NASCAR Media Conference
October 14, 2008
DENISE MALOOF: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today's NASCAR Cam Video Teleconference in advance of Sunday's event at Martinsville Speedway. It is the Tums QuikPak 500, race 6 in The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Today we're joined by the reigning and two-time defending champion of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet. Jimmie joins us from the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina.
Hi, Jimmie, how are you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Doing well.
DENISE MALOOF: He leads the series in points at this juncture of the chase of the NASCAR Sprint Cup. And he's 69 points ahead of Jeff Burton, 86 ahead of Greg Biffle. He's also trying to become only the second driver in history to win three consecutive series championships in NASCAR's premier series. Cale Yarborough did that in 1976, '77 and '78.
I know we've still got five weeks to go in this year's Chase, but have you thought, and I'm sure you have, about how much it would mean to tie Cale Yarborough's record?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's growing in my mind, certainly. We're halfway through, as you pointed out. We're sitting in a good position, but it's still too early to get excited about things. I still feel like I need to focus on winning races, leading laps and scoring as many points as possible here in the next couple of weeks.
And if we're in a position later in the season with a comfortable lead, I'm sure things will creep in then. But right now things continue to change each week. First we thought we had the 99 and 16 to worry about. The 99's had some problems. Now it's the 31 and the 16.
So it's changing every week. We need to make sure we're doing our job as a race team to not give up any points and try to have speed and keep this 48 car up front and ahead of the 31 and 16.
Q. Jimmie, just to follow up on the Cale questions, are more people asking you about it? And what does it mean to you to start reaching this comparison?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm starting to hear it more and more and hearing that question. I'm glad that I am. It means that I'm in the hunt, and I have a shot at doing this.
So I'm excited about what these final races hold for the team. If it does take place, it would be a very special thing. I've been able to accomplish a lot more in this sport than I ever thought I would. To find my name in the record books and hopefully have it in a situation -- to be in the company of Cale in such an elite situation would mean the world to me.
But as I pointed out, there is a lot of racing left. We're only halfway through this thing. We've watched guys lose a lot of points in the first five, and that means it could still go either way or anyway in these final five.
So I'm excited about the possibilities. I feel like I'm focusing on the right things. And the team has been doing a great job calling the race, preparing cars, pit stops. I feel like I'm doing a good job driving the car. We're hitting on all eight cylinders and looking good. So I'm excited about these next five.
Q. What do you know about Cale?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, when I was growing up in Southern California, NASCAR was so far away. I would catch a few of the big races during the season. One of the names I did know when I was a kid was Cale's. I was a fan of Cale's as a kid growing up. I just loved his stocky attitude and even in appearance. The guy just had muscles all over the place. He was someone that led his actions on track speak for themselves.
So I certainly was a Cale Yarborough fan as a kid growing up. Hopefully, I'll have a chance to join him in the company and win three championships in a row.
Q. I wanted to ask you, I was talking with Scott Speed the other day, he said you were among the first guys he approached in cup on to talk about racing and talk about things. He says you've been very open with him and he certainly appreciates that. Wanted to ask you what were some of the things that you were able to kind of help or advice you could give to him? And two, I'm sure a lot of people have perceptions of him and certainly his uniqueness maybe stands out more than his racing ability. For him to come up and talk to you, did that change or alter your perception of him to you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, when I first met Scott was at one of the F1 races that I attended. I think it might have been the U.S. Grand Prix, if not, it may have been the one in Spain that I went to. It was exciting to be in an F1 race, and it was exciting to see him on the grid. There was so much excitement around him being there. I was excited to see him. I didn't realize until the end that he had some ideas to go into NASCAR racing when it was all said and done.
We're all racers. We're all different, we're all different people. His uniqueness, you know, he's being himself. It may not appeal to everyone, but you've got to give the man credit for being himself and doing what he wants to do and what he considers being himself. At the end of the day, that's all you can ask from someone.
He's shown to be a great talent. Granted, he's been in ARCA and Truck, but he still steps into these vehicles with little experience and has done a great job. I think he was at the Charlotte test with the 82 car. Looks like we'll have a chance to see what he can do next year.
But, truthfully, I had a lot of people give me advice and listen to me and help me out along the way. That's what helped me get to where I am today. I have no problem talking to people, and giving them advice and shooting them straight over the years.
Scott's been someone that's asked me some questions, and I've got no problems with shooting them straight.
Q. A quick follow-up, how did he impress people at the Charlotte test?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: He had plenty of speed during that test. He didn't have a car wadded up at the end of it, so. When we looked at the monitor throughout the test session, his name was on the left side of the board and towards the top throughout most of the test.
Q. Historically Martinsville has not been the best track for Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle. Do you look at that and think about how you can capitalize and extend your lead this weekend, or are you not looking at the history?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Absolutely I'm looking at the history. That is something that over the last races since the Chase has started, everyone was racing against Gordon and Stewart. When I look at the majority of the field, Phoenix and Martinsville both have been great tracks. Tracks where we've been able to get a lot of points on guys that we're racing for the Chase.
So I'm looking at that. I think back to Burton and the last few races are there, he's certainly been strong. Maybe not the dominant car, but he's run well. I look at the 16 last time we were up there, the last two times we were there, and Greg's been much stronger than he's been in the past.
So I feel these guys kind of recognize that Martinsville has been a tough one for them, and they've stepped up their programs. So I'm not expecting it to be an easy day on Sunday, but I'm hopeful that history repeats and we're able to get some points on these guys.
Q. When you look at what's happened in this chase so far with the case of Kyle and Carl at least, so much of it has been mechanically related. You've been fortunate enough not to have a whole lot of that. And what has happened hasn't been catastrophic. I wonder what kind of systems and processes do you guys have in place to be able to keep that stuff from happening? Is this just luck or is it the guys back at the shop?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's no doubt we work really hard to make sure we don't have problems. I think each guy that works on the race team, they've been working in racing for a long time. And Hendrick Motorsports has been around for a long time, so there are a lot of systems in place to prevent problems.
With that said, we still have our fair share of problems and things do go wrong. That's why I'm trying not to get too attached to where we are in points right now. Anything can happen. There are so many moving components on a race car.
There are 42 other guys on the track. With their luck and what's going on with their cars: A blown tire, somebody blowing an engine in front of you or oil being down on the tracks.
There are so many variables out there that all I can do is worry about what I do in that car and what my team does, and I feel very confident in what I do and what my team does. I'm finding some peace in that. And I'm just letting the rest of it fall into place.
So far it's been going well, but we've just got no clue what these next five races are going to have for us. So we'll just give 100%, and hopefully it works out how we want.
Q. You know, there's athletes in all sports that some do well under pressure, others kind of fade in the spotlight. You certainly seem to be one who enjoys the pressure and thrives in it. Do you have any theories on why that is? Why you're so good or historically you've been good in these types of situations? And is that something that's kind of maybe happened recently with you or is it something you developed or something you've kind of always had. You've always enjoyed the pressure situations
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I've just done well in pressure situations through my career. To be honest with you, the last part of my career was a pressure situation, just to establish myself and have a job to follow here.
It's tough coming from the off-road industry to make it to this level. Sponsorship isn't easy from time to time, being with the right team owners. I've had a lot of stressful situations throughout my career. I guess I've somehow adapted to the pressure and do a decent job with it.
I still think I can be better. I still think my team can be better. But we've done a very good job over the last few years, and we're hopeful that the experience over the last few years will make us stronger and better yet for this year and we'll be able to deal with it.
Q. As far as crew members, talking about how bad the team was the first time you went to Martinsville. Now it's one of your better tracks. Is that yet another example of how this team seems to thrive on challenges?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think so. We -- I, I should say, absolutely was terrible at Martinsville the first time there. I knew the equipment was good, Jeff was winning there and won there when we were running so bad.
So a lot of it had to do with me learning the track and understanding it. And I think my background did help me. It's not a standard racetrack. It is a quirky little place. Once I figured out the rhythm to it, things started to click, and I could give good information to Chad so he could work on his set-up.
The first time there even the test session we ran before that, I was creating so many handling problems with the car because I was driving it, that you couldn't adjust to it.
So I'm thankful that I had Jeff to lean on, and at the time Chad had Robbie Loomis to lean on. Those guys helped us find our footing and from there we've gone off on our own and found set-ups that we really like there and have made the most of it.
We do a decent job of setting a challenge in front of us and trying to accomplish that. This year I kind of failed in that department. I wanted to win at Bristol and win in Sonoma or on a road course. We didn't do that. So we don't knock down every mark we set up there for ourselves, but it doesn't mean we're not trying hard and we're going to stop working for it.
Q. After the win on Saturday, Jeff Burton was saying while he preferred to be in the lead, he didn't necessarily seem to mind being out of the lead and being the guy trying to chase you down. I think you said something similar four years ago that the lead almost could seem a burden at times. Where are you right now in the lead at the halfway point with several good tracks coming up. Do you still hold that view a little bit, or is there no down side to being in the points lead right now?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, that's a good point. In the past I've really felt that. There's a lot of media attention and a lot of pressure that comes with leading the championship.
This year though I feel myself and this team is much stronger than we've been in the past. We are really enjoying being in this position as a leader, and we have a lot of confidence in our equipment and feel that we can all do our jobs at 100% and perform and win this championship.
We can't control luck, and we're not worried about crazy things and stressing on things we can't control. I think the reason we're here and dealing with this so well is what we've gone through the last four or five years.
So this is the first time I've been in this position, and, you know, really feel confident about what we're doing. And not as nervous as I've been in the past. I do remember making those comments, but where I am today five races into this thing leading the points, I'm glad to be in the lead. I want to be here. I want to stretch it out if I can.
Q. I've seep a lot of the off-road truck racing on TV living on the East Coast. It doesn't seem to be anything that would translate over to NASCAR, but obviously, it has. Could you talk a little about what you've taken, if anything, from that to NASCAR, and how it's helped?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You're right, it's not much. At the end of the day, racing is racing. I think that lane selection makes a big difference in our cars.
In stock car racing and certainly on dirt it's a big part of it.
But the asphalt gets slick like a dirt track does, and you've got to search around to find grip. So I find that that helps me. I also find how uncomfortable you are on an off-road track because you're never hooked up. By the time you get the truck straight again there's a jump and you're airborne.
I find growing up in that environment has really slowed everything down for me in a cup car. It makes things a little easier to adapt in uncomfortable situations because I've been in very uncomfortable situations in the past.
I look at those three things and think that it helps me. But I had a huge learning curve to go through when I went stock car racing. And my first season ever in a stock car was in '98, racing in the ASA Series. I didn't know what a track bar was because we didn't have one on the off-road track. Wedge never meant anything to me. Nose weight, changing your spring rates to make the car turn, I didn't worry about any of that.
We put springs on the truck and developed them and got them to handle over the bumps and that was it. We made a few shock changes throughout the season to help it get over the bump, but you never worried about the corners.
In '98 and '99, it was big learning years for me. Truthfully, up until maybe a year or two ago I was still learning at a high rate of speed. I'm still learning today. But all the way up into my Cup career, this is now my tenth season in the stock car, and it's been a fast, fast row to hoe and figure out what goes on with these stock cars.
Q. Completely unrelated to anything we've talked about. I talked to P.J of Alpine Star, and doing a story about your fire suit. I just kind of want to know what is important to you about your fire suit and your gloves? And since you've been working out a lot you've gained some muscle mass and they've had to change it a lot. So what goes into that fire suit that you wear?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, first and foremost, my deal with helmets and suits, you know, I have a relationship with Alpine Star. But I want to make sure that I'm not under a contract with any of the suppliers, because I want to wear what is the safest stuff that can be offered to any driver.
Alpine Star has done an amazing job with providing me with that stuff: Custom built shoes, the gloves, the suits. Their attention to detail has been really, really amazing. They've been willing to develop and make stuff more comfortable and safer at the same time.
So I really commend Alpine Star for the job that they've done and always being so flexible and making the stuff look good and different. At the same time the most important thing is it's always the safest stuff out there.
Q. I'm intrigued by your comment after the race that you had to take some chances that you didn't want to have to take. That really separates probably will separate in this chase the champion from the wannabe champion, but it also separates smart from not so smart. Can you talk about the line of having to take those chances and how you make the decision of how far you're going to push that area to win the championship?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, you just know from inside the car how the car's driving and as a driver you know where the limits are of the vehicle and what speed it can run. The comfortable speed of the car was well off the pace where we needed to be.
I had a good opportunity on that last restart starting second, and I just couldn't pass it up. I thought we had a shot at winning. I took a lot of risk to get by Burton, and I almost lost the car a few times. Decided to settle in and try to regroup and go back after him. I thought for a while there I had a second shot at him. But then my car kept fading and other guys got to me.
At that point I'm watching the 16 get closer and the 31 get further away. A lot of points are coming and going, and I didn't want that to happen. I wanted to make points up on everyone last weekend. Especially taking advantage of the great pit stop that we had.
So I found the race trim pushing harder than I probably needed to. I had a couple big moments where I had to save the car and collect my thoughts and have a good talk to myself about what was on the line. At the same time, I'm slipping backwards. I've got to walk that tightrope of taking just enough risk and not busting my butt.
So that was the balance I had to deal with the last three or four stops in the race. We made some adjustments, probably three or four stops in the end that got the car really hard to drive, and I lost the track position which hurt that as well. But we couldn't take the time on the pit stop to adjust the car back. I just had to deal with it.
Looking back at what I had to deal with, we did a good job pulling off the 6. But at the same time I'm frustrated that I had to take so much risk and we missed the chance to gain some points.
Q. With your recent success at Martinsville, I guess you received the nickname "Mr. Martinsville.' Looking at your Chase success over the final Chase races of the season, the final five Chase races of the season, if you look at those and throughout your 40th place in Homestead in '05 when you blew the tire, your average finish is 3.6. Why is this team so successful this time of the year?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't know. They're good tracks for us. We seem to have our stuff refined and put together. I think that Chad's focus, my focus, the physical strength of the team and myself and across the board everybody is ready for these final ten.
It's a long, grueling season. You've got to have physical strength, mental strength, and organized race team, organized company, to throw everything at these final ten.
Our guys, the longer the race, the longer the season, the more grueling it is, the better we perform. That is just the 48 Team. I'm very proud of that. It's not something we just showed up for. It's something we've had to work for, and we're working to maintain that this year, and hopefully we can.
Q. Some drivers, some athletes think getting butterflies before a race or a big playoff game that those butterflies are unavoidable and even helpful. Do you agree?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, without a doubt. I certainly go through a variety of emotions from butterflies to worried about what the day holds, what could happen. I find a lot of that stuff to be helpful in preparing me for whatever situation may come up during the day.
I think a lot of times my mind thinks back to past events and mistakes that I've made or things that have gone on with the team or maybe areas where somebody had an advantage on us. And I start getting worried about those things. Getting nervous about the butterflies and communicating with my team, and also think about the steps that I can control and use that to make sure I'm as prepared as possible for if each race.
DENISE MALOOF: Thank you, Jimmie, for your time this week. We all appreciate it, and good luck.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thank you, everybody.
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