Jimmie Johnson heads into this weekend’s Coke Zero 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway as the most recent winner at the track, winning the season-opening Daytona 500 back in February. He recently talked about his Daytona 500 win, racing at Daytona, and restrictor plate racing, in general. Here’s a transcript:
TALK ABOUT COMING BACK TO DAYTONA AFTER YOUR DAYTONA 500 VICTORY IN FEBRUARY:
“Yeah, I’m excited to be back. I have fond memories of dancing around like fools doing the Harlem Shake out on the front stretch, even watching Jayson Werth and Willie Robertson from Duck Commander wrestling outside my motorhome once everything had thinned out. I came back and looked outside my bus and I’m like ‘that’s where those goons were wrestling.’ Can’t help but think of our good times out there on the front stretch. So excited to be back. Our restrictor plate program has been very strong as always. I think that I’ve done a nice job with this rules package to race for track position, maintain track position and put ourselves in position to win. Clearly did that with the (Daytona) 500 and then in Talladega we had an awesome weekend too and ran up front. Starting the last lap I really felt like we had a chance to win. Then the Front Row guys they came blowing through and won there. I felt like we were in a very good position starting the last lap of the race. Excited to be back and look forward to some fun Saturday night.”
LET’S DISCUSS THIS RESTART THING. WHAT IS GOING ON THERE? THERE HAVE BEEN A COUPLE OF TIMES WHERE YOU HAVE HAD ISSUES AND SEEM EXTREMELY CONFUSED WITH THE RULE. HOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND IT AND WHERE DO YOU STAND RIGHT NOW WITH YOUR FRUSTRATION WITH THAT?
“Yeah, there are a couple of bad restarts that have been highlighted and a focal point here of late. There are a lot of other great restarts that have happened; a lot of other great opportunities to win races and lead laps and pull all that off. I know the rule. I feel like I’m maybe a little focused on the way the rule reads exactly and paying maybe too close of attention to that. Maybe I should lighten up and loosen up on the way some restart and then certainly the way I do. There are a lot of restarts, especially during the Kentucky race that I brought down that I feel like a good citizen, a good student in doing exactly what I’m supposed to. There are other times when I don’t feel that exactly happens and that it’s not called on or viewed from the tower as kind of the rule reads. At the end of the day I’m just going to lighten up on how I think about it and use that zone and that area regardless of the way the rule reads to get an advantage and worry about myself.”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE CHANCE BOTH YOU AND DANICA (PATRICK) HAVE OF DOING AS WELL THIS WEEKEND AS YOU DID IN FEBRUARY CONSIDERING THIS IS A 400 MILE NIGHT RACE?
“Yeah, I really feel like we have a great chance to come here and win again. The rules are the same so from a car stand point our race car that we won with is out in the parking lot basically at Daytona USA. Outside of that not a lot has changed. I feel like the speed in our race car and what we need there from a mechanical stand point is there. Then it is just down to racing luck and how that plays out. Plate racing we all know the odds there. It’s tough to get it right that is probably why that stat is in existence and someone hasn’t won the 500 and the 400 in the same year. I feel we will have a great chance to do it and I expect to run up front all night long and be a factor and hopefully have racing luck go our way. As far as Danica (Patrick), if she did it in the spring or did it here in February she can do it again without a doubt. I think these tracks suit her style. She had a lot of comfort in running flat out and running side-by-side in a restrictor plate situation. She should be very competitive.”
IT’S BEEN 31 YEARS SINCE ANYBODY HAS SWEPT BOTH RACES HERE AT DAYTONA. WHY IS THAT SO DIFFICULT DO YOU FEEL? IN GENERAL IS IT THE RANDOMNESS OF THE RACING HERE OR WHY IS IT SO HARD TO DO THAT?
“Have plates been on for 31 years too? Is that pre-plates?”
“I mean with restrictor plate racing we know the packs that we run in and the wrecks that we cause, but if that number goes back prior to plates being on I don’t really know.”
ONLY FIVE YEARS BEFORE PLATES:
“Okay, in the past I could say in my early years racing here the 500 cool temperatures, track had a lot of grip; people are a little more relaxed for a 500 mile race and trying to get to the end. When you came back for this event the track had so much less grip, much hotter conditions, there is just more urgency to lead and be up front that I feel there is just more energy and more opportunities to make mistakes in the July race than in the February race. Due to track conditions and also everybody is just charged up for a night race, fourth of July and all those things.”
HOW DO YOU LOOK AT RESTARTS IN GENERAL? SINCE DOVER HAVE YOU REVIEWED TAPE AT ALL? BIG PICTURE HOW DO YOU LOOK AT IT AND HOW DO YOU INTERPRET IT? WHAT ARE YOU DOING SO IT DOESN’T HAPPEN TO YOU AGAIN?
“Well learn from mistakes for starters and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how I interpret the rule it’s how it’s enforced. That is the thing that I’m trying to focus on now. It doesn’t matter how I read it, what I think. Clearly the way I’ve felt a few things have gone are different than the way it’s enforced. The way it’s enforced is all that matters. That is where I’m focusing now.”
IS IT POSSIBLE AT A PLATE RACE TRACK TO LEARN FROM WHAT YOU HAVE DONE IN THE PAST AND PUT A MOVE IN YOUR HIP POCKET? OR IS IT ALL JUST SO UNPREDICTABLE NONE OF THAT MATTERS?
“It is really unpredictable for sure. The thing that makes it so tough to consistently work on time and time again is most passes if not all you don’t do on your own. You might see the opportunity, but you need to have maybe let off the gas or drug the brake to back up to the car behind you to get the run at the right time to take advantage of that hole that opens up or what you see is going to happen. That is tough to do. That is the hard thing. Then sometimes you make that move and you get out there and you look in the mirror and the cars behind you didn’t agree with the move you made and you’re a sitting duck. You might get along side of the car you are trying to pass, but they have all stayed in the bottom lane and now you are dropping like a rock. That is the part that makes it so tough is one week, actually one lap, during the course of the race everybody is trying to pass and do what they can. Not every one of them work out. You just kind of play the numbers. You keep trying and trying and try to show… I was taught by Jeff (Gordon) show that you are going to complete the pass. Make the pass and the effort in the right spot at the right time and people will follow. You have to show people and build that trust and rapport that you are going to make the right move here that is not only going to work for you, but for the guys behind you. If you get a little too narrow minded and just worried about a single car pass a lot of times that will come back to bite you. Especially if we are chasing the yellow line around the track, usually you can defend and hang on the yellow line. I lost a (Daytona) 500 here, I can’t remember the year, but coming down the back straightaway I thought I was in a great position. Pulled out going into turn three pulled out to the outside and thought everybody would follow me because it was the last lap. It was way too early. If I had waited until off of (turn) four I think people would have gone with me. I just went too early. They stayed in line and I came back by in seventh or eighth.”
IT’S NOT BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU WOULD TRY IN AN EARLIER RACE THAT WAS JUST BECAUSE OF THE WAY THE RACE HAD GONE:
“Just the way it worked out. You are thinking about yourself. Well, the guy behind me is like ‘well I’m going to push you to the lead and then it’s you and I stuck in the outside lane dropping like a rock. Why am I going to do that?’ You need to have a vision in some respects where why would somebody want to follow you, why are they going to work with you. If you have from turn three to the finish line that is a long gap. You need to wait until you get over here where it’s a little shorter distance.”
AFTER THE RACE LAST WEEK IN THE GARAGE AREA THERE WAS TALK THAT THE RESTARTS ARE STARTING TO GET IN YOUR HEAD. IS IT EASY TO NOT LET IT GET INTO YOUR HEAD AFTER THAT RULE CAME DOWN THAT SORT OF BIT YOU? IS THAT NOT PART OF IT THAT YOU HAVE STARTED TO LET IT GET IN YOUR HEAD?
“I’m not smart enough to let it get in my head. So we are fine there. There is not much between these ears (laughs).”
IT WASN’T ABOUT THE FACT THAT SORT OF BIT YOU BEFORE AND YOU WERE OVER THINKING IT? WAS IT JUST THAT YOU WERE SORT OF STICKING ON THE RULE AND THIS IS THE RULE I’M GOING TO DO WHAT THE RULE SAYS?
“Yeah, very focused on the rules for sure and in the way they read, expecting things to be officiated that way. Again I’ve made so many mistakes throughout my career and these two restarts look like something, but we all make mistakes out in those race cars every single lap all the time. Just opportunities learned really the way I’m looking at it.”
MATT KENSETH ARE YOU SURPRISED AT HOW HE’S DONE THIS YEAR AND THAT HE IS A CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDER SEEING AS HOW HE IS THROWN IN WITH A NEW TEAM?
“No, not at all. Our sport is really about people and the relationships between driver and a crew chief is really the start of that whole process. Matt (Kenseth) is awesome. The guy does a great job driving the car, knows what he is looking for, doesn’t let things rattle him and can withstand pressure. He can do it all. He really does a great job. Dave’s (Rogers) has been coming along as a crew chief, growing, learning very smart guy, very well respected guy in the garage area. The pairing of those two I think the garage area took notice when Matt made the decision to leave and then who he was paired with I think everybody felt they are going to have their hands full over the course of the year with the No. 20 car and that has been the case for sure.”
AS WE LOOK FORWARD TO THE 20TH BRICKYARD 400 IN A FEW WEEKS. YOU ARE GOING BACK AS A FOUR-TIME AND DEFENDING RACE WINNER THERE. WHAT DOES INDIANAPOLIS STILL MEAN TO YOU PERSONALLY?
“To me on a personal level I just recall sitting on the couch with my dad and my grandfather watching the Indy 500. I can remember a variety of races and instance that took place from watching myself. I remember my grandfather’s stories and talking about his heroes that raced on that track and his opinions of it. I remember that childhood aspect and how cool that track was. Truthfully through my upbringing in off road racing with Rick Mears and Robby Gordon coming from my world and going into IndyCar that is the route that I wanted to pursue and the road I wanted to go down. Clearly things took a much different turn as I got older and my professional career developed. Now to go there and have won at that track four times it’s insane. One of my heroes with Rick Mears in that situation it’s been a wild experience and a very rewarding experience at that race track. It’s very special to win here in Daytona, I mean it is. It takes others on the track with the draft and how you work that and you almost want to thank other drivers and it’s often done in Victory Lane. I wouldn’t have been able to win the race if so and so didn’t push me or help me, but at Indy it’s a different game.
“The track is so technical and so hard to drive. It took me a long time to figure it out. Once I figured out the line and how to drive it we have had great success there. With that the challenge that goes with it there is huge reward when you are able to win. I have been able to experience that a few times and it’s really cool.”
YOU HAVE WON A LOT OF RACES, BUT RACES LIKE LAST WEEK DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU LOST THAT YOU GAVE IT AWAY? CAN YOU BE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY INSIDE THAT CAR?
“At times I mean all drivers can be their own worst enemy. I feel like that one in Kentucky is definitely on me. I’m the guy behind the wheel at the controls. We went down into turn one and I’m not exactly sure I haven’t seen the video, but we were three-wide going in the corner. The air affected my car and I got turned around. If I didn’t spin there I really feel like regardless of the restart not being a pretty one for whatever reason. I still had a very good opportunity to win the race. I feel like our car was strong enough if I came out of there in second or third I feel like I had enough laps to get up there and take the lead again. I hate that really what went on in turn one in two and the spin. That is really, I know a lot of people had talked about other issues, but for me the bottom line is getting turned around. If we didn’t get turned around in (turns) one and two I still think we could have won. I’m going to make sure we can get through (turns) one and two and not spin out that is really the ultimate thing.”
YOU ARE A VERY LAID BACK KIND OF GUY AND VERY SELDOM GET REALLY FRUSTRATED. HOW DO YOU KIND OF GET BEYOND THAT LAST WEEK AND WHAT DO YOU DO TO PUT THAT BEHIND YOU OR DO YOU USE THAT AS FUEL GOING FORWARD?
“No, it might seem that I’m real calm all the time, but I think all drivers leave the track frustrated with something. A missed opportunity, car didn’t perform all weekend or car didn’t respond. There are pit calls, there are driver mistakes, speeding penalties. I rarely leave the track and not go home in deep thought thinking about what I could have done differently. They sting a bit more when you lead all those laps and don’t leave with the trophy there is no doubt about it. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know how to shrug that stuff off, focus on what is important and what I can learn from and then go to the next race.”
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR