'We still have some ground to make up'
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the number 48 Chevrolet SS met with media and discussed his teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., plate racing at Daytona and how it compares with Talladega, and more::
YOU ARE A THREE-TIME WINNER THIS SEASON. TALK ABOUT COMING TO DAYTONA WHEN WE’RE ALMOST AT THE MIDPOINT OF THE YEAR.
“It’s easy to come down here and let it rip. It’s a wild card race. We understand that anybody in the draft has a shot at winning the race. We have enough wins that we can throw caution to the wind if it’s strategy on track or whatever it is. Our goal is to come here and put ourselves in position to win and hopefully enter that white flag lap on that front row in those first couple of positions and have a shot at winning the race.”
LAST YEAR YOU CAME HERE AND DID WHAT HADN’T BEEN DONE IN 30-ODD YEARS AND SWEPT BOTH DAYTONA EVENTS. THIS YEAR, DALE EARNHARDT JR. IS IN THAT POSITION. FOR HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS AS A TEAM, FOR DALE, FOR NASCAR, HOW SIGNIFICANT DO YOU THINK IT WOULD BE IF DALE COULD SWEEP DAYTONA WITH A WIN ON SATURDAY NIGHT?
“I hadn’t thought of it in that perspective. But, an Earnhardt winning in Daytona is huge, period. We can breakdown through multiple other reasons why it would be meaningful and impactful for everybody involved. If I don’t have a chance to win the race, I wouldn’t mind if he did. I’m more focused on me and the No. 48 winning the race. But, he’s going to be fast. He’s going to be strong and have a very good opportunity to win. That stat went 30 years for a reason. It’s not easy because in plate racing, anything can happen. If he can make it to the white flag lap; he’s the one who gave me that phrase about if I make it to the white, and you’re in the finish line picture, you have a shot at winning. If he can make it to the white he will definitely be a threat.”
FOR THE NO. 88 TEAM, WHAT’S MORE TELLING OR IMPRESSIVE OR SURPRISING, IS IT THE CHECKERED FLAGS OR MAYBE LIKE AT SONOMA WHERE THEY SURPRISE YOU AT THE END OF THE DAY WITH THEIR PERFORMANCE?
“That’s a good question. I guess at the end of the day our sport is measured by trophies and checkered flags to put more weight in that column. But Junior has been in this sport a long time and has been a championship contender at various points in his career. And to be able to cover all sides of the game is important; to check the box for winning races, check the box for being fast, check the box on tracks that historically aren’t good for you, and overcoming early issues in an event….those are the things that seem to kind of get people talking about you know that’s a championship run. And we’re seeing that much more consistently and then also the trips to Victory Lane, which is great for him.”
YOU SAID AT THE BEGINNING OF THE YEAR THAT YOU WERE A LITTLE BEHIND ON THE 2014 PACKAGE. AFTER 3 WINS, ARE YOU STILL FEELING THAT WAY? WHAT IS THE NO. 48 TEAM STILL WORKING ON?
“We still have some ground to make up, I feel. The No. 4 (Kevin Harvick) is really the most consistent car with speed off the truck. The Penske guys seem to be able to create some really big speed at times; maybe not as consistent as the No. 4. We’ve been able to get there by Sunday. And a lot of weekends it hasn’t been a fun journey; unloading and searching and finding our way come race time. But even with that challenge we’re still going into Victory Lane and collecting points. That’s the part we need to clean up. And we’re very aware of it inside the team that unloading on Friday with speed in the car is really the area we need to zero-in on.
“We try to look back and reflect and say wow, we’ve done a great job as a team (by) showing up ‘off’ and finding our way there. So, there’s plenty to be proud of. But come Chase-time, you can’t show up and unload on the right side of the scoring monitor and then find your way to Victory Lane. You’re putting yourself too far behind the eight ball. Luckily we have a couple of months to really advance and get our cars where they need to be.”
WHEN THE DAYTONA 500 GOT RESTARTED IN FEBRUARY, IT WAS REALLY INTENSE RACING. A LOT OF GUYS SAID IT WAS THE MOST INTENSE THEY’VE EVER DONE HERE. BUT TALLADEGA HAD A MORE MUTED FINISH. HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY TRENDS THIS YEAR WITH RESTRICTOR PLATE RACING TO TAKE FORWARD INTO SATURDAY NIGHT?
“The only trend I’m confident in speaking about would be the issue of track position at Daytona being far greater than at Talladega. There is so much more room. If you slip back, you seem to find your way to the front much easier at Talladega than you do here. But, I can’t explain why some races are more exciting. Some races whoever the leader is, decides to run around on the top and we sit up there in a 43-car line. I don’t know why. It’s crazy because it takes more than just one driver to make that decision and to help lead that. But there’s kind of an energy on the track, or a vibe, that is assumed by all drivers after a while. You either get caught up in the excitement and is a real racy event, or it falls into more of a ‘ride around the top’ event. I don’t know what triggers that. It’s real tough to follow that.”
DID IT SEEM LIKE THERE WAS MORE ENERGY?
“Yeah, I think the 500 brings that out and then obviously we had the threat of rain and for whatever reason, when the momentum changes and when we all decide it’s time to race, it’s exciting. When we all decide to ride, it’s really boring. So, whatever direction it’s going, it’s going to go there. There isn’t really an in between it seems like. We’ll see what unfolds on Saturday night. It’s just so hard to predict it.”
AFTER SONOMA, DALE JUNIOR SAID THAT HE TOLD HIS CREW CHIEF, STEVE LETARTE, THAT THE SECRET TO BEING A GREAT CREW CHIEF IS TO CALL EVERY RACE LIKE IT’S YOUR LAST YEAR BECAUSE THAT SEEMS TO HELP THE STRATEGY. WHEN YOU HAVE GOOD CARS, HOW MUCH EASIER IS IT TO HAVE GOOD STRATEGY? OR, IS IT NOT?
“It is, most of the time. There are some tracks where tire strategy comes into play and you can maybe take a risk on two (tires) and we’ve had that issue a few times where we’ve had a dominant car and we get to the end at the last pit stop and 10 to 15 cars decide to go with two tires versus four and we’re the leader, it’s been easy, we’ve been dominant, we’ll take four. We won’t take a risk and the numbers of guys that put two on end up beating us. And that’s not every track, but that’s really the only thing you have to look out for. Outside of that, I think having a fast car creates a lot of opportunity for you; and really puts you in an offensive position. And that’s what Chad (Knaus) likes so much. And in most situations, even if we lose a couple of spots, he’d rather have me on four. We’ve got a fast enough car and you just start thinking. We have a fast enough car. We’re on four. They’re on two. We can get to the front and you start thinking of it down that road. Every now and then, 10 or 15 guys will take two and you are on four. And you just can’t get back to the front.”
DO YOU HAVE A STRATEGY FOR TWITTER OR DO YOU JUST DO IT FOR FUN. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY ABOUT IT?
“It’s really random. There’s nothing behind it that is organized. I could use a real and true person to spellcheck and proofread for me. Sometimes I go back and I think man, I was in too big of a hurry and let that fly out. But, it’s pretty random. There are weeks when nothing comes to mind or that thought process doesn’t happen when I think to share; or I’m just too busy and can’t share. It’s a big part of the world today. We put a lot of time and effort into our digital platform, starting with our website and all the way up through all the social channels. So, it’s something that I personally have invested in. My sponsors have their own sites and things as well. But in the position I am in today, controlling and owning my own digital platform and really taking care of it is important.”
WHO DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE ELITE GROUP OF RESTRICTOR PLATE RACERS? NOT JUST IN TERMS OF TROPHIES, BUT ALWAYS BEING IN THE MIX IN THIS FORM OF RACING?
“I would think the No. 20 (Matt Kenseth), the No. 4 (Kevin Harvick) seems to be there, Kevin seems to always put himself in position, the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon), a little more on the erratic side but with plenty of speed would be the No. 18 (Kyle Busch), he’s always a threat and wild things seem to happen for him. I guess the guy I’d put at the top of the list is the No. 20 and that might just reflect back to last year. It seems like the No. 20 and the No. 48 were the strongest cars on the plate tracks and we just kind of followed each other. He’d lead and then I’d lead. So, the first one as of now is probably the No. 20.”
WHAT SORT OF EXPERIENCE IS IT LIKE TO SHAKE HANDS WITH THE PRESIDENT IN D.C.? ARE YOU GUYS ON A FIRST-NAME BASIS, OR WHAT?
“No, we’re not on a first-name basis. The experience was amazing to share with my family. It was awesome. And in a few moments of private time that we all had together is something I’ll cherish forever. And when I think of how things have changed since my last championship, in my last championship, every driver that made the Chase went (to the White House). This time, a week or so ago, it was just the No. 48 team. So it was really nice to let 15 of the guys share that experience. That’s a huge honor.”
YOU’VE HAD A LOT OF SUCCESS AT THE BRICKYARD. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT GOING THERE SOON?
“I’m excited for Indy. That’s been a good track for us for the last five or eight years. It took me a long time to figure out that race track, and once I zeroed-in on how to drive the car, then I could give Chad (Knaus) the right feedback so we could make the car fast. The first five or so times that I went there, I was driving the car wrong until race time. And then in the race, we didn’t have enough adjustability in the car to get the car right. So, that’s probably one of the most driver-sensitive tracks that we go to. I’m looking forward to going back. We had a nice opportunity last year. We came up a little short in second. Hopefully we can go back and break the record there.”
YOU LIKE TO WIN EVERYWHERE, BUT WHERE DOES THE DAYTONA 400 RANK A LITTLE HIGHER THAN OTHER RACES?
“Yeah, well it’s so hard to rank them. Tracks have different meanings for different drivers and team members. All of us have tracks that are fond to us for whatever reason. Winning in Daytona is always a special thing. If it’s an IROC race or, I’ve tried many times here in a Grand-Am car here to win; whether it’s the six-hour even in the summer or the Rolex 24. I wouldn’t mind winning a big wheel race in the infield. It wouldn’t bother me a bit to win in Daytona (laughs). For me, it’s up there on the list for sure. We go through our majors and can argue what tracks kind of fit into that category. I don’t feel that this July race is really in that category, but I think it’s a fun race because of the weekend it falls on. We’re able to run patriotic paint schemes and say thank you to the men and women who defend and serve for us and celebrate Independence Day. So, that definitely jazzes things up and pushes it up the list.”
TYLER CLARY (OLYMPIC SWIMMER) RAN HIS FIRST RACING EVENT LAST TUESDAY AT CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY. HE SEEMS PRETTY CONFIDENT IN WHAT HE WANTS IN A RACING CAREER. AS A MENTOR, HOW IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM AND CAN HE ACCOMPLISH HIS GOALS?
“He’s definitely involved in motorsports and has a passion for it. But the cool thing is to know that his real passion is coming up in 2016. Everything is holding up to that. As I’ve been able to advise him, I’ve just encourage him to get seat time; and that you really only get one opportunity in Truck, Nationwide or Cup. Obviously he’ll probably get his first start in Truck or maybe Nationwide. And when you go there, you’ve got a short timeframe. So I’ve encouraged him to just whatever he can find to put his rear into to run laps, and understand what wedge is or what rebound does to the car, roll center height, sway bars; and really just get engrained in that; and to have fun without the pressure of a big sponsor waiting in the wings and national media paying attention to you. It’s tough to overcome and every small mistake you make ends up being national news. So, I’m happy that he is out and enjoying himself. Of course he has a vision and a plan, which I think is important. Hopefully it will all come together for him. First and foremost, hopefully he’s holding up gold in 2016.”