Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe's Impala SS, met with members of the media at Phoenix International Raceway and discussed the upcoming Phoenix race, racing against his friend and teammate, Jeff Gordon, his relationship with Chad Knaus and how it has...
Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe's Impala SS, met with members of the media at Phoenix International Raceway and discussed the upcoming Phoenix race, racing against his friend and teammate, Jeff Gordon, his relationship with Chad Knaus and how it has grown, having three wins in a row, asking Jeff Gordon for advise early in his career, and more.
WHAT IS YOUR EXPECTATION FOR SUNDAY? "We feel really good about qualifying this afternoon and also for the race on Sunday. I've been able to run up front and lead some laps and be close to the victory and I think that I've learned a few things here in the last three or four races. Not only this track but also Martinsville, there's some things that I think I've learned to help me in the race for this race track here at Phoenix. So I'm excited about it, looking forward to it. Today we were fifth on the board in practice but I still feel we were much better than that. I blocked on my qualifying lap so I'm actually really excited today. I think that we've got a shot at a red hat."
HOW CAN YOU RACE AGAINST YOUR FRIEND JEFF GORDON? "I can say that going through it week after week and really session after session 'today, Jeff and I were fighting over the top spot through most of practice. To see that we're able to bring the best out of each other has really been a fun experience. I know that in spending time with Jeff and being around him, I know how bad he wants a championship. He knows that I do as well. We' ve been on a run here the last few weeks and to see Jeff still support myself and the No. 48 team as he has, he came to victory lane again last weekend. He continues to show how this can work and I've been able to follow suit because he's been so respectful in so many ways and has kind of raised me in the system at Hendrick Motorsports to operate this way. But I have to give him a lot of credit for it and he still continues to surprise me. Like after the Texas race, coming by. We're doing it. We're out there competing against one another and still doing it with respect and I think that's a key."
WOULD YOU PREFER BEING THE HUNTER OR HUNTED IN THIS SITUATION AND DID YOU RUN INTO JEFF GORDON IN MEXICO? "That is a true statement, of all things, which was kind of funny. But the first question, as far as hunted or being hunted, at this stage of the game you want to be leading. With the few races that we have left I think it's better to be on top and trying to control it if at all possible. I think we all know that our stats show the No. 48 team is better at chasing than defending. Last year we were able to do a good job and make it through Homestead without any big issues so I think it's in our cards, but we're usually better chasing. Right now I'm glad to be leading. There's not a lot of time left."
ON WHERE HE WENT ON VACATION: "Mexico -- just trying to get away and relax and have some fun and we knew Jeff and Ingrid were going to be down in Mexico somewhere. They got married down there and it was their one-year anniversary. And we're sitting at a beach bar, relaxing and having a fun lunch and in the door walks Ingrid and Jeff. We're like -- we're all the way down here and what are the chances of running into each other in this little tiny beach bar'. So it was quite funny."
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE IN THE ATTITUDE AND CONFIDENCE BETWEEN YOU AND CHAD KNAUS TODAY AND TWO YEARS AGO? "I think that it's easy for us both to admit where we're at as far as what I 'm doing and the car, if I really feel like I'm doing my job, if I really know what I'm feeling, I can be honest with him. At times, I can tell him 'look, man, I don't think I'm doing my part' or 'I don't think I can tell you exactly what the car is doing'. And same on his side, he'll say 'hey, I'm kind of out of ideas or don't know what to really think of this adjustment or this change that I want to make or that we thing we need to make'. So I think that honesty has been a huge, huge help for us. And that honesty has come through confidence and from being in the fire and dealing with this pressure on years past. Through it all, the thing that I feel helps us the most is how honest we can be with one another. As we're being honest, we sort through problems at a faster pace or at a good pace or whatever we can attach it to. We do a good job at sorting through, making the car drive right and finding that stuff because we're honest."
IN 2004 WHEN YOU AND GORDON WERE SECOND AND THIRD IN POINTS GOING INTO HOMESTEAD, WAS THERE THE SAME LEVEL OF SHARING AND COMMUNICATION? "I don't think we were doing as good of a job back in '04 as we are now sharing with information, but the intent was the same. We were doing everything that we could then; we were giving 100%. But just in the few short years we' ve learned how to do a much better job and we understand each others' driving styles, and also our crew chiefs' style is much more in-depth. We're better today that we were then but it's still the same system in place and our goal then was to get Hendrick a championship, just like today. But now we have a little bit of room between where Jeff and I are down to the No. 07. So if we do go to Homestead with the spread, it's really just going to be a head-to-head battle where in '04, we each independently wanted to win the championship but we wanted the company to get one more than anything. Also, if you think about what went on with the airplane crash, '04 was just a really emotional year for us and that race was a tough one. Especially to lose it by nine points. I think it was a good race for everyone on television with Kurt (Busch)'s tire falling off and all the racing we had to do for the last few laps for the points."
ALAN GUSTAFSON COMPARED YOU TO DAVID PEARSON. IS THAT ACCURATE? "I do know a little bit about his history as a driver. I find that tracks that I enjoy racing at are tracks he dominated at. The highlight clips I have seen, there are some similarities there. It's nothing that I set out to do; it' s just kind of the way things work out. I would prefer to qualify on the pole, lead every lap and stink up the show, but for whatever reason is as the races go on, we just get stronger and stronger and seem to be there at the end when it counts. With not being around to see David Pearson's style, I'm not sure how it worked out for him but there have been a lot of similarities as the years have gone by."
IS IT A CASE OF THE CAR GETTING BETTER AS THE RACE GOES ON? "I want to ride in the top five and then when you get down to the last few pit stops, especially the last pit stop, then it's really time to turn up the wick and get going. But until then, I don't intentionally try to ride it and just mount a charge at the end but I want to stay in the top five and as we get closer to the end, I'll start taking more risks at that point. But it's not really intentional because I really would love to lead every lap and get the most points for doing that and not have to worry about anything but it just doesn't work out like that."
YOU'VE HAD THREE WINS IN A ROW -- ANY DOUBTS THAT YOU WILL HAVE BAD LUCK? "Those nagging thoughts motivate me. I can tell you, today before practice started, I climbed into the car wondering if I was going to remember how to drive Phoenix again and if the No. 24 was just going to dominate practice and qualifying and I was going to be lost and not know my way around. And I look at that doubt and fear and I use it as motivation. It happens week after week, it happens in the course of a race. That is a motivating mechanism inside of my head. So certainly there are days on end and throughout the events, days leading into it, qualifying, race day, where fear does come into my mind and doubt does too. But I try to use it in a positive manner."
IF KYLE BUSCH PASSES CLINT BOWYER FOR THIRD, THEN HENDRICK COULD GO 1-2-3 IN THE STANDINGS. WHAT IS IT ABOUT HENDRICK THAT PUTS YOU GUYS IN THIS POSITION? "We've all had such different years and I think the personalities from the drivers and crew chiefs, they're across the board when you look at those three teams. I have to put a lot back into -- we have the foundation in the company but then what each driver and crew chief relationship has made of that opportunity and of that year and I didn't realize that Kyle was closing in on that. That's great. That would be such an accomplishment for the team and for Kyle as well. I think it shows how hard Kyle has been working to be a better race car driver, to be more involved with his team, to be a leader of his team, to mount a charge like that and come back in the year that he's leaving Hendrick Motorsports. I didn't realize -- I'm impressed, that would be great."
WHEN YOU APPROACHED JEFF GORDON FOR ADVICE AND IT ULTIMATELY LED TO YOUR HIRING, WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THAT? "I really needed someone to talk to that could wave a magic wand and fix my problems and make it seem so clear and easy for me to make some decisions because the decisions that I was being faced with involved me leaving Herzog, possibly leaving the manufacturer that had brought me to where I was in my career. And there were some similarities in my mind that I thought I was living that Jeff had been through with a team that had given him a start and a manufacturer and then switching all over. So I thought I could get some great advice from him to carry over to maybe move to a different team than the Herzogs and if needed, to a different manufacturer based on the opportunities that were there. When I left the transporter after talking to him and the opportunity was with Hendrick Motorsports, I couldn't believe it. It was the last thing on my mind. I was hopeful to find some advice to help me stay in the Busch Series or even over to the Craftsman Truck Series so I could continue to get experience and grow as a driver. I just remember being floored that I left that transporter with the opportunity of maybe being a driver there."
A LOT OF PEOPLE CALL CHAD KNAUS 'LITTLE RAY'. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU? "I know it drives him crazy to hear that but I believe with Chad working for and admiring Ray like he did and having similar personalities and just being so self driven, he is not accepting because he doesn't like that phrasing but he knows that he has a certain type of personality and it does have some parallels to what Ray has done and how Ray has led. I just hope we have that same kind of success. I know it's not the thing that he likes to be called but there are some very favorable thoughts and comparisons from Ray to Chad. Those guys both have made a lot out of nothing, of sorts. Chad came from a small town, Ray from where he did racing Modifieds so there are a lot of similarities there."
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON DALE EARNHARDT, JR. JOINING SUCH A DOMINANT TEAM? "There's no telling what '08 is going to hold for all of us. We feel that we 're doing the right things to develop as a company and continue to be successful and race for championships and wins. We feel that through the off season and starting back in Atlanta, with Junior getting some seat time in one of our cars, that there's just going to be a process of bringing both Juniors -- Tony Eury and Dale Jr. -- into our system, giving them a place, getting them up and running and giving them all that they need. So we're going to learn a lot through the off season and the preseason testing is going to be very important for that team and how it's going to get started in '08. We're excited for all of it."
AFTER GORDON'S 2001 CHAMPIONSHIP, WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF CHAD KNAUS HAD BECOME HIS CREW CHIEF? "I don't think Chad and Jeff could work together (laughs). Jeff likes them much more relaxed -- Robbie Loomis, Steve Letarte. I guess he had all those years with Ray and said 'all right, if I can do this over I want a much more relaxed environment'. I like the way Chad crew chiefs and believe me, there are times where he drives me crazy and I want to kill him and I'm sure it goes back the other way but we have a lot of history and a lot of respect for one another and we find a way to make it work. But I'm not sure Jeff could work with him."
THE TIME BETWEEN YOUR CONTACT WITH GORDON WHEN YOU LEARNED ABOUT A POSSIBLE HENDRICK OPPORTUNITY AND ACTUAL HIRING -- WHAT TRANSPIRED? "It was really less than a month. It was the August Michigan race where I went and spoke to Jeff and within a couple weeks or three weeks, I think we had a contract signed. It was a time where I needed to make some decisions and figure out what was going on with the Herzog program and the other opportunities I had and Rick saw how important it was for me to make that decision, to know where I was going to be, what was going to go on, that they literally signed me before we had a sponsor and committed to me as a driver for that fourth team in 2000. It was August of 2000 when I talked to Jeff and we got the contract put together in a very short period of time and they had all of 2001 to find a sponsor. Fortunately we found Lowe's pretty early in 2001. I was able to run my three races and start full-time in 2002. Again looking back, I was two-thirds of my way through my first Busch Series schedule and I'm signed up with Hendrick -- I couldn't believe it. I just had no clue that was going to take place, no clue that they were looking for a fourth driver and they thought I was that prospect. It was wild times."
WHO ULTIMATELY GAVE YOU THE THUMBS UP? "When I talked to Jeff, he made it clear that he was going to be a part of the team but Rick's really the one that pulls all the strings and does everything so after that initial conversation with Jeff, started talking with Rick directly."
CAN YOU ASSESS THE PERFORMANCE OF THE IMPALA SS DURING THE SEASON? "I regret saying this but I think it deserves an 'A'. I don't think it's the best car to drive from time to time; I know we all have a lot of complaints about it but we thought the cars were going to have wings falling off of them, splitters falling off, weren't going to put on good races, were going to be boring to watch and so far this year I think the races have all been, Dover is still Dover, Martinsville is still Martinsville. We've had great side-by-side racing and finishes. I wasn't at the test in Atlanta and I know some guys had some big issues in Atlanta so I guess my opinion of it might not be true to form but I think the car has far met my expectations. I think we all had major concerns and worries getting started and in the end, once we had some time to work with it it's put on a good show."
HOW BIG A RISK IS SAM HORNISH TAKING IF HE'S NOT ABLE TO DO MUCH IN NASCAR? "I don't know. I would think that in the public's eye, possibly. I think he' s taking a risk to come over to the NASCAR side. He's such an awesome, open-wheel driver, I think that if things don't work out he can go back there and still end up in a top ride and continue to win championships and win races. I also think that it shows how different the types of vehicles are that they race versus what we race and how tough it is to figure that out. He's one of the best in the open-wheel cars, if not the best. He's won a bunch of championships and to see him struggle has been, I'm sure tough for him and it's been interesting to watch. It makes me think that if you were a driver and you were going from stock cars over to Indy Cars, I think the transition would be easier going in that direction than coming back this direction into a car that has less downforce and weighs more and all those types of things. He is taking a risk and I think he knows that. I think he's looking for a new challenge in his career and I've only talked to him in passing but I think that he's up for the challenge and he wants to race here on the home soil and wants to show everyone in the U.S. that he's a top-notch driver. So he's willing to make the change."
-credit: gm racing