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May 23, 2006

Jimmie Johnson

DENISE MALOOF: Welcome to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series teleconference. We're glad you could join us. First a bit of housekeeping. This week's Nextel Wake-Up Call begins at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at the Lowe's Motor Speedway infield media center. Rick Hendrick will be the guest. A second wake-up call follows at 1:15 p.m. on Thursday with Goodyear's Stu Grant and the crew chief for the No. 16 National Guard Ford, which is Roush Racing's Doug Richert.
Jimmie Johnson is fresh off his latest victory at LMS, last week's All-Star Challenge. This week's Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend is a NASCAR tradition that dates to 1960. Jimmie is writing his own history at LMS. He won three straight Coca-Cola 600s, five out of the last six races at LMS, and four consecutive races there. Sunday night he'll try to become the first driver to win four straight Coca-Cola 600s and only the 10th driver to win four consecutive times in the same event.
Jimmie, what is your perspective on what you've accomplished in one of NASCAR's marquee events?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Just really, really proud of it for a couple reasons. One probably more obvious than the other. One is the situation of Lowe's sponsoring my car. But I think just in general to be able to hang on to something at a particular racetrack for the length of time we have is pretty special.
I've had other success at Pocono and Dover, New Hampshire, I've done that in the course of a year, but to come back and repeat it year after year is tough to do. I'm really proud of the fact that we've been able to continue to do it in Charlotte.
DENISE MALOOF: Let's go straight to some questions for you.
Q. You've had this incredible run with a contract extension. Now you win a $1 million race. Did you ever in your wildest dreams think you would be at this point in your career this young?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: At 30, where I am, I guess I really haven't thought about it. But getting started in the Cup Series back in 2002, the different things that were taking place, I was a lot more surprised and caught off guard through it.
It's my fifth season. There's been a lot going on within it. I've had a lot of great success in winning races, but I feel I haven't won a championship and there's some other things that I've been very close to that I haven't achieved. I still feel like I could be better off than where I am in an odd way, where I've accomplished more or be a champion really.
I think that's part of being a competitor. You're never happy with what you have. You always want to do a better job.
Q. After winning the million-dollar race, Chad mentioned the fact he thinks you're more mature now and that would put you in a better position to win the championship. Do you feel yourself that you have matured in some way?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, without a doubt. Myself and the things that I do on the track, you know, not putting us in a risky situation, knowing the tracks, having the experience on them to know what setup I need, what fuel I need for that racetrack. That stuff all helps.
But at the same time the crew, my relationship with Chad, the engineering staff, everyone, there's more and more time. I think we're all maturing, we're all more comfortable in our positions, more comfortable in pressured situations. That's really what you need to be a champion.
Q. I can remember in October 2001 you making your first start at Lowe's Motor Speedway ironically enough, the pressure you felt that week just to get in the race. It must be amazing to think back on that for you in light of what you've done the last four years, considering that was the first place you raced, you were worried about making the race.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think back to that first race, qualifying for it, what all went on. Stressed out, nervous, every emotion that you could imagine. We made the race. I think Robby Gordon was in the 31, they didn't make the race. There was a lot of positive things that came off of that solidifying the Lowe's relationship. But later on that evening I lost my closest friend Blaze Alexander. To go through those emotions, I had a Busch race, I think Thursday, Busch qualifying and practice Friday, Busch race Saturday, the Cup race Sunday. Man, generally I look back on that weekend, that was a tough, tough weekend for a lot of reasons.
Q. When you go to Charlotte, what is it? I'm sure if you knew you'd bottle it and take it somewhere else. You've basically done this on three separate racetracks. Is confidence sort of a big part of this run you've had here?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I've been thinking about it since this has all been taking place. All I can come up with is the track, it still has the same transitions, banking is similar. A lot of the racetrack itself, granted the surface is different and requires a different setup, but the line really I think is what I've always been to figure out at that racetrack. I just stick to the line I think I need to run, the rhythm of driving the track, we adjust to it.
After a matter of time and understanding the new surface, we make the right adjustments and get it to where I can drive it how I want to around there and it works. We go to some tracks, get it to drive how I want it to, and it sucks. But Charlotte has been working out (laughter).
Q. Could you talk as a rookie in the Cup Series the balance between wanting to impress people and prove that you deserve the opportunity you've been given versus being able to do the smart thing at a given moment. Do you remember feeling the pull of those two things as a young person?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yes, definitely. I remember the emotions of you want to get in and establish yourself in this sport so you need to be aggressive and show your driving abilities and talents. You need to be comfortable in front of the cameras, microphones, play that part, be comfortable there so you can be the spokesperson that you have to be.
From there on the track, my first concern was to gain the respect from the different drivers. I really feel like I took more lumps than I passed out. I would give a lot more than I would take. I felt like it really helped me get started.
But eventually, you know, it's time to go, you get aggressive, you get in there and you ruffle some feathers. I think it's inevitable. It does happen. Doesn't matter if you're a rookie or a veteran, you're going to have some different things that take place where some blame is going to be put on you. Hopefully when you're a rookie, you experience some of that stuff, you've had some success, you have some races under your belt to where you can weather through that and not let it affect your confidence and what you do behind the wheel.
Q. What has been the most surprising thing about this season to you so far?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I would say the fact that I won two plate races. That surprises me quite a bit.
Q. Have you ever thought of driving at Indy? Do you ever have that urge? Would you ever want to try to do a double?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I do have the urge. I would have to say that every driver that races in the Cup race would love the opportunity to race at the Indy 500, try to do the double somehow. With the times and the start of it, I guess it's affecting that opportunity for Tony and some of those other guys that have experience in those cars.
The racer in me would love to do it. I don't have any experience in an IndyCar. I'm not sure keeping my eye on the big prize of the Cup championship, if that makes a lot of sense to do it. I'm hopeful that it gets adjusted to where drivers get to race in that. I think it's a good story line and a really cool event.
Q. After you left the media center the other night, Chad said one reason races at Charlotte are big races for your team is the number of people Lowe's brings to them. How much difference do you see in terms of that compared to other racetracks and prerace hospitality and things you do over the course of the race day?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, well, it's a huge difference from other racetracks to Lowe's because of the title sponsor of the racetrack. They have a huge, huge presence there, massive tent outside with concerts going on and stuff. We definitely feel the love from all the employees and all the Lowe's fans at the racetrack.
Q. What about on race morning, how different is that compared to other racetracks?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's pretty busy for me to go out to the tents, do my obligations that I have out there. One, it's busy. Two, there's a lot of energy. We have a lot of proud Lowe's fans and employees out there showing their support.
Q. There's been a lull you hit about race 19 or 20 the last couple years that obviously made it tough to win a championship. With the way the points system is set up where you could have a seven thousand point lead after Richmond, it comes back to five points, how hard is it to keep that momentum going, pedal to the metal? Must be hard to do that.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I think that the last two years or three years that we've had the Chase, I think we've all learned a lot from it. I don't think you can afford at all during the season to just ride a little bit and protect the points lead, spend some time letting races go bay.
One, like you mentioned, you lose whatever points lead you may have. Secondly, when that happens, if you've been dominating them and kicking everybody's butt, everybody is working really hard to get their stuff right. The fact that that points difference, whatever the point separation closes up, it doesn't allow you to take any time off. You always have to be working hard to find some more speed and keep your cars progressing, otherwise you'll hit the Chase and not have the speed in the race car you need.
Q. A couple years ago when somebody won a championship, after the fact they kept talking about how they sat down at the beginning of the year and talked about the whole year being the quest for the championship. They made that their whole effort. Sounds like you and Chad over the winter had some of those same discussions. Is that accurate?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Oh, yes, definitely. We've done that really each year. We get together with Rick. Chad and I just sit down, kind of recap last year, what we think we can do better for the upcoming year. We did go through that again this year. Like everybody knows from the stats that you pointed out, we do hit that lull. We don't want to do it. We hate that it happens. We get some momentum going back in the Chase.
It's been too late pretty much the last two years, so we don't want to go through that. We're making all the adjustments we can to not go through it. I think there's some good signs out there for us, things I'm excited for. We had a good performance at Richmond even though we went down a lap and came back and finished 12th. Phoenix is another track, we were competitive up front all day long. I feel like we are gaining momentum. We haven't peaked yet as a team. That's been the problem in the past, we peak mid-season and then everyone else is catching up and peaking later in the season.
Q. During this Charlotte streak with all the changing conditions with the track, what has been the biggest challenge? What track conditions or what year, what race? How did you and your team work through that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I would say -- I can't remember if it was the first -- I think it was the second time they levigated it, so the fall race last year. We didn't see any hope until really the race started, we got in the race and started making adjustments. Up until then, we were struggling. I was struggling with exactly how to drive the track, where I needed to be on the racetrack. It came to me late in the race. I think we actually won coming to the checkered flag in that event.
That would be I think the toughest set of conditions we've had.
Q. How were you able to work through that?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Just continuing to adjust. Me working on things inside the car, pit stops. Chad is very aggressive on pit road. He's not afraid to make multiple adjustments and really try to find something directionally with the chassis and setup on it, adjustments he can make on pit road.
It's a lot of work. We didn't give up. I don't know, the 500-mile race. I can't remember. These things all blend together at a certain point as you know. We didn't lead a lap until the last one.
Q. You've talked in the past about Chad's willingness to make changes, be aggressive. How does that challenge you as a driver and certainly that combination has worked out where you've been able to keep up with that, but how are you able to do that? My guess is maybe some drivers might not be able to handle drastic changes like that.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I think Chad, he understands the compromise. If you take wedge out of the car to help it with one section of the corner, you're going to need to make another adjustment to counteract that to help you in the other areas of the corner.
Chad has a great feel of that.
I think one thing that helps us is I don't typically make the decisions from the car as to how many adjustments and what we're adjusting on. I just explain in detail what I'm feeling. He'll communicate with me about what he's thinking. Over time, I have my own opinion on what we need to try inside the car. If he's only talking air pressure, I'm like, No, I'm much tighter than that, I need double that adjustment. That's how we communicate. I think it's helpful. He has an outside perspective of the race. He's also scanning other teams and may know that someone played track bar versus wedge and it worked. He's just got a better idea of what's going on. I leave that in his hands for the most part.
Q. This being the longest race of the season, what do you do to get your body ready for a 600-mile race?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I have the Busch race beforehand, too. I guess it's going to be 900 miles of racing this weekend. I have a physical training regimen I'm on, I go through. The big thing I would say is how important and early I start hydrating for the race. Hydration is going to be the biggest thing for us, for all the drivers in the 600-mile race. Really just drinking the right fluids and drinking lots of them.
Q. Do you drink Gatorade like in the commercial?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, Gatorade is a great thing, great product. I just load up between Gatorades and some waters when I need a little something else.
Q. The Homestead finale last year, the tire issue you had. Did you sense it was going down and were thinking this is a risk versus rewards or was it a total shock when it blew? Could you talk on the broader evolution in sensing needs like that in the car, which I assume you've gotten better with over time.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The deal in Homestead, the tire wasn't going down. I did have a tire failure. I knew that the car was way off. I was a few seconds off the pace. Something with the outside of the tire was wrong, then it finally exploded. The tire wasn't soft. That's why I had a hard time understanding what it was. In the back of my mind I thought I broke an axle. I knew coming to pit road for a broken axle was going to be a very lengthy stop. We were just trying to hang on, talking on the radio, what should we do, should we pit, not. The tire actually going into turn three exploded . You could see on TV where it blew out. It wasn't down before that.
Looking back, I wish I just had come to pit road right away, changed tires, gone out. But I didn't think that was the issue. You learn from your mistakes and you learn how to sense different things, the importance of them, if you really need to get to pit road and fix that or not by experience and making some mistakes.
Every once in a while you sense something, and you get to pit road, you're fine. I really think experience plays into a large part of it.
Q. What is the most unique part about this race? Is it the length, the timing, the track itself? Really is a different event, isn't it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, from my perspective, I would say starting in the daylight hours, going into night. That's the most unique aspect of it, really the most challenging part of it. The track changes a lot when the sun goes down. Keeps us on our toes all night long.
Q. How different of a car do you have to take there with all the practices, qualifying? How much success can you attribute to the cars you've taken there?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No doubt, I'm in great equipment. I can't argue that point. I just can't argue it. It's great. I'm stoked to be driving Hendrick equipment.
Q. Do you believe the driver learning curve ever has an end point?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I don't think so. I think technology's always changing. There's different ways that you have to adjust and drive the car. I've seen that in my five years in the sport and also talking with Jeff about different things that he's experienced and has gone through.
Technology changes. You have new guys like Kyle Busch that show up, Brian Vickers from my team, that I deal with. They come and they don't have a feeling that they're set on, a certain way the car has to drive. They just get in and go. They may have to drive a package that may feel wrong to someone that has a lot of experience. With all that in mind, I think you have to keep an open mind, and you never stop learning as a driver.
DENISE MALOOF: Thank you, Jimmie.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Great, thank you.

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