Cup win for Chevrolet in NASCAR's Modern Era (1972 - present). If Johnson, or any other Chevy driver is victorious this weekend at Kansas, Chevrolet will clinch the 2003 Manufacturers Cup award.
WITH SEVEN RACES TO GO, HOW CAN YOU ACCESS YOUR SEASON SO FAR?JJ "Our second year has been a great year. Obviously our rookie year last year was a surprise to everyone including myself. I was hoping that in year two or three I would start having the wins and a good season like I'm having now. Now in my second year, we're still able to maintain that pace of still winning races and competing in the top five in points.

"It has been a huge accomplishment for me and this whole race team. Everybody is extremely young and for a lot of guys, this is their first year in Winston Cup. For the team to gel as it has and for us to be doing as well as we are is great. I'm very proud of everything that's gone on.

"One of our goals this year was to win races and we've been able to do that. Another goal that we've got left to accomplish is to finish top three in points. I wish we could have a shot at the championship, but Matt (Kenseth) has had a great season. When he has bad luck, I have bad luck. So I haven't been able to close that gap at all. I'm pretty far out of the loop. I'm looking for a top three in points. Hopefully next year we'll be in championship form."
GOING INTO KANSAS CITY, HOW DOES THIS YEAR COMPARE WITH LAST YEAR?JJ "It's a lot different. Last year at this point with the pressure of my rookie season and competing for the championship, there was a lot going on. I was really burned out and beaten down. I learned a lot of lessons from that. I learned what to worry about and when to worry about things. There is just so much going on. If you pay attention to every detail, you're going to burn out. I learned some very good lessons. This year has been a much more relaxed year. We still have the competitiveness that we had last year but we've learned how to spread it out a little better. I anticipate the screw ups that take place and understand things more."
ON RACING THE KANSAS CITY TRACKJJ "Kansas has been good to me. I've always been very competitive there. It's a lot like Chicago or some of these other mile and a half tracks we go to. I think last year it was one of the better tracks for us to race on as far as the new ones were concerned. The groove really opened up. We had a lot of side-by-side race. Coming back after another summer has beaten up the track, it's going to be a great race for everyone."
COULD YOU TALK ABOUT THE YEAR THAT TERRY LABONTE IS HAVING AND HIS ROLE WITH THE TEAM?JJ "Terry and Jim Long and that whole group of guys have been working so hard to get the No. 5 team pointed in the right direction. I think Jim Long has done an awesome job of building race cars for Terry and getting things sorted out. Terry is a single-foot driver. It doesn't sound that complicated, but there is a lot that goes on in all the reference points of how you drive a race car change with you're not using both your feet - one for the gas and one for the brake. Jim has done a great job of understanding Terry, -- and Terry has done a good job of communicating to Jim how to get that set-up on the car. To win at Darlington, one of the toughest tracks we go says a lot for those guys. Terry is a veteran at Hendrick Motorsports that I can go to for that worldly advice on how to attach the sport."
WHEN YOU LOOK BACK ON LAST YEAR, WHAT MADE YOU AND RYAN NEWMAN PULL THINGS TOGETHER SO SOON?JJ "I don't know. I really thought my rookie season would be more like the type of season this year's rookies are having. I had no idea we would take off and do what we did. Right place, right time, right people - there are a lot of things that go into it. The stars and the moon have to be aligned. I think there is a great rookie crop out there right now. Everybody's time comes. Fortunately for me, it showed up in my rookie year."
ON TAKING THE POINT LEAD AT LAST YEAR'S KANSAS RACE AND ON JEFF GORDON'S WIN THEREJJ "We had a great car. We ran up front all day long. I had a flat tire under green and had to come in. Actually, it was a loose wheel. Regardless, we had a great day and still came back for a 10th place finish and left with the points lead. I have fond memories of the track. I hope to do better when we go back."
HOW IMPORTANT WAS IT FOR YOU TO BE LEADING THE POINTS WHEN YOU LEFT KANSAS?JJ "It was huge. In looking back on it now, you don't know how long you're going to stay there (in the lead) and you don't know what the season is going to bring. So you don't get caught up in all of that. We went to the next race and unfortunately got crashed before the green flag ever came out at Talladega and lost the point lead. You just roll with it and see what happens. Now looking at how far away the point lead is right now, that was my only opportunity to lead in the points. I hope that opportunity comes again soon."
WHY DO YOU THINK THE MILE AND A HALF TRACKS HAVE BECOME SO POPULAR INSTEAD OF ONE OR TWO MILE TRACKS?JJ "I think it has a lot to do with the amount of fans you can put in there including camping in the infield. It has a lot to do with the track generating revenue rather than the type of racing it provides. It's the perfect size track. You get the right amount of fans and the infield camping. I think the series needs some more high-banked mile tracks. Rockingham and Dover are great races and we could use a few more tracks like that."
ON BRENDAN GAUGHAN'S TELECONFERENCE CALL COMMENT ON REVENGE OF ANOTHER DRIVER LIKE BOBBY HAMILTONJJ "There's so much on the line. Usually in those cases, there's one guy who has a lot to lose and one guy who doesn't have anything to lose. Brendan is competing for a championship. Bobby is not up there in the points as far as I know. I might be mistaken and hate to insult him like that. But for Brendan to keep that fire burning, he's got a lot to lose. He's leading the points. It's just not his time to play that game. But down the road, you remember those things. You remember the situations. There are some guys who really wait for those situations to take place. Other guys like myself don't. I don't think Brendan will. You try to move on. You try to take the high road because you've got a lot to lose -- especially in Brendan's case. He just doesn't want to get caught up in any of that and it's just not his style."
AT THE END OF THE SEASON, HOW DO YOU MANAGE TO FIGHT OFF THE BURNOUT ISSUE? JJ "I've just really learned which ones are the important battles. Everything is important. But for me, what's important is that racecar running up front. I need to be in the right state of mind. I need to be focused and do my job on the racetrack. I'm really focused in putting my priority there. There are a lot of obligations outside of the car that I need to do, but I'm not stressing over it. I'll do what I can. I'm working as hard as I can. But when I know I'm at the end of my rope, I know it'll affect me when I climb into that race car. I step back from it and the people working with me know that is the most import thing."

THE NEW RACING BACK TO THE YELLOW RULE SEEMS TO BE WORKING, BUT WHAT IS YOUR VIEWPOINT ON THE SINGLE FILE RULE ON PIT ROAD?JJ "The rule changes that have been made are very good. I agree with what they've done with racing back to the yellow. I don't agree with getting your lap back because you're in the right place at the right time. I think that needs to be looked at. I know it makes for great television but not from a competitor's standpoint. We almost had the last two races won from that situation. When you're having a bad day, you need to earn it back - not just have it awarded to you.

"I think the pit road changes are great changes. I don't think the changes that were made caused the problems that we saw that first pit stop. What happened was that everyone came in and only needed a few seconds for fuel. So the lead cars took their few seconds for fuel and were pulling back out while guys were still trying to get to their pit boxes. Typically, you need at least a can of gas so the whole field has time to go down pit road and clear the guys that made it to their pit boxes early. That rule is only to protect the guys coming into the pits so that someone isn't inside of a car like you saw with Jeff (Gordon) at Loudon and has contact and ends up striking some guys. Everything isn't going to be safe on pit road or on the racetrack. When you make rules, somehow random things seem to happen and unfortunately it did at Talladega."
ON TEAM HERZOG RETURNING TO THE BUSCH SERIESJJ "I feel so bad that those guys weren't able to find a sponsorship. Stan and Randy Herzog are racers at heart. They are very dedicated to their race team and the sport. To see the points leader in the Busch Series go away because they didn't have a sponsor is a crime. I feel so bad for them. I know they worked so hard to get to where they were. I drove for them for six years and I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the Herzogs. I certainly hope they are able to get a sponsor so that they can come back. I'm glad they're going to be there at Kansas."
DOES THE SMALL TEAM HAVE A CHANCE?JJ "Sure. They showed they were capable of it by leading the points for as long as they did. I don't think you just stumble across that. They spend just as much money as Richard Childress. They're doing everything that they can to be competitive in the Busch Series. But there was a point there where they were spending so much of their money to compete with Childress, that it just didn't make sense. That had to be a hard decision for them. They might be considered as a small guy, but they are very capable of running up front."
WHEN YOU AVOID A CRASH LIKE YOU DID IN TALLADEGA, HOW MUCH OF THAT IS LUCK AND HOW MUCH IS EXPERIENCE?JJ "A big part of it was luck. I was extremely lucky to not be caught up in any of that or have anybody hit me. There were three or four opportunities for me to be knocked out of the race at that point, but it all worked out. The car was out of control. There are a few small things that a driver can do that might help a little bit, but it was pretty much luck."
WITH SEVEN RACES TO GO, HOW CAN YOU ACCESS YOUR SEASON SO FAR?CK "Jimmie and I sat down at the beginning of the year and laid out some goals that we promised we'd keep confidential of things we wanted to accomplish. Oddly enough, we didn't accomplish as many of the goals as we set out to, but we accomplish things we didn't think we would do. So it balanced out a little bit.

"We thought we'd win a restrictor plate race, but we weren't able to do that since the last one was Talladega last Sunday. But we never in a million years thought that we would sweep Loudon. So we've really had a pretty decent year. We've had a lot of unfortunate luck. And we've had some engine malfunctions that have cost us a lot of points.

"We really thought we were going to be able to bid for the championship. But with Matt Kenseth's consistency, we're not going to be able to. We started to falter just a little bit at Talladega. If we didn't have our engine problem and not gotten spun and lose the engine as a result, we would have had a chance to capitalize on the points. We feel like we can finish in the top five in points and that's going to be very respectable. I think we've really set ourselves up for a championship bid in '04."
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE FIRST CAR GETTING A LAP BACK IN THE NEW RULES?CK "You're probably getting the same answer from everybody. If our car is in a position to get a lap back, I love it. If the situation is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman - two guys that I'm battling in the points - get their laps back for free at Talladega and they're able to make up a bunch of points, I don't like that.

"Since they've implemented that rule in the last two weeks, Ryan Newman has probably gained over 100 points than he would have if they didn't have that rule. That just puts him closer to us, so I don't really like that. But you can't whine over it because it is what it is. NASCAR will make adjustments as necessary. They didn't make this rule to help a guy who's a lap down. They made this rule to help the guys that are injured and to keep accidents from happening. And that's the most important thing and I agree with that 100 percent."
ARE THERE ANY DRIVER WEAKNESSES YOU'D LIKE TO ADDRESS BEFORE GOING INTO NEXT SEASON?CK "As you grow and mature as a team, you always see new things you have to grow and get better at. Jimmie and I have made such big gains on our communications skills and our teamwork. We can identify with whatever each other is feeling - by facial expressions or tone of voice or whatever. To make us better, the thing we're going to have to do is just continue to mature together. That means that when we go out and win, we've got to be sure we maintain a level attitude. Same when with we don't do well. We can't have peaks and valleys emotionally because that's where a lot of strain comes from - whether it's a marriage or a friendship or a working relationship like Jimmie and I have where you've got to maintain some type of level. That's what we're working on that now. They guys that we have on our team are still fairly young and they kind of feed on the emotion that we put out there. That's the biggest hurdle we've got right now. Performance-wise and with on-track actions, I don't think there are really too many teams that are better than we are right now."

SO YOU DON'T SEE YOURSELVES GETTING BETTER ON A PARTICULAR TYPE OF TRACK OVER ANOTHER - INTERMEDIATE TRACK VS. SHORT TRACK FOR EXAMPLE?CK "I don't really think we can get much better. I shouldn't really say that. Ryan Newman does a heck of a job. When those guys are out front they're incredible. When they're at the back of the pack, they struggle at times. We've been able to do the opposite. We've been able to start up front and finish up front. We've been able to start dead last and finish up front.

"There are a lot of places where we've had problems. We blew an engine at Texas and had to start at the back of the pack and drove straight to the front. At Lowe's Motor Speedway, we lost an engine prior to qualifying. We started dead last in the field there and won it. Loudon, a short track which is not typically our forte, we won two races there this year. We ran exceptionally well at Martinsville. So I don't think there's a whole lot for us to work on, we've just got to work on our consistency a little bit more. The road courses are still a bit of a weakness, but we haven't been terrible. Performance-wise, there's not a lot we need to do."
ON YOUR CREW PACING ITSELF BETTER THIS YEAR?CK "There are seven races to go and there are some very difficult race tracks. We have some more testing to deal with. Now is the point where we're going to see if our plan worked. I think it did. Our guys are better and more rested. They've maintained a level of intensity the majority of the season that they've been able to carry all year long. To be able to win the Winston Cup championship, we need to do a better job of it next year.

"But I think we've taken it to the next step over what we had last year by far. I'm not going to say I'm not getting tired because I am starting to get a little bit tired. I think everybody is. A lot of these crew chiefs are sick and worn down. I spoke to James Ince on the phone yesterday and he's got the flu. Its just part of it. Everybody gets tired and worn down. But I think my guys are in better shape at this point in the season now than they were last year."
IT'S DIFFERENT FOR EVERY DRIVER/CREW CHIEF COMBINATION, BUT HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR YOU GUYS TO GEL?CK "It varies. You talk to some drivers and crew chiefs and they never get it to work. It just doesn't happen. They don't find that chemistry and it just doesn't work for people. Jimmie and I were fortunate to be able to do it right out of the box. We had a couple of test sessions and went to some social activities before the start of the season and it really clicked. It really worked right away. That's the big reason why we've had success.

"You look at some of these other guys, like Matt (Borland) and Ryan (Newman), who were together for a long time before they even got into Winston Cup. They had background and time working with one another. They hit the ground running. We went to Daytona and said okay here we go. We tried to make it work. But as far as a timeline for when you get things figured out and understand each other's vocabulary and how to interact with other members of the team, you can't set a timeline on that. Some people never get it. Some people get it right away."
RYAN PEMBERTON HAS HAD TO WORK WITH FIVE DIFFERENT DRIVERS THIS YEAR. CAN YOU IMAGINE HAVING TO DO THAT?CK "That would be very tough. And Ryan is a good crew chief. He does a very good job dealing with what they've had to deal with. They had to deal with Jerry Nadeau getting hurt at Richmond. Jerry still wants to get back in the car. The guys want him back but don't know when he's going to recover or if he's going to be able to fully recover. It's hard to deal with that in itself, let alone different drivers and styles. It's really hard for him and I feel for him. I hope I never have to be in that position. I think that No. 01 team could be very competitive and they were real competitive before Jerry got hurt."
WHEN YOUR GAME PLAN DOESN'T QUITE WORK DURING THE RACE, DO YOU HAVE ANOTHER PLAN OR DO YOU JUST GET CREATIVE?CK "Everybody asks me what my strategy is. Honestly, I really pay attention to three races (or years) prior to the same one we're going to. I watch those races to see how things unfold and how things come up. That gives you some different scenarios. But you cannot set a game plan in a Winston Cup race because it never works out the way you think it's going to. You always have to shoot from the hip. That's one thing I feel we do very well. We strategize as the race is unfolding. We try to stay on top of what's going on and work on different situations.

"Different situations breed different scenarios. If you're running first through fifth and a caution comes out, you have one basic set of rules you abide by. You're going to come in and pit. If you're in say 10th through 20th, you're kind of in a limbo state. You have to decide to either do what the leaders do or what the guys behind you do. You're stuck in the middle trying to make a decision. And then if you're from 20th to 43rd, you're going to do whatever it possibly takes to get up to the front. You've just always got to change. You just can't stick to one particular game plan."
DOES IT TAKE A YEAR OR MORE TO GET EVERYTHING TOGETHER TO BE ABLE TO MAKE A RUN FOR A CHAMPIONSHIP?CK "When you roll into Daytona next year for the 500, you've got to go there ready and prepared to win that championship. Now that doesn't mean you're going to have a car that's capable of winning the race and sitting on the pole. That's not what it is because we're always like that. We're always prepared. We go to the racetrack every week prepared to win and wanting to win. What happens is that you have to have the mentality of moving ahead.

"Last year, we were able to do it differently. We said we were going to run every race as fast as we can until we run out of fuel or run out of tires. We're going to come in, we're going to pit, and we're going to do the same thing over again. It worked for us last year, but what ends up happening is that you lose focus of the big picture and you get caught up in the moment.

"When you're trying to win a championship, you've got to look ahead to what's coming up - the next race, the next practice, the next 20 laps. That's the mentality we're going to have for next year. We're going to take it to the next level. We're going to play it a little safer and be more strategically placed at the end of the event."
ARE THERE TWO KINDS OF ATTITUDES? RACE BY RACE OR FOR THE BIG PICTURE?CK "Because the season is so long, you've got to go out there and try to win every single race. But there's a point where you have to break off if you know that you can't win. From that, you've got to try to get into the top 10. If you're bidding for the championship, that's what you've got to do. The first half of the race, want to make sure you're in position to try to win. If you can't possibly get there, you've got to do whatever you can to get the best finish you can without putting yourself in harm's way because those points are so important."

 

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