JIMMIE JOHNSON, NO. 48 LOWE'S IMPALA SS met with media and discussed the racing in the Coca-Cola 600, his analysis of the season, the ongoing challenge of the new race car, testing, boxing with Humpy Wheeler, rear housing rules, his opinion on ...
JIMMIE JOHNSON, NO. 48 LOWE'S IMPALA SS met with media and discussed the racing in the Coca-Cola 600, his analysis of the season, the ongoing challenge of the new race car, testing, boxing with Humpy Wheeler, rear housing rules, his opinion on having a traveling safety crew, his personal driving style, and more.
LAST YEAR'S COCA-COLA 600 WAS A WEIRD GAS-MILEAGE RACE. DO YOU EVER LOOK BACK AT THE STRATEGY TEAMS EMPLOYED AND WHAT YOU DID IN THAT EVENT? "If I remember right, we weren't even close. We were up front racing for the win and led a lot at the end, and it's one of those things that if you're going to save fuel, you've got to decide early and hope that it works out and that everything plays into your hand. That was the strategy that Casey (Mears) and those guys put together and they barely made it, but it worked out. We have a couple of those take place every year and it's tough to win in this sport. You need all elements. And if it's on fuel mileage, so be it. This race has a history of being kind of weird. We've had up to 20-plus wrecks or cautions or whatever it was, tire issues, and I've seen it all in just the few years I've been in this sport. I'm going to buckle in and know that anything can happen over the course of the night.
TALK ABOUT THE EBB AND FLOW OF 400 LAPS HERE, 600 MILES. THE SUN GOES DOWN AND THE TRACK CHANGES. YOU GET TIRED. "It is a long day. It's really amazing how fast it goes by when you're inside the car. For whatever reason, the laps click off and the time goes by and before you know it, you're in the closing laps of the race. Luckily for us, it goes that way. But there are a lot of elements to deal with. You're not always going to have track position on your side. That's something you really focus on for a 400-mile race. Here, track position is more important than it's ever been, but you're not going to have it. You're going to have a lot of strategy coming into play and you need to be smart. It's tough enough to run 500 miles at a track. The real goal is to run all 600. You've got to be smart and take care of your stuff all night long and then race at the end for the win."
HOW DO YOU MENTALLY PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE NEXT STEP IN THE SEASON LIKE GETTING INTO THE CHASE? "I really think the crunch is now coming on all the teams that are around that 12th position in points. We're in a decent spot. But still, there are a lot of races and a lot that can take place. We need to be smart and make sure that we're collecting points and climbing up the ladder and separating ourselves from that 12th place position. The goal right now is to make sure that you transfer into the Chase and ideally, to not go into Richmond with everything on the line. Hopefully you can be mathematically locked in and roll in from there. After I get those basics out of the way, I look at winning races and winning poles.
"That's what it's all about. We've been close in Texas on a big track. We had a decent performance in the All-Star event. We've been making gains and we're getting smarter each week. I feel we'll be very competitive on the short tracks like we've shown this year, but we still have a little bit of work to do on the bigger tracks."
DO YOU BREAK THE SEASON INTO SEGMENTS? "I haven't yet. But I guess if I really think about it, I probably should. The Chase is obviously one segment and before the season starts, I guess I look at it in two segments: transferring and then racing for the championship. But as time goes on, there really is a third step there where you need to worry about that 12th position in points and focus more on the last eight or 10 races leading into the Richmond event before the Chase starts."
DO YOU FEEL FORTUNATE TO BE WHERE YOU ARE IN POINTS, CONSIDERING SOME OF THE THINGS THAT HAVEN'T GONE THE WAY YOU WANTED? AND DO YOU FEEL LIKE NOW THIS IS THE PLACE WHERE YOU CAN START GETTING ON A SERIOUS RUN OF WINNING RACES? "We hope to get on that run. We've had a couple of races where we were caught up and stuff, but in general we've been running. We've haven't really been taken out of races and crashes, so where we are, is where we are. We're not real happy being where we're at. It hasn't been a horrible start to the season. We've won an event and we're in a decent spot in the points. But it's in our minds that we need to keep developing our stuff and get a little better. Hopefully we'll get on a tear and win a bunch of races."
GIVEN HOW WEATHER-SENSITIVE THIS TRACK IS, DOES THAT PUT MORE OF A PREMIUM ON QUALIFYING TONIGHT? "The car in traffic is pretty tough to drive. And track position is more important than it's ever been. The track itself, I'd have to say that during the All-Star event, didn't change as much as I expected it to. I'm not sure if that's just the track or the tire combination or if it's this car. We have knowledge from the past but it's with a different car, a different tire, and a different situation. So we're all still learning this and I think we'll be smarter this week than we were last (week). But in the past when we ran here with the old car on the old surface, literally to the hour of the evening, we knew what adjustment we needed to make because we had things figured out so well. We're trying to get back to that spot right now in knowing exactly what you need for every segment of this race."
HOW DO YOU VIEW HUMPY WHEELER'S LEGACY IN THIS SPORT? "Oh, he's done so much for our sport and has really been the ultimate promoter. I just can't thank him enough for what he's done for our sport and the positive impact he has left in it (by being) the generous and gracious man that he's been. We're sure going to miss him in that role."
ARE YOU SURPRISED AT ALL BY THE ABRUPTNESS OF HIS DEPARTURE? "The abruptness of it has caught a lot of us off-guard". Something like that, you usually know a little bit further in advance and there is some type of almost farewell tour for that matter. So when you hear about it a few days before the 600, it certainly caught me off-guard."
WHAT IS THE CRAZIEST THING YOU'VE EVER SEEN HUMPY WHEELER DO? "I got into a boxing ring with him when I first moved to North Carolina. It was at the gym and he's a Golden Gloves boxer. We were in the racquetball courts, actually and he has me punching the wall and wearing my arms out, actually. And then as we squared off and as we were kind of fake boxing, he lands a couple of punches on me and I'm like, man, he's punching me. So I swing back a couple of times and he's like all right, there we go. Now I'm getting that fire in you. And he would tell me, like all right, you're gloves are too low and I'm going to hit you in the head. I'd hear him say it, and sure enough, he'd hit me in the head (laughs). And I'm like, all right, so I put my hands up to block my head and it was too high, and he'd hit me in the stomach. So, I never thought that I would be in a position to punch each other. But it was a lot of fun and he's quite an athlete."
SO HOW OLD WAS HUMPY THEN? "That was probably in 2000, I'd say. 1999 or 2000 when I first got back here."
DID YOU THINK YOU WERE GOING TO TAKE IT EASY ON HIM? "Yeah, I thought I was going to take it easy on him, one, and two, I was afraid to hit him. But he hit me pretty hard and just out of being punched, I reacted and hit him back pretty good. And he's like, all right, there we go. There's a little fire. That's what I'm looking for. It was just such an odd thing to be sitting there punching Humpy Wheeler."
HUMPY SAYS HE'S NOT RETIRING, JUST SIMPLY LEAVING. WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE HIM IF HE IS INVOLVED IN NASCAR? "I can see him in a lot of roles. He's been a big part of the Charlotte community from a fund-raising standpoint and a business standpoint. It's hard to think of him not in Motorsports. But with all that's going on in the area, we also have the NASCAR Hall of Fame and all that we have, I can see Humpy Wheeler easily landing in some capacity somewhere within the racing community. He's done so much and has been such a part of it, I'd hate to see him not in the community."
REGARDING THE MEMO ABOUT THE REAR HOUSING, HOW WILL THAT AFFECT THE RACING AND YOUR DRIVING? "From where we are, I don't think the rule is changing anything we've been doing. We were kind of at that mark. Here in the last two or three weeks, we've seen some cars really, really yawed out. I think that rule is really going to affect maybe the No. 77, maybe the Red Bull cars and a few other guys who really had the car twisted up. I think the new rule is putting everybody back to where we are."
IS THERE ANY CONSOLATION TO HAVING A DATA BASE THAT DOESN'T WORK? "Yeah, in a lot of ways we know what adjustments work and what don't work and the cars react to adjustments much differently than the other car. So we've learned a lot of things not to do and we're still so excited to find that big thing that we need to do."
IT WOULD BE HELPFUL TO GET TO THE CHASE AND KNOW WHAT NOT TO TRY "That's very true. The encouraging thing is in short tracks it's worked as we thought it would last year and we've been able to perform and run well there. The big tracks, we're getting closer. A lot of guys had their cars twisted up early in the season and now we have a rule that's going to change that and a lot of people are catching up to that. So there are certainly some quirks to this thing that we just need to find the right areas to mess with. And we're getting smarter. It hasn't shown yet, but Darlington was a really good race weekend for us. We learned a lot about the car. We learned a lot about the front end of our car and how to improve that and make that better. And then last week, we had the front end working so well that we needed to go to the back of the car to get it back in the track. I think we made some good changes from the All-Star race to this race to now have the back of the car keep up with the front of the car. So hopefully we're on to something here and we've had a good two or three weeks that will bring the car up to speed."
ONE OF THE BIGGEST COMPLAINTS IS THAT THERE AREN'T ANY AREAS TO MESS WITH TO HAVE THE KIND OF RACING THE PEOPLE WANT TO SEE. ARE THERE AREAS YOU CAN STILL TINKER WITH THAT WILL GET US BACK TO THAT? "We thought there wasn't anywhere to look. And then (laughs) the No. 99 (Carl Edwards) shows up at the start of the season and his car is twisted. And we're like, how in the world does that happen? And then it's grown to what it is now and cars are literally cruising down the road at 30 or 40 degrees you know, dead sideways. They're not straight. So there are areas to mess with and NASCAR has done a great job of trying to keep the quality in car. But we have lost a lot of downforce in the cars and that's been the hardest problem in traffic. Especially on the fast tracks, you just don't have the stability in the car to commit to the throttle and to carry the speed that you need to pass someone. And that's what led these teams to twisting the cars because as you turn the car sideways, it puts the wing out into the wind and it also puts the side of the car in the wind and creates a lot of downforce and a lot of side force and brings stability back.
"It's a different animal and we're learning and I have to keep reminding myself that this is the first year for these cars on big tracks and last year was a big learning experience with the car on the short tracks and that's what this year is for the 1.5-miles."
ON TESTING AT NASHVILLE AT KENTUCKY "At Kentucky, the track keeps seeping water so we haven't had a chance to really run there. We sat there and watched the water run down the track a few times."
SO HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS WEEK? IS IT GOING TO DETERMINE IF YOU NEED TO DO MORE TESTING AT SOME OF THESE BIGGER TRACKS? "We have a lot of testing still ahead of us, from road course to short track stuff getting ready for Loudon and big track stuff. We want to be right in the Chase and whatever we have to do between now and then (is what we'll do). One, I want to make the Chase, and two, two be as strong as we can in the Chase, and we're going to do it."
Continued in part 2