In Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jimmie Johnson snapped a two-year championship-less drought (sarcasm) to claim his sixth Sprint Cup — all coming in a span of eight years — and the 11th for Hendrick Motorsports. On Tuesday, Johnson talked about winning his latest trophy. Here’s a transcript:
Q. Jimmie, you’re in the midst of a two-day Champions Tour. What has been the highlight of your victory celebration and the tour so far?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: There’s been a lot of great stops. The media and opportunities we’ve had have been awesome, Letterman, Kelly & Michael. I’ve been very well-received, warm welcomes across the board.
I’d say the best part really was enjoying things Sunday night with my crew guys who put so much time and effort into the season. To finally have the weight of the championship off our shoulders, have the success that we did, it was good fun, to say the least.
Q. This evening (Tuesday) at 6:00 p.m. eastern, you will be the first athlete to guest host SportsCenter. What does this mean to you?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s a great opportunity, one I’m a little intimidated by, to be honest. It’s one thing to be asked a question on camera and answering something I know about what I know about my sport, whatever it might be.
To actually host and carry on a show is something totally different. I’m nervous, but I know I’m going to have John Lindsey with me on there helping me out.
Q. Could you talk about how much you appreciate this coming off of the two-year low in the championship battle. How do you see your responsibility going forward as champion?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I look back on those two years, and there wasn’t anything from those years that motivated me any more than normal.
I’ve been so fortunate to win the five before that, it’s kind of crazy to look at missing a couple opportunities or not being a factor, especially in the ’11 season. Last year we were in the mix. As I mentioned before, I just want to be in the mix.
To have expectations to win championships is unfair or what. I think it’s more realistic to expect an opportunity at a championship. To win, that’s a whole different story.
I made the Chase every year it’s been around, so I’ve had that opportunity. I take a lot of pride in that. My motivation to follow through this year and to work as hard as I can really is the same motivation I’ve always had to succeed in this sport.
I’ve worked so hard and long to get to this point, I’m finally on top of my game. I’ve worked a lifetime to get here. There’s more motivation staying on top for those reasons than chasing stats and the historical things that are out there in front of me now, it’s really something that comes from within.
Q. Jimmie, I know it’s been less than 48 hours since you won the title. How quickly did the buzz from winning the championship wear off? At what point are you back in next year’s mode? Hosting the ESPN SportsCenter deal, is that something that you want to do? Where does it fall as far as some of the things you’ve gotten to do in past championship years?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s an opportunity that we’ve kicked around for a little bit. We had the date on the books in I guess late summer trying to make it happen. With Chani being pregnant, we had to cancel on it.
So since we’re heading to Bristol, it was real easy to transition into it. Honestly, I’ve been pretty intimidated by this opportunity, although it’s one I want to take advantage of. We’re going to go up, make a special trip, on and on. We’re fortunate to be in Connecticut following the season, just make me do it, make it happen. Now I’m in that position and we’re making it happen.
The first part, the buzz, it will last a while for sure. Pre-season testing will start things focusing back on the year really. My team, they were at the shop yesterday, Chad was, as far as I know. Those guys work so hard through the season.
The rules packages, on and on, shoot, they’ve probably been in ’14 mode for a couple months focusing on the areas we can, transporters, pit boxes, things that can be done in advance.
For me it’s really February when we get to Daytona and we start racing. It might linger a few more weeks after that when I’m introduced in various situations. When timing and scoring goes hot again and it matters, that’s when things transition into the new year.
Q. Jimmie, I know the season just ended. This is your sixth championship. With the recent exit of Dario from IndyCar, then Dale and Petty, is there a point you’ve set where enough is enough, where the danger gets too much, or will you race as long as you want?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Danger in our sport is something I’ve faced since I was a kid racing dirt bikes. I think racers like to ignore those dangers. We pursue our passions and our dreams. As time has gone on, the advancement of safety, especially the NASCAR tracks you compete on, we’ve been really able to make our sport safe.
Again, there are dangers. There are things that I choose to overlook. Having a family does make me think at times, especially when I’m out of the car.
But, again, it’s what I do. I put a lot of confidence in the SAFER barriers, the head and neck device we all wear now, the research and development that’s gone into making NASCAR as safe as it is today. I find great peace in that.
There still is the risk. I think it’s smaller than it’s ever been. My wife and I both take comfort in that. It’s just part of racing.
Q. Your thoughts on what makes Chad such a great crew chief. You guys have been together a long time. Obviously you get along 90% of the time. When you do have a dispute, when you see things differently, does he usually win? Is it a 50/50 deal, or what?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s a team sport. It takes all the members of the team to get it done.
Chad, the responsibility he carries, he has more I think pressure on him than any member of the team. He has to keep a balanced budget within Hendrick. He’s responsible for the guys that go over the wall, for the guys that turn the wrenches, he’s responsible for the speed of the car, technology advancements, all those things.
I have a pretty stress-free week until I show up at the racetrack. He is greatly responsible for it all. What percentage is hard to say.
I know the pairing of us, there’s something magical there and it works. I say this confidently: I would not have the success I’ve had in this support if it wasn’t for Chad and our relationship together. So I give him a major tip of the hat, the total credit that’s due. He’s a big part of all that.
Q. When you have a dispute, does he get the final say or is it a 50/50 deal?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Final say? He really leads the team on many, many levels. When it comes to calling the race, I had an idea the other night about our tire strategy. I’m glad he didn’t listen to me because it played out completely the opposite and he was right.
I just find I get to verbalize what I’m feeling in the racecar, pass it along to him, let him decide on all the big topics. I’m basically good at being told what to do (laughter).
Q. Sunday night I think was maybe the most emotional that we’ve seen you ever. What is it like now having a family there, two little girls, to celebrate with? We saw pictures you were posting. What is it like to see Genevieve and having a family to share with?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s an incredible experience. There’s such joy and pride. My family makes a lot of sacrifices to support me. So from respect and appreciation of the sacrifices made. I’m not sure why Chani was emotional as she was. She’s typically not, nor am I. When she started to lose it, it sucked me in, I started to lose it as well.
There was just an overwhelming sense of pride. It comes from a lot of different angles, the work that goes into it, the sacrifice. I’m just a proud father and a proud husband.
There’s something activated in me – I think all parents can speak to this – once you have kids and they’re born, your heart changes and you love in different ways, a different capacity. All that stuff is going on, leads me down the road to where I am today, the position I’m in today, enjoying those moments.
Q. After you held up the Cup, you leaned down and looked like you were talking to Evie. What has it been like watching her trying to understand this?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s been really neat. She gets it for the most part. The championship part, I’m not sure she understands how that all works just yet.
She knew I didn’t win the race, but we were holding the trophy and celebrating. She asked me a couple questions I’ve been trying to explain. I’ve been trying to explain for a few weeks about the championship, the points, what daddy is trying to do. It still hasn’t registered yet.
Denny was in Victory Lane. She didn’t understand why we were celebrating. It’s been fun trying to teach her all those things.
Q. Are you a Carolina Panthers fan? If you are, are you going to have to talk about the game last night? Will you be smiling inside?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I’m sure I’ll talk about it. I don’t know what I have in store for me at SportsCenter. I’m sure it will come up. Where I live, I keep an eye on sports teams that are there, have friends that are on the court and field, in offices over there.
I definitely watch with interest and was happy to see them win last night.
Q. What has been the most surprising, the thing that stands out in the last 36 hours, as far as the celebration or the media tour that you’ve been on since Sunday night?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I’d say the magnitude of the sixth championship. I knew it would be big if we were able to accomplish it. But it’s traveled wide and far. That’s been the most surprising thing to me.
Q. You’re part of a four-car group with Jeff and the rest of the guys. How come they can’t get up to where you guys are? Is it not a fully open shop?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I know that’s a popular question.
There are four cars. We all have the same equipment. We do develop our own styles as far as a driver, a crew chief, the way we set our cars up. We kind of migrate off into different directions, although they are close together. We do end up with differences in our cars. That boils down to the crew chief and driver styles.
We look outside of our four cars, the Stewart-Haas organization, they have all the equipment as well. When you break it all down, at the end of the day, I put the weight in the people. The connection and communication between the driver and crew chief is really where that starts.
You can branch off into race calling, drivers competing, tracks, things like that are other sidelines that play a key factor into it.
But I put a lot of weight into the driver/crew chief relationship. Over the years we’ve seen pairings that work and I feel fortunate to have that happen with me and Chad.
Q. After the race on Sunday night it sounded like the crowd was actually cheering you. Do you think you’ve turned a corner as far as winning the hearts and minds of the fans?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Potentially. There was a lot of cheering, through all the social channels, a lot of respect being shown for the 48. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve seen. Not usually cheering for you, but congrats, respect.
At the end of the day, that’s what I would hope for. People don’t have to be my fan. But I’m a very respectful person. When respect is shown to me or handed out to me, I take that and appreciate it.
Q. Can you remember when you first got fans and how they have multiplied and reacted over your career?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I can remember when I was racing the Nationwide Series, we were with Excedrin for a sponsorship. I can remember sitting outside of numerous convenience stores around the country as my sponsor obligations under a pop-up tent with autograph cards, samples, trying to pass them out to people. They thought I worked for Excedrin and wondered where the racecar driver was (laughter).
Things have changed a lot since then. Once I started and was a part of the Hendrick group, things started early for me. I was still in the Nationwide Series when Jeff and Rick signed me. I quickly inherited a lot of Jeff Gordon fans. If Jeff was going to pick me, they were going to be a fan of me as well.
Over time that changed. I think a large majority of Jeff Gordon fans despise me because of the success I’ve had. Things always evolve and turn and twist.
It was in that period of time once I picked up my contract with Hendrick, I assumed a large fan base at that point in time.
Q. A lot of people think the racetracks in the Chase should be changed. With your success, you probably would like to see it stay the same.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The tracks that are in there are pretty good for us, so I would love for it to stay the same.
At the end of the day, I want what’s best for our sport. If it’s best to change, move markets, road courses, whatever it be, I want to see our sport grow and thrive, so whatever is best for our sport.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR