Chicagoland: Jimmie Johnson press conference

Jimmie Johnson Teleconference Transcript Tuesday, July 8, 2003 Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet, discusses his 2003 season and outlook for the upcoming Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in ...

Jimmie Johnson Teleconference Transcript
Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet, discusses his 2003 season and outlook for the upcoming Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

Johnson currently sits in sixth place in the NASCAR Winston Cup points standings (472 points behind the leader) following his 18th-place finish in Sunday's Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Johnson has ranked among the top-10 in the Winston Cup points standings for 50 consecutive races, dating back to the 2002 spring race in Atlanta. Johnson has competed in just one race at Chicagoland Speedway, scoring a 4th-place finish in his rookie season one year ago.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THE CHICAGO RACE THIS WEEKEND?

"I think Chicago is going to be a great race for us. Last year we finished in the top five after having to start in the back in a back-up car. Hopefully we won't hit anything in practice and qualifying and we can start with the car we plan on and have a little track position behind us this year and have a great race."

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT CHICAGO BEING A TRACK WHERE PASSING IS NOT AT A PREMIUM?

"What you find with the new race tracks is that they've done such a good job of building a smooth race track and the quality of the asphalt is so good, that the bottom lane is the fastest way around the track. If you move up at all into the second or third lane, you're just making your distance longer and there's no benefit to that. Hopefully the winters have been hard on the race track. And with all the racing that's gone on there the last couple of years, hopefully we've taken away some of the grip from the bottom lane so that the second lane will start to have at least the same lap time if you move up a little bit. That's the thing we fight with new race tracks. After they are four or five years old, I think you start to see the second groove coming into play. So I'm excited. The track is getting a little bit of age on it and hopefully we'll have multiple grooves."

DO YOU USE PRACTICE TIME TO SEE IF THAT GROOVE IS STARTING TO MOVE UP?

"Even on some of the older surfaces, you won't find a second groove coming into play during Happy Hour. For you to run the longer distance around the track, the bottom groove has got to be pretty slick and you usually don't see that until you get into the race on Sunday. The Busch race (on Saturday) really finally does in the bottom groove and greases it up enough that the second groove starts to come in and we don't see it until Sunday."

WITH THE NUMBER OF ATHLETES GETTING INTO TROUBLE WITH THE LAW RECENTLY, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE KIDS LOOKING TO YOU AS AN IDOL? IS IT EXTRA PRESSURE OR DO YOU LIKE BEING KNOWN AS SOMEONE A KID CAN LOOK UP TO?

"Both. When I started racing as a kid, I never thought I'd be in a role model situation. That's not what I aspired to be. I aspired to be the best racer possible. With that territory and as you become older and you're in front of the camera that stuff comes along. It's not anything I thought would happen, but it's there. It's an element that exists. It's a responsibility that I've taken on to try to do a good job at because there are a lot of kids out there and it's something that means something to me as well. I've got a 14 year old brother that looks up to me so I guess I've had those big eyes looking at me since I was pretty young."

"Everybody makes mistakes in all kinds of sports. Some of the stuff is uncalled for and maybe even some false accusations floating around with the recent stuff going around with the NBA. Everybody makes mistakes. You're put in the limelight so anything that you do it going to be blown through the roof. Sports are so popular and there are so many ways the fans can communicate to one another. And there's also the media. So if there's a rumbling or if there is something out there, it can go a lot further today than it could in the past."

IS IT HARD KNOWING THAT ALL EYES ARE ON YOU FOR 24 HOURS A DAY?

"Yeah, it is. Just watching what happened with Kobe (Bryant, five-time NBA All Star) yesterday and then I watched something on television where the paparazzi were chasing down movie stars. Fortunately race car drivers aren't in that situation. In a way it makes you mad to see that people have to tolerate all that stuff, but at the same time that's one of the demons that comes with being so popular and being so recognized and making the money and being a star like a lot of these guys are. But you feel bad for them that they can't go shopping or do anything without people hounding them and being on them and wanting things - let alone if it's something off the wall, it's going to be exploited and blown up."

ON LAST WEEK'S RACE AT DAYTONA BEING A FUEL MILEAGE RACE?

"We all knew going into it that it could be a fuel mileage race and really, every race that we go to there's an opportunity for it being a fuel mileage race. I can speak for Hendrick Motorsports - especially my team - that if it comes down to fuel mileage, I would not expect to see the No. 48 car pulling into Victory Lane. With our race cars and the downforce and horsepower that we build - especially on the intermediate tracks - does nothing but eat fuel. We don't get the best of fuel mileage. We've made some great improvements this year with the new body style. It's helped the Monte Carlos a lot with fuel mileage. But the Roush Fords have been the ones to beat on fuel mileage. It's been well known. I hate that it turned out the way that it did because it didn't work out in my favor, but that race along with every other one really turns into strategy. It depends on who can get fuel and tires the soonest and get the track position. That's the way it's all turning out any more."

DO YOU BELIEVE IT IS THE STRATEGY OF RACING?

"It is the strategy of racing. It's the way it is. It just doesn't always show up. Michigan, Fontana, and even this weekend at Chicago, tires aren't going to be the huge deal. The first one with enough fuel to go the distance is probably going to be your winner. It's just how it is. It's one of the elements we have to play with. It's so dramatic at Daytona because only a few cars could make it. Most of the time, everybody has to come in and you don't have such a change up in the field where so many guys can't make it and only a few that can and it's won that way."

ON THE SMALLER FUEL CELL

"I think they (NASCAR) tried to separate the fields. It's worked somewhat but it's still impossible to keep everybody apart. I don't think the fuel cell is the total answer there. We've seen fewer wrecks, so that's been good. Maybe it has been working some. I think I've seen a lot of smart driving going on more than anything."

DO YOU AGREE WITH DALE EARNHARDT JR WHEN HE SAID HE'D LIKE TO SEE NASCAR CHANGE THE CARS' FRONT ENDS TO MAKE THEM HARDER TO DRIVE IN CLEAN AIR AND TOUGHER ON THE LEAD CAR SO PEOPLE COULD PASS?

"The lead car is the hardest one to pass. I ran second for what seemed all night long (at Daytona). I could work my way through and pass people. I'd be behind the No. 29 (Harvick) or the No. 15 (Waltrip) or the No. 8 (Earnhardt Jr.) and be stuck in second. To pass from third to second isn't that hard. The further back in the line you go, the easier it is to pass. But when you try to make it from second to first, it's one of the hardest passes to make. There are a few reasons why and I don't know how they can really fix that. But as soon as we get the field to where everybody is passing again and it's easy to pass, we have everybody running in a 43-car pack again and we have these big wrecks. So as soon as NASCAR tries to fix one thing, it hurts something somewhere else. Its just give and take and we've got to decide what's good for the sport."

WHY HAVE WINSTON CUP DRIVERS BEEN ABLE TO AVOID THE "CELEBRITY" PROBLEMS & TROUBLES THAT SEEM TO PLAGUE ATHLETES IN OTHER SPORTS?

"That's a good question. I don't know. For whatever reason, the problems don't show up in our sport. As drivers, we don't have to take steroids or illegal drugs to enhance our performances, so that's not there for us. That temptation doesn't exist. I want to say that our schedules are grueling and we don't have an opportunity to get into trouble, but all major sports have a lot of traveling and training. I don't really know."

HOW HAS YOUR SUCCESS IN WINSTON CUP CHANGED YOUR LIFE?

"My life has changed a lot. I'm learning and I'm trying to figure out how to handle that to the best of my ability. It's a tough challenge. What's weird is that I've been doing this for a long time but all of a sudden this year it's changed so much. I feel like I'm the same guy who started out racing however long ago and now all of a sudden it's changed. So many people care. Friends that I didn't realize I had now claim to be my best friends (laughs). There are just a lot of different situations. I've heard about it and people have said to watch it when it happens. I thought I dodged the bullet. I went through the Busch Series and my first year in Winston Cup and now it's made a big change. You've just got to make adjustments. I've got to make adjustments that I'm comfortable with and things that make me happier and make me a better race car driver. In the process, I've got to hope that the people who are close to me understand and they see when I make changes it's because it's something that I have to do and that they don't get offended by it or bothered by it. It's just a very tough balance."

HAVE YOU HAD ANY NEGATIVE SITUATIONS WITH FANS OR MEDIA?

"Nobody has given me a tough time. The only thing that's gone on is people wanting to talk and being proud of what I've accomplished. They are happy to talk about racing. I've been very fortunate in that regard. I had my 10-year class reunion on the off weekend and that was four hours of constant talking. I wasn't even able to realize socialize or see anybody that I wanted to hang out with. Finally, I just snuck off to my room and went to sleep. I'd had enough (laughs). But when you deal with it day in and day out, you don't have a lot of personal time to take care of things and you find yourself closing up a little bit."

WERE YOU A LOT MORE POPULAR AT YOUR CLASS REUNION THAN YOU WERE IN HIGH SCHOOL?

"By far."

HAS YOUR NASCAR EXPERIENCE BEEN WHAT YOU EXPECTED?

"With my background in Off-Road racing, it was definitely a surprise to end up where I am. The normal path from Off-Road was into Indy Car. If you look at Rick Mears and Roger Mears and Robby Gordon - they all went from Off-Road to Indy Car. So for me to end up in a stock car without even ever sitting in an open-wheel car was a lot different that it was with everyone else from Off-Road. It's been more than I thought it would be as well. To race and make a living at what I enjoy doing is very satisfying. My family is in North Carolina and they're all doing great. There have been a lot of positive things out if it."

ON THE UPCOMING IROC RACE AT CHICAGOLAND

"This is the third race for us in IROC and the first race for us where drafting is not involved. I'm excited to go out and race with these guys. I've been able to run with all these world-class drivers in the draft and everybody has done a great job. I'm interested to see how these guys can do -especially the open-wheel drivers - on a track that's more similar to what we do on a normal basis. I'm excited to be out there and have some more fun and maybe take home an IROC trophy. That's something I don't have."

CAN YOU COMPARE YOUR SITUATION WHERE HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS SPENT A LONG TIME DEVELOPING THE NO. 48 CAR BEFORE YOUR ROOKIE SEASON STARTED TO GREG BIFFLE AND JACK SPRAGUE WHOSE TEAMS BASICALLY STARTED FROM SCRATCH?

"They both have access to everything. I'm sure Greg (Biffle) has access to everything Matt Kenseth does and I know (Jack) Sprague has all the access to stuff that I've got and Jeff (Gordon) has. But until your people and you are in that environment and working on that stuff, it's hard to learn from it. Greg was the guy to beat in the Busch and Truck series and Sprague was right in there as well - more so in Truck, but he was definitely strong in the Busch Series. Until you direct all your effort on the Cup side, the guys are getting away from you. They're learning more and more every day and you show up and you're further behind. In my situation, I was able to walk into the No. 24 team's equipment (Jeff Gordon). We got some of their old cars. But the biggest thing is that the No. 24 team's management hired my guys, started our team, and started building everything the way the No. 24 team was built. We didn't have a choice, which was good for us to come in with only one option. I had to learn how to drive Jeff Gordon's stuff, which wasn't that hard because our styles are very similar. In my situation, we were definitely ahead of the game on that front. But those guys do have the same access and they're doing the best with it now. Greg's won a race and Jack's been running stronger and stronger. It's just going to take him a little bit longer to get things in order because Jack is king of on his own independent team. The No. 16 (Biffle) is on its own within the Roush organization."

BIFFLE AND SPRAGUE HAVE TEAMS THAT CAME FROM BUSCH AND YOUR TEAM WAS FROM CUP. WAS YOUR LEARNING CURVE SHORTER?

"Yeah, you can look at it a couple of ways. Greg Biffle and Randy Goss (crew chief) have had this relationship for a long time. They've won championships and races together and they have that confidence. Chad (Knaus, crew chief) and I came in as unknowns to each other. I didn't know who he was and he didn't know who I was. We had to count on our relationship to start out on the right foot and us bonding. Those guys had that confidence coming into it. There was some confidence knowing that Chad had been in Winston Cup before. If coming into it, if you had (a choice of) a promising up-and-coming crew chief or your crew chief that you'd won three championships with, I would think that would be the better situation. It can be read a couple of different ways. Everyone has his own path and way things work out. I've very lucky that it's worked out the way that it has."

HOW MUCH CONFIDENCE DOES YOUR FIRST WINSTON CUP WIN GIVE YOU?

"A lot. Then the next pressure is can you win again. Then after you win a few, you want to finish in the top five in points. You keep raising the bar on yourself. The first step is to get in there and win a race. He's been able to do that (No. 16, Biffle). They're going to show up and know that they're capable of winning races. That's all you can really ask for when you walk in the gates on Sunday morning. They've been able to prove that to themselves now."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Greg Biffle , Robby Gordon , Jimmie Johnson , Roger Mears
Teams Hendrick Motorsports