Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, met with members of the media and discussed his success at Martinsville, earning points during the Chase, the stress among championship contenders, his teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. returning to race after two weeks on the sidelines, and more.
TALK ABOUT COMING TO MARTINSVILLE “You drive in here and you still get a sense of a previous era unlike a lot of race tracks. I really enjoy coming here and Darlington. You got to have a view back into what NASCAR was years ago. I still think that environment exists here and it’s fun to come to the track and race. Then from a fan prospective you get a great action packed race. You’re up and close and right near the cars. I enjoy watching cars myself here on the race track. It’s just a fun place and I’m excited to be here.”
HAVE YOU REALLY GOT WITH CHAD (KNAUS, CREW CHIEF) AND RON (MALEC, CAR CHIEF) AND GONE THROUGH EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED IN KANSAS? ARE YOU STILL KIND OF BLOWN AWAY BY WHAT TOOK PLACE AND THE CAR YOU HAD ONCE THEY WERE FINISHED REPAIRING IT? “Yeah, after the race we looked around and did some serious bench racing about the car. On Tuesday through our team debrief and walking through the shop and seeing the guys just impressed with what they did.
“Also during the crash we were fortunate that the way in which the rear bumper hit the wall, the tubing in the back of the car the direction it went, one piece of tubing was down which everybody could see dragging, but there was another piece back there that stayed intact and went up and added support for the deck lid, spoiler and all that. That was key. If that piece of tubing fell out or hit in a different way or pushed in a different direction, we wouldn’t have been able to support the decklid like we did.”
WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT YOU GUYS MOVING FORWARD? THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF COMPARES BETWEEN YOUR TEAM AND THE NO. 2 TEAM IN CERTAIN RACES. DO YOU THINK IT MADE A BIG STATEMENT FOR YOUR GUYS TO BE ABLE TO SHOW THIS IS WHAT WE CAN DO? “It did and we will have to wait until Homestead to see where that fits into the story. On one light, I look at it and think I made a mistake and gave up points. I really felt like we could have won the race. It was a day that Brad (Keselowski) wasn’t leading and running in the top two or three and we could have closed the points up if not got ahead. I hope it’s a story that we preserved the championship, minimized the damage, and minimized the loss. At the same time, I still regret that I didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.”
BETWEEN YOU, BRAD (KESELOWSKI) AND DENNY (HAMLIN), WHO DO YOU FEEL LIKE THE PRESSURE IS REALLY ON IN THE CHASE? “It’s on all of us, but the points leader I think has the most pressure. I like being in that position because you are still in control. When you’re leading the points, it’s in your hands but with that control comes pressure especially later in the season and in the Chase too. During different parts of the season it’s an honor to lead the points. That honor is still there right now but that light at the end of the tunnel is becoming much more vivid. There’s a picture there at the end of that tunnel and that pressure starts to set in.”
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT STRUGGLING AT BRISTOL AND THEN SUDDENLY THINGS KIND OF CLICKED FOR YOU AND YOU STARTED TO FEEL COMFORTABLE THER EAND GET IT. WAS THERE A SIMILAR MOMENT LIKE THAT FOR YOU HERE (MARTINSVILLE)? “Yeah, I was pretty lost my first few trips here. We tested for both races. Maybe my second time back or sometime early at the time I was disappointed but the leader Tony Stewart caught me and lapped me. Following him just turned the light switch on in my head as what to do around here. I was able to keep pace with him and get a lap back and have a decent finish that day. That really set things in motion for me.”
LAST WEEK WAS AN EXAMPLE OF HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS RESOURCEFULNESS. DO YOU THINK THERE IS A MYSTIQUE AROUND HENDRICK AND ITS ABILITY? IS IT AN ADVANTAGE FOR YOU? “I really think so but to be honest when you get to the end of the year and the teams that are fighting for the championship are there for a reason. It is a team sport; it’s not just the driver getting the job done in the car. It’s the people preparing the race cars. It’s the pit stops. It’s crisis management which we had last weekend. I would expect that out of the top team and I certainly expect it out of my team. They exceeded expectation with how well the car performed after the wreck, but I would assume other teams are capable of doing that too at this stage of the game.”
IS THERE ANYTHING SPECIAL THAT HENDRICK DOES? “Within the No. 48 team we’ve been together for a long time and we have all the tools and resources we need to go compete for a championship. Rick (Hendrick) is an amazing man, a great guy to work for, and knows how to lead people. I think the amount of time the No. 48 team has been together, the low turnover rate, and how consistent the personnel has been gives us a big advantage.”
WITH THINGS SO CLOSE IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP RACE, DOES WHAT HAPPENED AT KANSAS LAST WEEK CHANGE YOUR THINKING AT ALL ON WHERE THE EDGE IS AND HOW CLOSE YOU CAN RACE ON THAT EDGE WITHOUT GETTING IN AN ACCIDENT AND CAUSING A BIG DROP IN POINTS? “I want to learn from my mistakes, but it’s such a fine line we walk and it’s hard to look at yourself in the middle of a race and say alright am I at 100 percent or 101, 99, the line is getting ever smaller. With what we had and going down a lap after leading the race and the caution coming out when it did, my eagerness to get through traffic, the No. 56 bobbled in front of me and I was more eager to jump in the gas and try to get position on him and went through his dirty air, being hard on the throttle shook my car loose.
“There’s just little tiny things that add up and it’s hard in the moment to recognize that. But, that’s something that we’re all faced with and something I’ve done a very nice job with in years past. Everybody makes mistakes and I would rather side on the aggressive side because I know what my competition is. I know the No. 2 car is certainly racing that way and Denny (Hamlin) is as well. You’ve got to stay aggressive. You can’t protect and you can’t conserve at this stage. It’s all about living on that ragged edge.”
MARK MARTIN RECENTLY SAID I’M OLD SCHOOL AND WHEN IT COMES TO DECIDING WHETHER I’M INJURED TOO MUCH TO BE IN A RACE CAR, I WANT THAT DECISION TO BE MINE AND NOT A DOCTOR. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT? “I’m not familiar with the new protocol that could potentially be coming or Mark’s comments, but in all sports and just your general medical exams, we all go in and get a physical every year, I’m sure we’re all squinting extra hard to read the eye chart and you leave there thinking I made it, good! That’s just a bad example of what it’s like in the doctor’s office. I feel like in our sports, like others, especially relative to concussions, we need to be sure we’re not putting a driver back in harm’s way. We know that a series of concussions within a short period of time is very dangerous and we need to keep our sport safe. Change is coming. I know if somebody is living through it, it’s probably going to be tough and might be on the slow side of returning to the track. With safety in mind I think it’s important.”
WITH THE WAY THE POINT SYSTEM IS NOW, WOULD YOU FIND IT TO BE REALLY HARD TO BACK OUT WITH TWO OR THREE RACES LEFT IN THE YEAR IF YOU WERE STILL IN THE HUNT FOR THE TITLE? “Yeah, that’s tough. Knock on wood; I’m so fortunate to not have that in my auto racing career. Now racing dirt bikes, the very first championship I won I blew my knee apart and had reconstructive knee surgery, missed two weekends but still had the points lead. I figured out that if I started the last two races, I would get a starting point and I would tie my competitor and I would win the tie-breaker due to wins. So at eight years old, I rode around that dirt bike track with my leg in a cast and rode my one lap to tie points so I could get the big trophy at the end of the year. So, it’s just wired in competitors. It’s what you do. It’s crazy and this is what we do.”
YOU AND DENNY HAMLIN HAVE REALLY GOOD RECORDS HERE. EVEN BRAD KESELOWSKI HAS HAD A PRETTY SOLID RECORD. WHEN YOU LOOK THESE GUYS YOU’RE RACING FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP, IS IT MORE PRESSURE, MORE DIFFICULT, AND HARDER TO PREPARE FOR WHEN YOU KNOW THE GUYS THAT YOU’RE COMPETING AGAINST ARE ALSO GOOD AT MARTINSVILLE? OR, DO YOU TRY NOT TO WORRY ABOUT THE COMPETITION’S RECORD AND FOCUS ON YOUR OWN? “I try to stay focused on my record and my team. But there is a part of my mind that thinks of strengths and weaknesses of the other drivers. In general, I feel like the way everybody is running, you might get a point or two; if you’re fortunate enough to win, you’ll get three (points) on a guy and that’s what we’ve seen. And that’s where my disappointment of last week (Kansas Speedway) comes into play because I feel like I could have gotten a good chunk on the No. 2 (Keselowski) and the No. 11 (Hamlin). But coming here, the way we’re sitting in points, I would hope to get a handful of points on the No. 2 car. And at the same time, Denny, I got a few points on him last week so if I gave up a few it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. And I really think going down the stretch, it’s going to be a game of a few points at a time. That’s just the way my mindset is. Where in years past, there were bigger chunks between the guys. I guess some of it might have just been the point system at the time. You’d be 35 points out and feel pretty good about it; but you’re only now I guess, five cars away from someone (laughs). So that probably plays into it a little bit. But I’m focused on it this week a little bit and if I lose a little to the No. 11, it’s not what I want but I got a few last week; and if I’m able to get some on the No. 2, then we did what we should here.”
ON THE STRESS FOR (CREW CHIEF) CHAD KNAUS AND THAT HE SAID HE JUST LIVES FOR THIS TIME OF YEAR, AND IS SLEEPING LIKE A BABY. HOW DO YOU FEEL THE STRESS AND HOW DO YOU SEE THAT IN CHAD? “I think that when you have fast race cars and the team is well-rounded and performing on all fronts, it’s easy to sleep. And that’s where we are right now. That’s where Chad is. I’ve been more calm and relaxed in this Chase than I can remember in quite some time. If I look back to last year, and the frustration of putting in all the time and working as hard as we do as team No. 48 and not having the speed and watching guys pull away from you and outrun you, that’s tough. That’s when the frustration sets in. But right now, we’re competitive and we’ve put a lot of stock in that and we feel good about it.”
YOU HAVEN’T MISSED A RACE PROBABLY IN MORE THAN A DECADE, BUT IF YOU WERE TO HAVE SOMETHING THAT TOOK YOU OUT FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS, WHAT KIND OF A CHALLENGE WOULD THAT BE? IS THERE ANYTHING MORE DIFFICULT ABOUT THIS TRACK IN PARTICULAR IF THAT WERE THE CASE? “I think this track would be really good for most injuries in coming back. I would assume a road course or Bristol or Darlington would be on the tougher side. At Bristol, the repetition is so much that from a head injury I could imagine it would be tough and hard to keep your head straight there to start with, let alone a head injury. And then the physical demands, if you had a broken bone or something, would be tough. That also speaks to road courses from a physical standpoint. And then the hand/eye coordination of braking points and turning points and all that would be really tough.
“But here, it is a small track and there is a bit of repetition to it, but I think it’s about as good as you get for a track to return to after an injury. I can also speak to the Gresham track (referring to half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, GA where Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran 123 laps during a test session monitored by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty). I’ve tested there. That’s a fast, fast little race track. So if you come out of Gresham feeling good and don’t hit anything over there, I think you’ll come to Martinsville and things will fall in line pretty quick.”
AT THIS POINT, BOTH BRAD KESELOWSKI AND DENNY HAMLIN BOTH HAVE FIVE WINS. YOU HAVE THREE. DO YOU REALLY FEEL LIKE YOU NEED TO WIN TWO OF THE NEXT FOUR RACES? “I do. I feel like we’ve been close and I hate that a few have slipped away this year, especially in the Chase. But that stuff is behind me. I’m looking forward. We’re at a great track. I feel like at all four tracks remaining, we’re one of the favorites to win. I feel like you have to win (laughs) and you have to win during the Chase to be the champion. It certainly can be won without, but my mindset right now is win, win, win.”
YOU HEAR DRIVERS TALK ALL THE TIME ABOUT THE THING THAT WORRIES THEM DURING THE CHASE IS WHAT HAPPENS WITH OTHER DRIVERS ON THE TRACK THAT IMPACTS THEM. WHEN YOU KNOW THAT KYLE BUSCH AND RYAN NEWMAN WERE TICKED-OFF AT EACH OTHER AFTER LAST WEEK’S RACE AND THERE COULD BE SOME RETRIBUTION HERE AT A SHORT TRACK. IF THEY ARE RACING AROUND EACH OTHER AND YOU GET IN THAT AREA, DOES THAT GO THROUGH YOUR MIND? DO YOU WORRY ABOUT IT? DO YOU STRESS ABOUT TRYING TO GET AROUND THEM? “Yeah, it does; and there’s far more on the line now for the championship contenders. But, when we come back to short tracks, everybody is aware of what risks exist out there and when we see those guys get around one another to give them some space, and just try to be heads-up and avoid something. But yeah, we pay attention. I feel like sometimes the 1.5-miles are a bit more dangerous when there’s a riff going on and guys are racing real hard. Here, you can hit things within reason and not destroy your race car. But on the faster tracks or Phoenix even, it’s hard to get away from anybody at Phoenix if there are paybacks going on there and the speed is so much higher. If you hit the fence, you’re behind the wall working on something.”