Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the Southern 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Darlington Raceway. Johnson comes to Darlington and this weekend's race as...
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the Southern 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Darlington Raceway.
Johnson comes to Darlington and this weekend's race as one of the hottest drivers in NASCAR. For the 2002 season, Johnson is currently 5th in points, just 145 points behind the leader, and 1st in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings, with a 3 point lead over the competition. So far in 2002, Johnson has earned two NASCAR Winston Cup victories (California and Dover), three Bud Pole Awards (Daytona, Talladega and Charlotte) and recorded 14 top-10 finishes, including five top-5s (Atlanta, California, Dover, Pocono and Chicagoland). His earnings this season are $2,074,950.
ON THE JIMMIE JOHNSON & ROBBY GORDON INCIDENT COMPARED TO THE JEFF GORDON & RUSTY WALLACE INCIDENT AT LAST WEEKEND'S RACE AT BRISTOL
"I think they were totally different incidents. In my instance, the green flag wasn't even out and I was spun out and collected another driver competing for the Winston Cup (championship) points battle and crashed and destroyed my race car - and Mark Martin's race car and a few others. Jeff (Gordon) moved Rusty (Wallace) out of the way, like Rusty moved (Kevin) Harvick and (Dale) Jr. and a lot of other cars out of the way to get to the front. There's definitely a way to do it, and on short tracks - especially Bristol -- as a driver you know that's coming. You do it to get to that position and when you're in that position, you know it's coming. Everybody, all night long, was responsible for it. That's just part of racing at Bristol."
AFTER COMING OFF AN EMOTIONAL RACE LIKE BRISTOL, HOW IMPORTANT AND HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO PUT ALL THOSE THOUGHTS BEHIND YOU FOR THE NEXT RACE?
"It's real important. There are a lot of things that happen that frustrate you. If you don't get over them and put them away and move on, there's a lot on the line that they can affect. Mentally, if you have actions on the race track, NASCAR's going to fine you, penalize you, take points away from you - something's going to happen. So, yeah, it's very important to get it behind you and move on. At the same time, it's very difficult. Your livelihood is at stake. It's a hard thing to do."
DO YOU THINK APOLOGIES ARE NECESSARY AFTER BRISTOL?
"If someone wrecked me on purpose or if it was an accident, I'd rather have them come up to me and either say that they wrecked me on purpose or that they were sorry and that this or that happened. That's just me personally. It sounds like Ward (Burton) is in the same boat on that (asking for an apology from Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
AT BRISTOL, WHAT WAS ALL THE TALK ABOUT YOUR MISSING A SHIFT AND CAUSING ROBBY GORDON TO RUN INTO YOU?
"I was lined up on the inside coming to the green flag. If I had beaten the No. 14 (Mike Wallace) car to the start/finish line, I would have been black-flagged. So I had to wait for the No. 14 car to accelerate and then race him into Turn 1. When the No. 14 car took off, I was getting ready to take off and tried to take off, but the No. 31 (R. Gordon) already had been into the back of me and had my rear tires off the ground. So I couldn't accelerate. When I jumped on the gas to take off, the rear tires just spun and I was on the rev limiter and couldn't go anywhere. The No. 31 was on the gas, trying to get going, and turns me and spins me out. So it looked like I didn't accelerate or that I missed a gear. But really, my rear tires were off the ground and I couldn't even go."
WHEN IS A BUMP JUST PART OF BRISTOL AND WHEN IS IT OVER THE LINE?
"You race people the way they race you. If someone moves you out of the way or somebody has chopped you and is really blocking you in the run or throughout the race, you remember that stuff and you handle it differently. But when you're bending sheet metal and when you're tearing up race cars, that's obviously too far. I watched some highlights (of Bristol) and I saw Rusty (Wallace) move the No. 29 (Harvick) out of the way and the No. 29 moved up and didn't hit anything and kept on going and finished. And then the No. 24 (J. Gordon) moved the No. 2 (Wallace). So, it's hard to say. There's never going to be a clean way around it. There are going to be certain fans and people that think that's part of racing and there are going to be other people that think it's uncalled for. It's just really hard. But as a driver and you're leading with two (laps) to go at Bristol, you know something's going to happen so you just try to get your defense together and hold it off."
DURING THE CAUTION BEFORE ROBBY GORDON MOVED YOU OUT OF THE WAY, DID HE HIT YOU A COUPLE OF TIMES WHILE STILL UNDER CAUTION?
"At first I thought it was just him saying, 'Hey'. We do that at times - bump into one another under caution and wave. But when he kept doing it, I realized there was something else going on. Evidently, he was one lap down and felt like he should have the honor of starting as the first car in the lap down lane. Well, I was two laps down and had raced my way to that point to have that honor to start there. And I was trying to get back one of my laps. If I could have been racing the one-lap down cars, I could have finished in the top 15 and gained a lot of valuable points. So I'm not going to let him by. He's trying to knock me out of the way so he can get up there - or at least get my attention so that I will pull over and let him go and have that spot. I guess that's what his thought were when he was running into the back of me."
HAS ROBBY GORDON TALKED TO YOU SINCE THE BRISTOL INCIDENT?
"Yeah, we've talked a little bit, but it's hard to talk when it's so fresh after the race."
ON THE FRUSTRATION OF BEING WITHIN STRIKING DISTANCE OF THE POINT LEAD AND THEN DROPPING TO 5TH AFTER BRISTOL) "For me, it's so frustrating that you end up being calm. I haven't been madder in my whole life. (While) racing for the Winston Cup championship in your rookie season and having something like that happen that was uncalled for -- and that wasn't even at speed or racing at the time -- made me really mad. It's behind me, it's done, and there's nothing I can do about it. The points are gone. We'll go to Darlington and try to run those guys back down."
IF YOU FIND YOURSELF AT DARLINGTON WITH THE NO. 31 IS IN FRONT OF YOU UNDER CAUTION OR EVEN WHILE RACING, WHAT WILL BE GOING THROUGH YOUR MIND?
"Well, I don't know. I'm not going to do anything. You don't need to go tearing up race cars and making these guys (crew) work (harder) in the shop. The crew guys didn't have anything to do with it. Richard Childress (No. 31 team owner) didn't have anything to do with it. I need to go have a talk with Robby (Gordon) and work things out so that this stuff doesn't happen in the future. We need to handle it in a professional manner. We don't need to be out there tearing up race cars, making our sponsors look bad, making our teams look bad, or making our guys work any harder than they already do. You've just got to get over it and move on and be a professional about it."
IS BRISTOL GETTING TOO CROWDED?
"It's tight quarters, but I guess that's why there's a five-year waiting list for fans to get tickets. It's part of NASCAR; it's part of the sport. Granted, the speeds aren't as high, but they've put 43 race cars on that track for a long time and have had a lot of great action. It's just something that you do. You have the same frustrations at Bristol that you do at Talladega or Daytona - running in those 43 car packs."
BETWEEN BRISTOL AND DARLINGTON, WHAT'S A TOLERABLE MINDSET?
"At Darlington, you really have to race the race track. If you're caught up and battling with someone and charging too hard, that track will bite you and destroy your race car in an instant. At either end (of the track), there's something that can happen. Darlington is one of the few places where you really try to block out who is behind you or who is coming in your (rear view) mirror or who is racing in front of you, and focus on your race car and racing that track for your condition. As soon as you relax, you'll slip up a foot through (turns) one and two and you'll be running along the wall and brush the wall and knock yourself out of contention. You try to put emotions away and run your own independent race."
HAVE YOU EVER HAD A RIVALRY WITH SOMEBODY WEEK AFTER WEEK WHERE YOU EITHER BECAME FRIENDS OR ENEMIES?
"I've had lots of relationships where you have battles and there's bumping and rubbing and stuff like that and I've had great friendships with those guys. But I've never been in a relationship with guys where they crash you one week and you crash them the next. I've never been through anything like that in my professional career."
ON RACING IN THE HISTORIC SOUTHERN 500 AT DARLINGTON
"I grew up in California where NASCAR wasn't that big. I wasn't able to follow a lot of the sport. I'd go to Riverside and Phoenix with my dad to watch the races and if we could catch it on television, we would. So I wasn't real familiar with it until I got into stock car racing and started traveling around. I think it was the spring race that was my first Winston Cup race that I went and watched (at Darlington). Watching the front stretch (then) is now the backstretch. Watching the guys sail off in there and run along the wall, I thought it was one of the most oddest and most challenging things I'd seen. I'd only watched it on television before that. I always thought it was a cool track once I got involved with it and understood the history. You can now catch a lot of those classic NASCAR events and see races from way back at Darlington. I guess I'm learning my history now about it."
DO YOU WATCH A LOT OF THOSE RACES ON TV?
"Yeah, if I'm home during the week or something, I'll have it on in the background and watch a little bit of it."
ON LETTING OTHER DRIVERS HAVE A LAP BACK
"When the caution comes out, I always jump out of the gas. I've let a lot of people have their laps back in races that I've led this year without even realizing what was taking place. As a result of that, there are a lot of guys out there that are capable of winning races that now will share that back with me if I'm having a bad day. They'll remember that. So there's kind of a catch there in why you'd want to give somebody a lap back. When you're having a bad day - a bad green flag stop and you've been caught a lap down - and you're looking for a break, somebody will give you a break. You can look at it from either way. I'm sure there have been races where somebody has given somebody their lap back and they end up losing that race because of it. It just depends on your school of thought and how you handle things. You have to deal with these drivers 38 times a year for multiple years. I think it's better to work with people and have friends out there."
WHEN YOU CHOOSE ONE DRIVER OR SITUATION OVER ANOTHER TO GIVE A LAP BACK OR NOT, DOES THAT CREATE FRICTION ON THE TRACK?
"Yep. It gives us all something to talk about during the week."
IS TURN 2 AT DARLINGTON AS DIFFICULT AS IT LOOKS?
"Yes, for a couple of reasons. In qualifying trim, you don't really have to let out of the gas too much in the center of (turns) 1 and 2. The reason our line is so high through (turns) one and two is so that we can get the right angle to exit off of turn 2 and not hit the wall. In qualifying trim, when you have a lot of grip in the tires, you have a lot better shot at making it. You can control it a little bit better. But in a race when you're in traffic and you lose downforce to the nose of the car, you sometimes even have to use the brake to get the nose to sag to turn. If not, the car will just keep going straight and the car will run into the wall on the right side of the car. Every lap, you can count on tensing up on the exit of turn 2 and hope that you make it."
HOW CLOSE DO YOU GET TO THE WALL AT THE TURN 2 EXIT?
"I've been all over that wall many times."
WITH THE EXIT OF TURN 2 BEING SO NARROW, IS THERE ANY PLACE TO GO TO GET AROUND IT?
"No. We saw that huge pile up on the backstretch in the spring. The racing groove itself is really narrow and everybody is thrown off that turn in the same area. You can't really change your direction on where you're going to be until you're on that straightway and have gained control of the car again. If something does happen immediately off the turn, you need to be entering turn 1 to miss it."
AT A PLACE LIKE BRISTOL, HOW DO YOU TYPICALLY CONTROL YOUR EMOTIONS THROUGHOUT A THREE-HOUR RACE?
"Typically, you're thinking of the big picture. You need to collect points. You need to finish the best you can. You shrug things off and you remember when get around that car again - depending on what happened in the incident - how to position yourself so that someone doesn't retaliate. What happened with me was the first time in my career that it didn't happen during the race so that you could shrug it off as a racing incident. We're out there running inches from one another running at a high rate of speed -- out of control the whole time. Things happen. That's just part of it. But that one (Bristol) was obviously very hard for me to deal with. But we just go on from there."
SOME ATHLETES SEEK SPORTS PSYCHOLOGISTS TO HELP THEM WITH EMOTIONS. HAVE YOU EVER DONE THAT?
"No, I haven't gone to anyone but I'm sure there are some great things you can learn from that. That's something that I've been aware of in the race car - knowing how you can rattle other drivers. If you're in their mirror and you're wearing them out to the point that they make mistakes. There are a variety of emotions that go on. You can tell when you get behind a Jeff Gordon or a Dale Jarrett - none of those mental games are going to work on those guys. They're too rock solid. They're too controlled. They keep their temper and they keep their composure and they don't make mistakes. I've noticed through my whole career and I've worked hard at trying to handle my emotions and try not to let anger make me overdrive the car or let some pressure make me make a mistake. Maybe there is something in getting some professional help to have a better handle on that stuff."
CAN ANGER INSIDE THE CAR EVER ACTUALLY HELP YOU?
"Motivation is always good. But I feel like everyone is at the limit with their vehicles. You're driving as hard as you can all the time. It's very easy to overdrive a Winston Cup car. I haven't seen where anger or frustration has helped me yet. It's just slowed me down."
IS IT PROFESSIONAL TO HAVE DRIVERS SHOWING THEIR ANGER ON THE TRACK AFTER AN INCIDENT?
"I don't believe I handled my situation (at Bristol) in a professional manner. If I could take it back, I would. I don't need to be out there representing Lowe's and all the sponsors and Hendrick Motorsports acting the way I did. It's something that I'm ashamed that it happened. But I can't take it back. Everybody has been extremely understanding of the emotions that took place. It's something that I won't do again in the future. I'm a professional and I need to act like a professional and not be out there shooting the guy a bird."
IS THIS SOMETHING THAT NASCAR WILL LOOK AT, OR IS THIS JUST PART OF SATURDAY NIGHT RACING?
"I don't think they like guys running out on the race track and throwing things and being in a situation of being injured or hit by a vehicle. But it makes good TV. When I had my incident, I heard the fans screaming over the race cars. It's been the topic of a lot of things. In some ways, it makes a good show for TV to see the emotions of some of the drivers, but I think NASCAR will get involved if someone is putting themselves in a position to be injured."
HOW DO YOU DRAW THE LINE ON THESE BUMP AND RUN RACING INCIDENTS WHEN THEY SEEM SO BLURRY?
"That's part of our sport. There are a lot of lines that are real blurry. You just push the envelope and get what you can -- everything in the rulebook from how to find more speed in the race car to what is considered (to be) rough driving. We race so often and with each other so much that a lot of it takes care of itself over time. But there are a lot of gray lines out there. The one who can use all the gray lines and get away with it is probably going to be your champion (laughs)."
DO YOU NEED TO PLAY GAMES WITH OTHER DRIVERS AND BE PSYCHOLOGICALLY INTIMIDATING IN ORDER TO COMPETE AT THIS LEVEL?
"I haven't gone out and tried to intimidate people. I'd rather be friends with everybody. I walk around smiling all the time. I don't think I'll try to intimidate people, but I'll race you hard and try to race you into a mistake. But more than anything, I don't want to let the frustrations get to me and let me make mistakes or bad calls. I guess it's more of a defense. You have to deal with it and take care of it. You don't necessarily have to dish it out."
CART DRIVER, JIMMY VASSAR, IS GOING TO GO OFF-ROAD RACING IN CALIFORNIA. IS THIS SOMETHING YOU'D LIKE TO CONTINUE TO DO JUST TO GET AWAY FROM THE PRESSURE OF WINSTON CUP RACING?
"I think off-road racing is the neatest form of motorsports out there. To cover the terrain you do in those types of vehicles is one of the most amazing things you can ever do. I think it's neat that the Vassars are getting involved with the sport. It needs the support. It's had its ups and downs. It could use some more sponsor involvement and big names to help. But we race and test so much as it is, my way of relaxing and having some fun doesn't consist of holding onto a steering wheel again. I don't see that being something I'm interesting in doing. I'd rather spend some time with my parents and brothers and friends, or go overseas and see something or do something rather than get in a race car again."
IS IT GOOD OR BAD THAT WHEN YOU'RE AWAY FROM IT, YOU DON'T WANT TO HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT?
"That's just the product of 38 races and 12 tests. That's just how it is. I don't know how many events CART events - probably under 20. I don't know what their testing schedule is. But if you took 10 or 15 races away from me at the Winston Cup level, then sure - I wouldn't mind going back and running some off road races. I've had some invites to race the Baja 1000 this fall and a lot of other races. Then I might consider it. But now, we barely get a month and a half off at the end of the season before you have to get back to work. I want to take that month and a half off."
IS THAT A SHY WAY OF SAYING THAT THE WINSTON CUP SEASON IS TOO LONG?
"From the driver's standpoint, I can tolerate it a lot better than the crew guys do. I feel bad for them. They don't get that time off. They don't get to (take the) helicopter out (after the race) and take a jet back home and be home a couple of hours after the race. They have to sit in traffic and fly home commercially sometimes. They've got to be back at the shop Monday morning at 8 a.m. I get Monday's off for the most part. It's a young man's sport and the crew guys get worked to the bone."
ON GETTING LOST DURING THE BAJA 1000
"It was the 1995 Baja 1000. We were almost 900 miles into the event. I fell asleep but woke up in time to realize we were going off the course at a high rate of speed. We hit some rocks and flipped off through the desert. There was a huge mountain range in between the course and the asphalt road. The radio communication didn't get across to the chase vehicle. On top of that, the chase vehicle had been in an accident on the asphalt road and was several hundred miles behind us and completely out of radio range. There are helicopters and airplanes that follow the trucks, but at nighttime they are grounded.
"When the sun came up and the planes were back in the air, they were a couple hundred miles down the course and out of radio range. We'd stop vehicles when they'd come by and tell them to tell everybody where we were when they got to the next pit (stop). The hours went into two days before anybody came by to pick us up."
IS IT TRUE THAT THE RESCUERS THOUGHT LIFE HAD PASSED YOU BY WHEN THEY FINALLY FOUND YOU?
"There was a little joke there. We'd been driving a long time and I actually moved some rocks around to make myself a place to sleep. The gnats and flies were real bad and I put a rain parka on top of me and took a nap. When the chase vehicle finally came down the road, my co-rider was sitting on a rock passing the time. When they saw me under the yellow parka, they thought I was dead. I remember hearing somebody screaming and yelling that Jimmie was dead, and I sat up with the parka and it was kind of a funny incident. It was funny later, but it was a big wreck. We should have been hurt (but we weren't)."