Q&A with NASCAR championship contender Jimmie Johnson
Q. I know there's so many people trying to downplay the mind games, but are you just trying to plant a seed in Brad's (Keselowski) mind?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, you definitely want to plant a seed, but the thing that I know is regardless of the prodding or poking I can do, that moment is coming. The aha moment comes for everybody that's in that championship battle. It's easy right now to focus on just the drivers because we're here with the mics and doing this whole press conference. But every guy that goes over the wall to perform the pit stops can have that moment and will have that moment. Every guy turning a screw, a nut, putting fuel in the car, crew chiefing the race, engineering the race, everybody has the same thing on their mind. You're protecting something. It is something we have all worked for our whole lives to get to this point. It is a huge, huge moment.
So regardless of what I say or needling I can do, those moments are going to show up, and if I can plant that seed and help spur that moment along, then cool. But I'm not -- I didn't come in here with a huge agenda today thinking that I was going to make a difference in that because I know those moments are going to come. I've been there.
Q. So what is your mindset coming into this weekend?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: For whatever reason, I'm at peace with my situation. I mean, I don't want to be in this situation, but I am strangely optimistic, and I can't explain why. There's just feelings that people have, and I'll see if this feeling comes true Sunday evening.
Q. Does it work in your favor to be a five-time champion?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't feel forgotten by any means, but the truth of it is there's 20 points, 20 positions on the track. If it was tighter there would probably be more concern, but the best part, and it came to me during the press conference, to help spur along any thoughts and to help distract the 2 team and especially Brad and his mindset, the questions that come and the focus, that helps the magnitude of this situation come along and brings that to the forefront of his mind quicker and quicker.
I was smiling to hear family questions asked, and what this might mean and all that, because it's very easy in your controlled environment to ignore all of those thoughts. But when you're in these situations you want to know, the fans want to know, those questions come out, and it makes you think about things that you don't want to think about or talk about and maybe haven't yet because why would you. As a racer you don't want to assume things.
I was enjoying the questions and I enjoy the fact the spotlight is over there. In fact, what the hell are you all doing over here? Get over there and ask some questions.
Q. Everybody talks about Brad Keselowski being discovered in 2007. A lot of young drivers don't get a break. Is it just a question of being in the right place at the right time for guys that gets them to where they are now?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, it is so tough to get noticed. I mean, I have two younger brothers that would love to be in this sport and are talented, and you'd think I could pull strings, and I've tried. It's just weird what spurs it along, and in today's world if you don't have a sponsor, you're not going to race. And the era I came through, it was like that for sure, but team owners still had some flexibility for whatever reason and sponsors were kind of around, and if a team owner believed in you, they could sell you, and I had that with Stan and Randy Herzog.
In today's world, even Childress, you see the Nationwide sponsors change and drivers change and on and on, even on the Cup side. Just because an owner believes in a driver, it doesn't impact the sponsors like it did years ago, and you have to stand out so well or bring money.
In this era, I don't know how I would have stood out. I mean, I barely made it through the system as I did, and very fortunate to have made it. But I had the manufacturers carrying me. I had Chevy carrying me along.
I'm not sure people -- I'm not sure the manufacturers have the impact that they did at that point in time to even help me get here.
Q. Can you think of any examples during the years you won the championships of questions that got asked that may have affected you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Out of my Cup experience, today starts it. Today really does, because when you leave the race in Phoenix typically, you answer some questions, you go through some media stuff, and then you go to your bubble. You go to your place where you can control the elements. Family typically lays back, friends, you have all this encouragement. You go to the shop, there's a vibe you pick up on and all of that, but you come to the press conference and it changes that dynamic.
And this is just the start of it because we're available to everybody multiple times through the weekend. Every camera in Florida will be on us in every practice session. Every time I walk to and from the transporter, what are their moves, what are they thinking, how's it going, I heard this on the radio. All of that just ramps up. Sunday of Phoenix until today it's easy to create the environment you want, but from here moving forward it's tough, and you have to do some things that make you uncomfortable, and that's when that moment can kick in.
Q. (No microphone.)
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I remember in qualifying for the year with Mark, so was that 2009, we didn't have a very good practice session. I was setting my car up to run the bottom of the racetrack, wasn't all that fast. Mark ran a blistering lap to be on the pole at the time, and I ran the top of the racetrack, which was kind of new down here for qualifying, and leading up to that, the pressure was on me to qualify well because qualifying is so important. And then we go out there, never ran a lap around the top in qualifying trim, had no clue how the balance of the race car would be and sat it on the pole. That was really from one extreme to the other, from being concerned and worried about how we were going to qualify and feeling the pressure to complete and utter relief that we pulled off a heck of a lap.
Q. Last week Brad was pretty outspoken. I'm sure even if you tried to stay in your bubble I'm sure you heard it, about the competition on the track. Do you expect some more of that this week? It was kind of a crazy week last week even if you took what happened to you out.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, the last 10 laps or five laps, whatever that was, pretty wild. You know, I still haven't seen the clip. I understand if you watch it on television there's going to be a lot of beeps because you can't hear it all. But he has a point, and he wanted to make a point, and he did. So the thing that -- that's all relative to Phoenix. The thing I didn't understand was maybe some of the criticism he took for racing me at Texas. I guess I was in my bubble and didn't really see any of that.
But I mean, it was just hard racing there. I was shocked to hear that he was hazed for some of that.
Q. Do you think that this week they'll worry about the other people around? You guys are in your control when you're that good at racing, it's really pretty much what happens around you guys unless you two are racing each other.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, if we're racing each other I'm in trouble. We need a big gap between where I am and where he is. That's really the bottom line. You know, this is a different championship battle for me, and I have no problem doing things that I typically wouldn't do. I mean, if I was coming down here as the points leader I would want to limit these moments, and since I'm not, I'll do anything you guys want and need. It's different. I've got to play the hand that's dealt to me, and anything I can do to be effective, I'm going to take that opportunity to do it.
Q. Just to follow up on earlier, you said you're coming into this weekend optimistic. Do you believe you can still win this thing?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I do believe. I do believe we can win our sixth title. The IndyCar championship is the best example of that this isn't over until the checkered flag falls. A lot can happen. So we just need to make sure we're buttoned up and do the best job we can and see where the chips fall.
Q. You noted earlier how the unexpected (inaudible) what was the unexpected or variable that stood out to you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: For me it was answering questions that I wasn't ready for. When you're asked questions specific about the race and your setup and your mindset, you've been geared up for that knowing this press conference is coming, and you're ready for that. But the left field questions about your family and what that means to you and what it might mean to your community, your neighborhood where you're born and raised, those are things you just never think of. And it didn't dawn on me until we were in there and the questions were asked that I'm like, these are those moments, this is when it becomes real and the magnitude of this race starts to set in.
Q. Do people treat you differently this time of year than they do at the beginning of the Chase?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think my personal life, family, home situation has evolved, and some of it is due to the fact that I personally have been able to relax a lot more in the space. In 2006 we still laugh, my wife and I do, my friends, my attorney Allen Miller, Kristine (Curley), how tense it was in '06 trying to get the first one. Really '04 and '05 leading up to it, and then it had all the pressure on us in '06. We know what to expect on most levels, and this year going into the Chase we talked about things, and I just -- it's unlike me to be selfish, so I shared with my wife, I said, look, there are going to be aspects of this where I'm going to need some me time and do this, this and this and spend time training, spend time at the shop, spend time here and there, and of course she's 100 percent supportive and understanding of it all.
But as we all know, communication is everything. Just to kind of lay that out there and say I might be a little different for 10 weeks, you know why, and she certainly knows why and is extremely supportive. It's been great, and I had that moment and talk, and we communicated about how I thought these next 10 weeks would be very intense and blinders on. But we've been performing so well that I've been far more relaxed than any other championship.
And then with a two year old in the house, I mean, it lightens any mood, and it's been -- sure, there's work and it's very important, but home is so much fun. I mean, we are having a total blast, and it's been a great kind of tension breaker through the course of the week.
Q. The first time I ever heard your name you had gone (inaudible) and climbed out. Would you mind giving me chapter and verse your memory of that moment?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I was convinced it was the end of me when I was flying through the air and saw the white wall. I thought it was concrete. Fortunately it was two layers of Styrofoam and some other soft stuff behind it. The car caught on fire. My neck muscles were not working. I couldn't hold my neck up to kind of look out the windshield and see where I was. My chin was on my sternum. I could feel the heat, I could see kind of a fire and I knew I needed to get out, and as I got out of the car my neck started to work again, and when I got up and out of the car, the fans were jumping up and down and happy to see me climb out of the race car, and that led to my excitement to climb on the roof and jump up and down like I did.
Q. Did that have an impact on the way people recognize you or the way you were moving through the ranks at the time? Was there a recognition factor?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You might ask (Jeff) Gordon more in depth, but I think that was a moment where Jeff like put a face with a name for me. Then later on there were other things that helped put together the relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet being a part of that and then Rick's son Ricky. But Jeff told me a story a long time ago that that really helped me, oh, that's Jimmie Johnson. He knew there was a name, knew there was a car out there but didn't know much about me, and that kind of framed that in.
Q. First time you saw it on film what did you think?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Same thing I think about now when I see it on film, I can't believe I made it through that.
Q. (No microphone.)
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm just not that smart, so I can only focus on a couple things at a time, so it helps. I'm curious.
Q. (No microphone.)
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm still lost on the conspiracy theory. To take out third place? I haven't seen the video. I don't know. NASCAR has it fixed; I'm supposed to win anyways, which always confuses me. If they have it fixed and want me to win so badly, why the hell do they bust Chad like they do? Their conspiracy idea just makes no sense.
Q. Is there any discussion that you'll have with Jeff or Kasey?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, no. There is -- I mean, sure, they probably won't make it easy. I wouldn't expect Sam to make it easy on me. The thing about racing is, sure, there isn't a race next weekend, so I might feel like you can get away with something more, but there's just some unwritten rules, and the integrity and the type of place that Hendrick Motorsports is, that game is not going to be played. I don't think it really ever has, even with some pretty rough-and-tumble organizations. You don't commission someone to go out and torpedo your competition. It just doesn't happen.
You know, I hope my teammates race him hard. I hope everybody on the racetrack races him hard. But typically when you get to Homestead and if the championship contenders put pressure on someone, nine times out of ten they point them by, and that's something I had in years past when we had something to protect. I knew if I put pressure on someone they'd let me go. There were a couple that wouldn't but most would let you go. That's one thing that isn't working in my favor for this weekend.
Q. It's interesting when you look at a lot of the champions, they were raised by fathers whose attention that they seek really bad. I was interested to hear Brad talking about he doesn't hear compliments about himself unless behind the scenes. Earnhardt was like that to Dale Jr. A lot of the driven drivers in our sport have fathers like that. But your dad is such a wonderful, hugging, genteel kind of guy as you see him walk down pit road. I'm wondering if you sense any kind of a feeling that you had that, kind of striving to prove yourself to your own dad that you see from a lot of the competitors at the elite level.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, I had all the support, and even if I wasn't feeling up for a race that weekend -- there's a point when I was in grade school, middle school where we had raced so many times, and I watched all my friends develop and be good at baseball, basketball, football, have a social life, and I got to a point where I said, look, I want to be a kid, and the last thing my parents ever wanted to do was pressure me, so we stopped. We stopped. And that was really the end of my motocross racing at that point.
The thing that got me was it took -- usually takes me a while to figure something out, and once I have it, I have it. I would watch my other friends that I would grow up with out-race me on a dirt bike, and it would just motivate me to try harder. Then I got into the off-road ranks and I was really young racing against 30-somethings all the time, and here I am at 15, 16, 18, all that kind of stuff, and I just really internalized it all and found my own drive inside to do it. It wasn't to prove a point to anyone but myself that I could do it. That's really what it's all been about.
Q. (No microphone.)
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Not specifically. I mean, at one point he was the leader of the race, and we had never talked about the 2 all day long on the radio. You know, when I got to seventh eighth and couldn't go any further and sold out in my mind, all I wanted was a shot down here, and if we came in tied one up, one down, whatever we did, that's fine by me. I just didn't want to be in this position and be 20 down.
They didn't force our hand. The run before that on the racetrack we made up three seconds on the leader. That run the car was a lot tighter with that set of tires we put on, and I was just driving hard. Goodyear claimed that it was the bead, which it could be, but the damage to the tire was so severe it's hard for us to really pinpoint what it was. We had some high wear on sets that came off earlier, so it could have been a combination of things. We saw the 31 Cup car, 31 truck, the 88 had a tire issue and came to pit road just before my crash. So I'm not saying it was a bad tire, but I think that if you were abusing a tire you could have hurt it, and that's certainly what we did, and we hurt the tire and hit the fence.
It wasn't Brad related, it was just trying to run hard and get a good finish because I wanted to come in here close.
Q. While you were up on stage with Brad, you both displayed a lot of class. What do you think a contender needs to be able to have to become a champion?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I don't think -- there's no prerequisite. There's no requirements for anybody. You know, I think people -- as you progress as a driver and become a champion, you start to assume the role, you start to better understand the role. But somebody could be very disliked and not be the -- people might look at them and say there's no way that champion's material and they'll still be the champion. That's what I'm getting at.
I'm sure people looked at me in '06 and said he's not going to be a good champion for our sport. But you learn that role when you're in the middle of it, and some people get aggressive with it and are strong-minded with it, and others kind of take their time with it. Which over five championships I finally felt like I had a voice. I feel like from my standpoint I've always had to earn that right. Others are much quicker to it.
Q. Do you see any of that in Brad?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Just a little. (Laughter.)
Q. Does this championship feel like such a different scenario for you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, there was -- in '05 we came down here behind Tony, and I think Tony had to finish 25th or better and we were running near the front, had a tire blow going into Turn 3 and crashed, and I think Tony finished like 23rd or 24th in the race and did not have a good race. I think he got lapped at some point. So when I look back on '05, I hate that we had that problem. I felt like I had a tire going down and an issue and didn't come to pit road. So there is a lesson in that, that again, it isn't over until the checkered falls. If we would have stayed in the race, even if we went down a lap from pitting -- I don't think there were lucky dogs then, but maybe we could have got a lap back, or whatever it was, but keep the pressure on is the bottom line. That's my goal all weekend long, keep the pressure on and see what happens. I mean, it isn't over until the checkered falls.
ADDITIONAL JIMMIE JOHNSON QUOTES FROM EARLIER BREAKOUT SESSION MONITORED BY KRISTA VODA AND KERRY THARP:
Q. Jimmie, a somewhat strange position for you this weekend because in four out of five years you've won the championship you've come into Homestead leading the points. Now similar to 2010, you come in as the chaser. I know the answer to this question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: Can you pull off another late-race comeback?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I definitely think it's possible. You look at our bad luck last weekend, there's still a race here, and there's still tires on these race cars, and something can happen there. There's still a lot of very tough competition on the track. This just isn't any other race; this is the championship race, and there's a lot that comes with that.
I'm very optimistic. I think that we'll have a very fast race car, and we'll go out onto the racetrack and do all that we can each and every lap of every practice session qualifying and race, and see how things play out.
I find another point of motivation and optimism; we look at the IndyCar championship and how it unfolded at Fontana. It seemed like it was a lay-up race, and things can happen. This is racing. I think either way we'll be in good shape. We'll have a fast race car and go out and race hard, and then if some luck comes our way, we'll hopefully be ready to capitalize on that, as well.
Q. Jimmie, given the deficit, do you feel like you have to root for something bad to happen to Brad Keselowski, or would you consider roughing him up in order to put him back somewhere in the back of the field?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I think that to think that a top-15 finish is a lay-up is tough. This garage area is tough, the weight of this race, I don't care who you are, it'll show up at some point in time and thoughts will run through your head, and with all that being said, a 15th place finish is not a lay-up for these guys. So I have a little bit of stock in that, and we'll see how they respond. Their trends this year have been strong, but this is a different race.
Then as far as the luck category, we were unlucky as anybody can be. There's that element that exists out there, and we'll just see where it all unfolds. There's a line of racing hard, to answer your final part of your question, and we both have proven we're willing to race hard, and I certainly am willing to race hard down here. It's not my style to go drive through somebody and create the opportunity; that's not me. So I'm going to race as hard as I possibly can and see where things fall.
Q. Will you have your teams let you know how you stand, or is that too much to think about during the race? Do you want to know where the other guy is, how many positions you've got to get, or do you kind of wait until you get down to the last 50 laps to start thinking about stuff like that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, if we get to the end of the race and they're not having the day that they would hope to have, that information could -- it's really probably not going to change anything that I do. I still need every spot I can get on the track. But I'm sure information will come in, and even if it isn't specific, I can tell -- I will be able to tell by the tone in Chad's voice if we're in the good or the bad. (Laughter.)
Q. As the psych major or the pretend psych major of the group, Jimmie, I can't help but notice you brought up the IndyCar championship and what happened there. You said a top 15 finish is no lay-up. It seems you're kind of tweaking it a little bit, maybe intentional, maybe not, and we know from the past, I guess, two championships you guys messed with Denny Hamlin a little bit up there, Carl Edwards got a little rattled from Tony Stewart. Maybe you're doing it on purpose, maybe you're not. Is that the intent, to put the weight on Brad Keselowski?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, of course I'm going to find points that give myself motivation and my team, and if there's anything I can do, and Brad, if you'd like me to call later and remind you of any other examples, I certainly can, of guys that didn't pull off the season finale as they would hope.
But one thing I've learned is that regardless of how experienced anyone is in this championship battle, at some point the magnitude of it hits you. At some point, he may be very comfortable and calm now, it may not happen until he's in the car, but at some point that magnitude hits, and I've lived through it five times. That's a turning moment, and we'll see how he responds. It also carries over to guys changing tires. There's some point where every member on that race team goes, this is it, this is what I've worked so hard far. I'll be glad to point out those moments as needed.
Q. Jimmie, you said that at some point the magnitude hits you for everybody, and it affects the contenders in some way. A few weeks ago Dale Earnhardt Jr. said about Brad Keselowski that he's so mentally tough he didn't think he was going to crack. Is there something you see from Brad that makes you think otherwise, and what happens in that moment when the magnitude does hit you? How do you respond to it? What makes that championship mettle that you need to win a championship?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, me trying to explain what it's like and how I've handled it would probably be kind of stupid of me right now, so I'm going to not answer the second part of your question.
The first part is the magnitude sets in at some point. I mean, he just answered a question about family, and I've been there, and I've been the guy leading the points, and people are so curious to know all these what-ifs, what if it happens, and you're forced to answer questions that you're not used to answering, that you don't want to answer, and it builds through the course of the week.
Again, it hits everybody differently, and there's no guarantees how it'll hit him. But I know from my own experience that there have been those moments. Fortunately I responded well to them. We'll see how the weekend goes.