Only two races remain in the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season — Sunday’s Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway and the season-finale Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway the following weekend. Jimmie Johnson heads to Phoenix as the championship points leader, with a seven-point margin over second-place Matt Kenseth. Johnson has four-career wins and Phoenix and is second to Kenseth on the year with six wins to Kenseth’s seven. Earlier this week, Johnson participated in a NASCAR weekly teleconference to discuss his chances at a sixth Sprint Cup, among other things. Here’s a transcript:
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, there’s still a lot of racing left, and the two tracks that remain on the schedule are very challenging tracks. Last year we were in this situation with a points lead. We had a seven-point lead going into Phoenix and had a very bad race and blew a right front tire. Actually had a decent race going but blew out a right front tire and hammered the wall. Really hurt our opportunity and our chance to win a sixth championship then.
So I’m just not going to put my guard down. We need to go into Phoenix, race well. We finished second there in the spring, so we strong about our setup and the performance we should have there, but that doesn’t guarantee us anything, and we need to go out and have a good strong, clean weekend.
Q. I asked Rick this before you came in Sunday at Texas, but your stretch of four races right before the Chase, which I think someone at some point said may have been the worst four-race stretch of your career, but one thing Rick said is during that four-week stretch neither you nor Chad ever lost any bit of confidence, and that looking at you, you would never know that you had gone through a stretch like that, and a lot of that he said was because you guys understood the reasons for what happened. I was just wondering, when you have a stretch like that, A, how were you able to maintain your confidence; and B, what was it about what took place during that stretch that allowed you to believe that you would still be just as good in the Chase?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, it certainly challenged us mentally. We had to remind ourselves the reasons why we had those bad races and issues behind it, and truthfully those issues were two of the tracks aren’t very good for the 48, and I’m so happy they’re not in the Chase. The other two tracks we were running very, very strong and had, I think, a tire blow at Pocono. We had an engine issue at Michigan coming from the back and I think had a great chance to win. Then there was another race in there where we had an issue while having a very strong race-winning performance. I can’t recall exactly what happened — oh, it was Atlanta, where we were running well but maybe on the first restart everybody checked up in front of me and I ran into the back of one of my teammates and killed the front of the car.
We could put a lot of stock in the tracks there that we had speed, we had pace, had good things happen, and that helped us out a lot. And then the other two tracks, we just sweep those under the rug. That would be Richmond and I think Bristol. Just move on, forget about them.
Q. The Jimmie Johnson 48 team that we see right now would you say is indicative of what you have really been all season long?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think so. We’ve shown great speed and pace at a lot of tracks, especially mile-and-a-halfs. One thing that we aren’t very proud of is the opportunities we let slip by through the course of the year on mile-and-a-halfs. The win at Texas I guess was our first mile-and-a-half points win of the year, and we were in position to win a lot of other ones and just dropped the ball in a variety of ways.
Glad that we executed well. We certainly have another big track with Homestead and need to execute there, and then we’ll go into the short track this weekend and see what we can do.
Q. Are you as comfortable and confident at Phoenix since the repave as you were before the repave, or is there still some gap there do you think?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, there’s definitely less confidence in the track that we’re racing on now, and if you just look at our performance over the years, we won so many races with the old configuration and that old asphalt that we’ve had a good run here, it seems like the spring races have been very good for us on the new configuration, but man, if there was one guy sad to see the old configuration and asphalt go away, that was me. We just had something that worked there and fit my driving style and we were able to win a lot of races.
Part of our sport is dealing with change, and we always have cars changing and surfaces changing, and I feel like we’re going in the right direction with the racetrack, and hopefully we can capitalize on that this weekend.
Q. How often in your career have you had a car that was as dominant as the one that you had this past Sunday at Texas?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Not many. Usually when you have a car that strong, you find a way to mess it up and not pull into victory lane. So I was really happy to see it through and close the deal at the end and get the car to victory lane. But it doesn’t happen often. The car was flawless.
Q. And that success that you had, will that transfer to the finale at Homestead, and I know you guys tested at Homestead Miami, but what works well in Texas, does that same thing work at Homestead?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The overall concept will, and we were able to validate a lot of that through the two test sessions that we had. The base, foundation of the setup carried from our Texas test into our Homestead test, so I’m excited about that and clearly want to see the same results once we get down to Miami. But we’ll race hard this weekend and then roll into Homestead and try to take care of business down there. But it’s going to be a tough two weeks.
Q. Last year you were you were battling for the championship with Brad Keselowski who had not won a Cup title prior to that point. This year you’re battling Matt Kenseth, a guy who has been a Cup champion before. From your perspective, how do those two experiences stack up against each other, and from your perspective is there a sense of comfort in racing hard with somebody that’s been in that situation before versus someone who hasn’t and may be tougher to predict?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, it’s hard to know what to predict in general, and I’ve found a lot of peace in expecting the best out of a championship contender, and that’s the way it’s been this year and every year to be honest with you. I felt like last year there could have been an opportunity to put pressure on Brad and his team, and it was Penske’s first championship in Cup. Same for the driver, same for the crew chief, and no one will ever know, but maybe there was a little opportunity there to put pressure on them and put them into a stressful environment. We just didn’t do our job, and we had our problems in Phoenix and then again at Homestead. And honestly in Homestead we had them where we wanted to put them and was really putting the pressure on them to see what they could deal with and handle at that point, but then we made too many mistakes and didn’t follow through on our side.
It’s really hard to know the truth in it all, but I do feel driver and team competing for their first is dealing with stress and pressure that someone that’s racing for their second, third, fourth, that they just don’t have that same pressure, and I only know that from my own experience. My first was far more stressful than anything I’ve done in my life.
Q. I told John Force last week probably no one knows more about championships at NHRA over there than him. I can ask you the same question: Probably no one knows more about NASCAR championships than you. Can you share what it takes to be a repeat champion with others what you think have the drive to be a champion?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, it’s such a team sport, and I think that gets overlooked at times. Certainly people just think of the driver and the driver’s impact. Next in line would be the crew chief. But as you work your way down through the different positions and the department heads and even people back in the shop, I know we always reference these folks and it might get annoying to some, but the ability to repeat comes from the depth in your organization, and it’s certainly led by the driver and crew chief, but it takes everybody in the system to have the right mentality, to be pulling in the right direction. There’s always rule changes that the entire company has to respond to, and then the end result is what the driver and crew chief do at the track. But the load and stress and burden is far greater than just what the two guys at track deal with.
I really put a lot of our success into the depth we have, the systems we have at Hendrick Motorsports, the support we have behind the scenes. That really lets the race day crew, the guys that go there each and every weekend seen on TV, to do their jobs and handle the issues at hand. It boils down to depth, I believe.
Q. How important is it as far as your momentum that you’ve built up now going into Homestead with only 900 miles to race?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Momentum is nice, and we’re happy to have it. But I’ve been doing this long enough where I realize that momentum doesn’t guarantee a thing. It makes a nice Sunday evening until Friday morning when the NASCAR timing and scoring system starts up again, but it doesn’t change a thing about Friday practice, qualifying, Saturday practice, or that Sunday race. You’ve got to go out and do your job each and every day. It’s been a nice, comfortable week, but the pressure cooker will start up there Friday morning when we’re on track.
Q. This is kind of a strange question, but it’s been talked about by many, many people. That was a great shot of you, your daughter and your wife wearing the hats after the win at Texas. Because your daughter has been around many tracks with you, what would you and your wife say if in a few years she says, hey, I think I want to start racing?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It wouldn’t bother me a bit. I’m not sure my wife would be on board. But really at the end of the day, we want to support our children and have them pursue what they’re passionate about and what they enjoy in life.
I was raised in that environment and so was my wife, and we all think of traditional means of work and providing and starting a family and all that, and we just really want to keep an open mind for our children and help them develop and support what they’re passionate about.
I feel so lucky and fortunate that my passion turned into my career, and I know the happiness it’s brought me. So whatever passions my kids have, that’s what I’m going to pursue, and if someone of the two girls we have now, who knows if there will be more kids, but if either one of them want to hold a steering wheel, dad will be happy and ready to go.
Q. I know part of this is your natural demeanor, but it seems your success and the team’s success has built an immunity of the kind of stress experienced by those who haven’t won championships. Can you sense that, and can you compare your state of mind at this stage this year with that same 2004 and 2005, some of the earlier years?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, we’re not immune. We’re human and deal with all the same stress that anybody competing for a championship goes through. I feel that through the years of winning championships we learn how to manage stress much better and find a way to enjoy the pressure and enjoy the stress. We’ve lost some interesting close championship battles which have been interesting character builders, although they hurt badly and it’s not a fun month or two following that experience, but there’s a lesson to learn from everything, and I always try to find something to learn through those downtimes.
But we’re not immune. We do have experience on our side, and we’ve been here before, and hopefully that experience will lead us to a sixth.
Q. Do you recall what it was like in 2004 and 2005 when it was a fresh experience?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I do. 2004 was a heartbreaker. We had a tragedy amongst our race team in the NASCAR community with an airplane of ours going down, lost 10 wonderful people. We rallied through a difficult Chase and got back into striking distance at Homestead, and essentially the championship slipped away from us in the closing few laps as Kurt Busch worked his way back from an issue on pit road and his wheel falling off, and went from the high of highs feeling like it was meant to be to not winning and wanting to win for all those on the airplane and to help heal everyone involved and all the hurt that was around. We just felt like it was meant to be, and there’s a big lesson in that that what you think is meant to be isn’t what’s going to happen.
We got stronger from that, and then in ’05 was really the toughest point for us. We had a very strong start to the season, led by a lot, and then as the year closed out, we slipped and we slid off the map essentially. Tony Stewart came in, or was there, and the guy we were chasing, and Tony got the job done. That was really a turning point for Chad and I. It tested us in our relationship and our bond pretty tough, and put a lot of pressure on us, and we had our milk-and-cookies meeting then, and from that point forward we were a stronger driver-crew chief and have been very, very strong since and learned a lot from 2005.
As I mentioned earlier, some of those down moments have been some of the most impactful moments of my career, and 2005 is really that defining moment for us as a team.
Q. Do you sense that Matt is going to be even more of a player now that he’s with JGR? If anyone can deliver a Jimmie Johnson type season, he might be that guy?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I’ve always known Matt’s abilities. I’ve raced against him a lot over the years, and just always been extremely impressed. I’ve known that the JGR cars have been quick. Denny and Kyle have showed that throughout the years. Matt’s experience I think has brought in a level of consistency, and matching that with the speed those cars have, he’s taken it to a new level. And I think the 20 team, there’s a lot of new faces over there, and as time goes on, they’re going to get stronger and stronger and stronger.
Put it this way: What they’ve accomplished in year one, there’s no telling what the top is going to be, the peak is going to be. It’s amazing. That doesn’t happen often, so they’re going to be a force for a lot of years.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about your foundation’s education grant announcement you made earlier today?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely, thank you. We announced our grant recipients here today in the Charlotte area. Three great schools, just over $430,000 that we distributed here to the area in which we live in North Carolina, in the Charlotte area. Each year we hold a big fundraiser in California, and throughout the year raise more money, and right now is our time to pass it out. There’s areas where I grew up in El Cajon, my wife grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and right here in the Charlotte area. We’re making those schools known about their checks and excited to see them put that money to use.
We also have some stuff that will be announced as we move forward in I guess probably the start of next year. We’ll be doing more fundraising here in the Charlotte area and trying to do more in the area in which we live and excited about those fundraisers and look forward to sharing them with everybody here soon.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR