Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, met with media today at Phoenix International Raceway to discuss being back at PIR, differences in setup from last year’s race here, his influence on Dale Earnhardt Jr., and more.
TALK ABOUT BEING BACK AT PHOENIX CONSIDERING YOUR SUCCESS HERE... It’s always great to be back at a track where you and a team have had so much success. With the reconfiguration of this track, it’s been hit or miss for us. When we were here in November, it was really good for us especially from the championship perspective. To come back now, there is definitely excitement and confidence. The cars are far different than when we were here in November. This will be the first real test on which team and organization has found speed in their cars and been able to use the new rules package to their advantage. We feel good about what we have. We tested quite a bit to get ready for this moment. We will know more about 30-40 minutes into the practice about where we stand.”
IT WAS SO EXCITING TO TALK TO EVERYONE AFTER THE RACE LAST WEEK. THEY WERE ALL UP ON THE WHEEL AND EYES SORT OF GLEAMING. IS THAT A RESULT OF THE WEATHER AND DO YOU THINK WE WILL SEE SOME OF THAT AS WELL WITH SOME OF THE NEW FORMAT? OR WAS IT BECAUSE IT WAS THE DAYTONA 500? “The possibility of rain coming and shortening the race really did it. We saw before the rain came that we were single-file against the wall just riding. Most don’t want to do that. I think the top five were content riding. Everyone else wanted to be in the top five, and then they would be content. There are guys who would try to move to the inside lane and get something going down there but it would never materialize. Then with the long delay and the threat of rain out there, we were two- or three-wide the rest of the night and put on a great show.”
SPEAKING OF RAIN COMING, HOW WILL THAT CHANGE THE PREPARATIONS FOR THE REST OF THE WEEKEND? HOW WILL IT SHAKE OUT ON SUNDAY? “We showed up in qualifying trim, and with the threat of rain we switched over to race trim. We will open up the first 30-40 minutes in race trim and then flip over. It would be nice to have all of the practice tomorrow because everything is so new right now. That would be the biggest impact – less track time to work through our setups. It puts a little more pressure on us today to make it right.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY WAY – BEFORE GOING ON TRACK TODAY – OF KNOWING WHERE HENDRICK MATCHES UP WITH OTHER TEAMS WITH THE SETUPS SO RADICALLY DIFFERENT THAN WHAT THEY WERE LAST YEAR? “Not really. There have been so many teams at the Nashville race track running that we kind of feel like we’re good based on what we saw from other organizations there. But I still don’t have a lot of confidence in that. I think within the first 30-40 minutes we will have a very good idea once practice starts.”
RICK HENDRICK LAUDED YOUR INFLUENCE ON JUNIOR OVER THE LAST FOUR TO FIVE YEARS. JUNIOR ALSO HAS TALKED ABOUT HOW YOU MOTIVATED HIM AND HELPED HIM WHEN THINGS ARE BAD. WHAT DO YOU SAY TO HIM AND WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK YOU PLAYED IN HIS COMEBACK THE LAST FEW YEARS? “You know, with Junior I always just kind of reached out to him and let him know I was there if he wanted to talk about race cars, the team or really anything for that matter. With his personality, if you’re in his face a lot or telling him what you think or almost preaching to him – telling him what he should do – it’s not going to work out. In some ways, I’ve tried to lead by example and just do my thing.
He is a very, very observant guy – especially with what goes on in our shop. That’s taken me awhile to pick up and understand; how much he pays attention to what I do, how I drive my car, the things I’m interested in, things I focus on. And then being there and answering questions. From there, he has done the rest on his own. Between he and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) with the relationship they have… we may have been a carrot out there for the 88 in some respects but the hard work those two have put in and that team has put in has put them where they are today.”
FOLLOWING UP ON THAT, DALE SAID SUNDAY THAT YOU HAVE BEEN ONE OF HIS BIGGEST FANS. IS THAT A NATURAL DYNAMIC OF TWO GUYS WHO WORK FROM THE SAME SHOP OR DOES IT GO BACK TO THE POTENTIAL YOU’VE SEEN FROM HIM? WHERE DO YOU THINK THAT COMES FROM?
“Really from being in the same shop. Before that, I was always there for him but I didn’t have the opportunity to connect and talk at the level we do now. Being in the same shop has allowed that to happen. He and I have been friends for a lot of years – well before either of us were racing in NASCAR. I think the time and history there kind of helps take down some of the walls and lets us communicate.”
TAKE US THROUGH WHY YOU’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DALE JR. TWITTER PHENOMENON. WAS THIS A BET? WAS THIS PRODDING HIM, AND WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM HIM WATCHING HIM OPENING HIMSELF UP THE WAY HE HAS?
“He has taken it and run with it, huh? I, among many others, have been pushing him. There have been a lot of people involved on social media – even people from Twitter – who have put pressure on him and have come to me to put pressure on him over the years. It just wasn’t something he was interested in. As sharp as he is and as much time as he spends in the digital world, I knew that when he got involved that he would love it and it would work well for him.
For myself, maybe in a different manner though, when you’re exposed like that and open yourself up like that, it lets your fans see the world through your eyes. He must have been watching from afar for awhile. He has the lingo down and is tagging people and replying to people pretty well. He didn’t enter as a rookie on Twitter in my opinion! He is off to a pretty strong start. All I did was explain to him how social media is the best way to show your value to your sponsors.
I’ve taken a lot of time and put a lot into our digital presence because quite frankly I just didn’t believe in what I was reading in Joyce Julius reports – the way they poll people, form an opinion and give me a value. It didn’t correlate. It just didn’t make sense to me. That’s what I explained to Junior – (social media) is a real-time, relevant way to show your relevancy and how you fit in the world. I think that really clicked in his mind and got him going.”