Chevy Racing–NASCAR–Daytona Media Day–Jimmie Johnson

FEBRUARY 14, 2018

JIMMIE JOHNSON, NO. 48 LOWE’S FOR PROS CHEVROLET CAMARO ZL1, met with members of the media at Daytona 500 Media Day. Full Transcript:

Were there issues with the track bar mounts on the Hendrick Chevys on Sunday during the Clash?
“I don’t know. I think mine was dragging. I know that much. I know a lot of them were dragging. There were sparks really off all the cars. I haven’t heard of anything.”

Tomorrow night for you, more about winning, learning about the cars, getting points? How does that race line up for you?
“We worked hard to try to get the front row. My initial concern is how well is this thing going to drive in the drafts. We learned so much in the Clash about performance and handling, how far you want to trim a car out. To go for the front row, you’re set on kill, trimmed out.

“We have some good ideas. Until I get out there, get five, six laps in the draft, at this higher pace the new package is producing, you just don’t know how good my car will drive. Get to the first pit stop, make some changes, go from there.”

Are we still looking at the fear of pulling out of a long line and losing 15 positions?
“Yeah, it’s still plate racing. I mean, I think until the plate is gone, we’re going to have that. The bigger the plate, the quicker the car will respond to those situations. We now have a little smaller plate, less gear. Directionally it’s not going to change much. You just need that recovery in the car. When you’re already wide open, get pitched out, you have less air flowing through the engine, less gear, it’s just hard to close up.

“That’s still going to be, like we’ve seen in the past, a second faster. I think we’re about a second faster now than we were with the previous package.”

NASCAR has done a lot to promote this young wave of drivers. Talk a little bit about how difficult it is to take it to another level where you’re contending consistently. How difficult is that going to be?
“We all face different things through our careers. I think when you get to the Cup level, you go through some exposure, some criticism, some pressure, to a whole different level of it. Every driver that comes in now, especially on a major team, has lots and lots and lots of pressure on him.
When I was coming along, I only won one Busch race. Everybody was asking you, What do Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon see in you? I’m like, back of my head, I don’t know either. I’m just glad I got a shot at it.

“We all have different pressure that’s put on us. This new generation, there is different pressure. We live in this digital age. There are a lot of big names that have stepped down, some shoes to fill, a fan base to kind of feed into.

“It wasn’t the exact scenario that I came into, so it is a bit different for these guys. But when you look at Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, you go down further to a different series, Christopher Bell, Ryan Reed, a lot of these guys coming along, there’s a lot of great talent there. A great story behind all of them.

“We have the legacy piece with Blaney and Elliott. There’s a lot of good there. These guys are ready for the challenge.”

If you had to pick one that rises up quicker than any of the other ones, is there any one you would favor more than the other?
“I’m going to be very biased and say Chase Elliott. Admit it, too. He’s awesome, on all levels. He’s going to be a superstar.”

Who do you think is going to be the next most popular driver?
“Chase Elliott (laughter). I think he’s already won the 2018 most popular driver award.”

What’s the biggest difference in driving with the new car?
“Just the pace. Basic handling characteristics, if you looked at my notes from ’17, ’18, tight, loose, we’re just going a second faster. The intensity is higher because you’re on edge going faster. The general handling characteristics are just the same.”

With the design of the Camaro, it didn’t change the feel that you had, that Junior had, that Chase had when you all spun off of the corner last year? You were very unstable coming out of four I think it was.
“Yeah, I think that danger is still there. We might see a lot more of it through the course of Thursday and Sunday. In those situations, we felt like we were being very aggressive with trimming the car out. It was kind of downforce related.

“With the rules being as open as they are now, there’s a lot we can do to put downforce in the car, the attitude of the cars, springs and shocks, or take it away.
I’d have to assume the top 10, top 15 cars that are sitting in impound right now are trimmed out pretty dang good. Thursday is going to be exciting for a lot of us. I know I’m ready for that excitement.”

We talk a lot about these young guys. We don’t have a lot of experience on restrictor plates. Is that any sort of concern at all?
“Through my experience in coming in the Busch Series, then into Cup, everybody was afraid to work with the rookie, thought rookies would make crazy mistakes. I was looking around, all the big wrecks were started by veterans.

“I don’t know if I’m overly concerned or worried. Sure, somebody can get it wrong. But I think if you go back and look at the crashes, it’s probably veterans that cause it more. Just getting comfortable with the environment and situation, felt a hard push or impact before, think that they can do that, split the gap, whatever it might be. That’s where the problems start.”

How many races is it going to take for everybody to see the strength of the new Camaro?
“I feel like here it’s hard to identify where the Camaro shines because of the right height rule, all that goes with that. I think Atlanta will be the start of that. Atlanta is pretty unique to itself because of the high tire wear. Kind of Atlanta into Phoenix, I think we’ll have a better idea.”

Do you think by Auto Club, you’ll see?
“I think so, yeah. I really feel like Vegas is probably the best. Tire wear isn’t really bad. Speeds are really high. I think Vegas is probably the best test for it.”

Given the struggles you had last year, did you approach this off-season any different? Was it harder for you? Longer for you? How was this off-season for you?
“Yeah, when I look at the ’17 off-season, it was savoring the moment. The ’16 off-season, savoring the moment, being the champion, enjoying all that. When you don’t win, you can’t wait to get back to work, improve, figure out what went wrong.

“The ’17 season was so hard on us the second half of the year, I literally came back from the banquet, it was time to dig in, work on any and all areas.
Much more work done this off-season due to the circumstances of where we finished. Then obviously a lot of change from rules to the new Camaro, the internal restructuring that’s going on at Hendrick. You add that with the driver lineup, this is the most change I’ve ever seen at Hendrick Motorsports in my 16 seasons competing there. It’s a big year for the company.”

I think Rick said he got a phone call from you at Vegas during the banquet or something. Was that a motivation?
“Yeah, I left there pissed off. That sucked (laughter). I knew after we got eliminated from the Round of 8, I knew our championship hopes were closed. To relive the highlight reels, all of that, it’s like, Damn, I want to be that guy. I want to get back and be that guy.

“That was a huge shot in the arm of adrenaline to get to work. I literally started wearing Rick out on the phone, What do we need to do? Where do we need to start?”

He’s talking about breaking down the wall. In the struggles last year, why couldn’t you guys work together? Why couldn’t you guys help each other as much? What is happening now with breaking down the walls that couldn’t have happened last year?
“You know, I thought last year, we had great collaboration. Honestly, that plus the changes we were making during the course of the summer and fall on the 48, trying to find speed, that’s where the frustration really came from. We just couldn’t figure it out.

“I don’t have an answer. I still don’t have an answer. Luckily there’s so much change going on this year, we feel we have a whole new mousetrap, a whole new set of rules to deal with. We’ll just forget about last year and move on.

“The way we’re restructuring things, it’s different when crew chiefs, two are in one building, two are in a different building. All four crew chiefs being in the same building is different than what we had before.

“I don’t think walls have intentionally been set up, especially in the last five, six years, the way Rick has wanted everybody to work closer and closer together. But physically now we’re taking it to a new level. Their offices are literally going to be next to each other. “
As somebody who is excited about change, are you someone that looks forward to it or dreads it?
“It parallels your success from the year before. But I feel like we’ve always responded well to change, different generations of cars, tires that are introduced. I like changes. It’s fun to chase that rabbit. “
There seems to be more change than people seem to think, changes in the rules, the pit stops, you’re getting a new car. Do you feel like there’s more than people think?
“Yeah, from where I’m sitting, I’ve never seen so much change. It’s mainly focused on HMS. But pit stops and rules, it’s a big year. There’s a lot of change going on, especially for what we deal with on the competition side.

“Maybe the fans won’t have a great sense of that, but our environment has changed dramatically.”

Was it different to be at a track without Dale Jr.? More area to walk around at Hendrick, around your haulers and stuff? Did you notice a difference?
“I probably had more text messages from him than I did when he was here. I haven’t felt his departure yet. Maybe less of a crowd by the 88 car. But I talked to him more last weekend than I did when he was here on a traditional weekend.”
Was he asking about the car?
“Yeah, car, how it felt. He had a lot of opinions how it looked, how out of control they looked on TV. He definitely wanted to know what was going on.”

(No microphone.)
“No, he’s having fun. I don’t know. My friendship with him has grown so much in the last five, 10 years. But staying in contact with him is something that I feared, even looping this into Matt Kenseth, the friendship he and I have, I don’t want those friendships to go away. I’m happy to have Dale wear me out, Matt ask me questions, stay in connection with those guys.”

Why Willie Nelson?
“That was just a couple bottles of wine. We tried Dale. He didn’t answer. You could see it ring five times, go to voice mail. We tried again, it rang twice. We tried again and he sent it to voice mail straightaway. I’m like, Oh, he’s awake.

“Then I don’t know, from there Lance said, Hell, let’s try Willie. He’s in Hawaii. He’s still going to be awake. We tried Willie and got him.”
Have you hung out with him before?
“With Willie, no.”
All Lance?
“All Lance. Willie’s hearing is maybe a little less than he would desire. We talked. I’m not sure he really heard what was said. He tried to talk back. It was entertaining.”

You mentioned being frustrated at Vegas. You’ve been that guy that everybody has been chasing before. Talk about what a season like that is like, winning all the time. If you had to guess, a prediction on who is the next guy to have a season like that, would you offer up a prediction?
“Prediction? I’ve always said you can’t best against a champ, especially a dominant year like that. The last two years, how strong that team has been. I would put the favorite as the 78. It’s our job to chase them down.

“I hate to be beat by the same car all the time, but we’ve had our runs doing that to folks. I remind myself of that often. I know how hard it is to get there. What’s wild, when you’re there, not that it’s ever easy, but things kind of flow in a way that’s comfortable and natural. You can control the animal, the beast that it is to win.

“So I’ve been there. I can respect and appreciate that sweet spot that those guys have been in.”

(No microphone.)
“I can’t even remember. It’s just I’m dumb (laughter). I don’t know. Nothing comes to mind quickly. Sorry. “
What is Danica Patrick’s legacy going to be in motorsports as she transitions to another career?
“For me, there are many pieces that are in that. What’s top of mind for me is, being father of two daughters, watching my children gravitate towards women in sports, women in powerful positions anywhere. The disappointment they had that Hillary didn’t win the election, I guess probably my six-year-old at the time comes home, her questions. Why can’t a woman be president?

“I’m like, Well, maybe one day soon. I hope so soon.

“Even two mornings ago, we were watching the Olympics, Chloe Kim winning the half pike gold medal. Her excitement leaving the house for school that day was amazing.
All that being said, Danica has been someone for my daughters to look up to. That’s top of mind for me. The impact she’s had in sports, women in sports.”

(Question regarding female engineer.)
“She’s been big for our company. Ton of respect for her. I know crew chiefs and department heads all do, as well. She is much more of a listener, then goes out and executes, gets stuff done.
I find that I say way more than she does. I talk a lot more than she does. She’s absorbing, building us a better product all the time.”

How much interaction do you have with her?
“I see her at least every Tuesday, a minimum every Tuesday in our debriefs.”
You mentioned your friendship with Matt and Dale, staying in close contact with them. Do they ever try and convince you to come out and watch Sundays with them instead of being out there? When will you know when it’s time?
“No, I think Matt would rather come join us here than the situation he’s in. No one’s tried to entice or pull away.

“For me, I feel like, sure, I could stop. I’ve accomplished so much. But what else am I going to do? I’d have to find somewhere else to race. I am a racer at heart. I want to compete. I feel like I can accomplish more in this sport and win more races and compete for more championships and win more championships.

“I don’t feel that it’s time yet. At some point that fire will go out. I need to be aware of that. Right now it’s as intense as ever.”
In a restrictor plate race, what is the biggest difference a driver can make? Same pool of guys win races.
“What is the right way to put it in not a million words? To summarize, you can form your opinion on it, the majority of the plate races I won, I didn’t try to win them, I tried to run second. The situation developed for me.

“You make a move, and it takes two or three cars behind you to agree with that move to follow you. Oftentimes what’s good for you to try to win doesn’t benefit them, so they’re not going to help you. So there’s a decision-making process in when you pull out, why you pull out. There is an environment, what’s going on in your environment, that helps the car behind you and the two behind it follow you and make that successful.

“That is the trickiest thing. I guess some guys can read it better than others. When I’m on the aggressive side of it and think I’m going to try to win, I’m worried about myself, I usually end up wrecked. The times that I’ve in a sense thought of the group, the collective group behind me, it serves me better, I have better results.”

What is your game plan tomorrow night?
“Feel it out because we’re pretty trimmed out, then that first pit stop make some changes. Hopefully I can race from the start. I lost one car. I have that 500 car. I have one backup car after that. Then I’m out of cars. Converting to the LS1, we only have three plate cars with 48s on them. We can’t burn through our inventory.”

The points that are up for grabs, are you going to be looking at that?
“Love to. Plate racing, I think you worry less about that just because of the environment. It’s not top of mind right now. It’s more about having a good racecar for the 500. So we’ll be smart, for sure.”