Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet, discusses his rookie season and his outlook for his first NASCAR Winston Cup start at Michigan International Speedway this weekend. For the 2002 season, Johnson is...
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet, discusses his rookie season and his outlook for his first NASCAR Winston Cup start at Michigan International Speedway this weekend.
For the 2002 season, Johnson is currently 2nd in points and 1st in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings. Thus far in 2002, Johnson has earned two NASCAR Winston Cup victories (California and Dover), and three Bud Pole Awards (Daytona, Talladega, and Charlotte).
The following are highlights of the teleconference with Jimmie Johnson:
Q: Based on your success so far this season, do you feel like you have a shot at winning the title?
"Believe it or not, I'm not thinking about it. Championships are won a few years into your career. Right now, our focus is to get all we can each and every weekend - still keeping in mind our goals that we set forth at the beginning of the year like qualifying without a provisional and finishing in the top 15. Our hopes have changed a little bit as we go on here and we feel like we're competitive to win races. But the way the points work out, that's something we really can't focus on. There's so much racing left (in the season) and anything can happen. If you worry about points racing this early in the season, you end up not performing at the end of the year when it's time to. So, we're not putting that burden of pressure on ourselves."
Q: Because you began in Off-Road racing did you think that would be your career?
"I started racing motocross when I was five. I wanted to be like Rick Johnson and David Bailey and Jeff Ward. By the time I was 13, those dreams had changed to being an Off-Road racer and racing against Rick Johnson again and (guys like) Ivan Stewart and Walker Evans. And then when I was 17 or so, Chevrolet started backing out of the Off-Road Racing and if I was going to continue, I needed to look elsewhere. Stock Cars ended up being the direction that Chevrolet could take me. I dreamed of racing Indy Cars, but I just didn't have an opportunity. The more I looked into it, the more I liked racing Stock Cars."
Q: When the Hendrick Motorsports opportunity was presented to you, did you feel like you were ready for it?
"The was is was presented to me allowed me to finish up my second year in the Busch Series. I signed the contract with Hendrick Motorsports in the first year of my Busch career. So I was able to have another full year of Busch experience along with testing and working with the engineers and personnel at Hendrick Motorsports. It was the right opportunity for me to grow and learn from. There was still worry about what our rookie season would hold for us. Were we going to be able to qualify for the first four events? But you've just to hope you're ready for the opportunity and I guess we were."
Q: Can you explain your success?
"I've got great equipment and great people surrounding me. It's been obviously an incredible season and hopefully it will keep going."
Q: What's been the toughest part so far?
"The races are longer and all that, but it's still racing and that's what I've done my whole life. The new fan interest and media interest had been the biggest change for me. It's been out of control on those aspects. That's been something I wasn't ready for and would never expect."
Q: Did Jeff Gordon give you any advice about those things?
"Yeah, he did. You just have to set a pace that you can keep with the fans, media, sponsors, and everything that goes along with it. It's a long, grueling season. When you start at a certain pace, it's hard to pull back. If you can set a pace and stay there all year long, you'll come out ahead. So that's something I'm really paying close attention to."
Q: On the car he will be using at the Michigan race
"We're bringing the same car that we won with in California. The tracks are similar. We feel that Monte Carlo will be the best bet for success there. They are different, so we're going to fall back on some of the No. 24 team's (Jeff Gordon) notes and look at the changes we need to make between California and Michigan in both qualifying trim and race trim. We were successful in Fontana so hopefully we'll be able to unload off the truck and be able to get in the top of the charts all weekend."
Q: On his rookie rivalry with Ryan Newman
"We've both been able to be in great situations with teammates who are veterans that have seen all forms of success and that are there for us both on and off the racetrack. Off the track, Ryan and I have formed a friendship that continues to grow week in and week out. He is a serious competitor and a smart guy who knows about his racecars. He does a great job in the car as well. Unfortunately he's had some weird things happen to him mechanically that have kept him out of contention. He's had the car to beat at three or four races now, but has had something happen that you don't normally expect. But he's going to win races and be a future star of NASCAR. He already is. I'm looking forward to this rivalry lasting for our entire careers."
Q: Is the success of the younger drivers due to preparation or opportunity?
"If we weren't in good equipment with established organizations, rookies wouldn't be able to come in and perform. I'm the only rookie in my environment. Chad Knaus (crew chief) is young, but he's been racing in Winston Cup a long time and this is his third year as a crew chief. He's the next thing closest to a rookie that's there (at Hendrick Motorsports). The people we have to fall back on are used to winning championships and races. This allows me just to be the rookie and to learn week in and week out. There's a lot of lessons and I'm glad I'm the only rookie. It sure makes a difference."
Q: On doing well at the tougher tracks
"I don't have an explanation. The Busch Series has prepared me for a lot of these racetracks. I knocked down a lot of walls and learned the rhythm of a lot of these tracks during my Busch career. I have to give a lot of credit to that. I think experience is extremely important and I think those two years in Busch - plus the equipment I'm in - has helped."
Q: Is there such a thing as a 'west coast' driving style?
"I don't think there is east and west coast driving style. Everybody forms their own driving style when you're a kid racing and it just grows with you. I try not to run people over and race clean and hard. It's more about the people you're racing with than which coast you grew up racing on. If you grow up racing against guys who are roughing you up and pushing you around, you have to fight back to hold your own."
Q: How much of your time do you spend doing media interviews?
"We stack it up into a couple of days a week so that I can have some time off when we're home. We slow down at the racetrack when we get close to qualifying and racing. I spend more time doing media stuff than I do in the racecar."
Q: With Father's Day next Sunday, what does it mean to have your dad with you at the races?
Note: Jimmie's dad, Gary Johnson, drives Jimmie's motorhome to the races. "It means a lot. There was a time - about six or seven years when I was chasing my dream - that he was on the west coast still working. I kept contact with my mom and dad and brothers by phone. That's nice, but it doesn't cut it. The fact that they've all moved back here (Charlotte area) and that my dad's on the road really makes it nice. It's just that feeling you have when family is around. My dad acts like every other dad. He doesn't exactly say everything you want to hear. But I appreciate everything that comes along with it and I enjoy it. Not many people get to have their parents nearby and I feel pretty lucky about that."
Q: Has there been any particular weekend so far this year when it was really great to have your dad there?
"California was probably one of the more disappointing times. He wasn't able to be there (for the win) and neither was my mother. My brother was there. That was the first win and you don't know how often the wins are going to come. I was really bummed that he wasn't able to be there for that first one. But we backed it up in Dover and he was able to be there and be a part of it. We still need one of those victory circle photos with my mom and my youngest brother."
Q: How important is it to back-up that first win?
"The first won is pretty much a whirlwind. You're standing there in amazement. You can't believe what's all happened. With all the media attention and all the friends and family calling you, you kind of forget what you've accomplished. But the second one was really nice to get under our belts. It takes the pressure off of us that we could back it up."
Q: Has your Off-Road racing background helped you to adapt to Stock Car racing?
"There are certain aspects that apply. But the way you set-up a dirt car versus a pavement car is so different. After I moved to Charlotte, I moved to Wisconsin to work on my ASA car. I literally had to start at ground zero in understanding the set-ups on racecars. I knew how to make a vehicle go straight and over bumps, but now we're making left-hand turns and not getting off the ground. You're not jumping. It was a big process to learn all over again. But driving-wise, I think I've learned a lot of valuable things on the dirt."
Q: On his past experience at MIS
"We haven't tested there. I ran there in the Busch car and I think the worst finish I had in those two seasons was sixth. So I'm looking forward to it. We've got the car we won with at California. With my past experience and success there, we're hoping we can unload and have a shot at the pole and at having a good finish there and even a win."
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of the Michigan track?
"Initially, qualifying is on my mind the most. During the race, you can really run any line on the racetrack. Race-wise, you can find somewhere where your car will run fast. In qualifying, you're on the edge there. You're carrying a lot of speed. You've got to be right on the bottom and there's a lot of handling involved. I'm just going to tiptoe to get started in qualifying trim, and make sure that we don't hurt the racecar or anything. But that's my biggest concern."
Q: Have you ever thought of giving another young driver a chance someday by being a team owner?
"No, I really haven't thought about that much. I have two younger brothers that want to race (Jarit, age 23, and Jessie, age 13) and I want to help them as much as I can. Right now, I don't have a huge interest in being a car owner. I don't know if I will (in the future).
Q: On last month's test session at Sears Point Raceway
"It was pretty important for me. I had been there once when I was 15 years old at a driving school. So, it had been 11 years since I had been on that racetrack. Neither the quality of the laps nor the vehicle I was in then would cross over (to compare with Winston Cup). So it was important for me to get out there and test and get familiar with the racetrack and with driving a Winston Cup car on a road course.
"Sears Point is a little further north than where I grew up, but I've always enjoyed road course racing. I hope to have a strong showing on the road course. I don't think I'm a favorite going into it, but I think we stand a shot at a good finish out there."
Q: On racing at Indianapolis
"I've never been inside the racetrack. I've driven around the outside of it. I've always wanted to race at Indy. As a kid, I think everybody wants to race the Indianapolis 500. When I chose the path to Stock Car racing, I didn't know if I'd ever be able to race at Indy. Now we run at the Brickyard and it's something I'm looking forward to. I can't wait to get in there and feel the history and get out on the racetrack and make some laps. I've seen this track a lot of television. Coming from the west coast, NASCAR ran at Riverside, but that went away. Growing up as a kid, Stock Car racing wasn't that big out on the west coast. Indy Car and Off-Road racing were popular."
Q: Will Jeff Gordon's success at Indy rub off on you?
"I hope so. In my first time there, I hope that I can have the same success that he had."