NASCAR Media Conference
September 5, 2007
HERB BRANHAM: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. This week's NASCAR teleconference is in advance of Saturday night's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Richmond International Speedway. The Chevy Rock & Roll 400.
That's the tenth and final event in the Race to the Chase. Top 12 drivers in the standings, after Saturday night, qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. The Chase consists of the final ten races of the year, and determines the series champion.
We have two very, very special guests with us today to give us what amounts to a competition update leading into Richmond and the Chase. We're joined by Robin Pemberton, NASCAR Vice President of Competition, and John Darby, the Director of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
Guys, thanks for joining us on the call today. Maybe we can start off with a brief opener from each of you on just what kind of competition we expect to see this weekend and throughout the Chase, especially with the involvement of the Car of Tomorrow.
Robin, why don't you step to the plate first, then we'll hear from John, and we'll go to the media questions.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, I think the competition's going to be great. Going into Richmond, now that we're on the second go around with the Car of Tomorrow, we've seen a differentâ -- we've seen a broader group of teams that have picked up the pace with the car.
I think going into Richmond, as durable as the car has been and as aggressive as the drivers can get with it, I think you're going to see one of the better races of the year.
So we've had great races all year long, but there's a lot of pressure on a lot of guys to perform. I think the bonuses that are awarded for the winner of the event is going to put extra pressure on everybody. So it's going to be a good race.
HERB BRANHAM: John?
JOHN DARBY: Well, you know, if I look at years past and I just think back and this time period, or the last few weeks leading up to the Chase a couple years ago was kind of a ho-hum deal in some aspects. The guys that they knew they were locked in and satisfied with where they were, just kind of settled back into a maintenance mode. With the changes in the race this year, that's been very apparent that that's not the case. Even though the leaders of the pack, if you will, are still doing everything they can do to win races to get that ten-point edge on the competitor that may be behind them.
So as exciting as the first 20 weeks, 26 weeks has been, compared to a couple of our recent past years, what's in store for these final ten could be really something to watch.
HERB BRANHAM: Absolutely. We'll be ready to go to questions now from the media for Robin Pemberton and John Darby.
Q. This is for both Robin and John to answer. The Car of Tomorrow, could you talk a little bit about what you've learned this year using the Car of Tomorrow in these races and how you plan to implement or move into next year with this car?
JOHN DARBY: I think it's not as much as what we've learned, as it is of confirming. We've spent, obviously, a multiple of years developing and testing the new car and for all of the right reasons. And what we're doing now is confirming a lot of those.
The car is a very safe car as we know it. But more importantly, if there were some questions to be answered in regards to your question as, Well, how is this thing going to do on the racetrack? And what I've watched with my own eyes, anyway is I would say it's becoming widely accepted very quickly just because of the competition benefits we've seen from it.
The one that sticks out in my mind the most very recently was Watkins Glen, and the exit of the interloop with a car in the grass on each side of the racetrack and one in the middle and all three drivers coming out of the corner and still under control.
And those are the kind of things that I think the old car may have been a little bit too fragile to withstand.
And as we go forward, the drivers are understanding that the new car is a little more robust which allows them to approach the competition of the race, I guess, a little bit differently. They can, in fact, race a little harder, if you will. Even some of the safety equipment on the car they have put into competitive use, specifically at Darlington, where all of the impact foam on the right side of the car saved a whole lot of race cars as they got a little close to that Darlington stripe that's been popular forever.
So there's a lot of neat things coming out of the car. I think everybody, the majority of the garage even, among all of us at NASCAR are really looking forward to next year.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: I really don't have anything to add. John said it all.
Q. I was listening to some of the things that have been observed about the Car of Tomorrow. My question is how big of a test on this car is it going to be in October when this is part of the Chase out of Talladega for Super Speedway?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well, I think it's going to be a big test. When you look at Talladega historically, they have had some of the most exciting races and tightest competition. That racetrack is one of the widest tracks we go to. It is the biggest track we go to. So the races there have historically been great.
We've got the benefit of we'll be there next week for a two-day test, fine tuning the plate size and things of that nature.
So this car will allow us to open up the restriction a little bit on the engine. They'll make a considerable amount of horsepower more than what they have raced at Talladega and Daytona in the past. Potentially giving the drivers an opportunity to use there and horsepower for different types of paths that we may not have seen in the last ten or 12 years. I think the car pokes a little bit bigger hole in the air, so the slingshot may come into effect.
But as far as the engine and throttle response goes, I think you're going to see, you know, if it's possible to be a better race at Talladega, it's there for us.
JOHN DARBY: In the Talladega race from the competitors is a whole new approach. You know, they forever, we've had a restrictor plate car and a short track and intermediate car. And although I would never walk down the path of being as naive as saying there won't be any differences, the cars will be much, much closer. The differences between the Martinsville car and Talladega car will probably be small enough that only a specialist in the field will be able to tell them apart.
And with the new tools the teams have to work with the splitters and the wings and the different aero devices they have with the ability to use, the teams will be able to not only tune their cars closer, but they'll have also in effect, on drafting specifically, it will be a whole different world.
Q. My question has to do with cars that are wrecked by not totaled out. I'm assuming you all reinspect these cars before they go back out on the racetrack to make sure they fit the C.O.T. dimensions. Are you seeing what people can make minor repairs to these cars? Or does it take a substantial amount of work once the car has been damaged in an accident?
JOHN DARBY: Well, I understand what you're asking, Rick, but the minor repair or what defines a minor repair may have changed somewhat with the new car.
Obviously, the specifications are held to very, very tight tolerances, which, depending on the amount of damage, can be difficult to repeat.
In most cases a lot of what we hear from the teams today is the new cars are so easy to build from the git-go in the amount of time and effort that it took compared to the old car, that they're finding that in a lot of cases with, let's not say minor damage, but moderate damage, it's quicker and faster and more economical for them to just build a new car than to even mess with fixing the old one.
Q. I've just joined the call, so if you've already answered this, I apologize and I'll cue up again. A lot of fans have been calling and talking about the response to Michael Waltrip in the car, in fire and the man who was standing there with the extinguisher seemingly moving slowly. Can you guys respond to that? I know the roof hatch is probably not as important with the Car of Tomorrow. But lot of people asking about that, and the response there. Can you guys talk about that or have you already discussed it?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Yeah, I can talk about it. You know, the roof hatch is something that is an option that any team can install and use on any one of their cars. And you know, Michael Waltrip was one of the first to use and utilize that in his cars when he drove for DEI.
The situation when Michael wasâ - his car was resting and the safety crew was around him, at that time, you know, Michael when the net was down, Michael was all in control. And I believe the conversation was just let him slowly unhook his stuff and get out. Because Michael's so big with the old style car, if youâ -- you can't help him, you can only hinder him in getting out.
So the safety worker was not moving slowly, he was moving slowly under direction that, you know, Michael said give me some time and I'll just undo myself and get out.
So it probably wasn't related to the fans, you know. They didn't really know the details going into that part of it. But Michael was just working at his own pace of getting out of the car.
Q. And with the progress you've made so far on safety, and you've made a lot as evidenced by the hard hits to Ricky Rudd this weekend, and that he wasn't more seriously injured and also Brad Kozlowski who walked away uninjured. Is fire still the biggest concern safety-wise on the front of safety?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: You know, fire is always a big concern. And that's why moving forward, you know, we've got the new fuel cell bladders that will be mandated across the board for all of our three national series next year. And it's the bladder that's used in the Cup series this year.
So a lot of the fire that you saw over the weekend, whether it be Michael's or Brad Kozlowski's was not necessarily the fuel cell. There was an oil fire on Michael's, and I believe it was fluid out of the transmission case that got under the headers when Brad hit the wall.
So fire is always a major concern. You're quite helpless stuck in a fire. And you know, we'll continue to work on those things. But it was not really fuel related, best we can tell.
JOHN DARBY: Along with that, the control of the fire is what is very important. I mean, fire is always scary. And there are times when a fire can look much more spectacular than what it ever is.
We have a lot of pretty stringent rules on firewalls and floorboard materials and the likes to try to help control the fire.
And if you watched the fire of Michael's very closely from Sunday night, although there were flames wicking all over the exterior and the bottom side of the car, the driver's cabin was very clean from flame, except for one small area where the flames crept up through the shifter boot. And I think that's what gave Michael the ability to keep his composure and stay under control, and ultimately asking the rescue workers to step back to allow him the time and the room to get out of the car.
Q. This question is for both Robin and John. Your jobs are all about making tough decisions. What, in the past, has prepared you most for that do you think?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: That's a loaded question. You know, I think that, you know, we come from similar backgrounds, John and I do. But I've been in the garage area since the late '70s as a mechanic and a crew chief for 15, 16, 17 years, something like that. I think those things have trained myself to make hard decisions, but to make calculated decisions. And when you make a decision, you've got to stand by it.
You know, so it's my history in the garage area has helped me in that.
JOHN DARBY: I think key to that also, I think, is taking the time to understand what you're making a decision about. And it's very easy to get caught up in the unfortunate circumstances of one individual. But what you have to force yourself to do is to step back, away from that and review the whole situation that you're about to make a decision in again and apply it to how it affects all 43 competitors on race day, or all 50 entrants that ultimately enter an event. And when you look at problems in that type of a light, it's very helpful in directing you the proper and correct way.
Q. Gentlemen, we heard the Joe Gibbs announcement this morning about Toyota going over there in 2008. What does that mean for NASCAR? And what do you think that means for Toyota next year?
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Well from our standpoint, I'll give you my take on it. It's nice to see that we're spreading the teams out a little bit. I think Chevrolet has had quite a large number of teams over the years that have been successful. So will this will probably help to even out some of the disparity of manufacturers with numbers of cars and things of that nature.
Now for Toyota, I think it is a good opportunity for them to capitalize on the resources that Joe Gibbs has established over the years in his operation.
They have a number of championships under their belt, and I think it was probably only a matter of time before Toyota was able to obtain the services of one of the best teams out there in Joe Gibbs Racing.
So I think it's good for the entire sport to see this type of situation come up.
JOHN DARBY: You can look at a little bit of history to understand that. I think the biggest thing for Toyota is if anybody thought that they were entering our sport just to say they were, the fact that they were able to obtain a championship quality team to help support them in their efforts validates their real reason for being in NASCAR racing. As we look across at manufacture parody, it can only be a plus.
If you look back into history, Joe Gibbs Racing, it is not the first time that they've been in this situation. They have won a championship or two in a Pontiac and moved to Chevrolet.
If you go back even further into history when Dodge came into our sport and Roger Penske's organization made the switch from Fords to Dodges.
It's not that unusual. But the biggest part of the importance is it will help balance out the garage to provide a parity a little bit better across manufacturers.
Q. I wanted to ask about the new points system the way it is now. Has the new points system created a kind of interest at the end of the season that maybe you guys were looking for? And considering the fact that there are four drivers who have, are trying to fend off essentially one driver, Junior, what has this done for the series? Has it changed it in any way at all?
JOHN DARBY: I think if you listen to post-race interviews of the last six weeks, and you really compare what's happened in those six weeks compared to a year ago or two years ago, there is no doubt that the new point structure, especially the seeding for the Chase has had a huge impact.
When a four-time champion like Jeff Gordon after a full day of racing and even the disparity of spinning out on the last lap to lose the race, gets out of his race car and says this thing ain't about points anymore. It's about winning races. I've got to have the wins to get to where I want to be.
The fact that Jimmie Johnson worked so hard Sunday night to get that one extra win to now seed him in front of his teammate, Jeff Gordon, those are the kind of things that show us that the competition or the value of winning races today is at a higher premium than it's ever been.
HERB BRANHAM: Robin Pemberton and John Darby, thanks a lot for joining us leading into this race at Richmond International Raceway. We truly appreciate it.
ROBIN PEMBERTON: Thank you
JOHN DARBY: Thank you.
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