Tuesday, October 1, 2002 Part 1 of 2 Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the EA Sports 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race next weekend at Talladega ...
Tuesday, October 1, 2002
Part 1 of 2
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the EA Sports 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race next weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.
Johnson comes to Talladega as one of the hottest drivers in NASCAR. Finishing 10th last week in Kansas, Johnson put his name in the record books as the first rookie in Winston Cup history to lead the championship points battle. So far in 2002, he has earned three NASCAR Winston Cup victories (California, Dover and Dover), four Bud Pole Awards (Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte and Richmond) and recorded 18 top-10 finishes, including six top-5s (Atlanta, California, Dover, Pocono, Chicagoland, and Dover).
WAS THERE A POINT IN THE SEASON WHEN YOU FELT LIKE YOU COULD BE A CONTENDER FOR THE TITLE? "We've been in the top five since the mid-way point at least, maybe even earlier, and have been hanging around the top five all season long. That has given us the reality that we might have a shot at it. But even now, being the position of leading and going into Talladega, it's kind of a novelty item to be leading right now. There are just so many opportunities at Talladega for things to change and shake up again. It's great to be in the position we're in but until we get through the superspeedway race (Talladega) and the short track race (Martinsville), I don't think there's any sense getting too worked up over it. We're just going to try to get as many points as we can.
"I don't think it's necessarily going to be whoever wins the most races is going to win the championship here at the end, it's going to be whoever doesn't have bad luck that wins the championship."
WAS THERE A TIME DURING THE SEASON WHEN YOU FELT THERE WAS NO WAY YOU COULD BE A CONTENDER FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP? "When we broke a gear at Sonoma, that gave us the shock of realizing that something could happen and we might not be in a position to win it. At Bristol, when we had that incident with Robby Gordon, I thought it would hurt our chances. But nobody has been able to run away with this championship. It's just been a battle that won't go away. Nobody wants to take off and run with it."
HOW INTENSE IS IT TO GO TO TALLADEGA WITH THE POINT LEAD? "We're just going to go to Talladega and see what happens with this new fuel cell. I don't think there's been a change in the intensity level at all for us. We've found ourselves in a neat position leading the points, but there's still seven races left to go. You never know what's going to happen at Talladega. So we're not really worrying about it too much."
HOW MUCH WILL THE NEW FUEL CELL CHANGE THE STRATEGY OF THE RACE AT TALLADEGA? "There are a variety of different theories that have been thrown out there as to how it's going to work out. But no matter what, it's going to make it more of a team effort with the multiple pit stops we're going to have. We already have a lot of pit stops in the long races, but this is going to be something similar to Darlington or Rockingham where you have seven, eight, nine, or ten pit stops - I don't know how that's going to work out but you're going to have a lot of pit stops. It might not necessarily be won or lost in the pits I don't think - it could be - especially if you've got a Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Michael Waltrip who comes out in the lead after that last pit stop. They really know how to keep everybody behind them. So it's going to put it back on the crews' hands."
WHEN YOU LEARNED YOU WERE THE POINTS LEADER AFTER THE KANSAS RACE, WERE YOU STUNNED? "I was. I figured something had happened because when I pulled up to the transporter, media people were everywhere. I figured that something was going on and maybe Mark (Martin) had some trouble. I was surprised to have the troubles that we did and come back and finish 10th. I was extremely proud of the team and the way everybody stuck together and didn't give up. We were able to salvage a top 10 out of a bad day and to end up with the points lead. It was pretty neat."
DO YOU REALIZE THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE THAT YOU, AS A ROOKIE, ACTUALLY HAVE A CHANCE TO WIN THE TITLE? "We realize the chance is there. We still have the same approach and the same attitude. There have been times during the season when we've tried to maintain this carefree attitude. There have been times when we've paid attention to the championship and held conservative through that. But now, we're working hard to remind one another to keep an open mind. The possibility is out there to be the champion of a Winston Cup Series, but we need to do what's gotten us to this point, which is to have fun and be fast. We're just trying to keep that attitude. I guess that whoever would be leading the points going into Talladega would be pretty carefree about it. You just don't know what's going to happen at Talladega."
ARE YOU INTIMIDATED BY THE POSSIBILITY OF A BIG CRASH AT TALLADEGA? "You race like that at all the speedway races. You know that you're not going to be able to get out of the pack and that you're going to be stuck in the pack. When you strap yourself in, you know the odds aren't going to work in your favor. One of the times you strap yourself in there something's going to happen and you're going to hit something hard. In the Busch Series, I hit hard a few times and fortunately I haven't in the Winston Cup car. I really try to put some positive energy out there and get the team to think the same way. If there's any truth to that (positive thinking) we'd like to make sure that that everybody on the team puts forth some creative thoughts toward us coming home with all the fenders on the car."
IS IT AS HARD FOR YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING AS IT IS FOR EVERYBODY ELSE? "We're (the team) just amazed and shocked as everyone else. But we have an opportunity of a lifetime and we'll just see what happens."
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF THIS SEASON? "I've gained a lot of confidence in my abilities as a driver and my abilities to communicate what feel under the race car. But most importantly, I've learned how important it is to have the right chemistry with the people that surround you and how important that is in the level of competition in Winston Cup. When you break it all down into what makes a successful team, it's all about communication and the people you have with you."
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO RELIEVE THE TENSION AND HAVE SOME FUN - AT THE TRACK OR AWAY FROM THE TRACK? "We're a young group of guys and we have fun on the radio, in the garage area, and at the transporter. We're just being late 20, early 30-year olds just having a good time. I think that's the best way for me to put it."
WHAT TO YOU REMEMBER MOST ABOUT YOUR CUP DEBUT AT CHARLOTTE LAST YEAR? "It was probably one of the weirdest days of my life when I qualified for my first Winston Cup race. I had the joys of qualifying for my first Winston Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway and our Monte Carlo qualified 15th. With all the stress building up and to go out and have such a great lap was really one of the ultimate highs that I've had. But at the same time, that night I lost my best friend Blaise Alexander in the ARCA race. It was just an odd day that led to some rough times thereafter. But it was absolute highs in one sense and absolute lows in the other."
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THAT RACE? "We were really fast in the race. We ran in the top five in most of the event. We were caught in the pits in green flag conditions, which put us a lap down along with Jeff (Gordon) and Terry (Labonte). We were all able to get our laps back. I was working my way through the field and got impatient and was charging hard and spun out and backed the car into the fence. It was a good outing for us and I think it was our first reality check about the potential that the team had."
ON HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH BLAISE ALEXANDER "I met Blaise when I moved to the North Carolina area. It took a little while to get to know him. But once you spent some time and got to know him, you found he was such a neat person with a carefree spirit. Everyone liked him. I formed a friendship with him and his family and his brothers. There was some comfort with him. I enjoyed being around him. He was a lot of fun and I miss him dearly.
"As good of friends as we were, I remember how bad he always wanted to beat me on the race track. I've been very lucky throughout my career and he would always remind me of how lucky I was in certain situations. Whenever there was a wreck, I'd always seem to get him caught up in it somehow. He'd be upset at me for causing a wreck and him getting crashed in it - or him beating me. He wouldn't let me live it down for a week. With that in mind, I've got him on the front of every single one of my race cars. There's a little thing that one of my friends at the shop writes in his name and puts some flames on it on the bumper of the car. Every time we're out there on the race track, he beats me across the finish line. It's kind of a little thing that ties it all together there."
WAS HE A JOKESTER? "Yeah, he was always good for some pranks, that's for sure. Maybe he's responsible for some of the carefree attitude that I have about racing these days. He took it very seriously and applied himself and did everything that he could, but at the same time he found a way to let his hair down and have some balance away from the race track."
WOULD HE HAVE HAD FUN TEASING YOU THIS YEAR ABOUT YOUR POPULARITY? "Oh, I can hear his voice at different times - there were phrases he would say. I think about him all the time - especially with how good we are running. He would be loving every minute of it."
More from Jimmie Johnson Part II