Phoenix: Jimmie Johnson press conference

Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the Checker Auto Parts 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race next weekend at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale,...

Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse Chevrolet discusses his rookie season and outlook for the Checker Auto Parts 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race next weekend at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, AZ.

Johnson is currently 3rd in Winston Cup Series standings, 219 points behind the leader; and 2nd in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings. So far in 2002, Johnson has earned three NASCAR Winston Cup victories (California, Dover and Dover), five Bud Pole Awards (Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Richmond and Talladega) and recorded 20 top-10 finishes, including six top-5s (Atlanta, California, Dover, Pocono, Chicagoland and Dover).

IT'S NOT OVER 'TIL IT'S OVER, BUT IN YOUR CASE, IS IT PRETTY MUCH OVER?

"We can't control our own destiny by any means. So that, I believe, means we don't really have a shot at it. Tony (Stewart) has a free week on us right now. On top of that, we would still have to have a real good day and he would have to not have such a good day for us to catch him in points. I just don't see that happening with the strength of that team. But crazy things happen. I don't think the chances are very good."

IT"S BEEN A GOOD RUN, HASN'T IT?

"It's been great. We are disappointed and hated to see these last two races have the problems we've had that have taken us out of this battle. But we can't argue with the year that we've had. It's been an incredible season. We need to finish up strong and try to stay in the top three in points. That would be our next goal."

DO YOU FIND IT MORE CHALLENGING TO NEGOTIATE TRAFFIC ON THE FREEWAY THAN ON THE RACE TRACK?

"Definitely. I think it's harder to drive on the streets than it is on the race track in some cases."

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EMOTIONS OF THE LAST TWO RACES?

"It's just disappointing. At Atlanta, we just had a bad day and the car just didn't have the speed in it. Luckily, we didn't hit anything. I was excited we didn't crash. But I was depressed that we lost so many points. Last weekend (at Rockingham) we started deep in the pack but we drove up through there. I was really excited for the race. I felt like we had a shot at a great day with Ryan (Newman) and Tony (Stewart) having troubles - we could have made up points in (both) the rookie battle and the championship. I was really disappointed when we had the problems we had. I was just disappointed. I guess that's the best way to put it."

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM RUNNING UP FRONT ALL SEASON LONG?

"You learn all kinds of things (like) how long the season is and what it takes to be in the championship week in and week out. I think I'm learning and developing. There are a lot of things you learn by running up front."

WHILE SOME DRIVERS WITHDRAW FROM THE FANS & MEDIA, YOU ALWAYS MAKE YOURSELF AVAILABLE TO THEM. IS THAT YOUR WAY OF RELEASING PRESSURE?

"No. I think its just part of the job. I don't think it's any pressure-related thing. It's just what I do week in and week out."

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE THIS YEAR?

"The length of the season. The time you spend in the car isn't the thing that wears you down the most. It's the travel, and the obligations out of the race car for 38 weekends of the season is pretty intense. Really, we only have three off-weekends. During those off-weekends, there are still obligations. It's the schedule and all the stuff that goes into it that's the hard thing."

AS YOU START LOOKING TOWARD NEXT YEAR, IS THERE PRESSURE TO MAINTAIN? IS THERE PRESSURE LIKE THE "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED" JINX AND THE "SOPHOMORE" JINX?

"You just don't know until you get into it why some things change for some people. I don't think there's anything behind that to worry about it. We're just going to go out and do what we can next year and try to improve our finish at each race track over what we did the last time. Looking back, there are some mechanical things and some mistakes that I've made at some tracks. I feel a lot smarter and feel we'll be in a lot better situation to hopefully run better at some of these tracks where we didn't run so well. Hopefully we can finish higher than we did this year."

IF YOU WERE TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT THIS SEASON, WHAT WOULD THE TITLE BE?

"What A Cool Year".

WITH ANOTHER ROOKIE, RYAN NEWMAN, DOING SO WELL THIS SEASON, HOW HAS THAT IMPACTED YOUR APPROACH TO THINGS?

"It's really been like a points championship race all year long. That's really been since race one between Ryan and me."

DID YOU KNOW RYAN NEWMAN VERY WELL AT THE START OF THE YEAR AND HOW HAS THAT RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPED DURING THE SEASON?

"I didn't know him real well at the beginning of the year. We knew each other in passing. I'd seen him at the race track and raced with him some in the Busch Series. But I think our relationship has grown into a friendship off the race track. We don't spend a lot of time together, but when we do see one another we have a good relationship. He's come to my house before for a party I've had and different things. We do have a little relationship away from the track. And I think on the track, we have respect for one another. That's the biggest thing is the respect we have for each other."

YOU AND RYAN NEWMAN HAVE RAISED THE BAR FOR ROOKIES. HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT YOU'LL DO FOR AN ENCORE?

"No, not yet. Obviously, we'll end up in the top five or the top three in points. We'd like to improve on that. That would be the goal. It's incredible what we've done so far. It is hard to imagine what we'd do next year. There's not much further to go up. We'll just go out and do the best we can each week and improve on the finishes we had on those tracks previously. Hopefully we'll go up instead of down."

HAVE ALL THE OUTSIDE PRESSURES - MEDIA, SPONSORS, & FANS - BEEN TOUGHER ON YOU THAN YOU THOUGHT THEY WOULD?

" We've been able to manage it well. I think Lowe's has done a good job of keeping my focus on the race car. Every one around who has been in this sport for a long time understands the strains of the full season. They have all advised me, and they've kept the pressure off me. Little things and extra things that take up time have been kept to a minimum so that I have been able to stay focused on the season and not get burned out or worn out. But I think it's just inevitable really, from Jan. 1 'til Nov. 15th you're fully consumed with the sport. It's just a long year."

GOING IN, DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA IT WOULD BE THAT CONSUMING?

"I've been racing all my life and have known what it takes. You stay busy year 'round in every form of racing that you're in. This is different. It's so highly publicized. With that, there comes more pressure with it being NASCAR Winston Cup racing. But it hasn't been too bad."

ON MARK MARTIN BEING PENALIZED 25 POINTS FOR ILLEGAL COIL SPRINGS - IS THAT A DRIVER RESPONSIBILITY OR A TEAM RESPONSIBILITY?

"There isn't anything that I can do to control what goes in that race car the way the sport is these days. Typically, a week before the race the car is either in the truck loaded up and heading somewhere or it's one of 20 cars sitting on the floor in there (shop). Exactly what's right or wrong is impossible for the driver to know. I know everyone out there is doing every thing that they can. They try to work every gray area. There's kind of a little competition between the crew chiefs and NASCAR about what's in that gray area they can get away with. Everyone is trying. I'm sure there is something worth 25 points (penalty) on every race car that's out there."

ON HIS REMARKABLE SEASON

"I know that what we've done is incredible and I'm looking forward to the off-season to reflect back on it and let everything slow down and let it soak in. You want to win championships and want to be a part of it. It's something we never thought we'd be a part of in our first season, but you don't want to miss that opportunity. We've had two bad races now that have taken us out of it with freak stuff and we're just disappointed in that. It's time to move on. It's time for Phoenix and to get all that we can and fight for third. It's a pretty close battle for third right now, and we'll just do all we can. But I'm very pleased with the season that we've had. I have no complaints. It's been a great season."

ON THE PHOENIX RACE

"It's a track that I've had success on in the Busch Series. I don't think my finishes show it. We broke a motor one time and blew a tire another time. But it's close to home for me. I've got some friends and family coming down. I love being out on the west coast. I can get some Mexican food again. It should be a good track for me."

WHAT FOOD DO YOU MISS THE MOST?

"Mexican. Real Mexican."

HOW HAVE YOU BALANCED THE NEED TO BE AGGRESSIVE WITH FITTING INTO THE NORMAL VISION OF WHAT PEOPLE THINK ROOKIES ARE SUPPOSED TO BE?

"In our sport, there are so many variables. I haven't had to worry about that. You need to race everyone clean and treat them with respect. You can't go in there and rough people up in our sport because we're traveling 200 mph and you start hitting the wall. It's different in our sport in that you come in with a good attitude and respect the guys you're racing with they'll treat you with respect. But you've got to take that initiative to step off on the right foot to give that respect and race them cleanly and treat them right. Once that happens, you're in good shape. These guys all respect everything that I've been able to accomplish and my team and everything that goes along. This whole rookie vision-thing I don't really think exists. Any rookie problems I've had have been self-induced from mistakes that I've made - not necessarily anything from the other drivers."

HOW HAS THE REALITY OF BEING IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS RACE THIS YEAR CHANGED YOUR APPROACH TO RACING?

"I don't think it's changed my approach. It's given myself and the whole Lowe's team a lot of credibility. Instantly in the first year we've been able to be a championship threat. And I think that - within the garage area and even outside the garage area - has given our team a lot of respect for the abilities that we have."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jimmie Johnson