Atlanta II: Jimmie Johnson press conference

Tuesday, October 22, 2002 Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the NAPA 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. For the 2002 ...

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the NAPA 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

For the 2002 season, Johnson is currently 2nd in points, just 82 points behind the leader, and 2nd in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings. So far in 2002, Johnson has earned three NASCAR Winston Cup victories (California, Dover and Dover), five Bud Pole Awards (Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Richmond and Talladega) and recorded 20 top-10 finishes, including six top-5s (Atlanta, California, Dover, Pocono, Chicagoland and Dover).

HOW DO YOU PERSONALLY DEAL WITH THE RISKS OF RACING DANGERS IN THIS SPORT? "I started racing at five years old on motorcycles. I've watched a lot of friends get head injuries and unfortunately, saw some young kids die from different things (while I was) growing up. I guess you just get used to it and you know the risks you're taking when you climb in a race car or on a motorcycle. I guess you know about it and you take every precaution necessary. We climb in these cars and we all honestly believe that we're going to be safe and we're going to be okay. Even before the HANS device was put in place and the latest safety stuff, we wouldn't be climbing in there if we didn't think we were safe. Granted, it's a dangerous sport and we take risks. But I can guarantee you that every one of us thinks we're going to be fine."

HAVE YOU EVER FELT ANY AFFECTS OF CARBON MONOXIDE? "I've had it one or two times - once in ASA, when I had some contact with someone and knocked the crush panels out of the car. And (I felt it) once at Bristol in the Busch Series. As the race is going on, you start to feel nauseous and sick. You possibly even get sick in the car while you're driving. You don't know why or what it is - I didn't, the first time it happened to me. I'm sure that Tony (Stewart) knew what it was with his experience with it and all. It's just breathing the fumes from the race car. It's not good. People die from it throughout the year in different cases. I had a friend die from it in Wisconsin. It was in the garage and he died from carbon monoxide poisoning, unfortunately, with the car running in there. It's a risk that all of us are around. Once your body gets carbon monoxide in it, you are more susceptible to it in the future. It sounds like that's what's happening to Tony. His body is sensitive to it."

DOES THIS HAPPEN BECAUSE OF THE WAY THE CARS ARE COOLED, AND DO SOME PEOPLE SIMPLY NOT FEEL THE AFFECTS LIKE OTHERS DO? "No, it's not necessarily (because of) the way the cars are cooled. The exhaust shoots out of the side of the race cars. We try to completely seal off the underside of the race car from the driver's compartment. We even go to the extent where we put some type of silicones and different sealers between the layers of metal so that fumes don't get inside the race car. Well, when you have side to side contact, those panels - especially in the wheel well areas - that separate the cabin area from the outside air get smashed in. That exhaust is coming up from underneath the race car. As it's circulating around, it just circles right up through those crushed panels and into the race car with you. That's the only way it can get in. Granted, it is all the way around the race track and the fans are probably even getting some carbon monoxide themselves from just being at the race track. Those are normal levels. But when it gets inside the race car, you're trapped with it inside. And we don't have a lot of air moving to circulate the air out of the race car. So when you have an open hole, it's just coming right inside the cabin and sits there with you."

DO SOME PEOPLE REACT TO THIS MORE THAN OTHERS AND IS THIS SOMETHING YOU EXPECT AS A RACER? "It just depends on the extent of the damage to the paneling and where your exhaust pipes are located. If you run right side exhaust pipes and you knock the right side crush panel out, it's going to come right inside the race car. If you run right side pipes and knock the left side crush panel out, it's not going to get to you. It all depends on the circumstances. It all depends on if there's a panel bent and where the exhaust is."

DO YOU THINK YOU MIGHT HAVE ANY ADVANTAGE OVER TONY STEWART AT ATLANTA THIS WEEKEND? "The remaining tracks are really strong for Tony. The positive thing to look at was that going into Martinsville, we felt like that was going to be one of his better tracks and one of my worst tracks. But we were able to come out ahead of him there and we even thought we might have a shot at winning until the No. 44 crashed us under caution."

PEOPLE SEEM TO BE RUNNING INTO YOU A LOT "Yeah, I get crashed under caution more than I do on the race track.

"I think Atlanta is one of my better tracks for the rest of the year. It's a place where I feel I have a shot at winning. Rockingham, Phoenix, and Homestead - I've run well at all of those tracks. But looking ahead, I think Atlanta is my best shot at bringing home another trophy. But then in the big picture with the points, it's a place where Tony (Stewart) won earlier this year. It's going to be an interesting race."

ON THE TRACK AT MARTINSVILLE AND COMING AWAY WITH A 6TH PLACE FINISH "My first experience there wasn't a good one. We had a lot of problems earlier in the year and went out with mechanical trouble. I don't really have a good feeling of it. Obviously I had a great run so I have some good feelings about it. But I thought it made for some good racing. From what I've seen there in the past where it's single file around the bottom, you at least have some options to work with (now) and some places to pass people."

ASIDE FROM THE TRACKS, WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE CITIES TO VISIT? "I don't really have much of a chance to go out in many cities. I grew up in San Diego and obviously it's beautiful there. A place I've spent a little time out here lately has been in New York and I've been enjoying it up there."

AS A ROOKIE, HAS IT OCCURRED TO YOU THAT YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HAVING THIS MUCH SUCCESS SO EARLY IN YOUR CAREER? "Since about one third of the way through the season we've found ourselves in the top five in the points and started facing that reality of everyone saying we're not supposed to be there. But we've stayed there all year long and fought hard for it and won races and poles - I feel we've earned our keep there. So I feel like that one is behind us. As far as why we're there (is that) the top 10 teams all have a similar amount of sponsorship dollars and resources and everything that it takes to win races and championships. But it's all up to the people that make the difference from there. Being a part of Hendrick Motorsports and especially having the No. 24 team (of Jeff Gordon) in the same building with us for us to learn and grow from has really made the difference for our team."

DO YOU FEEL AWKWARD OR GUILTY ABOUT STILL BEING IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP HUNT WHEN JEFF GORDON SEEMS TO BE OUT OF IT NOW? "This has been something that's been going on all year long and it's not really been spoken about. We're just out there racing and going at it. But earlier in the year, when we were up in the points and actually ahead of Jeff for the first couple of times, we went a lot of that stuff. But I just really think it shows the credit that goes to the team. I just get in there and drive. I'm not doing anything I did different to finish 8th or 10th in the points in the Busch Series like I did the last two years. I'm just out there in great equipment with great people around me and it's all been working really good."

SINCE IT'S BEEN SEVERAL MONTHS SINCE YOU'VE RACED AT ATLANTA, DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU'RE A DIFFERENT DRIVER WITH A DIFFERENT TEAM NOW? "Definitely. As far as the driver is concerned, I'm a lot better. As far as the team and our pit stops, they've just been getting better and better all year long. As far as the equipment, nothing's changed there. But I was remembering back and watching some video of Atlanta and I was running around in the top five all day long. (I remember) just how excited I was to be close to the front of the race. I had a shot at leading a couple of times. And then finishing third - I think that was my best finish at that point in time. There were just a lot of things going on. There were just a lot of new things going on. Hopefully I won't go back and overdrive the car. That seems to be a pattern that happens pretty easily (laughs). But I really think I'm a lot better driver now and understand how to work the air. At Atlanta with it's multiple grooves, you've got a lot of real estate you can use to keep the car handling for you. I'm really excited to be going back."

APPROACHING THE END OF THE SEASON, IS THERE A FATIGUE FACTOR GOING ON WITH YOU AND THE TEAM? "I don't think so. I think I can speak for the team on this as well. When we're at the race track, that's where we want to be and that's what we want to do. I want to be in that race car racing. I love that part of it. That's why I've sacrificed everything that I have to keep with the grueling schedule and all the things that we've got to do. It's because I love racing and I want to be in that race car. The fact that we've been in the race car for 20 weeks here doesn't bother me. The rest of the duties that come along with being a Winston Cup driver and Winston Cup team members - the travel, the days away from home, and the hours - (are tiring). The crew works at the racetrack for ungodly hours and then goes back to the shop Monday morning at 7 a.m. getting stuff prepared for the next weekend. That's the part that I see that's hard on everyone. It's not necessarily being at the race track because that's what we all want to do."

WOULD THAT STILL BE TRUE IF YOU WERE 30TH IN POINTS INSTEAD OF 2ND? "Yeah, there's a lot of different head games that go on when you're not running well. Those are the trying times. It's possible some crew members are unhappy the driver's unhappy, the crew chief is unhappy. There are all kinds of different scenarios that go on that can start to break down a team. With all the positive energy going on around us, it really does help to keep things moving easily."

AT THIS POINT, DO YOU FEEL THAT TONY STEWART HAS TO SCREW UP IN ORDER FOR YOU TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP OR ARE YOU CLOSE ENOUGH THAT YOU CAN CONTROL YOUR OWN DESTINY? "I think we're right on the edge of controlling our own destiny. Tony is known to be able to hit top 5's and if we're able to win and he's 5th or 6th, we still have a chance at controlling it ourselves. If we pick up 20 points or so each race for the rest of the year, we would be the champions if it all worked out. So you're looking at four or five spots there. Last week we picked up 15 points on him so we'll just keep chipping away at it."

WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND DOING TO THE CARS TO ELIMINATE THE CARBON MONOXIDE PROBLEM? "I know Dr. Petty has been working on some stuff and was talking to Jeff (Gordon) and Ricky (Hendrick) and I about it in Kansas City. He has a device he's trying to monitor the drivers before a race weekend and then throughout the weekend and after the race to see what levels of carbon monoxide end up in our bodies. So I know Dr. Petty is considering some things and looking at some things.

"But for the race cars, I don't know what else we can really do. We've got these panels and they're sealed up. You don't have a problem unless you have some contact with someone and knock the panels out of the way. Oxygen is a real important thing. If you're able, right after the race when you get out of the car, to go sit on an oxygen tank for 10 or 15 minutes, it will help get that out of your system sooner and faster. There has been a lot of research over the years. Ken Howes, our racing director at Hendrick Motorsports, gave me a packet last year - before I was driving full time for Hendrick Motorsports - on carbon monoxide poisoning. There are ways to help yourself recover from it and to deal with it. It's something that we face.

"We all have fresh air blowing into our cars through our helmets. But from what I understand, to have a true carbon monoxide filter, it would have to be so dense and porous, the air literally won't flow through it. We've taken some different steps to build more efficient carbon monoxide filters. It requires this huge fan that we're running in the cars just to push the air through the filter. So I know we've taken some more steps that maybe some other guys haven't. Jeff (Gordon) had some problems with it early in his career and we've refined the system and even with our helmets to try to make the air seal around your nose so you don't have outside air coming in.

"The other key to that though is to have your helmet sealed to your suit so you're just in contained air. But now with the HANS system and the head and neck devices that we have, you can't use that stuff. I remember seeing DJ (Dale Jarrett) in the past had a helmet skirt attached to the bottom of his helmet. It would sit on his chest and on his back and it was held down so that he'd have contained air all the time."

WHAT ABOUT TAKING OXYGEN BEFORE THE RACE AND DO SOME PEOPLE TAKE PILLS FOR THIS? "I'm not sure on the pills. I don't think there's anything that can really keep you from getting carbon monoxide poisoning. The only thing is just not having carbon monoxide get to you. I don't think a pill or taking oxygen beforehand will do anything there. I know that oxygen will remove whatever carbon monoxides you have in your body at that point so that you'll start better."

WHAT'S THE WORST YOU'VE EVER BEEN GASSED? "I would say Nashville in ASA racing. I got into the wall early in the race and it knocked the crush panels out. In the ASA cars, the exhaust shot straight down in the middle of the race car. So it didn't even have a chance to get out the side of the race car. With all that exhaust for 400 laps at Nashville, it got to me. It affected me pretty much for three or four days the next week where you had piercing headaches and were nauseous and just didn't feel good. It felt like you had the flu in some respects."

DO YOU BEGIN THIS SEASON TRYING TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP OR TRYING TO JUST GET YOUR FEET WET? "I think I'd be crazy if I had thought I had a shot to win the championship. We started with some realistic goals with making races and trying to finish in the top 15. Early in the season, we blew the roof off of it and started running really good."

-hm/lowe's-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Jimmie Johnson
Teams Hendrick Motorsports