Jimmie Johnson heads into Martinsville (Va.) Speedway’s Tums Fast Relief 500 — round seven in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup — second in points, seven behind leader Brad Keselowski. Johnson’s fared well at Martinsville, with six-career victories at the Virginia short track.
Johnson recently participated in NASCAR’s weekly teleconference. Here’s what he had to say about the Chase, racing at Martinsville, and concussions, among other things:
Q. Jimmie, looking at the Chase right now, in the past it seems like at this point, it’s almost been like a two-driver race. Last year was Tony and Carl. Before that, it was you versus Denny, Jeff, Mark, anybody else you fought against in the Chase. Now it seems like we have four or five contenders. Can you remember a time when it was opened up as much as it is right now?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: To be honest, I didn’t see the points after the race in Kansas. I was so occupied with where I was with the 2 car, I haven’t looked. From the sounds of it, it is tight, it is close. That’s great. That’s what the fans want to see. It’s what our sports need. I knew Clint drew closer with his performance at Charlotte.
It’s go time. It’s tough to live it because it’s stressful, but this is what we grew up wanting to be part of as kids, racing for a championship and duking it out.
Q. You mentioned Martinsville is a big opportunity with your history there. Look ahead a week to Texas. What kind of opportunity do you see there?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I see a good opportunity. I know that we’ll have a fast racecar. Mile-and-a-half stuff has been very strong. We finished second there in the spring.
From a performance standpoint, we’re ready to show up there and race.
Fuel mileage we’re getting better at. I still think there’s some teams out there doing a little bit better job in reserving, not using, I don’t know how to exactly phrase it, but getting better fuel mileage. We’re in the ballpark for once, which is nice. We might be a little weak to some other teams, but that would be my only concern about Texas. There are a lot of green-flag runs there.
Q. Jimmie, going into these next round of races, do you basically just race how you normally would be doing or do you push it in terms of being aggressive?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I mean, there’s some times when you have a car that’s not handling right, it’s one of those weekends where things aren’t clicking, you have to be smart about it and get every point you can, but not be stupid, not create more issues fighting for a spot or hanging on to something, fighting with the team.
Then there’s other weekends when you’ve got the car and it is time to take some chances. So it just depends on the situation.
End of the day, first of all, you have to finish the race. I almost eliminated that, our chances at the Chase, by crashing last week. Luckily we got the car fixed. I can’t be spinning the car out and be hopeful that we’re going to get away with it.
Walking that fine line that we all talk about from time to time is very tough to do, but all important.
Q. Jimmie, I was wondering with Dale Jr. being back in the car this weekend, does that impact how you perform at all? Does his presence or feedback relate especially well for you at a place like Martinsville?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, definitely. Junior and I have worked very hard, now that we’re in the same shop, the way we describe things, how, why, all that stuff.
With two weeks working with Regan, it was tough to know what his sensations were in the car. He gave great feedback. We’re building trust in what he was saying, how to apply that to our cars. It was so brief, it’s hard to say we could take a lot from that.
It is helpful to have Junior back in the car. I’m very happy he is back in the car. Saw him this afternoon at our team lunch, debrief meetings. The guy is smiling ear to ear. He’s excited and we’re very happy to have him back.
Q. Have you or a lot of other drivers taken an extra look as far as the impact of concussions, things you should do if you have a hard hit now? Any more awareness or investigation into what you should do the next time you have a hard hit?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: From a driver’s standpoint, no. From my standpoint, no. I would have to imagine NASCAR in their process, and I haven’t had a concussion with the new system that is in place, I don’t know what all is entailed there, but I would assume they’re more aware and conscious of what goes on.
I hope to not test the procedure or have to go through it and understand how it all works.
From a driver’s standpoint, there is little we can do. Our seats are what they are. The foam systems, we make decisions what brand of helmet you want to use. Our HANS devices are mandatory. I don’t know what we can really change until you have the injury.
At that point, I haven’t been through that process before, or of recent times. I’m sure it’s heightened a lot since my last concussion and Really since Junior’s incident.
Q. Jimmie, you’ve said that this is a stressful time. You’ve been through this stress many years. Have you found annually you’re better able to handle it and perform because of that knowledge?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Without a doubt, experience is so helpful. My friends, after we were able to win the first, second, so forth and so on, everybody would share with me through the season how stressed I was. I knew I was stressed, but I thought I was hiding it well.
Year one, I wasn’t hiding it well. By year five, I found a way to enjoy myself down the stretch in the final race. That has led to this year.
Last year I didn’t enjoy myself because we weren’t performing like we wanted to. It’s hard to have fun when you don’t get the results you want. This year we’ve been working hard, the results are there. It’s been even more fun and more relaxed and I feel we’re doing a better job as a result.
Q. Jimmie, I know you talked about Texas. Can you talk about how that racing surface backs up against some of the other mile-and-a-half tracks on the circuit.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s a little bit older so we have a higher tire wear. Most cases, I don’t want to say you’ll never take two, but four tires really makes a big difference there.
We’ll race from the line to the wall, something we weren’t able to see at Kansas. This new asphalt we have at like Charlotte, Michigan, Kansas, Phoenix, it doesn’t wear the tire and the car gets really nervous. There’s a lot of grip. When you get close to the edge of traction, the car gets nervous and starts wandering around a little bit and then spins out on you.
Texas doesn’t have that feeling. You can actually slide the car, drift it around. It’s really just the interaction between the tire and the surface itself. Texas, although it’s fast and plenty challenging, you can at least drift it a little bit and not get in trouble.
Q. What were some of the things you were surprised on how much the track changed from Thursday to Sunday at Kansas?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It really didn’t take rubber, which surprised me. It took the Nationwide race I think to finally get a second lane started. Really at the end of the race, for the Cup cars, we saw the second lane come in.
It was odd because you could see where the right side tires were laying rubber, making the track black. But where the left sides run, if they put kitty litter down, somebody was dragging a splitter, the left side tire wouldn’t even clean that off the track, which was really odd.
NASCAR and Goodyear need to bring a hard tire to these new surfaces. But I feel like the cooler conditions really kept the car from laying rubber like you might expect.
The track didn’t change much through the course of the weekend. It stayed the same because it wasn’t laying rubber down. The biggest change was the weather conditions, a little bit of sun on one day, but the winds. The first two days, the winds were so brutal out there. It was hard to stay up, let alone drive the racecar.
Q. What is the most difficult thing for a driver going to a track with a new repave and reconfiguration?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The way NASCAR is letting us test on these new tracks, when a track is repaved, I think helps us all out. There really aren’t any challenges to gripe about. We had two days of on-track testing with the data. You can miss it and just be off, have a bad weekend. The way they let us go out, use our tools to make the car better, driver inputs, talk to your teammates about how they’re driving, there’s really nothing to complain about. It’s the right way to handle it.
Q. Jimmie, Denny tweeted the other day, Time for max points. Since he has a penchant for taking to Twitter to project what he thinks he might do, does that give you any pause for this weekend or do you sort of laugh at him?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, there’s no reason to laugh. It’s a great track for him. Everybody has ways that they express themselves, motivate themselves or their team, fan base. Some people feel it’s important to do, and how they want to handle it.
You know, I mean, I put a six pack on a lot of stuff, as you know, hashtag it back, to make my fans feel and know that’s where my head is.
I don’t see anything wrong or bad with it. It’s a great track for him.
Q. The two of you went through a stretch where you two dominated the place, you two were the two to beat. Last time neither of you won. Do you still think you two are the favorite ones or is it a wider field right now?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I can probably think of six teams, like the 24, the 88, always been a good track for Junior, I put him in that lump as well. The 29, the 11, us. Who am I missing? I had six when I thought of this earlier.
But I think it is a bit broader. There are more people to be a factor in it. But I think one very consistent thing is three consistent cars to count on that will be there, the 11, the 24 and the 48.
When you look at the stats over the last seven, eight years, it’s been that way, and I would expect those three cars to be in the mix. Then there are some other guys that have been pretty strong there, as well.
Q. Sunday in Kansas you were sitting in the car on pit road listening to Chad barking out those orders. What did you think listening to him? I know you’ve heard him play quarterback before and talk your crew through a situation like that. What were you thinking listening to him, and then when you were able to see the car, what he orchestrated?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I knew he would make it sound better than it really was. That’s just part of what you mentioned, quarterbacking the situation. I could tell from the impact it wasn’t all that hard. I knew I didn’t bend the rear suspension. I knew the front end didn’t hit. From a mechanical standpoint, I knew the chassis was sound and it really was an aero situation.
Chad seemed calm as we had two or three stops to work on the car. Once they didn’t lead me back to pit road, I assumed things were decent. I took my time getting up to speed and the car felt fine. In traffic it did act different. I had to be aware of where I put myself around other cars because the car would lose some grip then.
He wasn’t lying. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t efficient. Slow on corner exiting down the straightaway because of the fenders being pushed out like they were. Through the corner, the car had a spoiler on it in a decent location and it was creating downforce. It drove well. That’s what allowed me to work traffic like I did to allow me to get up inside the top 10.
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