Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the Old Dominion 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race next weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Johnson comes to Martinsville as one...
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the Old Dominion 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race next weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
Johnson comes to Martinsville as one of the hottest drivers in NASCAR. For the 2002 season, Johnson is currently 2nd in points, just 97 points behind the leader. So far in 2002, he has earned three victories (California, Dover and Dover), five Bud Pole Awards (Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Richmond and Talladega) and recorded 19 top-10 finishes, including six top-5s (Atlanta, California, Dover, Pocono, Chicagoland, and Dover).
HOW DO YOU PROTECT YOUR BRAKES AT MARTINSVILLE?
"You're going to use your brakes up. And you just have to budget them. It's just something you learn in time about how hard you can abuse them and how much heat they can take. The big issue is to try not to overheat the brakes; which is really hard to do when you're racing on that little paperclip. But there's just a rhythm that you learn and pick up after being there enough times. I felt like at the end of the race last time, I had a good feel for it. Plus, we tested there. So hopefully we'll be in good shape."
HOW DO YOU SURVIVE THE FIRST FEW HUNDRED LAPS TO MAKE SURE YOU'LL BE THERE AT THE END?
"With a lot of luck."
AS ONE OF NASCAR'S MOST ELIGIBLE BACHELORS, HOW DO YOU FIT IN ANY SORT OF SOCIAL LIFE?
"Well, there's not really a lot of time for a social life with the schedule we have and the traveling. In the winter, you can have a little bit of a social life - maybe a day or two a week - but, my focus is on racing right now and I'm not to worried about the social side."
WERE YOU ABLE TO TEST AT MARTINSVILLE RECENTLY?
"No, we weren't able to go test. We wanted to. But looking at our priorities with the build of the new car ('03 Monte Carlo) for next year and trying to stay in the championship battle and making sure we take our best cars to the races that are coming up, we haven't been able to do a short track test. We've been to Kentucky a couple of times to test our intermediate stuff, but unfortunately we haven't been able to work on our short track stuff."
IS THAT ANY CAUSE FOR CONCERN GOING INTO MARTINSVILLE THIS WEEKEND?
"No, not really. The more laps I get, the better I'm going to be on the shorts track. But for what we were going to look at brake-wise, it was really not taking a risk doing what we're doing or anything. It shouldn't be a problem."
WHAT IS THE MOST STRESSFUL THING ABOUT BEING INVOLVED IN A CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS RACE?
"The most stressful thing is just being pulled in so many different directions. You grow up racing and competing for championships and you just keep your focus on just the racing. And, that's what's gotten you there. But at this level, there are so many other things and obligations you have that you get spread really thin. The biggest challenge is trying to keep you head in the game and keeping your focus on the racing side."
WHAT THINGS SPREAD YOU IN SO MANY DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS?
"Just all the stuff that you'd naturally think of like the media obligations, the sponsor obligations, testing, and dealing with the team - there's just a lot of things that come up (now) that you've got to do that you didn't have to worry about in the lower divisions of racing - especially the sponsorship stuff, and the fan and media stuff. You find yourself at charity events during the week. There are just a lot of things that come up when you're a Winston Cup driver."
WHEN YOU'RE NOT BEING PULLED IN THOSE DIRECTIONS, DO YOU HAVE MORE TIME TO FOCUS ON RACING OR DO YOU HAVE TIME TO GET AWAY AND CATCH YOUR BREATH?
"I've had both scenarios where I've worked in the shop in the ASA program and was able to spend more time working on the cars. And when you're around the guys and around the cars, you're just more naturally in that mindset and staying focused on the racing side. In other divisions where I was involved in a championship points race where I wasn't working on the vehicles, you just stay focused and get prepared, think about the race track, and look at notes. You just keep your head in the game about what you're going to do."
BECAUSE OF HOW THE POINTS NOW STAND, DO YOU HAVE TO REALLY FIGHT TO GET A FEW MORE POINTS OUT OF MARTINSVILLE?)
"Well, you'd naturally think that you can't give up any more - especially since he's (Tony Stewart) got about a 100 point lead right now. But the way this championship has gone, we don't have a clue what to expect. Of the tracks that are coming up, Martinsville is probably the track that I'll have the most difficulty at. Once we clear Martinsville, I think we're going to be a threat to win each race after that - and so will the No. 20 (Stewart). They're very strong at Homestead and Phoenix and Atlanta. So it's probably going to come down to who doesn't have problems at this point."
CAN YOU RELATE TO WHAT JAMIE MCMURRAY IS GOING THROUGH RIGHT NOW?
"Yeah, a little bit. I've talked to Jamie and congratulated him (for winning at Charlotte last week). I've been friends with him in the Busch Series and he's come to me for advice about what to expect with starting his first Winston Cup races in his career and all that. I left him a message after the race and said, 'Buddy, life as you know it has changed.' I think what he was able to accomplish was incredible. I remember watching Dale Jr. in Texas, and watching what Kevin Harvick did, and all the rookies prior to myself. I was looking at thinking how in the world am I going to even come close to that. I remember watching an interview with Jamie probably two weeks ago, where he said something along the same lines. He said he just wanted to go out and get going and that he didn't think he'd be able to accomplish what Ryan (Newman) and I had been able to do. It looks so familiar to me. And here he comes out and wins in his second race. It's just amazing what happens when the right people are put together and that chemistry works."
HOW MUCH OF THIS SUCCESS IS DUE TO GOOD EQUIPMENT AND HOW MUCH IS DUE TO NOT HAVING TO GET USED TO ALL THE CHANGES THAT HAVE HAPPENED SO QUICKLY IN THE SPORT?)
I can definitely relate to where he's at (Jamie McMurray). As a friend, I'm going to be there for him to bounce questions off of and try to help walk him through it. Kevin Harvick has been there for me to relate to and connect to. It's only been six or seven months for me, and I'm just now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as to how to handle things as they come up. He's going to have new pressures and stresses and I definitely can relate.
"Why have rookies come in and run well? I don't think Jamie would have been able to win if he was in lesser equipment. The budgets and the resources that are set forth in what you'd call the 'super' teams like Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing are all close. Everybody has all the best parts money can buy. From there, it's what people do with it. Ganassi Racing has been up front with Sterling (Marlin) all year long. Jamie McMurray was able to climb into that car and drive to the best of his ability and won on Sunday night. Not knowing the past bump stops or shocks or a lot of that really works in a guy's favor. If things change again - which I'm sure they will in time - then Jamie and I and Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman and a lot of young guys are going to be caught (in the same place) like the veterans are in having to learn and adjust. Right now, we're learning what we're feeling. We don't have any past opinions or thoughts on it and it's easy for us to just come in and adapt and find a fast way around it.
"So to make a long story shorter if I can, I think it's all about the people. He (Jamie) is obviously with a great operation and he did his job."
AT WHAT POINT DURING THE SEASON DID YOU REALIZE THAT YOUR PERFORMANCE WAS A LONG-TERM EFFORT INSTEAD OF JUST A FLASH IN THE PAN?
"We just kept proving that to ourselves every week. In places where we were fearful of running bad or thought something would happen, we'd come out with a good finish. It's just something that you slowly build in time. There's going to be bumps and the road and problems that you have."
ARE YOU PAST THE POINT OF PINCHING YOURSELF AND DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF AS ONE OF THE ESTABLISHED PLAYERS NOW?
"I do have that confidence now at this point and it's taken me pretty much to this point to feel that way. I feel that we're one of the cars to beat a most of the tracks - I wouldn't say every track. There are still some places that I need to figure out and Martinsville is one of those. But who knows, maybe we'll go in there and be the car to beat. But at the majority of the tracks, I do feel that way that we have a shot at winning that race."
IS THERE ONE PERSON THAT'S THERE TO HELP YOU ON A DAILY BASIS - KIND OF LIKE AN UNSUNG HERO - THAT WE DON'T KNOW ABOUT?
"Jeff (Gordon) and Rick (Hendrick) have both played that role. They are great supporters, but I guess you'd naturally expect that. But even when we have rough times and tear up cars you'd think that Rick or Jeff would be disappointed or bummed, but they've been super supportive through it all."
WITH SO FEW GOOD RIDES OUT THERE FOR WINSTON CUP DRIVERS, WOULD YOU EVER ADVISE A DRIVER TO TURN DOWN A RIDE UNTIL A BETTER ONE COMES ALONG OR WOULD YOU ADVISE HIM TO TAKE THAT FIRST OFFER?
"It all depends on where you are in your career. If you feel like the end of your career is coming up and you're winding down, you make different decisions than if you are young and just getting started. There are a couple of ways to look at it. But my philosophy has been to try to get in the best equipment possible because you are really only going to get one shot to make a first impression. That's so important in today's racing world. Look at how many good guys there are out there and how many more are coming along. So when you're early in your career, I think you need to be smart and put yourself in a good situation with good equipment and good people."
ARE THERE CERTAIN DRIVERS YOU DON'T FEEL COMFORTABLE PITTING NEXT TO OR THAT BLOCK YOU IN?
"I can't say that I've really been blocked in all year long. We had an incident where Mark (Martin) struck a crew member on pit road, but that was not intentional. That's really been the only problem I've had on pit road."
DOES YOUR CREW WARN YOU ABOUT BEING CAREFUL WHEN YOU HAVE TO PIT NEXT TO CERTAIN DRIVERS?) "No. We've been qualifying well and really have had a good choice in picks where we don't have to worry about anything. But honestly, I haven't run across anything yet. I hope I don't."
DO YOU MAKE THE PIT SELECTION OR DO YOU LEAVE IT UP TO YOUR CREW CHIEF CHAD KNAUS?
"I leave it up to Chad. In my experience in the past, I always wanted an opening. In ASA racing, I always picked the first pit stall on pit road - just so I had an opening. It seems like in the Winston Cup and Busch Series, everybody is really concerned about pitting far down on pit road or all the way down at the end of pit road coming out onto turn one. When people pull out of their pit stall, you can drive straight to the grass and you can block someone and slow down their momentum down pit road. I didn't quite understand that at first. But now I've seen how it happens - especially with some of these tight pit roads. You'll take the chance of being blocked in or pitted around some people where you might not have an opening getting out of your pits or something, or getting in, to take the opportunity to block somebody leaving pit road."
HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH SOME OF THE NARROW PIT ROADS IN ASA RACING PREPARED YOU FOR NASCAR?
"Yeah, I think so. Some of the little short tracks we raced on (in ASA), there weren't even pit roads at half of them - let alone designated pit boxes. You just got close and hoped that all the air hoses reached someplace (laughs). Pitting at Berlin, you're in the middle of the race track pitting on the left and right-hand sides of a road that goes through the middle of the race track. So, I've seen my share of crazy places."
HAVE YOU LEARNED THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RACING TO WIN A RACE AND RACING FOR POINTS, AND COULD YOU EXPLAIN WHAT THAT MEANS TO YOU?
"When you're in an endurance race, you need to take care of your stuff and make decisions that won't put you in a bad situation. When you wind down to the end of the race, you just start taking a few more chances and risks. That's just what you naturally do. In the Busch Series, where the races are shorter, you're trained to win races - not necessarily to win Winston Cup championships. They're short and you only get two pit stops and it's kind of like a Saturday night feature. You run wide open for the two pit stops you have and then the race is over. It didn't really fit my style. I'm used to endurance racing where I had to budget my vehicle and take care of stuff in Off-Road racing I've been in. I think it's just naturally made me a points racer."