May 24, 2011
An Interview With: Jimmie Johnson
ASHLEY JONES: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to today’s NASCAR Cam video teleconference in advance of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Our guest today is Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Jimmie is the five-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and currently sits second in the point standings.
In 19 starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmie has won six times, which is tied for most all-time with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and Hall of Fame nominee Daryl Waltrip. Jimmie has also won the Coca-Cola 600 three times. As we look ahead to the longest race of the season, what’s the key to returning to victory lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The key is just really staying on the road all night long. It’s a very long race as we all know with being 600 miles, and you just can’t get caught up in things that happen too early. You can have trouble and there’s plenty of time to recover. The track changes a lot. The night is just ever-changing I guess to make a long story short, and if you keep your head in the game and you stick around for the 600 miles, you’re going to have a good finish. Being smart all night long is going to be the key.
Q. I haven’t heard you talk — maybe I’ve missed it, your thoughts on this Forbes award, the most influential athlete. How does that compare to the AP Athlete of the Year, and just what’s this mean to you and how do you live up to it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It means a lot to me. I mean, both awards were amazing to receive, and when you think about the people that we were up against from all forms of sports, it’s huge for me and my career, it’s huge for this race team, and I think it’s really big for our sport, as well. Very proud of those awards and happy to know that the world is paying attention, and sports fans and writers, editors, media in general throughout sports, everyone is paying attention to what’s going on over in NASCAR.
Q. How do you view your influence? What makes you influential?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think the way I carry myself and handle situations, there’s got to be something tied to all of that. I don’t say much often in what I do. It’s usually — I’m not flying off the handle and saying crazy things. I think that has a lot to do with it.
Q. When it comes to the Coca-Cola 600, I’ve heard a lot of drivers talk about how this could feel like two different tracks at a given time. Does that ever feel like that to you? I’ve seen drivers have a decent car during the day and a bad car at night, but does the reverse happen? Does a car ever get better?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, it does. I mean, in the old days you would always get tighter as the sun would set and the track would pick up grip, and anymore with the new car and new surfaces and there’s a lot going on, it’s kind of tough to know which way is going to go. It does happen more often than not where you start strong and then you end up suffering, and some of that has to do with the fact of when we practice. We don’t get any night practice. The only night practice we got were the guys that competed in the all-star event. So it’s a big plus to have that on your side being in that event.
But we’re all working off of past notes and history and trying to guess where we think the track will go, how loose we start to cars so that when you go into night the car turns and you have enough adjustments to work on it, but then as I started this response to you, sometimes the tracks free up, and we’ve seen this track free up, so if you start your car loose to hang on during the day, you go to the night and the track frees up, now you’re in big trouble. So it’s a bit of a guessing game right now.
Q. Back when you were winning so many races at Charlotte Motor Speedway did you go there race after race after race literally feeling invincible, and did all of that change when they repaved the track?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, when they repaved it, it changed things a lot. I think around that point in time the new generation tire was coming out, then we certainly ended up with a new car, and that really kind of eliminates the advantage that we had in the past.
But this track was just one of those tracks where we knew what to do. We knew how balanced the car needed to be when the sun was out. We had adjustability built into the car at every stop. If I wanted it or not, we had a proven track, proven road to go down that we made these adjustments and we could stay competitive, and then when it came time to race for the win at the end, we had the car we needed to and won a lot of races that way.
Q. Just wondering, five championships in a row, more and more you’re a go-to guy for the media to get your response on issues and so forth. How comfortable have you grown to be in that role?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I’m comfortable with that. I mean, I feel like ten years in the sport and the championships that have come along with it, I’m more comfortable in expressing myself and being a part of the mix. For a lot of years when I first got started, I didn’t feel like I’d earned a right to really have an opinion, and race wins and championships have helped me kind of relax in that space, and when asked I will certainly give me opinion.
Q. New Hampshire is going to continue to have a race in the Chase but it’s not going to be the first race, which of course is moving to Chicagoland. But I wanted to find out from you if you think the race at New Hampshire, the second race, loses any of its significance or importance because it’s no longer No. 1 in the Chase?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: From a point structure standpoint, whatever tracks are in the Chase, they all have the same point value, and it is what it is. I’m sure from a marketing standpoint, New Hampshire is wishing that they were that first race to the Chase. They did a good job of promoting it and leading into it, and there’s a lot of mentions for whatever that venue is. I’m sure they’re missing a little there.
But for the competitor, it doesn’t change our mindset. It’s still one of the tracks that we need to be good at in those final ten races, and it’s kind of business as usual.
Q. And just to follow up with one question, kind of switching gears, what’s the thing that you like to do the most outside of the track to just sort of relax and kick back?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, our world changed about ten months ago when our daughter was born, so any free time I have I just want to be at home and spend time with my family.
Q. I have a question about nutrition and hydration. What do you do typically during a race, during and before? How is it different for the 600 and how has that changed over the years?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s really the same thing. I mean, I have a system days in advance of making sure that I’m properly hydrated. Training is year-round. Nutrition is pretty much near-round. We all make mistakes and all have our little cheat foods that we’re after. But from a fitness and nutrition standpoint, that’s a constant. I do find that during the race I’ll eat a little more and I’ll need some calories. I usually drink some type of shake just for the energy and proteins and carbohydrates to get me through, and I’ll have usually another shake during the 600, or actually some food. You’re in the car so long and burning so many calories that you get pretty hungry in there. I add to that the normal Gatorade consumption that I have in the car with our Gibbs system.
Q. What do you eat?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: From sandwiches — something that’s easy to go down. I’ve worked through a variety of things that didn’t work, and I thought a Power Bar or some type of bar would be good. You put it inside of a car, it’s 120 degrees, that thing melts and it’s on your gloves and a mess. Sometimes a sandwich works, but I’ve tried it all. The shakes really seem to work the best because you just want something cold and easy to get down, and a good protein shake is real easy to get down.
Q. I was just curious if you were still frustrated over last Saturday night, and does that — do you tend to work better when you’re frustrated, or do you have to put that frustration out of your head?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, you’ve got to shake it off and go. I mean, if you harp on those things long enough, you can tear a team apart or really affect the ability to work together during the week preparing for the next race.
We’ve always had a thing that come Monday, we’ve got to move on, and that’s still part of the 48’s system. Good or bad, you move on and you start working on the next race. We look back on the laps we made at the all-star event and how competitive we were and feel good about what we’re taking to the 600. I just finished out a meeting this morning, and I know some small changes that we’re going to make and I feel really confident about our car and where we are with our mile-and-a-half program.
Part of my frustration the other night was I felt like we had a shot at that million bucks and we made so much progress on the big tracks, and it didn’t come together. It’s just part of racing. There’s usually 42 unhappy drivers and one happy guy, and I was in that 42 this last weekend.
Q. Do you feel like it was pretty much the choice to pit? And also, did you ever figure out what happened on the pit stop? Did you hit the 24 guy or not?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, I definitely clipped their tire carrier, came into the pits and — still haven’t seen the video on it, but either way, their tire carrier came around the front of the 24 and hit the tires he was carrying. I made impact with it with my A-post on the left side, on the driver’s side. I heard that Jeff was maybe a little deep in his pit box, may have cut the corner a little too much. Either way a risky situation, and I feel terrible.
I’ve called the tire carrier himself. I was in the gym this morning working out with him here at Hendrick joking around about everything that went on, and I feel so bad because in 14 years that I have driven a stock car that’s the first guy I’ve ever hit on pit road. Luckily he wasn’t injured and he still continued on with the stop, but it did hurt the 24’s kind of finish there a little bit, so I kind of felt bad about that.
Q. I want to just talk about comfort in the car for this race. How do you stay comfortable in your seat when you’re in the car that long?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Truthfully, I mean, the thing is molded to you, so we spend a lot of time — at least coming into the Cup level, now the seats are pretty much — they’re easy to repeat once you kind of get your mold done and the seat angles that you want. Some guys like to be really reclined, leaning to the left, whatever it may be. Once you get that stuff under control, you’re good, and it really boils down to uncomfortable races you climb out, you think, man, my back hurts or my neck, whatever it is, and you just work on it.
Those driver’s seats are about as comfortable as they can get. If I could get one in my living room, I’d never get out of it.
Q. What’s the longest time you’ve ever spent in a race car, and I kind of want to take the off-road stuff out because I think you’ve got a little wiggle room there, but in a stock car?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: For me I think it was the — I can’t remember which year now, but it was the Coke 600. We had an issue with tires, some red flags, and I think the event was five and a half hours, something like that, in length, and we won. That was the longest race in a stock car for me.
Q. So you don’t like to see them that long, though, right? That’s a little too long?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It is what it is. From a fan standpoint I’m sure that they didn’t enjoy it, but for me and this team, I mean, the longer the race, the more opportunities we have to get our stuff together. If you look at our stats, we’re always strong in the longer races and make good adjustments throughout the course of a race. It works in our favor, and from a fitness standpoint and a nutrition standpoint, it kind of gets you into that zone where the guys that are putting in the time get the reward.
I don’t mind long races from a competitive standpoint. I’m just not sure it’s what our fan base wants to see.
Q. We’ve heard you talk a lot about the physical nature of the Coca-Cola 600. Can you talk a little bit about the mental aspect of it? What’s your mentality like going that extra distance, and is it a little bit tougher to keep your focus for the entire race being it’s that long?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, when you’re in the car it’s pretty easy to keep your focus. There’s so much going on that the laps and the times that you spend in the car go by pretty fast.
It is weird how drivers — we’re so used to 400- to 500-mile races that there’s like a mental time clock that’s ticking along, and then the 600 every year, I feel like we’re getting to the end of it and I’m either reminded or I ask, how much longer, and I hear the distance, and I’m like, oh, man, that’s right. This is the 600. So there’s more of a mental clock that you have to get used to. I’d say probably my early years getting adapted from the 300-mile Nationwide races up to the Cup races, there was a bit there from a mental and physical standpoint that I had to get better at.
But now that I’ve done it this many years, it’s just something that you realize and think that — is it important right now to take that much risk, maybe at the start of the race or the midway point of the race and you have to remind yourself that there’s an extra 100 miles here to get your stuff right.
Q. I have two questions. It seems like two-tire stops seem to be running the races lately. How predominant do you envision this will be throughout the Sprint Cup season and are there more tracks that are more lending to that than others?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, tracks and tire wear in Atlanta is probably the best example. Two tires just will not work there. It’s not going to happen. Tracks like Charlotte are probably no tires, two tires, you’ll see a lot of that. Two only is probably a smart call from time to time because the track is in such good shape and such a good paving job has been done, it doesn’t wear the tire out. So it really boils down to tire wear. Some tracks have high tire wear; you’ll need four. The lower tear wear tracks you’ll take two or none, and we’ll see a lot of two-tire stops this coming weekend.
Q. Second question, I’m doing an article, a series of articles, about pit stops. With the changes that NASCAR has made this year, I know you have backup pit crew and all, but how much more difficult is it making a safe pit stop, disregarding what happened the last race, for all the teams? How much adjustment, even though you have a backup pit crew, have you had to make in your pit stops because of that change?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, we’re always trying to put the best talent over the wall week in and week out. I don’t think that safety has been on pit road — they’ve made some small adjustments over the years, but for all intents and purposes it’s been kind of the same and safe. With the pit road speed, which was well before my time that was instituted, that took a huge step into a safer environment on pit road for those guys. Now that we can’t break the plane of the car, of the bumper of the car in front of us, that’s how Jeff Gordon and Michael Waltrip got tangled up and took out my crew guys at New Hampshire a long time ago.
So there’s small adjustments there that take place, but the one thing that we can’t control from a sanctioning body’s standpoint or a driver’s standpoint and where danger still does lie is in the size of the pit boxes. The larger the pit box, the more room, the safer it is. The tighter the pit box, the more congested. The cars only have such a tight turning radius, so getting in and out of pit boxes, that’s where danger lies. And tracks like Martinsville, Dover come to the top of mind. Some of the more forgiving ones would be like California, Michigan. They’re very, very big pit stall spaces.
Q. I wanted to go back to how the track changes during the course of a race. Can you describe how you know whether — what you feel in the car that gives you an indication that there’s loosening or tightening, and at what point in the race should fans start to expect that to happen?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, truthfully the handling issues we’re very aware of because that’s our gauge every lap, every corner in the performance of the car. You try to strategize from the last practice session to the start of the race where you want to start the car, and then you get on the track and you find out if you’ve got it right. If you’re aiming for the car to be on the loose side and you go take off and the car is really tight, then you know you didn’t make the right adjustments and you start working on a plan from there.
If all things are right, you just kind of judge it by the run. If you’re competitive and the car is driving as you had hoped, then you kind of leave it alone. But if guys are running you down or the handling is falling off or the front end or the rear of the race car, as a driver I start explaining those sensations. Chad can see on the stopwatch and we start judging how big of a change we need to make based on how fast people are catching us. So it’s just really the way it kind of unfolds.
Q. How would you rate your appreciation of NASCAR history, and what was your impression of last night’s induction of the 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame class?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I thought it was great. You know, my position with history in general is growing more as I get older, not only for our sport but just generally speaking. With the success I’ve had in this sport, very fortunate to be high on the win list and championship list and things like that, it’s becoming much more of a point of interest for me.
You know, what’s gone on, who these guys are, what has happened, I have so much respect for what they did in their day and the way they built the sport to what it is now, and I certainly have a responsibility along with the other guys in this era to promote the sport and handle it in the right way and continue it on and hand it to the next generation. I enjoy hearing the stories, I enjoy meeting these personalities. Seeing those faces that were inducted last night were all — they’re in the garage area from time to time and you hear the stories and talk to them. It’s cool to see them get their day and be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Proud of all of them, all ten that are in, or really anyone that has a chance to be in that hall; they’ve earned the right to be there.
Q. Of last night’s five inductees, is there any one of them that has had a particular impact on you or is maybe more of a favorite of yours than any of the others?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, for me when I was growing up, my dad and I spent a lot of time watching racing together and traveling to races, watching on television, and I sat on the couch with my dad and watched the Daytona 500 where Bobby and Davey ran 1 and 2. That moment I still remember very well as a kid and how cool that was, and looking at my dad, thinking, how awesome would that be right now if you were racing your dad for this win, one of the biggest races in NASCAR, period.
That was cool for me to see. And then I watched some of the biographies that took place on Speed and really brought back the pain and different things the family had been through, Bobby and Judy. Happy to see Bobby get that moment, and for a lot of reasons, it was real special for me to watch Bobby’s induction.
Q. The Pettys are in the midst of bringing a Victory Junction to Kansas. I just want to know about your involvement there with the camp there in North Carolina and how rewarding that’s been and do you expect to see some of the drivers help out here in Kansas?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I would think so. I mean, you have to give a lot of credit to Kyle and Patty for encouraging Chandra and I to go off and start the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, and once we’re up and running one of our focuses was children — still is today, but we wanted to help out and do our part at camp with the bowling alley, and it’s been an amazing thing for us to — we had as our opening campaign, if you will, and to see the happiness it’s brought to the campers and the addition it’s made to camp, we are so proud of it and know that it’s very useful for them, for the camp.
I would assume other drivers are going to be on board with the Kansas project. The neat thing that Kyle has done, I mean, he is well known on all genres, so there’s a lot of help from the music industry, from auto racing and on and on. They’re doing an amazing job, and I would expect that camp to be a home run just as the one they built here in North Carolina is.
Q. Why a bowling alley? How did you set on that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It really boiled down to the need that they had at camp. We were raising the funds, we had money, we wanted to do something, and we really asked the camp what are you guys missing. They had some amazing things there already, and what would fit into the property, what would be useful for the kids, and then we built the specialized bowling alley that — there’s ramps and different things to help out kids that can’t stand there and toss a ball down the lane. We put a lot of work into it and found an area, created a space that would work for all the campers.
Q. Some younger drivers are having a hard time getting into Cup rides right now often because of the economic factors. Has the situation changed a lot since you moved up, and where do you expect it will be in the future?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s always going to be a tough thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s NASCAR, open wheel, all forms of motor sports. It’s expensive to race, and it’s tough to get noticed, and I think that dynamic has been there from day one. You know, in some respects I think today might be a little easier to find a ride in the NASCAR divisions because there are these development programs, and I know that they’ve taken a little bit of a backseat here with the financial crunch that’s gone on. But in my era there wasn’t the Roush Gong Show and Ganassi wasn’t looking for guys, on and on. Those opportunities weren’t there. You didn’t have Richard Childress branching out and looking for dirt track drivers such as Clint Bowyer to put in a seat.
It’s tough. No matter — regardless of the era, it is just tough to get noticed, and then to have the funds to help back that up. And in today’s world, you know, it’s just tough. I know I keep repeating myself here, but I keep thinking through different scenarios, and I’ve worked as hard as I could to be recognized and to network through all forms of motor sports and it played out. I’m not saying you have to bring money to the table to make it happen, but you’ve got to be out there and in front of everyone.
Q. And additionally, some new fans might not understand what NASCAR drivers do more than just race in a car four or five hours every week at a track. Could you explain a little bit about the time that you have to do, the duties that you have outside of being on the track?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, it’s a team sport, so there’s aspects within the team that you need to be around for and a part of, team building and interaction. There’s also the development side of the race cars and meetings and reports that we have to fill out post-race, post-qualifying for that matter, post-practice session, watching some tape, getting ready for races in advance. And then the media obligations that go with it, as well. And at the Cup level, there are a fair amount of obligations that fall into that.
It’s busy. I mean, it is a job. Granted, on the weekends we get to go hop in these race cars and run around and it doesn’t really feel like work, but it’s a job like anything else.
Q. I wanted to ask you about the moving target of strategies lately. Obviously we had Chad make a couple of bad calls in recent weeks. How do you guys adjust for that, and is it different this year than in past years?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, you know, the different thing was kind of unexpected. I think between the 33 and the 99 and the 48, we had the field covered. Guys — when you’re that good at times, the only way you’re going to beat cars that are that fast is by doing something different. And at Dover those guys played their cards right. The ones that stayed out, the ones that put two tires on, they played it right. We missed a little at the all-star race, but the way my car was driving through traffic and what was going on, I could see why he’s want to put four tires on it or tires on it in general to go.
So yeah, you have some calls come your way, you have calls work against you. If you look at our history, two-tire races not really in our wheelhouse. We’re better on tracks where four tires are the call and you have to work on your car per stop and you’re not just throwing a couple tires on and maintaining track position. So it’s an area that we need to improve on from my standpoint of driving the car with two tires on it, from the setup standpoint of planning for those things through the course of a weekend.
If you think about it, in practice, every time we come in and put tires on, we put four on. You set the car up to drive on four new tires. The car drives far different on two tires. So there’s something there in general with the setup and how I drive the car that we need to sort out a little better so that we’re more willing to make those two-tire calls.
And then of course the track that you go to, some tracks, Atlanta, like I was saying earlier, two tires aren’t going to work there. Charlotte this weekend, you’ll see it. So we need to prepare for that a little better.
Q. And I hear you were part of a golf tournament. How is your golf game?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Golf game is not bad. Mr. Hendrick had his golf tournament yesterday. I played in that along with a bunch of other folks from our sport, including Daryl Waltrip and Boris Said, Brian Vickers. There was a good crowd out there. The Charlotte community came out and supported Rick’s event, and we had a good day.
ASHLEY JONES: Thank you, everybody, today for your participation.
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