Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet Monte Carlo for Hendrick Motorsports and point-leader in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings, was the guest at today's Winston Breakfast Club. To date, Johnson is a two-time Bud Pole...
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet Monte Carlo for Hendrick Motorsports and point-leader in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings, was the guest at today's Winston Breakfast Club.
To date, Johnson is a two-time Bud Pole winner - Daytona 500 and Talladega 500 - and has posted one top five finish (3rd at Atlanta), and six top 10's.
He qualified 4th for Sunday's NAPA Auto Parts 500 and will sit behind the wheel of the same Monte Carlo that Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, drove in last year's race at California Speedway (qualified 17th, finished 2nd).
How unbelievable has this season been for you so far?
"It's been unbelievable. We set some realistic goals coming into the season like qualifying for the races and getting top 15 finishes. You feel that you have the potential and that you've worked all your life and built skills and abilities, but you just don't know what your capabilities are until all the situations are right. Chad Knaus (crew chief) were able to bond immediately and communicate and have that chemistry that's so important. And we're supported and backed by Hendrick Motorsports and all their resources. Chad and I feel we're on the same page. We've both been working real hard and haven't been sure exactly throughout our careers that has kept us from being at the top of our divisions. And here we both are. He's probably one of the hottest crew chiefs on the circuit right now, and I've been doing a good job driving the racecar. So it's been shocking to both of us. Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports and Lowe's have been loving every minute of it."
On his performance in the Busch Series and how it relates to Cup
: "There's a lot that I needed to learn and I'm definitely a lot better driver this year than I was last year. In any career, those first few years you can see leaps and bounds really show up. Also, there's no arguing with the fact that I'm driving the equipment of the No. 24 car (Jeff Gordon). I'm putting a lot of credit in that department. They've given me great motors, great bodies, great communication between Robbie Loomis and Chad Knaus to keep us out of problem areas. There's just a lot of support there to keep us out of trouble and on the right track."
Based on your Busch Series record, were you surprised to even be considered for a Cup ride?
"You're dealing with the best of the best over here and I didn't know what to expect. I figured that I needed to be dominating on the Busch Series to even be recognized by a Winston Cup team. And in 2000, my first season in Busch, I hadn't even finished in the top five yet when Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick were talking about me driving a Winston Cup car. I thought there was no way. What did they see? I have so much to learn and had hoped to be noticed down the road but, hey - I wasn't arguing with it. They were talking with me and wanting to sign me up so I wasn't going to complain.
"Last year, I felt that pressure (in Busch) and thought we needed to dominate and win races and be up front. And we were competitive, but we didn't have a Jeff Green or Kevin Harvick-type season. I ran three Winston Cup races last year. At Lowe's Motor Speedway we had a solid run, but the others were mid to the end of the pack. This year, things have been clicking. It's just been amazing."
Is your driving style similar to Jeff Gordon's and how much sharing is going on between the two teams?
"Our driving styles are similar. The biggest thing that's helped me this season is our test in Las Vegas. I was able to look at his data. I had 30 percent wide-open throttle than he had. And I was three-tenths of a second slower than him. So I went out and tried to make my throttle trace and steering input match what his was doing. I picked up the three-tenths and found that rhythm that you need. From there, we've been able to work closely since I'm not over-driving the corner and creating different problems with the racecar.
"We've been trying to understand what my interpretation of loose is and what Jeff's is and what Jerry Nadeau's is so we can all work close. In our test sessions now and as the season goes on, I think the No. 24 will be more and more comfortable using our testing notes and our set-ups. Our set-ups are a little different because Chad has a different way of thinking about things, but the concept is the same. Some situations are hard. For example, the No. 24 won the race at Las Vegas last year. They would be stupid not to have used their same set-up again this year. But we were a lot different than that and technology has changed and the track changed and we ended up having a better day than they did. So it's a cat and mouse game. More than anything, we've been pulling information from them at this point."
On gaining the respect of the veteran drivers?
"It's shown up more in the speedway racing more than the mile-and-a-half stuff. You're very dependent on others around you on the speedway stuff - especially at Daytona when I sat on the pole. There was some hazing going on there I guess. But I tried hard not to do anything dumb and cause a pile-up or anything. We moved on to other races and I've been racing with these guys up front and hopefully have been earning some respect. When we raced at Talladega, it was a complete turn-around from where we were at Daytona. I think we're on the right track (for earning respect) and I'll just continue to get better."
How important is the Rookie of the Year race and do you keep an eye on Ryan Newman?
"I definitely keep an eye on Ryan Newman. When he came into the Busch Series last year he was beating up on us pretty bad. And he won a pole in the Winston Cup Series. We both have very limited stock car experience so I've looked at him as a gauge. If I can match that, I would be doing a great job. We both have similar circumstances with big organizations that we drive for and veteran crew chiefs and drivers to pull information from. We have similar situations. He's been doing an incredible job. Whoever wins the Raybestos of the Year award will probably be in the top 15 in points, and that will be a huge accomplishment."
On his schedule this past week
"It's been busy. Sunday, we jumped on the plane and flew home from Talladega. Monday morning we were on an early flight out to Sonoma, Calif. We tested there on Tuesday and Wednesday. We went to L.A. Wednesday night and got up Thursday morning and did some interviews and had Fox Sports following us around doing a Day In The Life show - there were cameras everywhere. We came out here Thursday night and went to work yesterday."
As a rookie, who do you hang out with, rookies or veterans?
"I find myself talking to the younger guys more so. The biggest thing that determines that is who you're parked next to in the garage every week. You usually don't travel too far away from your truck or your garage stall. I hang out with Kurt Busch a little bit, with Dale Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jerry Nadeau, and of course Jeff Gordon. As far as the veterans, I've talked to Johnny Benson and Ricky Rudd a little bit. I think the veterans seem to look at you more and keep an eye on you to see how you handle yourself. But the rookies are so happy to be here, that we run up to each other and shake hands and talk a little bit."
Have you had any special training like Dale Carnegie?
"Nope. I think I saw an article somewhere that said I was a natural schmoozer.
"I've been lucky to have good teammates throughout my career. When I started driving for Chevrolet in the (Mickey Thompson Off-Road) Stadium trucks, I had (Supercross champ) Ricky Johnson, who was a great person to model after throughout my career."
What Off-Road skills have transferred to stock car racing?
"Mainly the Victory Lane donuts. In Off-Road racing, there's just such a different mentality. You never thought about the corners, it was how fast you could go in a straight line over the bumps and jumps and obstacles in the way. Off-Road racing taught me a lot about car control and racing in general. When I moved into ASA in 1998, it really taught me about stock car racing. I started racing motorcycles at age five and I was 19 or 20 years old before I ever jumped into a stock car."
What are your weaknesses and what do you still need to work on?
"I think I'm getting better at patience and seeing how the race will play out. There's a part there in the race where I need to get a little better at switching on that race-winning pace to get track position. Track position is so important and you don't want to make any stupid moves at the beginning of the race to take yourself out, but there's a fine line there when you wait a little too long to charge. The way pit stops play out there and how things happen and then you find yourself on the third or fourth range. It's more important now to try to get track position and try to get to the lead if you can. That's the approach I'm going to take on Sunday. If you're up front and the pit stops are solid and can keep you there, they're not going to get by you."
Do you worry about having too much success too soon?
"No, I don't. I've been racing for 21 years now. It's what I've always wanted to do. It didn't seem like I got here fast enough. You know, Jeff Gordon had won a few championships and 30 races by the time he was 26. So no, I don't really thing so."
How have you learned to transition from rough & tumble way of Off-Road driving to the finesse of stock car racing?
"ASA was good for that. That taught me the basics. The Busch was another step in that direction. But ASA taught me some bad habits that I took into the Busch Series. They are lighter cars and you can get away with abusing them a lot longer. It seems like each step up the ladder - ASA to Busch to Cup - the easier you have to be on equipment. The races are longer. I've been progressively been getting better and better."
Was it a leap of faith that you made the move to North Carolina and follow your dream?
"It was in Late Model stock. It was in '97 when I was still racing the Off-Road trucks and lived in California I was passing out business cards trying to meet people at races. Chevrolet did a great job of taking me to different venues and events to meet people. Hendrick Motorsports called me on a Monday to see if I would help out somebody that had a Late Model stock car back in North Carolina and told me if I was there I could drive it. This was something I wanted to do and I'd never been in a stock car before. So I told (girlfriend) Jessica I had to go chase this dream and four days later I was on a plane. I ended up on Ron Hornaday's couch for six to eight months - sleeping there. I didn't race a stock car very much. I found out quick that it was a favor Rick Hendrick was doing for somebody and it definitely wasn't Hendrick equipment. But it got me into a stock car and I had some fun and learned the basics. That really got me to the Charlotte area. I'd spend lunch hours going to places where I knew the teams would have lunch. I'd hang out and hope I'd meet somebody. I just beat the bushes any way I could to get a chance in stock car racing."
Does your whole family live in North Carolina now?
"Yes. I have two brothers and my mom and dad live there. We all live within a mile and a half of each other."
How has your life changed now?
"I've tried to enjoy these experiences. You don't know how often they're going to come around or how long they're going to stay. I'm enjoying it. The duties inside the racecar are very similar. You're out there giving 100 percent. Now I don't pay too much attention to who I'm racing against. The first few races I thought about racing with Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, and all these guys that are my heroes."
With his recent personal problems, what is your relationship like now with Jeff Gordon? Friend, teammate, little brother?
"It's mainly racing. We see each other so much at the racetrack. He's been in Florida and Charlotte and has a busy schedule with media and all. We haven't had a lot of time to hang out away from the racetrack. I haven't asked any questions about his personal life. I don't want to be another one of those that needs to know what's going on. He really hasn't mentioned anything to me. Once in a while we'll go have some fun like last night when we went to Dave & Busters and played video games 'til 11 o'clock at night and got away for a little bit. I just try to be there and be a friend and try to beat him on Sundays too."
Like Robby Gordon, do you still want to race Off-Road events like the Baja 1000?
"I'd like to get in an Off-Road truck again, but I had a bad experience in Mexico in 1995. We crashed and I spent two days waiting for somebody to find us and get us out of there. Barstow is one of my favorite tracks - maybe something sometime in the United States. I had more fun, to be honest, racing in the SODA Series (Short Course Off-Road Drivers Association) and in the (Mickey Thompson Off-Road) Stadium Series. You're battling with one another and racing. In the desert, you're running in somebody's dust all day long. That's endurance racing. I do better racing side-by-side with somebody and trying to out-think them and race them than trying to out-race the clock."