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Johnson hopes for 'more crossover' between racing stars

Hendrick Motorsports Media Day quotes
Wednesday, January 23, 2019

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Too old and too slow in win in NASCAR anymore, Jimmie Johnson wants to expand his horizons
Too old and too slow in win in NASCAR anymore, Jimmie Johnson wants to expand his horizons
Jimmie Johnson - Driver #48 Camaro
William Byron - Driver #24 Camaro
Alan Gustafson - crew chief, No. 9 Camaro ZL1
Greg Ives - crew chief, No. 88 Camaro ZL1
Chad Knaus - crew chief, No. 24 Camaro ZL1
Kevin Meendering - crew chief, No. 48 Camaro ZL1

JIMMIE JOHNSON, NO. 48 ALLY FINANCIAL CAMARO ZL1 

YOU HAVE A NEW CREW CHIEF AND IT’S A NEW SEASON. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

“I’m ready to get a new chapter for the No. 48 started and get to work. A lot of work has been going on. As we all know, the off-seasons usually challenging, and this one definitely is with the new rules package. And to see all four teams and crew chiefs and our engineering staff grinding and working as hard as they are together has been very, very inspiring and very cool to see. We get our first real shot at a test this year at the end of the week, I guess next week, in Las Vegas, so I’m excited to get to the track and get going. It was fun to announce the paint job of the car. So, we’ve been clipping along and staying busy during the off-season and I’m just excited to get going in 2019.”

HOW DOES A DRIVER AND CREW CHIEF GET ACQUAINTED? HAVE YOU SPENT TIME? HOW DOES THAT WORK?

“A few cold beers help. We’ve done that a couple of times. And, we’ve had some great team kind of hangouts, as well. Nothing overly complicated, but there will be some new faces on the No. 48 you’ll see at the track. So, just some good hang-time, honestly. It’s just been good hang-time. We’ve stayed in communication multiple times during the week and the progress of cars and builds and ideas and the hiring of some new people; so we’re off to a great start. And thankfully, I have some history with (crew chief) Kevin (Meendering), and worked closely with him when he was the lead engineer on the No. 88 car. So, I haven’t had to start from ground zero in building my relationship with Kevin. That’s been a nice thing.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE YOU’RE STARTING OVER?

“I’ve never been in this position, I know that much. There is a lot of ‘new’ to it, there’s no way around that. But, I do have the history of knowing everybody here at the shop and the history of the No. 48 and all that, so it doesn’t feel totally new, but largely new, for sure.”

DO YOU LOOK AT IT AS A CHALLENGE? IN SOME WAYS YOU MIGHT WELCOME A NEW CHALLENGE AND IN SOME WAYS MAYBE NOT

“It definitely is a new challenge and I welcome it. One thing that I did know was that the way things were going and where Chad (Knaus) and I ended up, that needed to change. It wasn’t bringing the best out of either one of us and we weren’t delivering like we needed to. So, I knew that much, for sure, last year. And then I’m just excited to get this fresh start and see where it takes us.”

WHEN EVERYTHING WAS OVER A NEW YEAR’S, DID YOU WAKE UP THINKING HEY, WE’RE DOING THIS. THIS IS THIS YEAR AND I’M GOING TO FOCUS ON MY TEAM AND GO FORWARD. WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST THOUGHTS?

“I don’t know quite how to say it. I’m trying to think through last year. I guess I’m always optimistic and I’ve always felt like we were still going to win a race last year and sadly we didn’t. We came close and the Roval and had some okay runs, but I haven’t put too much time and effort into analyzing it. Last year is what it is. And, I don’t think we had the best year as a manufacturer and as a company. And then, certainly, on the No. 48, we didn’t maximize what we needed to. But, there is this whole sense of starting a new chapter of the No. 48 that brings a lot of optimism. So, It does feel, like we were talking earlier, like a fresh start.”

WITH WHAT YOU SAW LAST YEAR IN THE ALL-STAR RACE AND THEN AT THE TEST WITH THIS PACKAGE AT ATLANTA, FROM A FAN’S PERSPECTIVE, HOW WILL THIS BE DIFFERENT FROM WHAT THEY GOT TO SEE LAST YEAR ON THE TRACK?

“The speeds are going to be a little bit higher than what we had at Charlotte. And then, I think depending on the track, it’s really going to showcase this rules package and at some tracks, I think it’ll put on a great show and at other tracks the potential is there but it might not do what we want. I think we all new that inside the competition space of NASCAR teams and drivers and even NASCAR has as well. They needed to make a decision. They needed to make a change. We know this isn’t going to be the perfect package everywhere, but I do feel like at the majority of the tracks it will be highly entertaining.”

SPECIFICALLY, WHEN YOU GO TO THAT LAS VEGAS TEST, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE UNKNOWNS THAT YOU’RE LOOKING TO LEARN MORE ABOUT?

“Vegas has so much grip, I think it will be pretty forgiving for the package and I think will put on a pretty strong show. I did the Atlanta tire test last year and there was a lot of tire falloff. I don’t know how the package is going to do in that environment. At California, again a lot of tire falloff. Cars can start close together and then spread out. So, I think the tracks where the tire falloff is low, we will all have grip regardless of where you’re running on the track; and dirty air won’t make that big of a difference, and it’ll be really entertaining and put on a good show.”

WHAT IS YOUR HUNGER LEVEL? WITH SEVEN CHAMPIONSHIPS MAYBE YOU THINK OH, I’VE DONE ENOUGH. BUT THAT’S NOT REALLY YOUR MAKE-UP. AFTER LAST SEASON, WHERE ARE YOU IN TERMS OF YOUR FIRE AND DESIRE AND THE DRIVE FOR EIGHT?

‘It’s honestly never been higher. The past is great and I’ve won seven championships and 83 races, but that’s then and this is now and I’m still as hungry and focused and dedicated as ever. And, having a year like I did last year also ramps-up the intensity some, so I’m just ready to get going.”

FOR THE DRIVERS WHO ARE NOT GOING TO THE TEST IN LAS VEGAS, HOW WILL THE DRIVERS AT HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS THAT ARE NOT GOING BE ABLE TO LEARN FROM IT? WILL YOU BRIEF THEM?

“Yeah, we’ll debrief for sure. I guess the guys who went to California have current data with the new rules package. So they’ve been able to update their simulators, their simulation, and really get a nice head start on the foundation that builds the year and all the tools that we work off of. So, we haven’t had that chance yet. We’re looking forward to in Vegas. I wanted to go into the GM simulator prior to Vegas. We literally don’t have the aero channel and the technical side locked down to even use it right now with this package. We can rough it in, but it’s not exactly what it would be so I’m not going to go. Once we do and we get the aero mapping loaded and all that stuff right, then that’s where it will be really useful. So, we’re really excited to have the January test and honestly, it’s the first domino for us to really start validating our tools and get them working.”

SO WHEN YOU GET BACK, WILL YOU SIT DOWN WITH THE DRIVERS AND TELL THEM WHAT YOU FELT AND BE A LEADER IN THE CAMP OF HELPING THEM UNDERSTAND IT ALL?

“Yeah, our meetings will start back up and I’m sure my teammates will reach out to me and obviously we’ll be posting the database. The way the weeks work, I’ll have a chance to download with everybody and answer any questions that come up.”

APPARENTLY YOU’VE BEEN UNVEILING YOUR NEW PAINT SCHEME FOR SEVERAL WEEKS WITH INSTAGRAM AND SO FORTH. HOW DOES THAT WORK? HOW DID YOU PUT ALL THAT TOGETHER? IS THAT SOMETHING YOU WORKED BEHIND?

“No, I had to buy in; but Ally had the idea and they just wanted to do something different. They used the phrase that they want to be a ‘disturbing force’ and just do things differently and they did. And, it was fun to watch that play out and read the comments to see if anybody picked-up on it and no one did until the very end. It was pretty cool.”

WHO DID THE SOCIAL MEDIA POST WITH THE FIRE AND FLAMES?

“Oh, Scott Dixon.”

TALK ABOUT WHAT SCOTT DIXON DID. THAT WAS WILD

“Yeah, I made those shirts last year and sent them to a few friends that had mentioned they wanted one. And Dixon sent me a text three or four days ago and it’s like, I finally wore my shirt, take a look (laughs). And, he pulled the shirt up to where my face was over his face and added some cool special effects with flames and all that. So, pretty well done.”

THERE WAS A LOT OF SOCIAL MEDIA BUZZ OVER THE CHILI BOWL RECENTLY AND A LOT OF NASCAR FOLKS GOT INVOLVED IN THAT. I’M CURIOUS IF YOU HAVE ANY THOUGHTS ON THINGS FROM IT THAT MIGHT APPLY TO GENERATING MORE BUZZ AROUND THE NASCAR WORLD. GRANTED, THAT’S A ONE-TIME EVENT VERSUS A SEASON-LONG DEAL, BUT WHAT DO YOU THINK?

“I just think that in motorsports in general, we need guys to cross over from a local level; although the Chili Bowl is huge, but their Midgets and more people typically get their starts. Our stars come back down and run and put on such a great show. That helps them and I think it helps us. It also helps that community and there are a lot of young drivers that are trying to find their way up. Hopefully we can get more crossover going, even between IndyCar and NASCAR or NASCAR and Formula 1 or whatever it might be. I feel like we had a lot of heroes that we looked up to and those guys would race anything and everything. And in the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve focused more on championships than we have marque events. And I completely understand why, but it’s really nice to see people trying to move around and race other things. Hopefully we’ll have somebody trying the double again at Indy and Charlotte. There is a lot of good that comes from those opportunities.”

YOU WERE ABLE TO KNOCK OFF A BUCKET LIST ITEM WITH YOUR DEAL WITH FERNANDO ALONSO. ARE WE GOING TO SEE ANY MORE TEASER VIDEOS THIS SEASON FOR SOMETHING ELSE ON THE HORIZON?

“We don’t have anything planned yet. There will be footage coming out soon of the day. We’re trying to get it all edited up now and find a home for it. So, that will come out. But I don’t have anything else planned. I have some great new friends at McLaren and they have lots of things getting involved with, racing-wise. So, down the road there could be some opportunities there for me, potentially. I’d love to go endurance racing with Fernando. We joked about that some. Nothing has developed from that yet, but hopefully down the road we can send some more teasers out and have some more fun.”

AS WE GET CLOSER TO DAYTONA, ARE YOU THINKING THIS IS MY YEAR LIKE SO MANY OTHER DRIVERS ARE?

“We’re all tied for first right now. There’s not doubt about it. And then with the changes that each team makes, everybody is optimistic and excited. We’re definitely in that mix as well and excited to get going.”

HOW DIFFERENT WILL THE NEW PACKAGE BE AT PLACES LIKE POCONO AND ATLANTA AND HOMESTEAD AND DARLINGTON COMPARED TO WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO RACE WEEK-TO-WEEK?

“Power-wise, we’ll be the same. But there’s a variation with the air ducts that come in the front. Internally, we’ve talked about those air ducts and the way they work. They punch a larger hole in the air. So, I think there’s an argument and we need to kind of prove or dis-prove how much that helps or hurts the racing. The bigger the hole, the bigger the weight behind; the harder it is to run behind someone through the turns. On the straightaways in a place like Indy where you have long straightaways, it allows the car to draft up and potentially overtake. But when you have shorter straightaways, are you at more of a disadvantage through the turns and will it hurt the racing. So, I think those are some things we’re going to have to sort out. Obviously the slower speeds and the lower horsepower should keep us closer together and that’s the balance that NASCAR is playing with. How much can we slow them down to keep them together through the turns? And then, how much air can we push out of the way so they draft up on the straights?”

DO YOU FIND IT OFFENSIVE WITH EVERYTHING YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED WHEN PEOPLE SAY YOU NEED TO RETIRE OR THAT YOU CAN’T GET IT DONE ANYMORE? WHERE DO THEY GET THAT RIGHT? DOESN’T YOUR RESUME SORT OF STAND ON IT’S OWN?

“Resume, and then my own; like I get to say when I’m done. It did weigh on me through the course of the year and I can’t wait to win and win often. And I think that would be something really nice to say back to all those people that suggested that I was washed-up and done.”

IS IT COMFORTING TO KNOW THAT KEVIN MEENDERING DOESN’T SEEM RATTLED OR FEELS LIKE THERE’S ANY PRESSURE ON HIS SHOULDERS?

“Yeah, it is comforting. I had that same early observation early in the meetings before we offered the job and he took it. Like he doesn’t seem really worried about this whole thing. As time has gone on, I’ve learned more about him and that’s him. He just doesn’t get rattled easily. He believes in himself and his work ethic and data and we’re going to put our heads down and work in this direction and figure it out. So, it’s really nice to have that and not have to worry about second-guessing. We’re just going to stay focused and work on this thing.”

JEFF GORDON IS GOING TO GO INTO THE HALL OF FAME NEXT WEEK. CAN YOU REFLECT ON HIS CAREER AND WHAT HE’S MEANT TO YOURS?

“I don’t even know where to start. When I just started driving for Chevrolet and was racing their off-road trucks, I was always asked what do you want to do? Where can we help take you? IndyCar was always on my radar growing up on the West Coast. But then, here’s this guy with a really bad mustache making his way in stock car racing and the name that I followed and watched through Thursday night thunder, my dad is a huge Sprint Car/Midget fan, and it’s like oh my gosh, I’m not Jeff Gordon on a big level, but that’s Jeff Gordon, right? The Diet Pepsi car. That’s him. To watch him do all that he did and to firsthand watch the doors that it opened for drivers that did not grow up in the South. They grew up racing in the dirt. He really changed that whole outlook for owners. A lot of opportunities came through those doors that he opened. And then specifically, when he decided to start the No. 48 car and picked me as the driver changed my life forever. So, to work with him, to work under him, to be mentored by him; personally and professionally he’s had such an impact in my life prior to me ever living in North Carolina, just being a fan sitting on the couch all the way to well, he stood up at my wedding and helped me meet my wife. So, he’s been a huge part of my life and I’m really proud of him.”

WILLIAM BYRON, NO. 24 AXALTA/LIBERTY UNIVERSITY CAMARO ZL1:

Backmarker William Byron
Backmarker William Byron
WHAT IS ON YOUR RACING BUCKET LIST?

“Chili Bowl, Rolex 24 Hour and an IndyCar race. But honestly just focused on NASCAR right now. That is what I grew up wanting to do, and that’s all I care about right now.”

DO YOU HAVE ANY TAKEAWAYS FROM 2018 AND WHERE ARE YOU TRYING TO START THIS YEAR OFF?

“There really weren’t a lot of takeaways for us from last year other than learning the Cup Series, so I am putting that year behind us. This year working with Chad (Knaus) is going to be exciting. I feel like we’ve started that process already, just doing things together as a team. I feel like it is growing, and I feel like by the time we get to Daytona, we should be up and rolling.”

WHAT ARE YOU FEELINGS GOING INTO THE SEASON WITH CHAD?

“I think it is a great learning opportunity for me. His experience level is really high, but he’s not like set in is ways. That is what I have noticed about him, he’s open to do new things. I feel like that is important as a crew chief and a team member.”

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO GET FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE WORKING WITH CHAD?

“His work ethic is really high. That is important as a crew chief to have that work ethic. That is really the biggest thing I can take away from him. I will try to apply that as best I can to what I am doing. I don’t have to worry about him doing his job, or worry about what the team is doing.”

WHAT WERE YOU DOING IN 2002 WHEN HE STARTED WORKING WITH JIMMIE?  “That’s about when I started watching racing. I was about five years-old.  I started watching him when I was about six years old, in 2003-2004. I went to my first race. It’s cool to look back on.”

IS IT INTIMIDATING TO NOW BE WORKING WITH THIS GUY?

“Not really. I feel like when you get an opportunity like that, and it is a great opportunity, but it is nothing to really worry about it you are doing all you can. I have confidence in my ability so that helps out. I think it just comes with confidence. I am just trying to apply what I can bring to what we are doing.”

WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO GET READY FOR NEW SEASON?

“There are a lot of things that go in to making the next year as good as it can be. That includes physical training, mental stuff and then just getting in a car and just doing something racing related. I feel like I touch most of those bases every week and try to stay with it.”

HENDRICK HAS ALWAYS BEEN STRONG IN QUALIFYING AT DAYTONA, SO WHAT KIND OF CONFIDENCE DO YOU HAVE GOING IN TO SPEEDWEEKS?

“I think it is going to be less of a learning curve for us. Last year we were not sure what to expect going into Daytona with our stuff. Now we have a full year with our stuff so hopefully we go into Daytona and pick up where we left off at the end of the season which was pretty good.”

DO YOU PUT A LOT OF PRESSURE ON YOURSELF?

“What I have learned about this sport is that every weekend you have a chance to make a difference. There is nothing from last week that carries over to the next week – not even the same race car. Not even the same seat in the race car. You get a chance to reset. If you are really bad at Kentucky, then you can move on to New Hampshire and be fine. I think that is what is special about our sport.”

DO YOU THINK THE NEW PACKAGE WILL DRIVE LIKE THE TRUCK DID?

“Oh man, I don’t really know yet. It is kind of wait and see. Hopefully it does. It is kind of similar horsepower; similar downforce.”

SO, DO YOU THINK IT WILL BE MORE SIMILAR ON THE HIGH GRIP TRACKS; REPAVES?

“I think so. I think so. I think it will be pretty comparable at those places.”

HOW FAST DID NASCAR OFF SEASON FLY BY?

“It was fast. We don’t really have any off time. You get all you can in, whether it is doing something away from racing, or doing something to get yourself ready for the new year. It is just important to really manage that time.”

Alan Gustafson, crew chief, No. 9 Camaro ZL1, Greg Ives, crew chief, No. 88 Camaro ZL1, Chad Knaus, crew chief, No. 24 Camaro ZL1 and Kevin Meendering, crew chief, No. 48 Camaro ZL1

Alan Gustafson, crew chief, No. 9 Camaro ZL1:

“… I’m most focused on now is understanding what we need to do to get a performance advantage. It’s not going to be the same thing it was in previous years. We need to figure that out and then I am 100 percent confident if we give Chase a car that he wants he will win the race with it. He can adapt really well and there hasn’t been anything that he has not been able to overcome. He is still young enough to where he doesn’t have too many habits, so change isn’t going to be as difficult for him as it is maybe some of the other guys. You know you look at his level of talent he is in a pretty elite level, but most of the guys that he is around have been doing this for a while, so change might be a little bit more difficult for them.”

HOW DO YOU CARRY THE MOMENTUM OF 2018 INTO 2019?

“Yeah, we just have to keep working hard and put good, fast cars on the track. I think that is going to do it. Where the momentum came from at the end of 2018 was performing and you’ve got to perform to star the season. If we do that, I think it will carry over.”

WITH CHASE HAVING THOSE THREE WINS, DOES THAT SHIFT THE APPROACH FOR YOU GUYS GOING INTO 2019 OR IS IT THE SAME? WHAT IS THAT MINDSET?

“It’s the same it’s to win. If you can win early and often that is always a good thing. We will try to do that. Winning gives you the leverage to put yourself in good position to qualify for the Playoffs. If we can do that and we can push even that much harder and you don’t have to be conservative with some calls and adjustments. Just focus on winning and performing.

BEFORE 2019 STARTS OFF, JEFF GORDON WILL BE GOING INTO THE NASCAR HALL OF FAME CAN YOU TELL WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO WORK WITH JEFF AS A CREW CHIEF?

“Yeah, I mean Jeff is cool, he is a good guy and a lot of fun to work with. We are great friends. Our working relationship was really good and we accomplished some good things together. I look back at that time and it was a great period in my career and just all good. It was maybe a little bad here and there, but it was all really good. Super happy for him. There is really… maybe next to Richard Petty he is the most deserving guy there is to be in the Hall of Fame. I’m glad he is in there.”

IS THERE ANY STORIES THAT YOU WILL REALLY KEEP WITH YOU FROM THAT TIME?

“Yeah, I mean there are tons. We have gone through a lot of things together. There is not like one thing that stands out in my head. When you go through day to day and different things there are lots of times that I think about situations and references that. Just a lot of good memories.”

THERE HAS BEEN A LOT MADE OF THE NEW RULES PACKAGE. WHAT IS THAT FOCUS AND HOW LONG HAS IT TAKEN YOU TO REALLY GET THINGS READY TO GO?

“Really we are making a lot of assumptions based on running this package in the All-Star race and kind of our experience because we really don’t know what it’s going to be like until we get on the track. So, I’m just really excited to go get it on the track. Once we get on the track, I think we will be able to make adjustments and be able to understand what we are actually up against.”

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES WITH THE OSS SYSTEM LAST YEAR?

“I think the biggest challenge is probably it’s not as straight forward as you would think. It’s an incredible piece of equipment. The technology behind it is amazing, but there are some variances and there are some things that aren’t just super straight forward. If you build your car based on kind of a coordinate measuring system that we would use here, there are some views that cameras can’t get and there are some views that are slightly skewed so there are some discrepancies between that. So, understanding in actuality and reality of where the part is and what the OSS interprets that to mean there was some room there to work for sure.”

DID HOW MUCH THE TEAMS UNDERSTOOD THE SYSTEM DID THAT PLAY INTO PERFORMANCE LAST YEAR?

“Oh, for sure, absolutely. And I think at the beginning of the year we didn’t do a great job with that and we were able to make up some time pretty quickly, but yeah, understanding how the system operates, what effect you had. At the beginning of the year we were using different colored lights for different colored cars, for different situations and as the procedures through the OSS went on through the season they changed. Obviously, everybody saw the colors and their impact, so yeah, it was fun for me, I don’t know what everybody else thought, but I enjoyed it. It was a neat challenge and it was cool to be able to learn and understand the different things that went on with it and then be able to take that information and implement it to a performance advantage. I know sometimes that is a bad word – performance advantage… I don’t know why, but I think it was there. I do think that will calm down some because it’s ran the course a little bit, but it’s still there.”    

DO YOU CHANGE ANYTHING GOING INTO 2019?

“I think the message is the same, but we always try to adapt and improve. We try to challenge ourselves everyday to get better. We certainly can’t do the same thing we did and be successful we are going to have to improve on that. I think that is our mindset as always. If I look back on last year that is one thing, we did on the No. 9 really well, we got better every week and ultimately it showed up at the end of the season when we were able to come from really a pretty dismal start to a pretty decent finish. And we just did that by improving every day. There wasn’t one thing. We didn’t wake up one day and said ‘this is what we were missing’. We just got a little bit every day. We’ve got to maintain. That is part of the strategy. That part of our game plan can’t change. We’ve got to keep that philosophy intact, but we’ve always got to push ourselves to be better.”

HOW HAS CHASE GROWN ON THE RACE TRACK?

“I think I’ve seen him go through… you know his talent has always been really good. He has been really skilled from the start. I feel like from the first race we had him we felt like we could win. In all actuality, if’s and but’s we probably should have won some races before last season. But I’ve seen some of those things that I’ve seen change is he races people really well. He doesn’t take anything that really isn’t his real estate or force people in bad positions. I think he has been taken advantage of a few times because of that and I think that has frustrated him. I’ve seen that change in him. He certainly races some people that kind of consistently have not given him the same respect he has adjusted how he races them. I think that is a good thing and a good idea. Certainly, helps his performance. You can’t consistently come out on the bad end of deals or altercations or whatever. He has adjusted to that and I think that is something I certainly see from him. That process has given him a little bit of an edge. I think the people now he has raced the guys that run up front pretty much every week enough where they know what he is and what he’s about. I certainly think they know he is going to be there week in and week out, they better think twice if they are going to do something that might be a little bit questionable.”

ANY THOUGHTS ON THE NEW PACKAGE?

“I guess it would be about the fifth, but I think we have to get through the West Coast swing before you really know everything. Once you go through the West Coast swing, we will have raced Atlanta, raced Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana and by then you can kind of get a picture of what you need to have to get an advantage and how the racing is going to go. I can certainly see the disparity between having a car that is good over a fuel run and a car that is good over a short run. I think that might get bigger so you have to decide how you think the racing is going to end and what is going to put you in the best position to succeed. Are you good on the short run and just going to suffer through the long run? Do the guys who are good on a short run get far enough out where the guys who are good on a long run can’t really get to them. All those things, that is probably the biggest question to me. I feel like that split could potentially get significantly bigger and then how do you manage that. Now, if you’ve got a good car, yeah, you might suffer a little bit for a few laps, but even if you have a good long run car it kind of comes on. But I can see now where you could really get beat up early to have a good car late.”

SO, IT WILL BE A REAL TRACK POSITION GAME?

“I’m curious to know. Fontana for example the tires are going to fall off. It’s a very abrasive track, so if you have your car that is trimmed out and it has a lot of pace, and you can really fly for four or five laps, I think you could easily drive to the front, well then you will have clean air, but certainly the tires are going to go quick. Well, the guy who is not as fast with more drag, more downforce, how long does it take him or can he get to you? And you know, what is it like if it’s just caution ridden races because everybody is close together? Then who cares about a long run? I think all those dynamics are really interesting to me how all that is going to play out. I think we can tailor our cars for any situations you are jut going to have to kind of understand what gives you the highest percentage of success rate.”

DO YOU THINK WE WILL SEE MORE CAUTIONS? DID YOU SEE THE VIDEO FROM THE CALIFORNIA TEST?

“Yeah, I think restarts will be nuts. Because you are just going to have the option to get big runs and they will be very stable for the first few laps and guys will be able to put themselves in positions and run California four and five wide for sure. I think that is going to be the best opportunity to make ground. Whatever you do then you might have the whole rest of the run to manage three or four spots.

“I saw a few laps. It was like somebody’s smartphone video, so I saw a few laps of that. You could see the side drafts and how they work. You could see guys pulling down with the side draft and slowing cars down. I think the downforce on the cars is going to be significant but the one thing that was kind of a surprise to me… I have stood up on top of that garage for years and watched the cars around the track and watching that video I didn’t see a huge change like ‘wow they look slow’. The speed looked pretty similar which was cool. You don’t want to look like cars are going down the interstate at 65 mph. You want to have that sensation of speed and from the video it looked like it had it so that was good.”

Greg Ives, crew chief, No. 88 Camaro ZL1:

THIS IS THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM. TALK ABOUT GETTING READY FOR THE SEASON:

“Daytona 500 you always treat a little bit special. You have the two weeks being down there. You have the shootout, the Clash, and all the races before that you are able to make in based on your accolades from the year before. It’s kind of a race to go out there and just learn. We weren’t in it last year with Alex kind of coming back and I think it hurt us a little bit because track time is track time. You always want to get on track. Like we were talking about, the Daytona 500 you treat it special. This year it’s kind of unique because it’s the only race of that rules package. It’s going to be different when you go to Talladega and Daytona in July. We were talking about it being a throw away races and it almost kind of is. You kind of go down there to win it anyways. You don’t really worry about things afterwards, but typically if you are able to save that car you can buff on it and make it a little bit better for Talladega.  That is the scenario we ran into in 2015. We had a car, we built it, we ran well in the 500, it survived that race, we were able to bring it back, just work on the details of it and won our first race, Dale and I together at Talladega. Brought it to Daytona, won that race as well and came up a foot or two short in the fall. It is definitely a different mindset from our stand point. You put a lot of effort, wind tunneling, you put a lot of effort building these cars that now you have to find how are they going to transfer over to the rest of our races this year.”

DO YOU LOOK FOR SPEED IN THE SAME WAYS THAT YOU WOULD WITH THE PREVIOUS PACKAGE?

“Oh yeah. The fundamentals of how you race is never going to change with any type of rules package. You want the least amount of drag possible and the most amount of downforce. However, you achieve that, that is going to make your cars fast. That is no secret. That is nothing to hide. No matter what splitter, spoiler, horsepower, you want your car to be as efficient as possible. That is something that we lacked a little last year is the efficiency on the race track and with the reduction of horsepower it’s going to be magnified even further. That is where the speedway racing style of mentality really comes into play and that is something we are going to definitely be focused on.”

WHAT IS YOUR FEELING ABOUT THE CARS FOR ATLANTA AND BEYOND WITH THE NEW PACKAGE?

“With that new package everything is just more. You have the ability to move the needle a little bit further, move the balance a little bit more with the bigger (radiator) pan, bigger splitter. The minor adjustments in pan angle, the minor adjustments in splitter and stuff like that have a bigger effect on the balance and you are able to maybe tune the car a little bit more, but you also have to remember the reduction of horsepower is something that you can’t really put into play until you get the pack out there and you get enough cars to overcome that drag. It’s kind of playing chess versus checkers. You’ve got to figure out what is going to be the best scenario for your car, for your competition and to get you for a lot of different… when the tires wear out what do you want? When the pack kind of stretches out, when you have green flag stops and you are able to maybe get the lead versus when you are drafting, it’s definitely a different game. It’s a different preparation that you have to do going each week, but fundamentally, racing is racing. You are always going to shoot for those things like I talked about.”

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE THINGS YOU HAVE FOUND WITHOUT GIVING AWAY ANY TRADE SECRETS?

“You kind of look back at some of the trends that the car had. It’s a very similar package to what we had in 2014. So, you are able to maybe go back and have a little bit of a playbook. There are some minor differences from 2014 to now with the mandated NACA cooling for the drivers that weren’t in play. Some of the things that you wind tunneled and found back then you can’t really transition to today just because of some of those differences. It’s not exactly the same, but downforce levels, those type of things you can kind of look at but then we had full horsepower engines. We didn’t have the tapered spacer on the car. We didn’t limit them to 550 horsepower, we didn’t have the drag ducts. So, those are the things that you have to learn the most about and how they are going to affect the racing, affect the drivers and how they feel in the draft. 

“Dale (Earnhardt, Jr.) was definitely one of those that you always looked to and he will be talking about it a lot I’m sure when he gets back on broadcasting, but on how the air moves and understanding where he needs to position the car. I remember when he and Chase were racing together and Dale would relay some information to have me relay to Chase to try to help him out and he does the same for me now with Alex. Like ‘hey he needs to be a little more aggressive here. He needs to position his car there.’ Alex does a great job of listening, understanding and the more he races the more he is going to understand that. I guess that is a long way of saying, we don’t know what is going to happen with the introduction of the lower horsepower and the drag ducts, but we do have some fundamental resources that we can look back four or five years ago.”

DO YOU THINK THERE IS A CHANCE THAT THE VISUAL REPRESENTATION OF WHAT THE RACING LOOKS LIKE COULD EVOLVE AND CHANGE THROUGHOUT THE SEASON?

“Yeah, definitely. You are going to see like anything new, you are going to see a contrast, a difference, you are going to see some people attack it differently. You are going to see cars with different ride heights and different skew attitudes. And you are going to be wondering, why are they doing that? And you will see them maybe qualify really fast and race differently when there is an impound situation. You might see the qualify one way and when they get to Saturday morning practice be a totally different ride height and skew attitude. So, you are going to see everybody try different things. You are going to have groups, companies, trying different things within the company and then you are going to have them trying things as a whole. You will be like ‘man that guy when they raced in February is not the same way they race in July.” You will see that change and it’s really going to kind of go from a broad more 30,000-foot view and you are going to see people kind of more pinpoint and get to the ground level. You will see that change throughout the first three, four, months or even week to week. California is going to race differently than Atlanta. Vegas is going to race differently than California, so you are going to just see that change throughout the year and I’m sure you guys as well as TV is definitely going to be honed in on that and understanding how people are evolving and where we are going to get our speed from.”

A LOT OF PEOPLE AT THE COMPANY SAID SOME OF THE MISTAKES AND PROBLEMS THAT MANIFESTED IN 2017 CARRIED OVER TO 2018 THAT CREATED THE CHALLENGES WE SAW LAST YEAR. HAVING A COMPLETELY BLANK SLATE FOR 2019 IS THAT KIND OF A BENEFIT?

“Yeah, you still have some of the things that you have to work through. We didn’t fully, if you are talking about Hendrick Motorsports as a whole, we didn’t fully work through all of our issues. Yeah, we got three wins, but we didn’t perform like the Hendrick Motorsports of old. You still have the efficiency issues to deal with to get the most out of the race car. So, we still have some of that to work through. Until we get in competition and until we get to where we need to be, we are not going to be able to just put our thumb on it and say ‘that was it.’ The clean slate is a little different. 

“You know, the Fords have a different nose and different body that they are going to have to endure and go through as well. You’ve got the drag ducts, them in itself can pose between the manufacturers can pose differences that were unintended. But, NASCAR along with the teams are trying to work through the fact that when you win a race it’s because your team executed the best. Not because one manufacturer has more downforce than the other or more horsepower than the other. It’s about executing that race, it’s about bringing a standard package and optimizing it the most. One team may optimize it better than the other and that is why you have success, but the goal is not to have I would say such a range in manufacturer performance. I feel like we can get some of that with the changes, but we also need to continue to work on some of the issues from 2017, 2018 and now.”

DOES IT ALMOST FEEL LIKE YOU ARE AHEAD OF THE GAME COMING INTO THIS YEAR?

“You are never ahead of the game. As soon as you think you are ahead of the game that is when you get complacent. I think it’s definitely the familiarity, the ability to understand one another is easier and further ahead of the game, but what we bring to the race track and how we perform on the race track is only something that you can have that is done there. Whenever you think you are ahead, like I said, when you get complacent, when you think ‘hey it’s going to be easy’ that is when you get bit the most. We are looking at it that we are going to have to… the ‘greats’ study when they don’t need too. The ‘greats’ look at video, the ‘greats’ make improvements and all that stuff when it’s not necessary for them to do so. So, that is what we are looking to do. Now that the Chili Bowl is behind us and now that a lot of things are quickly approaching, we are definitely honing in on some of that.”

WHO WOULD YOU SEE AS YOUR GREATEST OPPONENT FOR 2019?

“Well, obviously it’s easy to say the Toyota’s and the Ford’s right. They proved it over the course of the last few years. The Ford’s have a little unknown with the new body implementation, but you know there is also competition within our own company to keep pushing and keep making each other better. A lot of times we didn’t finish in a position not because of what other teams did it is because of what we did. So, ultimately it comes back to us being our own opponent in a way. Reducing the number of mistakes maybe on pit road, reducing the number of mistakes on restarts, on the race track, qualifying, all those things and that starts with Alex and I setting that example of trying to continue to work on those details. Ultimately, I think ourselves is the biggest opponent and the rest of them are the usual contenders that you look to try to overcome and beat.”  

Chad Knaus, crew chief, No. 24 Camaro ZL1:

… Jimmie is the same driver on the No. 48 car, he is the only element that he is the same other than myself all through all those years. It’s not like we were always working with the exact same team. We had different components, we had different people we had different elements that we dealt with. Yeah, it’s going to be interesting, it’s going to be different, but it’s really pretty fun. I’m excited about it, but I can’t say I’m any more excited or less excited than I have been with the No. 48. It’s just a different number and a different driver.”

THE NO. 24 TEAM IS ESTABLISHED IN A WAY THAT THE NO. 48 HAD NOT BEEN WHEN YOU GOT THIS JOB, BUT WITH THE AGE OF THE DRIVER AND HIS EXPERIENCE DO YOU LOOK AT IT THE SAME WAY AS YOU ARE STARTING FROM SCRATCH?

“Yeah, I do think so. We are working on those procedures and policies and communication and what the expectations are. We are going through all of that and frankly we are probably working on that more than we are the race cars right now just to make sure when we get to the race track, we don’t have any missed nuggets that we didn’t account for. It’s taking time for sure. It’s a different environment the way that we are expected to run is different… not just the way the No. 24 ran, but the way all of Hendrick Motorsports ran last year. So, you have to be cautious about how you approach it. You can’t just say, what you guys did on the No. 24 was unacceptable last year, because quite frankly, what the No. 48 did last year, was unacceptable and what the No. 88 did last year was unacceptable. The only one that performed was the No. 9 and it took until two thirds through the season for them to be able to get there. But, our goals are to have a team that goes, represents, competes and does what it is supposed to do from the word ‘go’.”

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE VEGAS TEST?

“We will be completely connected for sure. There will be two representatives from the No. 24 car going to help the No. 48. Testing is so limited. It is one thing I don’t like about our sport right now and I know we are all trying to save money and all that, but for everybody to pack up and go all the way out to Fontana, for everybody to pack up and go all the way out to Las Vegas I think is kind of foolish that we all could have just packed up and drove across the street to Charlotte Motor Speedway and everybody could have had a single day test session there to kind of work out this new package. But, none-the-less, we will be monitoring the No. 48 car a lot and paying attention to what is going on. It’s a critical test to try to establish what the wants and the needs are, but the thing is, when you go to a test like that everybody holds their cards pretty close to their chest. Nobody is going to know exactly what you’ve got 100 percent. So, it’s going to be interesting to see how we as a company and how Chevrolet in general stacks up under this new package with the new horsepower.”

HOW SOON WILL YOU KNOW?

“Yeah, you won’t know until we get out to the West Coast what everyone has.”

HOW MUCH OF THE OFF-SEASON WAS DIAGNOSING WHAT WENT WRONG IN 2018?

“From a company standpoint there is a lot of things we did and took on that was really monumental tasks that we really shouldn’t have tried to do all at one time. We combined all of our teams, combined all of our resources, really took all of the talent we had, put it into a big pile and said ‘okay this guy is going to handle our mechanical side, this guys is going to handle our fabrication side, we are going to use these procedures’, we are going to do all of these things and we are going to combine these buildings. So, we basically took over 220 some people and pit crews and said alright we are going to mix all you guys up and establish new procedures. That is a huge shift just in general. So now you stack on top of that we’ve got pit crew changes, changes with the roster so that the guys can go to the race track and then go ahead throw on top of that a new car we are trying to develop. I mean any one of those items is a huge task in itself and we decided to throw all three of them out there. That was horrible timing. I think with us getting our systems in place rolling into next year with a little bit stronger foundation we are going to be significantly better.”

DOES THE NEW RULES PACKAGE SUIT WILLIAM?

“I hope so. We don’t have a whole lot on it yet. I went to the one test that we had a Charlotte Motor Speedway to just observe with the No. 24 car. There were four cars there. It is really difficult to draw any type of conclusions off of four race cars on a 1.5-mile track. It’s not what we had at the All-Star race obviously, but based off of some of the conversations that I have had with William he thinks they are going to drive similar to what the trucks were and hell, he was pretty good in those trucks. So, if that is the case, I think we are going to be in pretty good shape.”

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE STATE OF THE HENDRICK CAMP RIGHT NOW?

“I think everybody is pretty excited. I think Kevin Meendering (crew chief, No. 48) has been a huge asset to the group he is a very intelligent guy. He has a long history here at Hendrick Motorsports. He is extremely intelligent so I think he has a lot to offer and I think we are seeing that already. I think people are really excited about Jimmie coming back and trying to get that eighth championship. Chase coming off of three wins last year was really strong so a lot of momentum with that group. Greg and Alex were really starting to find their way. They kind of waivered a little at the end of the season, but I think there was a time through the season until the last couple of races they were pretty strong. There is obviously a lot of excitement around the No. 24 car with what we’ve got going on.”

 

HOW DO YOU APPROACH THINGS WITH THE NO. 48 CAR? WILL YOU OFFER HELP TO KEVIN?

“I will offer anytime I’m asked. That is his deal now, so I can offer input, I can try to help as best I can, but I will do whatever I can to help them. I look at Jimmie as a brother to this day. I am going to do whatever I can to help them win this championship, same with Kevin, I know that they will do the same for us.”

HOW MUCH OF LAST YEAR DO YOU THINK WAS THE CAMARO AND TRYING TO GET YOUR ARMS AROUND IT?

“Like I had mentioned before we took an awful lot on at Hendrick Motorsports last year to try and advance the company. I can’t say that it was all the race car, I can say that I felt like it was a contributor, but I can’t say 100 percent on that.”

DO YOU THINK FORD THIS YEAR WILL HAVE ANY NEW CAR BLUES?

“We are just going to have to see. I don’t know. The potential is there. You see it often where OEM’s bring out a different car and they can waiver a little bit. I think they had a really strong foundation with the car that they had last year. The thing is it’s a completely different package so we are just going to have to wait and see.”

WILL IT BITTERSWEET TO SEE JIMMIE GET THE EIGHTH CHAMPIONSHIP WITHOUT YOU?

“Yeah, of course, obviously, I would have loved to have done that with Jimmie. That is going to be painful in one respect, but I will be proud as heck of the guy. That is a huge accomplishment. I really hope he does get it. I really do. I say that saying I hope he gets it if we don’t right. My goal is for us to be battling in the Final Four at Homestead this year and racing tooth and nail for it coming across the start/finish line on fire upside down all that stuff just like you want to see it that is the goal.”

YOUR GOAL IS TO GET IT BEFORE HE DOES?

“No, no, no, do not turn any of this into me and him. I hate it when people do that. Look, everybody is like man are you going to get the first win or is Jimmie going to get the first win. Who cares? Who cares as long as we are both going out there, we are having a good time, we are racing and we are being successful. I’m not worried who gets the next one. I’m worried about remembering what it is we accomplished, what we did for 18 years, I think that is the most important element in this whole dynamic.”  

Kevin Meendering, crew chief, No. 48 Camaro ZL1:

HAVE YOU TRIED TO DIAGNOSIS THE THINGS THAT WENT WRONG LAST YEAR AND WORK TO MAKE SURE THOSE SAME ISSUES DON’T COME UP AGAIN?

“I mean definitely you are always looking at how you can improve, but a lot of it is moving forward. Like I said, the new rules package has changed everything. It changes how you look at your aerodynamics, how you build your cars, everything. I think it’s kind of, I don’t want to say a fresh start, but you have to look at things in a completely different way anyway. So, I think it’s kind of a good time for me to come in because everything is changing anyways, so you can’t really look back at your history a lot anyway, so we are moving forward.”

HAVE YOU AND JIMMIE BEEN ABLE TO SET ANY REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS YET?

“To win the Daytona 500. That is the first expectation. No, I mean I think we have very high standards. We expect to hit the ground running, lead laps at Daytona, move on to Atlanta, win Atlanta, that is our goal. That is why we are here.”

 

WHAT KIND OF PRESSURE IS IT TO STEP INTO THIS TEAM THAT HAS SO MUCH HISTORY?

“There is definitely pressure there, obviously, when you are at this level competing. It’s what I live for. I’ve always enjoyed that side of it. It definitely helps having all the resources we have here at Hendrick Motorsports. All the smart people that have your back, give you ideas, so you don’t feel like you are going into it alone. So, I think that has helped me a lot is just being able to pull from all the resources.”

HOW HAS THE COLLABORATION BEEN WITH YOU AND THE TEAM?

“No, it’s been great. Chad (Knaus) and I have always had a great relationship the whole time I was here before I went to JR Motorsports. Really all the teams I think are working well together. That has probably been the biggest change since I was here before is just how well having all the teams together in the same building and all the engineers working together. Crew chief offices right beside each other, I would say that is probably the biggest difference I’ve seen in the company.”

HOW HAS THAT MANIFESTED ITSELF AS FAR AS RESULTS?

“I think last year was a big learning curve for everybody. I mean it was a big change moving the teams together. Obviously, with the new body style last year and bringing that change on with how the shops are managed and stuff I think it was a big curve ball for everybody, but I think towards the end of the year we saw some success with Chase and I think we just keep growing on that and carry that into 2019.”

WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE FOR YOU TO COME BACK TO HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS?

“It’s a tremendous opportunity that I’m excited for. There are a lot of familiar faces here that I have worked with over the last 16, 17 years. I’m excited. This is what I’ve always dreamed to do.”

YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO COME BACK?

“Yeah, I’ve never worked anywhere else but within the Hendrick organization. I spent three years at JR Motorsports, but I still felt like I was part of the family. Just kind of waited for my opportunity to come back.”

WITH THE LAS VEGAS TEST COMING UP, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE UNKNOWNS THAT YOU ARE LOOKING TO LEARN MORE ABOUT DURING THAT TEST?

“I think the biggest thing is how the cars react in the pack around other cars. I think that is the biggest unknown. How this style of racing is going to carry out. I think there is going to be a big compromise in how you build the car, how much speed you put in the car versus drive ability. That is a big unknown. I think last year it was all about handling and this year you are going to have to… I think it’s going to be a lot track dependent. You are going to have to have several different packages and I think that is what we need to learn next week.”

WHAT IS IT THAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT JIMMIE THAT YOU HAVE LEARNED DURING THE OFF SEASON?

“I think it’s just his fire and determination. I think he wants to win at everything he does. That is just how he is and after working with him you just see that day in and day out.”

DO YOU THINK JIMMIE’S FIRE IS MORE NOW THAN EVER?

“Oh, absolutely. I think he has been rejuvenated. After the struggles he had last year I think he wants to win. That is his mentality. He is going to do whatever it takes. He is going to push himself past the limit. We will be back in Victory Lane this year.”

HOW DIFFERENT IS THE TAPERED SPACER GOING TO BE? WILL THE FANS EVEN NOTICE IT?

“I think the cars being packed together on the intermediate tracks is the goal of the tapered spacer. I think it is definitely moving in the right direction. I think the idea is to make it more competitive for the fans and have those drivers battling side-by-side and bringing that intensity back to the sport.”

IT SEEMS LIKE A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT HOW MUCH PRESSURE YOU HAVE ON YOU. BUT YOU DON’T SEEM PHASED WORKING WITH THIS TEAM. IS IT THIS IS JUST THE JOB AND YOU ARE READY FOR IT?

“No, absolutely, I feel like I’m ready. I feel like the more prepared you are, the more work you put in the less pressure there is because you are ready for those situations. Like I have said several times, I think having all the resources here and surrounding yourself with good people definitely helps you make those touch decisions and take some of that pressure away.”

WHAT IS THE MAIN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN JIMMIE JOHNSON AND ELLIOTT SADLER?

“(Laughs) Where do we start? No, I would say they are both great guys. They both have that intensity and that fire to want to win races. There are probably more similarities than differences to be honest with you. They both want to win bad and they will do whatever it takes to do that.”  

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