Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion is set to hit a career milestone when he takes the green flag on Sunday for the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. This year’s Daytona 500 will mark the five-time champ’s 400th-career Sprint Cup start. Johnson ran a handful of Cup races in 2001 before going full-time Sprint Cup racing in 2002.
Johnson recently talked about his upcoming 400th start. Here’s a transcript:
JIMMIE WILL BE MAKING HIS 400TH START DURING THE 55TH RUNNING OF THE DAYTONA 500 AND LOWE’S HAS BEEN HIS SPONSOR FOR ALL 400. JIMMIE AND JEFF GORDON ARE THE ONLY TWO DRIVERS TO HAVE THE SAME SPONSOR FOR ALL 400 STARTS: “That’s awesome. Time flies by it’s hard to imagine 400 starts already. So proud of the fact that every one of those starts has been with Lowe’s on the side of the race car. They are an amazing sponsor and look forward to many more great years together.”
HOW DID YOU APPROACH IT WHEN YOU WERE ON THE POLE AS A ROOKIE? HOW DO YOU THINK THEY SHOULD APPROACH IT? IS IT OKAY FOR THEM TO JUST PARK AND NOT RISK WRECKING THE CAR AND LOSING THAT STARTING POSITION OR DO YOU TRY TO TAKE AS MUCH OF AN OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN?
“Well, it’s really up to them. They are not the only team facing that decision. I think all the cars that are secured a spot are trying to balance that right now. It just isn’t worth it. We all know everybody is low on car count. If you are fortunate enough to be on that front row do you really want to push it? There is no need to. It’s going to be a fine balance and there is going to be a lot of internal struggles and arguments with drivers, teams, crew chiefs especially trying to give their driver the direction they want to go. Whatever she decides to do it’s to her best interest and we’ve got our own stuff to worry about on the No. 48 car. We are wrestling with the same notion. In 2002, my situation was a bit different. If I didn’t win the pole I wouldn’t have been in the (Daytona) 500. I had an incident on the back straightaway where I was forced below the yellow line and had to serve a penalty for him. I wouldn’t have made the race. If we qualified third I wouldn’t have been in the show. It was very nice to have locked in and had that in my back pocket. Or we would have been here at 399 starts instead.”
DID YOU TREAT THAT RACE AS JUST I’M GOING TO RACE ALL OUT REGARDLESS? “At that point in time we really didn’t have a concern about car count. We raced and I was trying to learn it was real important for me to get every lap that I could. Sure we didn’t want to crash the car, but we were in that old style car for a long period of time. Cars would come from the fall Talladega race if you made it and you would carry them into Daytona and kind of update them a little bit as the rules changed. We had a much deeper inventory of cars to pull from.”
YOUR 400TH START, RICHARD PETTY FINISHED WITH 1100 OR SOME STARTS, THREE TIMES WHAT YOU HAVE. COULD YOU IMAGINE MAKING THAT MANY STARTS? ALSO, I DON’T THINK YOU HAVE HAD A RELEVANT FINISH HERE IN SEVERAL YEARS IS THAT SOMETHING YOU THINK ABOUT AT ALL? DO YOU EVER GO BACK AND THINK MAYBE I’M NOT APPROACHING THIS RIGHT OR SOMETHING? “First of all for the ‘King’, one I think he had more opportunities to race than we do today so that helps. I don’t know how many years of service he put in, but it’s 20, 30, I still might be wrong. Definitely over 20 I would assume. It is just amazing. All of the years that he put in helped build the sport to what it is today. I thank him for all 1100 starts that he put in and the growth that he kind of spurred along within the sport. I doubt that any current driver will get to that number. Mark Martin is trying and I’m not sure where he is at. I assume he is pretty short still in that number count.
“The 500 has been tough I have won Duels, I’ve won the Shootout and we have been here in July and have been very competitive and have finished in the top three. But, the 500 it has been a trophy and I think I might have a 10th or something, but my memory says a lot of DNF’s (Did not finish). Last year’s was about as bad as it gets. Leaving the first lap crashing that wasn’t a good one. We will hopefully make 2.7 miles this year before anything happens.”
WHAT DID THAT 2006 DAYTONA 500 CHAMPIONSHIP MEAN TO YOU? IT DID TRIGGER YOUR FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON. WHAT DOES WINNING THIS RACE MEAN? WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THE MEDIA TOUR THAT FOLLOWS IT? “For me I wanted to be in elite company. My dreams were to try to be the best in this sport. The way you do that is by winning big events and championships. That was prior to a championship. First realistic goal on my list was a (Daytona) 500 win or a Brickyard win. I think we were able to get both that year. It was a big year in a lot of ways. We all know the history of the sport, the history of this track and dream and wish and hope that you can come in here and win. The way the race turned out I drove a very smart race, stuck to a certain mindset. Was able to get some help on the last lap to maintain the lead and defend my position to the finish line. I was so excited and had a big night with my crew guys. Then I think at 7:00 a.m. things kicked off over here at the speedway. As much as I love that day that was one of the most painful days in Jimmie Johnson’s history.”
WHY IS THAT? “I may have celebrated a bit too much the night before. Then dealing with that, being asked the same question over and over and trying to look awake, alert and happy. Man, I was having a lot of pain, but it was worth it.”
WHAT ABOUT THE NEXT FEW DAYS? WHERE DID THEY WHISK YOU OFF TO? “I had no idea what that media tour was like. I can’t remember exactly, but I assume New York. I don’t know if we went to the (ESPN) car wash or not after that one. I had heard about and watched I think not long before Ward Burton won and I remember seeing Ward Burton everywhere the following two days. I thought ‘man that is so cool I want to do that’. Halfway through I’m like ‘I just want to go home’. Is this thing over yet? That’s amazing that one race packs such a punch and can do so much for a team, driver, sponsor and it means so much within the sport.”
FROM WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN OF THIS CAR HOW DO YOU IMAGINE THE PLANNING, THE STRATEGY OVER THE LAST FIVE OR 10 LAPS SUNDAY IS GOING TO CHANGE? “The cars look a lot like the ’05, ’06 car to me. I feel like track position is going to be important. You are going to have to race for it. I was surprised to see the middle lane work so well in the Unlimited. Defending your position is going to be important. Before you could fight your way up and just kind of sit in the first couple of rows and let the race kind of evolve from there. It seems to me that the outside lane does carry a bit more momentum. They can stop the inside lane. If you work your way to the front you can’t just be content sitting in the bottom lane or really even the middle lane. You might have to move around from the head of the line. Even if you are a row or two back and there is an opening stay open minded, keep your eyes open and move around it to help stay up front. Track position is going to be key on that last, I assume, last restart. You are going to need to be in the first couple of rows to have a shot at it.”
IS THERE ANY ADVANTAGE TO A DRIVER TO START RACING SOONER AND HAVE A SHORTER RAIN DELAY? SECONDLY, DO DRIVERS THINK DANICA (PATRICK) HAS ANY SORT OF WEIGHT ADVANTAGE BECAUSE SHE IS LIGHTER? “It doesn’t hurt to have things turned around quicker. I think sure it helps the driver some, it helps the teams. Hopefully, we are at the track for a shorter period of time. It’s just good for everyone, especially, getting into the next work week. More importantly for the fans, the viewing audience at the track and at home I think it’s key to get the tracks dried faster. I’m very happy with that. The way the weight works I think they adjust it and they put weight on cars where you have lighter drivers so it all balances out.”
CONSIDERING HOW MANY DRIVER’S IN NASCAR HAVE RACED FORMULA AND WITH THIS NEW CAR WITH THE ADJUSTMENT OF THE SUSPENSIONS IN THE BACK AND THE WEIGHT THAT THEY HAVE CHANGED AND THE AERO PACKAGE THAT THE FORMER FORMULA DRIVERS PERHAPS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE WOULD YOU AGREE WITH THAT? “Well, I think the aero balance is helpful for the Formula drivers just because the vehicles they raced in had so much downforce. The sensation that comes with downforce the car is very secure and stable and you can drive the car hard. I think the Gen-6 car will help the open wheel guys some. I’m not sure it will overcome the advantage that a NASCAR driver has that always been in a sedan or in a stock car, but it is directionally helpful for the open wheel drivers definitely.”
YOU SHOWED US A PHOTO THAT DIDN’T MAKE IT IN YOUR BOOK WHEN YOU WERE LEAVING TALLADEGA I GUESS IT WAS LAST YEAR IS THAT SUM UP HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT PLATE RACING RIGHT NOW? I THINK YOU TWEETED AFTER THE RACE THE OTHER NIGHT YOU ARE TRYING TO LIKE IT, BUT YOUR JUST NOT SURE. “It is. It’s such a balance too because one win and you are in Victory Lane and it’s the coolest rush because you are gambling the whole race. When it hits, it’s a lot like hitting it in the casino. The rush is amazing, but it’s a different kind of racing. Especially for the No. 48 team we have had a lot of torn up race cars lately. It’s starting to get a little old, but we will keep racing. We will keep building cars and be out there trying to get all the points we can.”
GOING INTO THIS RACE THERE SEEMS TO BE SOME CURIOSITY WHETHER OR NOT SOME OF THE VETERANS WILL DRAFT WITH DANICA (PATRICK). WILL YOU DRAFT WITH DANICA? “When I was a rookie coming in Jeff (Gordon) told me quickly. There may be some of that going on where guys won’t work with rookies, but the biggest reason that Jeff (Gordon) said that he wouldn’t work with a rookie was that they make the wrong moves. He says to me ‘make the right moves. Give people a reason to follow you and it won’t matter.’ Once the race progresses and gets going, you really forget about paint jobs and who is in what car. It is who is making the right moves. Who is going to help me, because you can’t do it on your own out there. It gets real selfish and greedy and if somebody is making the right decision and the right move you are going to go with them. It doesn’t matter how much experience they have. That is really the key. I’m sure at times even with Jeff (Gordon) telling me that I felt like nobody worked with me, they would much rather go with a veteran, no the veteran was making the right decision that is why they went with the veteran.”
IN TERMS OF MAKING THE RIGHT MOVES WHAT TYPES OF THINGS ARE YOU GOING TO BE WATCHING HER DO? “She has shown through the Nationwide Series that she is competitive and she can get in there and mix it up. Kind of hold a straight wheel in the important situations and has led laps and has been up front. I think through a large degree she is great. She is there, she’s fine. It’s really about when you get close to the front and if you make a move and the wrong move you lose 15 spots. You don’t want to make those decisions. You don’t want to be back in the eye of the storm. If she is making the good offensive moves to move forward you stay with that person, you stay with her. If it’s a move that you know hasn’t worked over your own experience and past history. ‘Nope, go ahead’ and back they go and start all over again. You just don’t want to be in that position. Because once you get some track position you finally relax a little bit and know that you are up there with guys that are playing the game right and being mindful that it’s a long race. When you get in the eye of the storm everybody is so eager to get out of there that it gets a little bit chaotic.”
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR
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