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Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports - Q&A

25 February 2013

Jimmie Johnson may have been an unstoppable force of nature when it came to NASCAR Sprint Cup championships in recent years, but restrictor plate racing at venues such as Daytona International Speedway have been a different matter for the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

He's won the Daytona 500 once, in 2006 - the year he clinched his first Cup championship - but ever since then he's failed to even make the top 25. That all changed in 2013: does it herald the start of a new purple patch in the five-time champ's career?

Q:
Jimmie, were you surprised at the end as you started taking that inside line up through there, I kept waiting for somebody, Biffle, Danica, people running second, third or fourth, to drop down in front and let you push them along, were you surprised nobody jumped down in front of you and made you push?

Jimmie Johnson:
Yeah, everybody was just playing the odds. The majority of the competitors wanted to run the top. The draft really works in numbers. There's more there than the bottom. With the side drafting being as effective right now, you could really choke down the bottom lane and pin a guy against the line and slow him down and then get away and have that long line of cars to surge you past.

The game's changed a little bit. It used to be defend the bottom, now it's defend the top.

In the closing laps, we were all single file, I was leading, I wanted to see what would go on with the middle or bottom and not allow guys to set me up based on my lines. I ran the bottom and no one had a run or did anything. It was an interesting race.

Learned a lot through the course of the race with the new Gen‑6 car. At the end when it was time to go, I knew we had a straight racecar with no scratches on it. We worked real hard, we had a game plan down here every time. Even though we were in single‑car drafts, we had an agenda and things we worked on and made the car a little bit better each day, kept perfecting it. I had one heck of a racecar today.

Q:
Jimmie, I want to ask you about a side‑bar story that comes out of this race. Danica Patrick made history today being the first woman to ever lead a lap in the Daytona 500. What impressed you most about the way she ran this race and what do you think this does for the sport?

Jimmie Johnson:
Well, she's really comfortable in the car. Being close to other competitors, door‑to‑door, whatever environment takes place on the racetrack, at these speeds, she was very comfortable. Held a great wheel. Was smooth and predictable. Took advantage of runs when she had them. She did a really good job.

It was just another car on the track. I didn't think about it being Danica in the car. It was just another car on the track that was fast. That's a credit to her and the job she's doing.

I think the style of racetrack really suits her. When we get to the other tracks, she has a tall learning curve ahead of her. She continues to show her ability to drive racecars. She made history today, and in fine fashion, too.

Q:
Jimmie, with Danica and with Harvick dominating early, do you feel maybe you flew under the radar well into it than you have in some years? If so, did you like that?

Jimmie Johnson:
I didn't really think too much about it. In other years I've been down here so focused on the pole, caught up in the media, the buzz that surrounds that, being in the top five. As time goes on, it's a nice week to enjoy after you win the pole, but it just doesn't mean much for the race.

In my mind, I didn't feel like I was under the radar. I felt like we were working hard to put the best product on the track. I had a good run in the Unlimited until we crashed. The Duel, I thought we were very competitive there. It was a sign of things to come.

I guess I was quiet in the overall spectrum of things from the media side. I think people in the garage, people knew we were sitting on a lot of speed and had a very good racecar.

Q:
Motorsports has been known for streaks, dominance. I know you're hoping to repeating the five years of championships. After two years of struggling here, I was wondering, any little bit of a doubt saying, Can we regain that? Aiming at a championship, any doubts creep in?

Jimmie Johnson:
Plate racing, no. Man, it's like playing the lottery. Everybody's got a ticket. When the #83 car is up there running fifth or sixth in the closing laps, it just shows you how equal the cars are and what the draft does. I've struck out a lot at these tracks, left with torn‑up racecars. Today we had a clean day.

I didn't doubt our ability to win; I was just frustrated with circumstances and plate racing. This will buy me a smile for I'm sure the rest of the year on the plate tracks.

Q:
Thirty-five more races to go. Good start. How do you look at this now looking ahead to the rest of the season?

Jimmie Johnson:
Definitely a great start for the team. When we were sitting discussing things before the season started, we felt good about the 500, but we're really excited for everything after the 500.

So very hopeful and excited that our #48 car will be really fast in Phoenix, Vegas, moving forward. I think it's going to be a very strong year for us.

Q:
Jimmie, can you try to explain, you said on the last lap you backed up to the people behind you, Junior said he backed up, Greg said he backed up. I thought the whole idea was to try to go forward.

Jimmie Johnson:
Well, the way our cars work, there's more help from someone pushing you than somebody towing you along. Been mentioned and talked a little bit about this week, the spring, some guys call it the beach ball effect. When the front bumper gets close to the rear bumper, there's bubble effect that shoots the car ahead. We learned over the years, if you ride the brake and help the car catching you break through that little bubble and make contact with you, there's more energy in that than the bubble effect.

Usually why we wreck is drag the brake, wait for contact, sometimes it's not in the right spot, maybe it's too hard, starts a wreck. But that's the game everybody plays.

I didn't pull back on the #16 at all. It seemed to me that everybody that's won down here, the leader was in pretty good shape. I was looking closely at the 16, waiting for him to come with a run. Then Earl said the #88 had the run. Last I looked, he was fourth or fifth. I thought that was great because he's probably going to stall out next to the #16, I was going to be up there all by myself in the lead and make it back.
He did have a big enough run to get by the #16, but I knew he didn't have enough closing rate to get by my side and do anything. I felt kind of good about things coming off of four.

Q:
Jimmie, about being under the radar. Usually in the old style of restrictor plate racing, there would be a harrowing moment or defining moment when you knew a guy was going to win or somebody had a dominant car leading into the weekend. It seemed like this weekend with the eradication of tandem drafting, everything in practice was limited. Today the racing seemed so different. Did you have a defining moment over the last week, or a time when you knew you could win this race, from 10 days ago to now?

Jimmie Johnson:
The rules package has the cars so close that it is tough to tell, even inside the racecars on the track. It was the Duel, I climbed out of the car, Chad [Knaus, #48 crew chief] and I debriefed afterward. I told him we didn't have much speed. He said, Man, from what I saw, you looked as good as anyone if not better. Chad and I in our relationship, I couldn't tell.

The same for yourself, you've been watching the sport a long time. The rules have the cars very close on speed. Throughout the week what I looked for was cars that could hang on to the draft. If they're the last car in line, didn't lose the draft, that was a fast car. That was one of the only indications I could consistently say was key. We found ourselves in that position a lot and never lost the draft.

For me the defining moment in the race was the caution coming out and the #48 being ahead of the #2. That gave me lane choice and really control of the race in the closing laps.

Q:
Jimmie, maybe I'm reaching on this, but there at the end of the race you're lining up against Brad. You lose the championship to him last year. Any extra motivation to go and get the 500 and beat him? Also, after going two years without winning a championship, to start a year with a Daytona 500 victory, are you able to take any ability to stick it to everybody and say, Hey, I'm back, I'm here, I'm coming back?

Jimmie Johnson:
No, I don't think we went anywhere anybody in the garage area, they're wise to all that. We had great pace last year, championship form, had two bad races at the end.

You know, I'm just enjoying this moment. This is a one of a kind race. In the rush that follows, the notoriety that follows, it's great for all of us. Chad, Rick, the company, Lowe's, Chevrolet. It's just time to sit back and enjoy.
When we pull into the gates at Phoenix next weekend, it's a totally different game as we all know. We'll enjoy this rush. If there's some down points through the year, we'll look back on this race and smile again.

As far as racing with Brad out there, you really lose sight of who is in what car. It's just somebody between you and the trophy. It could have been anybody. I knew the #2 had damage and wasn't going to be really fast. That's the only thing I thought about regarding the #2, was he had some damage and hopefully I could get by him with the clean racecar I had.

Q:
Jimmie, you just said you were aware the #2 had front end damage. It seemed like it took you a long time to get by him. Were you just sort of biding your time or were you surprised he was as fast as he was with that nose so torn up?

Jimmie Johnson:
No, I was desperately wanting to get by him or in the inside lane. There were far more cars lined up on the outside lane than the inside. Who was behind us? [Denny Hamlin.] I think the #9 was there at one point.

It was just so hard to make up time on the bottom because there were fewer cars. I was hanging on side drafting, doing all I could to hang onto the #2 when I was close to him and the #16. The caution truthfully fell at a good time for us. Right when we surged ahead, that allowed me to get ahead for the driver's choice for which lane he wanted.

Q:
Seemed like you were laying low for half the race. Was that the way things went?

Jimmie Johnson:
No, I ran second to fifth all day really. But you had such a small opportunity of time to get something done, you had a restart, and that would shuffle around for three laps, then we're all in line. Coming to pit road, Chad's strategy on when we pitted, the guys, what they did on pit road, was great. We always got the lead as the result of one.

Once that single file, it would be foolish to pull out. You get back in line in 35th or something, so you just kind of hold your spot.

Q:
Jimmie, I know it's awfully early, but the last time a new racecar was introduced in '07, Hendrick and you were strong right away. I look at this and I wonder are you maybe a little bit ahead of the rest? Is this a sign or is it too early to say that maybe you have something?

Jimmie Johnson:
It is a little early yet. Once we get a downforce race or two behind us, we'll have a better understanding. I have confidence because I know how hard Chad works, I know the tools and commitment that Rick has and gives us, how hard everybody works at our shop. We've had great test sessions.

Again, we felt like we had a shot at this race, but we're really excited for the races to come.

But it is a little early. Maybe after Vegas, Bristol, we can see which team has the upper hand.

Q:
Obviously it feels fantastic to do this. What does it mean to you that so many of your competitors come into Victory Lane to congratulate you in a moment like that? What does it mean to you to spend those types of moments with your family?

Jimmie Johnson:
It means a lot. I mean, that hits me deep. We race against one another, do some awful things to each other out on the track as competitors. But it's the ultimate nod for another guy to come in, if he's a Hendrick driver or not.

Brad came by, Ryan came by, Mears came by, Gordon, Junior, Kahne. It's really cool. It means a lot to me. I'm one of the few racers out there that's concerned about friendships and relationships. I have a lot of friends out there on that track and I'm proud of that.

I'm also proud to have my family here. Chani and Evie mean the world to me. Chani has been by my side and supporting me and letting me focus on my job and do all that I need to to be a part of this race team.

I win, our family wins. To have that moment in Victory Lane is very special, too.

Q:
I'm not sure what we thought we were going to see down here, but after hearing all about the Gen‑6 car, how it was going to do this, that and the other thing, for much of the day it was just single file, parade style until the very end. Is this race so different that this car eventually will be very good at other places and may not be good here or are we expecting too much?

Jimmie Johnson:
No, I think the cars are sensitive to side drafting, and that is some of what we saw. When we're running single file, we're just trying to get to the finish. We've all crashed so many times and have torn up so much stuff that a lot of that falls on the driver's shoulders.

I feel for NASCAR, they're trying to create a very competitive car. They want a side‑by‑side. The fans want a side‑by‑side. There's a few guys willing to race. The spotters were all talking. I'd get word that three or four guys wanted to jump out of line, they were tired of riding. I thought they better get some friends.

I just believe a lot of the competitors just wanted to get to that last pit stop and race for it.

Q:
Jimmie, in the best laymen's terms, because maybe the casual fans don't understand how difficult it is to do what you guys do out there, is it particularly hard to win here at Daytona? If so, why?

Jimmie Johnson:
Yeah, it's about as tough as it gets here. The draft and the way you race here and at Talladega is much different than anywhere else. It takes vehicles around you to create opportunities to pass. You can't do it alone. So it's far different than any other racing we do.

When you put us here at the biggest race, the Daytona 500, everybody brings their A game. It's the most difficult race to win.

Q:
Jimmie, put this in some kind of historical perspective. I don't know if you're able to do this at this moment. Winning in your 400th career start, you joined a great list of people that have done that, Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Richard Pearson, Dale Earnhardt. What does that mean to you having accomplished that?

Jimmie Johnson:
I had no clue about that. Just to hear those names and my name in that sentence is pretty awesome. The history side is hard for me because, one, I don't know these stats. Happy to hear about them, though. I'm still in the sport competing, not in that mental space to reflect back all that much.

I am so proud to be in that same category with those guys, feel I have a lot of years left. I certainly hope to make more history and do other cool things within the sport.

It's a huge honour. There's no other way to put it. Any time you're mentioned with those greats, it's a huge honour.

Q:
Switching to a new car, how long does it take you to discover the setups that you think are going to work? Some people mentioned it's a lot like it was eight to 10 years ago. Are you finding any numbers that you have useful to this year?

Jimmie Johnson:
We never stop learning. Something's always evolving and changing. Just when you think whatever mindset has become extinct, whatever setup is never going to be in a racecar again, a guy finds a way to make it work once again. We see this happen all the time.

This car is introducing some very old school thought, tools to be used on the racecar. So nothing's really ever gone. It always seems to find its way back into the sport. We'll learn all year and even past that.


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