Johnson - Daytona Fan Fest interview

An Interview With: JIMMIE JOHNSON DENISE MALOOF: Good morning. Jimmie Johnson joins us, our three time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Jimmie, just a little bit less than a month away from that first green flag. JIMMIE ...

An Interview With:
JIMMIE JOHNSON

DENISE MALOOF: Good morning. Jimmie Johnson joins us, our three time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Jimmie, just a little bit less than a month away from that first green flag.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: It is. Yeah, definitely. It's kind of sad that I haven't been in a race car. I'm glad that I'm running the 24 hour race and at least have been able to drive a car a couple times. It certainly is a lot of fun to come to the racetrack and be a part of that event. But I miss the testing, and I look forward to this season and trying to get a fourth championship. But everything has been good.

I had a great off season, enjoyed myself, been back to work. I was in Miami for two days shooting the next Lowe's commercial that we'll all see this morning, so I've been back to work and just kind of plugging away, looking forward to today and next weekend's Rolex race. I'll be back down for that again.

Q: How much time do you think it's going to take once you get back down here for Speedweeks and you get back in the car to get that feeling that you had last year, or is that even possible?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, the time does affect all the guys that aren't in the cars. Luckily there's so much on track activity before the 500, we're all back up to speed and doing what we need to. But that's only for restrictor plate racing. I think all of us still show up in California with not a question mark but a bit of concern like, all right, first big track and downforce track that we've been on, and you kind the hit the track with a little concern and knocking the rust off essentially.

I'm excited for it either way. I think that Speedweeks are going to be exciting. There's going to be a lot of talk and a lot of activity because there hasn't been any testing. I think the start of the season you'll see the usual aspects, and really the way it ended up last year those guys up front, and it's going to be more difficult for teams to close that gap without being able to go test their stuff.

Q: Is the beard something permanent?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't know, I typically grow it out in the winter and just decided to kind of stick with it a little longer. Technically I haven't been in a Cup car so the season hasn't started for me yet. I did tape a commercial the last two days with it, so I might stick around a little longer.

Q: When we're analyzing your success over the years we talk a lot about your driving and Chad's calls on the pit box and the Hendrick engine, but your over the wall guys sometimes I think maybe get slighted. Could you talk about their contributions to your effort and how much you interact with those guys?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: It definitely is a team sport, and if you look at key races like the Brickyard there's another one that comes to mind, too there's been many races that we've won Richmond with Stewart. What those guys do on Pit Road is a huge part of the success on the track. I've been in a fortunate situation where I've had guys each year that are the best at what they do and are committed to this race team and that I have a great friendship and relationship with, too. One, we have fun, two, we take it seriously, and three, we get the results, which is nice.

Chad over the years has made some little tweaks to things and the crew guys going over the wall, and this year we have some guys that are going to come off the road none of them are going to go over the wall with that's Todd, he does our shots, and Danny, who does our engine stuff. Those guys have been there since the start of the 48 team and they're taking other positions inside the company and going to be home and enjoy the family life a little bit more. Very happy for their promotions and they're moving forward, but it's going to be different not seeing those two faces that have been there since day one.

Q: A lot of people are saying some people are saying that Carl is the favorite for the championship this year, but obviously you guys are still pretty strong. If Carl does win the championship this year, is it going to take you guys falling off, or are you guys already at the same level and he's just going to outrun you? Is he going to have to have something go wrong with you guys? What's it going to take for him to win it?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Frankly I don't see how he can be ranked at the top seed. I mean that in kind of a joking way, but he finished second, we won. So I don't understand that part. But Carl is going to be tough. I would expect that the 18 would be tough, as well. I think we've shown over the last three years that we can win on all types of tracks. We can be out to lunch last year like we were at the start and still come back and win the championship. Last year really shows the strength of our race team, and I'm excited, and I know Carl is going to be tough. There's no doubt about it, the guy is going to be tough.

I think on the mile and a half, two mile stuff, those guys not only are fast but they're able to get the fuel mileage which we saw last year. What makes Carl even more of a threat this coming year is the fact that he's done a good job of understanding Martinsville, Phoenix, tracks that have been tough for him. He's going to be tough, but I think that 48 car should be ranked No. 1.

Q: Is there anything you can still learn or have learned from Mark Martin, and also, have you done anything else interesting this off season, golf cart, surfing or anything like that?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, I tried to surf on my vacation but there wasn't a swell. As far as Mark, I haven't had a chance to work with him too much, but at the end of last year he came in and was a part of some of our team debriefs. I give him a lot of credit for our mental approach for the Phoenix race. We didn't have what we needed to at the end of practice on Saturday, and Mark may not realize it and I called him and thanked him after the race. But some things that he said and really questions he asked me stimulated some thoughts in my mind which led to conversation with Chad which led to good decisions on the car, and we had a dominating performance and won.

He has helped. I know he's going to continue to help, and I'm very intrigued by the man. I want to understand what he does, how he does it. We all know he drives a car as loose as anyone out there, and I'm eager to learn from him. There's certainly things I can learn from him.

Q: What does that trophy next to you there mean to you and does it mean more as time goes by to you?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Without a doubt. Last year when we were down here and all the winners of the 500 were around all the champions, that really helped me understand it in more detail. It's a very special trophy, and this race, it's one of the few races that has a title with it. It means the world to everyone. I know that Ryan Newman all year long, it's been something he looks back on and smiles. I know as this race comes close and all the ads are running for it and the press for it, he's going to see his face all over it, he'll start to better understand it. It takes years to really appreciate what you've accomplished at this track when you win.

Q: (Inaudible.)

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I can't say that I know much unfortunately, but I'll go home and do some research. Ask me again during Speedweeks.

Q: Once you've made it to the Cup level, did you see yourself not just making a lot of great laps but also making history?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, I can't say that I did. You know, I had an okay career in Busch and ran well in ASA and won a couple races, was always moving so fast through the ranks, two years was really my term in any car or race team. So moving my second year in Busch, and I fortunately won a race and that gave me a lot of confidence going into my rookie season, but when I started, I was just worried about having a job. I mean, Jeff turned over a lot of his race winning cars to the 48 team. They built new cars for him. Being in the same shop with a team that just won the championship, I knew it was get the job done or look for a job. And fortunately ten races in we won in Fontana, and I kind of cemented myself into the job, and Chad and I started our relationship, and it's become what it has. But when I started, there's no way. Even in '05 when we blew a tire and hit the wall, I thought how many more chances am I going to have at a championship.

(In) '04 we lost by eight points, '05 we had a shot at Tony, he didn't have the best day, we blow a tire and hit the wall. Am I going to have another chance at a championship? Even at the start of '06, I felt like we won a contender, but I had no clue then that we would be here today.

Q: With no Preseason Thunder here at Daytona, how important is the track time that you're going to get for the Shootout going to be heading into the 500, and also, have you been following Robby Gordon's progress as an off road guy, and are you impressed with what he's been able to do at Dakar?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, is it over? I didn't even know it started.

Q: He was like third at 12 or 13 stages.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Awesome. Typically I do follow it, but I've been kind of out of touch and vacationing and working down in Miami for a couple days. You know, I'm excited for him. I want him to win that. I know it would mean a lot to him. I think that the test sessions and the Bud Shootout or whatever is it Bud Shootout still, that race, will be really important for the teams that are in it, not having any testing, not being in the draft, all those things, it's going to put more emphasis on the track time that we do have when we're down here, so it will just heighten all that.

Q: Two questions: One, you see how your teammate Jeff Gordon has turned his success into essentially a brand, and are you kind of thinking about expanding your profile now that you've got three championships, you more or less have set your place in history? And the second question is how do you look at Tony Stewart now that he is an owner? Do you look at him still as a driver or as an owner who drives or a driver who owns?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: As far as the branding side, I think that most drivers have a vision and the direction they want to go. You may not understand how you're going to get there or what exactly that will be, but I want to grow and mimic somewhat like Jeff. You look at Earnhardt, Jr., you look at other sports, and really even musicians, actors, actresses, whatever it may be, you see all these things that are out there. But the catch is in most cases, really all cases, you've got to produce to get those opportunities. So my office, my team, my people, whatever you want to call it, the groups that there's a CAA who I've hired to help us with this stuff, as well, we've all been trying to create these opportunities, but the on track success really pushes it over the edge, and I think you'll see a lot in 2009, a lot of those opportunities coming together for me. It really took the on track success to get to that point. So with Jeff's four championships, he went out there and made a name for himself and then he could grow with the branding.

Second question?

Q: About Tony Stewart becoming an owner, and how do you look at him now?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'd have to wait about three or four months and get familiar with all that goes on. Obviously we're going to have a close relationship with his race team. I've texted him a few times over the holidays and checking in on him, and it sounds like he's been working his butt off. Right now in might mind he's still Tony Stewart the driver to me. I'll have to see what his role is as an owner and all that before I can really understand it, but in my eyes he's still a driver.

Q: Nice look with that beard. It does look good.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thank you.

Q: I'm wondering with all the teams that have merged and a lot of resources coming together really strong, if things lined up really good for those drivers that are in those mergers who else would you consider a threat besides Carl and Kyle?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, I look at the guys that won multiple races last year and think that they're going to be awfully tough. It's hard to ignore what the 18 did. I know you mentioned him, but I think he has the ability to do anything he wants in the sport if he can just focus in on it and keep his eye on the ball and make it happen.

Carl has his eye on the ball and is refining his game week to week, track to track. I still in my heart feel that the 24 car is a threat for the championship. I think we're putting Mark Martin in some of the best equipment out there, and we all know how badly he wants to win one. I think Jr. showed a lot of strength and maturity last year and really growing inside of Hendrick Motorsports, and I feel he's going to be a threat.

I look through the championship contenders, and I guess most of my thoughts go to guys in the big teams, so it's hard to really expand outside of that. I think Hamlin has matured a lot and was really in the thick of things. It's hard to believe that Matt Kenseth won't be a championship contender. So it's really those big team guys that I still look at.

Q: There's the old adage about not messing with success. Do you guys find yourselves in the position where you're maybe not as willing to do something or take a chance now that maybe you were when you hadn't won your first championship or maybe just had your first championship under your belt, where you were saying, guys, this has worked for three straight years for us, why should we do anything different?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: There are some things deep in the Chase that because we've had the experience and the championship battle before that we knew to stay relaxed on and really not change our focus from, kind of from where we were heading. But if you look at the three championships, in '06 was the old car, '07 was a split, and then last year was the new car, and we were obviously out to lunch at the start of the season.

For us we haven't been able to sit back and say this has worked for three years, we're just going to stay the course and it's going to work out for us: Last three years have really challenged this race team, and we've had to really get in the habit of forgetting things and forgetting technology and forgetting certain things that worked because it's just always changing. That's one thing I'm very proud of for this race team and Chad to get his head around, the split season, then a new car and then the full season with the COT.

Q: You and Jeff have always spoken highly of Casey Mears. Why do you think he hasn't been able to win yet or go up to the elite level and compete at that level yet?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think that for Casey, he's lacked a little bit of continuity with the team. If you look at his crew chief situation every year, it's been a new crew chief from the days at Ganassi and switching things around over there. He got to Hendrick, and before the season started I think there was at least one or two crew chiefs changes made in his first season and then last year going over with Allen, so I think as the year went on he and Allen started hitting on some things and we saw Casey much more competitive. If you could have taken that team rolled into the season I think he would have been in the hunt. In my opinion a lot of it is taking time to gel with the team. If you look at Ganassi, it stayed that way for a while, then he came to us, then you started seeing the changes again.

Q: Do you think he's a pretty good driver?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think he's an amazing driver.

Q: The people who are around you who are close to you in your inner circle say that you can be a cut up and that you're not like this image that you portray to the general public, how do you keep those two is that just a perception that the public gets of you, because and do you have to fight letting some of the cut up and some of the serious side of you show in your work side, if any of that makes sense?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Absolutely. For me it's not that I make the effort to switch into race mode and to do whatever I do at the track and then when I'm away from the track being the guy that I am. That's just me. I mean, that's just the way I guess I've always done it and who I am. So I'm not doing anything different than what I've always done. I guess it's on a larger stage now and more noticeable. And I have no plans to change who I am or what I'm doing.

Off the track I'm usually leading the charge to something that could lead to trouble, in a good way. I love to have fun, golf cart surfing, as long as you don't hurt yourself you're fine. I love having fun, I really do, and I have a great group of friends and have plenty of fun off the track. This winter has been pretty hard on me. My liver is not proud of me right now. It's kind of hating me to be honest with you, but it's what you've got to do when you win three in a row.

Off the track I'm just me, and when I come to the track I'm still just me, but I've always been one that had to focus really hard on what I do, and I still have that approach today that I did when I was a kid riding motorcycles.

Q: It's kind of a follow up to what Gary asked before about Stewart. Everybody sort of refers to the Yates cars as Roush team cars. Do you consider those guys since they're so dependent on Hendrick and there's some cross pollination with Darian Grubb going over there, more teammates at this point?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: It could be, and we obviously have a great relationship with the Haas group and supplied a lot of stuff over the years, but it's kind of t,, he information has been there, but it's been tough to pull a lot from. It's tough to really learn much, even inside of our own company it's tough to learn. If Jeff goes to a track and tests, and we know them very well, we'll still go to the track and say Jeff thought it did this, will it work for us. So that information sharing is very hard.

I think the changes that have been made at Stewart Haas with Tony coming in and Ryan, that should help us. I certainly know that we're going to be able to help those guys a lot, and I feel with Darian and all that, we have the best environment to have them help us. But it's tough. I mean, the 5 car goes to the track and tests, we look at what worked, then we try it, but we still have to date it ourselves, same with the 24, the 88. Styles of drivers and crew chiefs are so different, even if it's someone out of the same shop you can't count on it working.

Q: Do you think they'll be competitive right out of the box?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think so. I think both are very smart. They may not be leading the most laps, but I think they'll both be in really good points scoring positions. I certainly wish them the best and hope that I can help in any way possible.

Q: I don't think anybody will ever have the garage leader role that Dale Earnhardt Senior had, but who do you see among drivers as kind of the leaders in the garage right now and where do you fit in that hierarchy now?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I've certainly made more of an effort in the last year or two to go up into the track and really call Mike or Brian away from the track. Everybody is so involved in their jobs at the track it's hard to really communicate much. But I feel like I can help in a lot of ways, and I love this sport and I want to engage and be a part of it. I'm not asking for that role and I'm not sure who really has it. It seems like a blend between Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon in a lot of cases, that those two kind of lead the charge.

As I've grown in the sport and my credentials pile up, I feel like I deserve to be heard a little bit more often and of course I want to handle it the right way and not come in blasting guys and acting truthfully coming to them from a situation where you don't have an opinion, just sharing the facts, and as I learn how to approach them with things, I feel that my voice has been heard and I better understand the sport and the challenges they face, and hopefully from the advice they're taking from multiple drivers, my voice can be heard and help make the sport better.

DENISE MALOOF: Thank you, Jimmie.

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Robby Gordon , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Jimmie Johnson , Mark Martin
Teams Hendrick Motorsports