Fontana: GM - Jimmie Johnson pre-race interview

JIMMIE JOHNSON, NO. 48 LOWE'S CHEVROLET MONTE CARLO: WHAT DID IT MEAN TO YOU TO WIN YOUR FIRST WINSTON CUP RACE AT CALIFORNIA? "Last year we were running well and competing for wins, but we didn't expect to win that soon or that early into the...


WHAT DID IT MEAN TO YOU TO WIN YOUR FIRST WINSTON CUP RACE AT CALIFORNIA? "Last year we were running well and competing for wins, but we didn't expect to win that soon or that early into the season. We had hoped that by the end of the year we were going to be a contender for race wins. But, when it all came together - to win in my home state - it couldn't have gone any better for me. I couldn't have dreamt it to be any better. It was such a cool thing to win in my home state and have my friends and family in the stands - like I said, it couldn't have gone any better.

"Looking at coming back this year - last year we won the first Dover and race had a few of those feelings that come along with coming back as the defending race champion, and went back and was able to do it again. So, hopefully we'll keep that record up and come back and repeat again in Fontana. Again, I'm going to have all my family and friends and all that extra motivation from being in my home state to go out and win again."

IS THERE ALSO EXTRA PRESSURE THAT COMES WITH RACING IN FRONT OF EVERYBODY IN YOUR HOME STATE? "No - and, I say that now and I'm not there, yet - but, there is so much pressure every week and so much on the line that it's not going to be too different than a normal weekend, I don't think. The great thing, obviously, is that we ran well there before and we run well on the bigger tracks. We really run well everywhere, but we should be right where we left off last year, I hope - competing for the pole and for the win."

ON ROAD COURSE RACING IN NASCAR "I like them. I they're a nice addition to our season. I wish we had a couple more so that we could also get a little better at them. It seems like we have our two and by the time we get to Watkins Glen for the second one we all remember how to road course race again and we're done with them.

"I think it's cool. It adds a lot to our sport. Our drivers in Winston Cup are some of the best in the world. I like that we can show what kind of talent we have on a road course, as well as ovals."

HOW MUCH TIME WILL YOU SPEND PREPARING FOR THE FIRST ROAD COURSE EVENT AT SEARS POINT? "We're building new cars and we're going to test some cars at a local track back here in Virginia to get a feel for things. But, we won't come out and test at Sears Point this year or at Watkins Glen. We have our hands tied even more this year. We only have five tests that we're allowed to do, so we're real limited. We're going to have to use some other tracks to get our brakes testing in and road course testing in."

DO YOU FEEL MORE AT EASE THIS YEAR? "Yeah. A year under your belt - I don't care what it is - it makes a big difference. You know what to worry about, what not to worry about. I found last year I really lived day to day and had a lot of unneeded stress that came along with that. This year has been a lot calmer and more relaxed."

HOW ARE YOU BALANCING EVERYTHING THIS YEAR? "I just handle it day by day. Luckily, we're able to sit down as a whole with the sponsor and the team and say, 'Alright, this is what we're looking at for tests, this is what we're looking at for appearances.' Then, there are some obligations through NASCAR that I have and some other personal sponsors. We try to lay it out in a way to where it makes sense and we're not running ourselves into the ground, trying to attend all these things and do these things. That's been pretty important. This month and next month are probably going to be my busiest months of the year. But, we're trying to actually get some of the stuff on the front side - some of our obligations out of the way, so that at the end of the year when we don't have an off-weekend and we're all short on energy and all the things that come along with a long season, we don't have a lot of extra commitments to make."

AS A ROOKIE, HOW MUCH DID THE WEAR AND TEAR OF THE SEASON GRIND ON YOU?) "It wore on me a lot more than I thought it did. When you're in it day to day, you feel like you're managing and everything is taking care of itself. But, the year really took a lot more out of me than I had ever expected. It's just a long year. The experience this year that I bring over, I'm realizing that you really just need to position yourself until September. In September is when you really need to pour it on. That's what Tony did last year and the way Jeff has won championships in the past. So, we - as a team - are really just trying to relax, do what we can, chill out, get what we can every week and when we get to September, try to step it up and see who can step up with us. Hopefully, we'll be able to step up ahead of everybody."

WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH JEFF GORDON THIS YEAR? "It's really the same. He's a friend, a team owner, a teammate, a boss - he's got them all wrapped up in one. It's cool to be competing with him. To be on the same team in some respects - we work so well together, we drive a very similar setup, we look out for one another on the racetrack and work well together. It's really been a very similar situation as last year."

ON THE PROSPECT OF CALIFORNIA GETTING A SECOND DATE "Growing up out there on the west coast, Indy car racing and off-road racing a motocross racing were the big things. I never was that interested in NASCAR until I got older and was around it, and that's because they don't have a lot of races out there. I think the more races we get out to the west coast, there are a lot of race fans out there that are craving this and wanting this. The more dates that we can have out there - even if it's just another track in the area or something - but, we need more west coast dates. There is a huge fan base out there that is wanting it. I'm glad to hear that California is being considered as an option."

DOES THAT MEAN THAT THE WEST COAST NEEDS MORE TRACKS? "The way I see it, a great situation working out is every track has one date and we go to a new place every week. We run into problems now where tracks have two dates and neither one of their events are sold out because the novelty is gone.

"You can go to the spring or the fall - 'whichever, no big deal.' If you only had one and it was the 'the' event - that one event everywhere would be sold out. They could build more grandstands and really blow out that one weekend a year. That is kind of my observation. That way we hit as many markets in as many states as possible.

"Plus, I don't think we need to lose Martinsville and Darlington and Rockingham. Those tracks have a lot of heritage and they've really brought the sport to where it is today, so I think it's a good compromise to keep the old tracks around then bring in new ones that will make everybody happy."

WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE THE SCHEDULE CUT DOWN? "Without a doubt. Twenty or 25 races a year would be plenty. But, I just don't see that happening. There is no way they'd go back on the events. There won't ever be any less, so we're stuck with it. It's a young man's sport in a lot of ways or a young woman's sport in a lot of ways. The drivers - we have the luxuries of private airplanes and great travel accommodations, getting hurried in and out and staying in our nice motorhomes. But, these crew guys that are out of school, trying to buy their first home, trying to start a family, newly married - these guys work unbelievable hours. That is who it really takes a toll on. You wish that everybody would have a little more time at home to have a life."

DO YOU BELIEVE THAT ONE REASON YOUNG DRIVERS ARE DOING WELL IN NASCAR IS BECAUSE THEY CAME IN WITH A 'CLEAN SHEET OF PAPER?' "I definitely do. There is a lot of truth to. Engineering and aerodynamics - there are so many advantages in that that outweigh the old school setups and mechanical grip that we used to look for. Coming in with an open mind is every helpful. It does a lot. A good example is the '24' car last year at Dover. The year before he dominated there. He would be foolish to not come back with the same setup. But, times changed so much in the course of a year that we came back with a totally different setup off the wall. Jeff runs in the top five somewhere. The second race he came back with the same setup as what we had. But, things change so quick and if you don't keep an open mind to it you can get stuck in a rut and have times pass you up."

IS THERE ANY DANGER IN ENGINEERS ARE GOING TO OVERCOME THE SPORT? "I don't think so in NASCAR. We're not allowed to have anything electronic on the race cars under race conditions. We don't even have fuel injection. There are so many different things so that we're not allowed to sneak in driver aids in any way, shape or form that it really is left up to the driver. The things we learn on technology, you can't ever take that away form us. That just keeps making parity and in some ways, taking away from the racing, I think. But, that's the one thing we have working for us is that driver element. There will never be any driver aids. There will never be any traction control or launch control or any of this other stuff you see that takes the driver's skill out of the cars. I think that is going to be the best thing helping us."

HOW MUCH DO YOU FEEL YOU'VE GROWN AS A DRIVER IN A YEAR? "It just keeps growing so much that I'm still on the rapid spike up. There are just different things you learn. Now, coming back with a little bit of confidence and security in my abilities and where I fit in the sport, I'm able to really look at things in a different light without feeling that extreme pressure and stuff that I felt last year. I'm a much different driver, a much smarter driver than I was last year. Hopefully, it will all come together for us at the end."

ARE YOU AS COMFORTABLE IN STOCK CARS AS YOU WERE IN OFF-ROAD STUFF? "I am now. I've learned the cars enough and understand the aero games that go on in traffic when you're following someone. There are just a lot of weird things that exist in stock cars that you never saw in the off-road. It's vice-versa, I guess. I'm very comfortable in these cars now and I feel at home."

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE TO FIND THAT COMFORT LEVEL? "I would say from '97, when I first drove a stock car, to midway through last year. Mid to late last year is when it really started to feel second nature to me."

ON OVER-DRIVING THESE CARS "You can over-drive these race cars. It's not like an Indy car or an F-1 car where the harder you drive it through the corner the more downforce it creates and just sticks the car to the ground. We don't have ground effects or wings on these cars. I think where 'sophomore slumps' come into play in our sport in NASCAR is your second year you get a lot more confident, you're not scared of the speeds, you're not scared of the cars and you just drive the car over its limits. When I came into the sport, I was able to hit that sweet spot relatively quick. I've been trying to hold on to that mentality of aggression - what that limit was. It's real easy to get over it. The more times you come to these tracks, you're not scared of anything. It's just second nature, so it's real hard to remember where that sweet spot is. I'm trying to make a conscious effort of that every week."

ARE YOUNG DRIVERS MORE SUCCESSFUL BECAUSE THEY HAVEN'T TAKEN A HARD HIT YET? "I've hit my fair share of walls. I had a pretty bad one at Watkins Glen a few years ago. Just like anything, when you're younger you really don't think about things, you don't have as much on the line and you might take more risks. Luckily, I'm young right now and I don't have to worry about that. But, maybe some day down the road, you think twice about your family and your kids and other things that are out. We all know how hard it is when you get older to recover from things. Maybe that weighs into your mind. It hasn't been in mine, yet, and I hope it doesn't ever."

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A KID THAT WANTS TO GO WINSTON CUP RACING? "It's a long, hard road. There are so many times when I didn't see that it was going to work or know how it was going to work, and it still did somehow. It's about drive and determination. Really, the biggest thing too, to be more specific - is about people.

"I just was trying to meet as many people as I could. I did a lot of things that weren't in a race car or around a race car. Chevrolet took me to events and introduced me around and met people. They got to know my face and name and got to know my personality. At the time, I didn't see how any of that was going to help me. But, once it all came together, it really did and I'm very thankful for it. I knew Rick Hendrick and he was watching me from a meeting that I had had with him when I was 19 years old when I met, and I had no idea that he ever remembered who I was. But, he still paid attention and kept a close eye on me."

-gm racing-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jimmie Johnson