Homestead: Pole winner interview

Jimmie Johnson , No. 48 Lowe's Monte Carlo SS - Bud Pole winner ON HIS LAP: "I got myself a good lap. I feel good about it. I didn't really know if I could go any faster. I just thought that Kasey (Kahne) would pick up the three-tenths like we...

Jimmie Johnson , No. 48 Lowe's Monte Carlo SS - Bud Pole winner

ON HIS LAP:

"I got myself a good lap. I feel good about it. I didn't really know if I could go any faster. I just thought that Kasey (Kahne) would pick up the three-tenths like we did and end up at a .40 and we'd be at a .58 or whatever it was. I was just pleased with it. I'm very happy to cross Friday off the list and get a good night's sleep tonight and do it again tomorrow."

YOU SAY YOU'RE JUST RIDING AROUND, YET YOU'RE LEADING MORE LAPS, WHICH SEEMS CONTRADICTORY. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THAT?

"I really think it's easy after you get three or four years in one of these cars. You learn the tracks and build a lot of confidence in what you're doing in the car and the speed and the competition and before you know it, you're driving above the limit of the vehicle. And I think that's something that any driver in the sport deals with in their career. Goodyear could change a tire. We could have a NASCAR rule change and you're stuck on a feeling that you remembered that worked at this place and you're looking for it and maybe you're just driving over that limit. That's one thing I feel we've done in maturing as a race team is we're doing a very good job of finding where the limit is, and then adjusting the car to that and then when the end of the race comes along, we're in position with a good driving car. I can then charge and do what I need to do in hopefully score maximum points. It's kind of a long-winded process of being smart, not really riding, but being smart in tryi ng to drive within the limit of the vehicle. I think that's a big challenge for me, in my sixth year in the sport, and even more of a challenge for someone like Montoya or Dario or these guys that are coming in. Their eyes and senses are calibrated to 60mph faster and so much more grip. That's the challenge that those guys have coming into our sport."

ON HIS STRESS LEVEL, DOES WINNING THE POLE HELP YOU DECOMPRESS A LITTLE?

"It does. I can't tell you how much just getting in the race car helped today. The whole week went by well and there wasn't a lot of stressing going on. I'm thankful I got to drive the DP (Daytona prototype) car at Daytona and get some time just screwing around and sliding around in the car. That was a blast. And then getting in the car today and getting that first run under our belts, I think we were eighth after our first lap, and then it was all right, I'm doing my job. Let's start creeping up on the speed and the performance of the car and we did that."

JEFF GORDON SAYS HE WILL RACE YOU CLEAN. WHAT WOULD DALE EARNHARDT DO IF HE WAS RACING YOU ON SUNDAY?

"I have no idea. I know I would be shaking in my driving shoes worrying about him thought (laughs). The sport has changed a lot. I watched him on television. I never raced against him. But just to see how the sport has changed, I think he would try to rattle my cage, as he would say. Last year, racing for the championship here, the No. 29 (Harvick) had a shot, and the No. 17 (Kenseth) and I didn't see a lot of change from the way they typically race. The No. 29 races hard. You know how hard he's going to race when you get to him. It doesn't matter where you are in the season. The No. 17 will work with people a little more with more give and take from time to time. Those personalities really are the same In what I have seen so far in my Cup career, and when you get into those high-pressure championship situations."

DO YOU HAVE THE SENSE THAT WHEN THINGS ARE GOING GOOD, YOU'RE ON A ROLL? OR, DO YOU HOLD BACK AND NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO FEEL THAT WAY?

"I'm really proud of what we have done as a team and the way we have put together this run here in the later parts of the Chase. But I have to admit there is a level of being surprised living this and experiencing it. I'm not doing anything different; my team isn't. We're still doing the same things we've done all year long and it's just going our way. I think we recognize that and we know as well as it's going now, it could change and go the other direction. So we're really trying to keep a level head with our emotions and what's going on. It is awkward, like when you asked Ryan (Newman) that question and to hear that response and the praises that they give us. I accept it and I'm proud of it, but it's awkward to hear that. I never thought I'd be in this position. I'm enjoying it and we're trying to make the most of it, but it's new territory for this No. 48 team to experience this."

WITH THIS BEING THE LAST RACE FOR THE OLD CARS, ARE YOU SAVORING AND ENJOYING THE CAR OF TODAY?

"I haven't thought about it too much. When I was just in the Bud Pole Award presentation that just went on, they reminded me that I just won the last Bud Pole that will be in this sport. I've been so focused on this championship and what is going on this weekend, that I have completely overlooked the fact that this is the last race for the current car and also for the Budweiser situation. So, I'm sure when I leave here I'll think about it and there will be some disappointment knowing we're not going to run this car anymore. And maybe if I strike a deal with Rick (Hendrick) before the race starts I can keep this car or have him give it to me or something. He likes to have little side bets and maybe I can keep this car for sentimental reasons (laughs)."

IS THERE ANYTHING THAT WE DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU YET? WAS YOUR GRANDFATHER IN THE FRENCH UNDERGROUND OR ANYTHING (LAUGHTER)? IS THERE SOME WEIRD FACT OR FIGURE THAT HASN'T GOTTEN OUT YET?

"I don't know. The only thing I tried to keep a secret was riding on the top of a golf cart and that didn't work (laughter)."

DO YOU WORRY ABOUT SOME CRAZY BAD LUCK HAPPENING?

"No, in my mindset I worry about those things. I feel that what we can control, we've done a good job with and we'll be fine in that respect. But the things we can't control are what worry me (like) incidents on track, mechanical failures, tire issues, or whatever it may be, that's the part that concerns me. The stuff we work on (like) our pit stops and what I do on the track and Chad (Knaus) pit calling ability, all of that I feel very comfortable with. It's the things that are out of my control that worry me."

EVERY TIME YOU WALKED INTO THE GARAGE TODAY, WERE YOU CONSUMED WITH THOUGHTS OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP? OR, IS IT JUST ANOTHER WEEKEND? COULD YOU GO TO JEFF GORDON FOR ANY KIND OF ADVICE ON HOW TO RACE HIM?

"I'm not sure on how to race him, but today we talked a lot about our line and the car set-up in between practice and qualifying and also through practice. So we're still working together doing the things that we typically do. So I'm not sure he would really answer a question on that note, but we still work well together. I was just trying to think about this week, I have tried to go through, systematically, and think about what went on last year and what areas did I lack in speed on the track and mentally the mind games that go on and how to prepare for that, and it really all boiled down to keeping it simple and making sure the car is comfortable to drive. With my off-road racing background, I end up dealing with a looser race car than I need to. So in my mind, I'm trying to come down here and make sure the car is very forgiving and almost be able to stand on the brake and arc the car in really wide and stomp on the gas and do things and make the car drive that way so that I've got a lot of forgiveness in the set-up. And that's really what I've tried to do and I think focusing on that will help me through a situation if we get behind because of a pit call or pitting under green and a caution comes out or whatever it may be, we will be able to race back from there. That's really what I've been focusing on and just trying to keep it to a couple of things I'm worrying about and not let my mind run off into different areas, and even just staying focused on Friday. Today, I was worried about qualifying and that's all we're thinking about. Tomorrow we'll worry about making the car even more comfortable in traffic and then go on to Sunday. So the more I can simplify it, the easier I find it on myself. A lot of that just comes from last year's experience."

YOU SAID IT WAS AWKWARD TO HEAR RYAN NEWMAN TALKING ABOUT YOUR SEASON. WHAT IS AWKWARD TO HAVE PEOPLE COWER IN YOUR PRESENCE WHEN YOU WALK BY?

"No, there is nothing comfortable with that. Even Jeff walking in last week with the flag and all that, I'm like this is really weird. It's just not something I thrive on or that I expect or that really, I've ever had in my career. Maybe that's part of it. I've had a long, hard road to get to this spot in my career and had a lot of people doubt me through different parts of my career and had to fight through that criticism. So it's not a familiar or comfortable spot to be in an area of praise. I'm not complaining (laughs) I'll take it. But I just want to strap my helmet on and go, leave it on the track, come back in and have a good time."

ARE YOU ENJOYING THE PRESSURE THIS YEAR MORE THAN LAST YEAR? IS THAT A FAIR STATEMENT?

"Yeah, I have. It's still very stressful. I was laying in my bus before qualifying started and I thought, now I remember that pit in my stomach and the butterflies and the heart racing when there is nothing going on; just sitting around waiting and that stuff takes place. The pressure is still there but the confidence I have from winning the championship last year and really the roll that we've been on, helps calm a lot of that down and I have enjoyed this much more than last year's championship battle."

YOU SAID YOU HAVEN'T BEEN DOING ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY, BUT DO YOU FEEL DIFFERENTLY? IS THERE ANYTHING DIFFERENT IN YOUR MIND GOING ON?

"No, that stuff still pops up. Today starting practice, I was concerned about that and concerned about if the set-up that we've developed through the year would work here. We have no time to test here and work specifically on this track. Not only does it require a little different set-up but technique into Turn one. Turn 1 is a very difficult part of this race track. I had those doubts. Those doubts motivate me. I'll wake up tomorrow and starting on the pole, I should have all the confidence in the world and I do, deep down inside, but there is a little trigger in my head that keeps me on my toes. And I'm glad it's there because I don't ever want to put my guard down. And I think that just makes me keep my guard up."

GIVEN THE HARD ROAD YOU'VE HAD TO REACH THIS POINT IN YOUR CAREER, WHEN YOU HEAR YOUR PEERS ACKNOWLEDGE YOU IN THE WAY THEY DO, DO YOU THINK THIS WHOLE EXPERIENCE HAS MADE YOU MORE ACCEPTING OF THAT RECOGNITION AND RESPECT? IS THAT WHAT YOU VALUE MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE?

"Yeah, I believe I've said that through my career and even last year when we won the championship was the respect that comes with that with our peers and from the garage area. That's the part that really sticks with you and lasts over a lifetime. To walk through the garage area this year and see different crew members, I don't even know their names, they congratulate me and say hey you're doing a great job. That part of it sinks in with me and that's the part I look forward to the most and am enjoying the most."

IS THERE ANY FEAR IN YOUR MIND THAT WE MIGHT SEE A REPLAY OF MARTINSVILLE IN THE SPRING?

"With Jeff? All I have to do is finish 18 spots from him (laughs). So, big picture. Again, trying to keep it simple. I show up and do everything I can to make the car drive right. If I'm in a position to win the race to not do that and not try to go out on top. But I will try not to make a stupid mistake and cost us this championship. And I do feel that running in the top three, top five, is the safest spot on the track. That's why I've been saying coming into this weekend that we need to do the same things we've been doing. And if we can make the car drive comfortable running third or first or wherever may be, then the day is going to go as we want it to."

CLEARLY HMS HAS SEPARATED ITSELF FROM THE REST OF THE FIELD. GOING INTO NEXT YEAR, ARE ALL THE OTHER CARS STILL GOING TO PLAY CATCH-UP LIKE THEY ARE NOW?

"We really hope so. That's what we're working so hard for. And Hendrick as a whole, has had a stellar year with every car winning. The success of the No. 5 with the fact that Kyle (Busch) is leaving and Casey (Mears) has just been getting stronger and stronger only unfortunately things keep changing from year to year with him. And next year he's going to have a learning process again with a new group of guys. But if you look at what's gone on in that No. 24 / No. 48 shop and all the victories and success that's there, we've done a great job. But inside that shop there has been some magic there this year that is hard to imagine it's going to last forever, but we're trying to contain it and bottle it up and save some for next year. But there's no telling. These guys are going to work all through the winter to catch up. And I really feel there are a lot of teams right there. I see Roush coming on really strong. We've just been able to win races like Atlanta, where we weren't the best car, and go to Texas and race our butts off and win that way as well. So things have been really good for us, plus they've gone our way."

WILL YOU TELL US ONCE AGAIN WHY YOU RACED KENSETH FOR THE WIN WHEN SECOND PLACE WOULD HAVE BEEN PLENTY GOOD AT TEXAS?

"I've viewed second place as the first loser. I didn't want to be that guy (laughs). I wanted maximum points. I had no clue that we would go to Phoenix and things would work out like they would. At that point in time I felt like Jeff was the favorite, especially in the championship battle out of the No. 07 and us. I needed to get every point I could. That was our mindset going into the Texas race. We've got to win this race and go to Phoenix and hope we can keep pace with the No. 24 and fortunately we won Texas and then won at Phoenix too."

HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY DIFFERENCE IN CHAD KNAUS IN THIS CHAMPIONSHIP RUN COMPARED TO LAST YEAR?

"Yeah, I really do; and not only Chad, but our entire team. The confidence I was talking about before carries on through the team. We know the areas to work in. We believe in one another. In Chad's position, he has to spend a lot less time going through the steps behind him. Our engineer, he knows and trusts and believes. Shocks, tires, mechanical side, all of it; he doesn't need to spend as much time making sure that everybody has done everything correctly and he can focus on speed in the car and he and I can really communicate about what we need for the car. So, there has been a great maturing process in the last two seasons for this No. 48 team."

RICK HENDRICK WAS TELLING US THIS MILK AND COOKIES STORY THAT HE CALLED YOU AND CHAD IN AND SERVED YOU MILK AND OREOS. DO YOU REMEMBER THAT? WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION?

"That was my first time in the principal's office really. Did you hear about the pork chop story with little Ricky and Lance McGrew and the truck series? Something was going on and Rick wasn't happy and he picked up a pork chop walking through the back of the transporter and he got to the front and he was trying to get his point across and the meat fell off the bone and like he threw it essentially, he didn't mean to, but he was using his hand and threw the pork chop all over Lance and Ricky. So that's one of the internal jokes, is this a pork chop meeting or is this milk & cookies where it's going to be a little more laid back (laughs). So, it was more of a laid back meeting and it was really just to work through the frustration we had of us both trying so hard. But we were running into each other and we weren't getting what we felt like we could do as a race team and really blowing that tire and smacking the wall over here in Turn 3 just set that into overdrive. We were on the ropes a little bit with the No. 20 car. They were outperforming us that year and then that took place and it just kind of lit the candle and we were frustrated. And Rick, being the people-person that he is, was able to recognize that and sit us down. And also, the thing I have to give Rick a lot of credit for (is) not only did he sit us down and talk to us, but in that conversation he could understand where Chad's frustration was coming from and was able to give advice to Chad on passing the responsibilities to other guys. And Chad was trying to carry too much of the race team. He was trying to be the engineer and the shock guy and the crew chief. And that took its toll on him and Rick was able to see that and give him some advice and also myself with how to deal with these situations and we were a lot better starting the '06 season."

RICK ALSO SAID WHEN YOU GET THAT FAR APART THAT IT VERY RARELY CAN BE FIXED OR REPAIRED. DO YOU AGREE WITH THAT? YOU GOT IT BACK AND THAT TOOK BASIC FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE FOR BOTH OF YOU, WHICH IS HARD TO DO.

"Maybe there has been so much good since then that it's hard to think back. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. We were frustrated with each other. But the thing we always had is that we believed in one another. I didn't want a new crew chief and he didn't want another driver. But it just wasn't working. And I think we needed to make some changes and I was excited to work through some changes and really learning my role in the team and how to assert myself and how to put my opinion out there and add to the team and direct the team and direct Chad, was something I wasn't real comfortable with. And out of that meeting I learning how to express myself to Chad in difficult moments and how to fight for the ground that I needed to have in steering the team. And he's got an aggressive personality and can easily run over the top of you. So I had to figure that stuff out. I'm sure from Rick's standpoint he thought that a great thing was falling apart. But Chad and I never lost belief. We j ust needed to hash it out."

HOW MUCH TO YOU ATTRIBUTE YOUR OFF-ROAD RACING BACKGROUND TO CAR CONTROL AND THROTTLE CONTROL THAT YOU HAVE NOW? AND, WHY DO YOU THINK YOU DIDN'T HAVE MORE SUCCESS IN THE BUSCH SERIES?

"There are times when I really think the off-road racing really helped me out. I can't say that early in my stock car driving career that I thought it did. There were more problems I had to work through than the benefits that came from it. But as time has gone on, I do see those benefits in driving a loose race car and finding a car that I can slide it through the beginning of a run and as our cars tighten up, have it fast at the end of a run. And that's something I'm proud of on that dirt background that I have that I've carried over. But the Busch team, I had a great career with the Herzogs in ASA. And we had a new start-up team in Busch and I'll certainly take responsibility for things that I did wrong in the car in learning my way around. I think my rookie year I tore up 15 cars. There is no one to blame but myself. And as we got into year two and the team needed to continue to grow, I don't think we were growing in the direction we needed to. And with me leaving and the challenges of any driver leaving a team, we didn't deal with that all that well, internally. And it just got into a tough, difficult period of time as the end of my Busch career wound down. I hated to see that, especially with the Herzogs and how much time and money and care and thought and all this stuff they put into my career. It was tough to see that and to see it fall apart at the end like it did. We are great friends and I keep in contact with Stan and Randy Herzog and things are all great now since some time has passed. But I don't think I can drive an under-horse powered car all that well. And then we just didn't advance the team like we needed to."

IS THERE EVER A POINT DURING THE CHASE WHEN YOU DARE TO THINK YOU'VE GOT A LOCK ON MOMENTUM OR DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO BE APPREHENSIVE?

"You can't believe that. In my life in racing, every time in a race car if I get comfortable and feel like I've got it under control, it bites me. I've had too many experiences like that. So I chase those thoughts out of my head and try to keep my guard up."

TWO YEARS AGO, THIS RACE WAS THE SOURCE OF PROBLEMS WITH YOU AND CHAD KNAUS. CAN YOU RECOUNT WHAT CREATED THAT RIFT THERE?

"Well that was really the straw that broke the camels back in that situation. There was the frustration of being outrun by the No. 20 and then with that (tire) issue taking place was tough and kind of sent it into overdrive. On television, Chad could see that the tire was getting soft and going down. I knew that I had something wrong so that debate if we pit, we're now down a couple of laps and things went on and on from there. So, it's kind of hard for me to drum up all the exact thoughts, but that impact; taking us out of the race and going behind the wall and leaving the track and that point, it was like what a way to end the season. We were frustrated. We were outrun by the No. 20. We blow a tire and it just kind of catapulted the emotions over the top."

ON HIS DRIVING STYLE COMPARED TO JEFF GORDON'S

"Compared to Jeff, I stomp the car and then come off of the brake and let the car roll to the center. Jeff uses less brake pressure, but manages the brakes over longer periods of time. So I'll drive in maybe a little deeper, stand on the brakes real hard, control the car and slow it down, and then come off the brake pedal and roll in. Jeff will just pick it up softly and control it all the way to the center of the turn. And at certain tracks each style works well. I think of Kyle Busch and when I say a guy doesn't use any brake, Kyle does not tough the brake unless he has to. And that's something that's been useful for me on certain tracks where Kyle is running fast and doing well. I know just put my foot under the brake pedal and do not touch it. With that brake, you're transferring a lot of weight and especially on new tires and a full tank of gas, you can create different handling characteristics with the car by how you use the brakes. So, that leads into the driving style that we all have."

DOES THE SEASON THAT YOU HAVE HAD CARRY OVER AS THE FAVORITE GOING INTO NEXT YEAR, OR COULD OTHER TEAMS JUST AS EASILY BE IN THAT POSITION?

"I feel like we should be favorites going into the following season. I think that there is going to be a lot of work done over the off-season. The Gibbs Team and the Roush Team are going to be strong when it's just the one car full time all year. They've improved a lot over the season, especially the Roush cars. So I would think that you'd have to put us, though, as one of the favorites. I certainly do. Hopefully we don't loose anything over the off-season and we'll be working hard to try to keep an advantage. But when everybody is focused on the one car I think some guys will be able to close the gap on us."

-credit: gm racing

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Jimmie Johnson , Kyle Busch