Seven drivers found their ways to victory lane in the first eight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of 2014 before the recent first off-weekend of the season for the Easter holiday — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Kevin Harvick is the only driver of the group to win twice. Noticeably absent from the group is reigning and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson. For many drivers on the circuit, still being winless only eight races into the season isn’t so unusual, but for Johnson it is.
This weekend, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Richmond (Va.) International Raceway for Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400. Richmond is, by no means, Johnson’s best track, so unlike many other race weekends, Johnson’s not a favorite to pull into victory lane.
Friday morning, Johnson spoke with the media on a variety of topics, including his 2014 winless status, his lack of success at Richmond and the 2015 anticipated horsepower reduction, among other things. Here’s what he had to say:
IT HASN’T BEEN A GOOD TRACK FOR YOU HERE AT RICHMOND, TALK ABOUT COMING HERE AND YOUR THOUGHTS FOR THE RACE TOMORROW NIGHT:
“We suck here. We’re terrible and hopefully we are a lot better this weekend. The last couple trips especially – we have been junk. So the results don’t reflect the effort, so that is the disappointing part. And I know that Chad has worked very hard once again to get us a good car and hopefully it will be on the track and we will have good speed right off the truck. I believe a couple of those wins that I had came on a Sunday rain out. I would love to be home Sunday, but if it did rain out and we did race on Sunday, I have a pretty good average on the day.”
WHAT IS THE LIKELY REASON FOR THE TEAM’S STRUGGLES HERE?
“I don’t have a good answer. We always evaluate our performance here and say, ‘maybe it was this’, and we pursue what was down that road and come back with new hope and then unload and have a frustrating practice. We manage okay finishes for the most part but we know we should be better than that. Just getting beat by a track really gets under our skin as well. We can usually accomplish what we need to and eventually figure out a race track. So the piece that I am not 100% sure as you started your question, but they used to put a sealer down here and I think a lot of our success came when they put the sealer down. You could move around the race track to find some grip and really get your right sides (tires) on the edge to get some grip and speed out of the race car. It might be something in that but they don’t have sealer down so I can’t count on that this weekend. But I love watching races here, and for the races that I have been competitive in and had a chance to race in the top-five – I love it. I think it’s a fantastic race track, it puts on a great show, it’s great for the fans, and in my heart I think we need more short tracks on the schedule. I just need to get this one figured out.”
HAVE YOU SEEN ANY CHANGE IN CHAD’S PASSION OR DEVOTION TO YOUR TEAM IN THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS?
“Yes and no. I encourage him to take time to balance his life better. I am surprised he has made it as long as he has working the hours and for the years that he has been in this sport. But unfortunately and usually when he does take time off and he returns, and if we don’t have the performance that we should – then he thinks the two are related. Just because he took two or three days off for himself, and we have two or three bad races, there is no correlation there. But in his mind and the way he operates, he thinks ‘well I shouldn’t vacation, I am not supposed to vacation, I am supposed to work around the clock’. So continue to push him, and I have done this since we started. In our rookie season together I think we were racing on the West coast and I said, ‘hey man, I am shooting down to Mexico, come on down for a few days and hang out’. He did, came down, and we came back and ran at the race track and performance didn’t work and he said, ‘I am never going with you and Chani anywhere’.
“So like four or five years later, our ladies decided that we are all going on vacation. When you are married you just go where your wife tells you. So I am going where my wife is telling me, and Chad is coming with his girl and we come back and run terrible. He tells me that he is never going to vacation with me again. So you see how that goes. I hope he does find better balance because the guy deserves it and he is not going to last 10 more years in this sport if he works around the clock like he has.”
HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO ADAPT TO THIS YEAR’S CAR WITH THE NEW RULES AND REGULATIONS?
“It’s been a challenge for sure. The team has a lot more to play with in this car. And we know the balance that I like and it’s usually a car that turns stronger than what my teammates want or what Stewart-Haas cars want when we look at set up sheets. But right now we are still trying to find exactly what gives us the best vehicle dynamics and what gives me the best feel. A lot of times when you create the perfect car on the race track when you look at video and photos, it’s not turning as strong as I want it to. So that is kind of the rule because without any telemetry here, there are only so many tools the crew chiefs have. So usual tools of watching videos and looking at photos is what the team has. And trying to marry those two worlds is tough. We’ll get there and I think we have been there at a handful of races this year. So we are just going down the road and trying to figure out where speed is and balancing those two worlds.”
IS IT TIGHTER THAN YOU LIKE TO DRIVE?
“I would say at the start of the season we were a bit edgy and we got that part under control. We got the edginess out of the cars that had a tight balance, especially at Darlington. How we finished third is beyond me because that car was so tight.”
STEVE O’DONNELL SAID YESTERDAY THAT THERE WAS GOING TO BE SOME KIND OF HORSEPOWER REDUCTION NEXT YEAR. HOW DOES THAT CHANGE THINGS FOR YOU AND HOW DOES THAT CHANGE THINGS FOR THE TEAMS AND CHALLENGES LOOKING AHEAD TO NEXT YEAR?
“Every driver and team that I have spoken to isn’t up for a horsepower reduction. We all feel that having power creates better racing. Especially on the driver’s standpoint where you go down to the Nationwide Series and run flat out at a lot of the tracks. So we are all trying as drivers and members of this sport to say what is best for the racing. If its reduction in power that makes competitive racing, I think we are all more than willing to get on board and to go down that road. But it’s not a guarantee in my opinion and an example is at Michigan last week, or actually it was a couple weeks ago. There was a tire test and they took the power out of the 21 car and his center of the corner speed almost went up 10 miles an hour than what an unrestricted engine was running at.
“I am not sure those eight miles an hour through the center of the corner is going to allow us to run comfortably through the corner side-by-side. Now we have picked up a lot of speed through the corners and are the tires going to hold up? Is the suspension going to hold up? It costs a lot of money to even put a tapered spacer on the car. We are going to go and work to change all the internals to maximize the role that the engine performs. So I sympathize with NASCAR because there isn’t an easy way to go about things. No rule change is cheap anymore. Because it’s not just a single piece or component to change, there is a domino effect that changes a lot of things. I don’t know what to think to be honest with you. I like the power, power has been good for me. If you look at my Nationwide stats versus my Cup stats, I need power. I wish they would add more horsepower to the cars.”
IF YOU ARE SAYING A MAJORITY OF THE DRIVERS THEN ARE NOT FOR A POWER REDUCTION THEN WHY IS THIS BEING PUSHED THROUGH? IS IT BECAUSE THERE ARE GREATER LONG TERM BENEFITS AND YOU GUYS ARE MORE LOOKING A SHORT TERM THE NOW? WHY IS THERE THIS PUSH OR ARE YOU GUYS NOT BEING LISTENED TO IN THAT ASPECT?
“We are listened to, but again the goal that NASCAR has is to do what is best for the sport and not necessarily what is best for the individual group. The drivers wanting to keep the power or add more power we are one small group, one small piece of the puzzle. Owners have a say on extending engine life and trying to go to multiple races on an engine. I think the end result is sponsorship dollars, viewership, the inbound cash flow for our sport and our industry is the ultimate concern for NASCAR and for our sport to be healthy. The better the competition is on the track the better chance we have that. I think that is really the root cause. They do listen, but somebody has to make decisions and I think at the end of the day it’s really based on keeping the sport healthy. Competitive races keep the sport healthy, but how you get there is to be discussed, argued and debated.”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT BEING AFTER YOUR FIRST WIN OF THE SEASON AND HOW GOOD IT WOULD BE TO GET IT HERE AT RICHMOND?
“It would be great to get it here especially at a track we have struggled at the last few times here. Yes, there seems to be at least a conscious effort to win races more and this big discussion about winning races, but you need to win races to win championship period. That is really been the mindset of the No. 48 has always had. We have knocked on the door a few times and I think a win is out there for us very soon, hopefully this weekend.”
EIGHT RACES IN IT’S UNUSUAL FOR YOU TO HAVE GONE THIS LONG AND I FEEL LIKE WE ASK YOU THIS EVERY WEEK, BUT IS THERE A POINT WHERE YOU ARE JUST LIKE ‘DAMN WHEN AM I GOING TO WIN A RACE’?
“Honestly, I get asked about it and that is the only time it comes through my mind. I don’t know how long we went in the past before we won a race at the start of the season. We still have 28, 30 races left whatever it is. I don’t have this big fear that I’m not going to make the Chase and I’m not going to win a race. If we were running 15th and 20th every week I would be up here nervous and honestly I would tell you about it. But the fact we have been knocking on the door gives me great hope and optimism and doesn’t change anything from this year versus any other year mentally.”