Five time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson scored his second Daytona 500 win this past Sunday. Johnson played a smart race, avoiding trouble that took out some and having a Chevy that survived until the end. The win came in his 400 start and was the 61 of his career. A win anywhere in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series is special, but a win in the Daytona 500 is even more special and carries with it more obligations; namely a week long media tour that includes stops at major TV networks, and a few minutes with NASCAR teleconference with reporters. Johnson met that obligation Tuesday when he took time out from his busy week to meet with members of the NASCAR media. What follows is the transcript of that teleconference.
Q. You talk about the differences between 2006 and now. It’s been seven years. Chad wasn’t there then. This had to feel like a totally different experience and a much bigger accomplishment.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah. I think there was a big push to be the team and driver to win this first Gen-6 race. We also felt like we were riding a great wave from the conclusion of last year’s season. There was just a buzz in the air, a feeling prerace. We just felt it was going to be a race that was highly viewed. It kind of all played into it.
Chad did not experience those things in ’06, experience the victory celebration. So to have him there, see the smile on his face, soak it in, it’s something that all racers dream of. They want to win the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500. To be able to pull that off a second time, to have Chad there, really share those emotions, experience those emotions, was key.
Q. I’m curious the difference now and the last time you won it. I’ve been seeing the tweets about Good Morning America, Letterman, all that. Can you describe what that rush is like after winning the Daytona 500?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It really reminds me of a championship. I won in ’06. It was my first experience to the media tour that follows. I didn’t have that again until championships.
Rick and I were talking this morning on the phone. This is just like winning a championship. This single event is that big. It’s been a while. I’ve been super busy. I’ve learned to just relax, smile, talk about our sport, enjoy the moment. It gets a little redundant, as you can imagine, answering the same questions over and over.
The opportunity I have to represent our sport, talk about the things going on in our sport is a big honor.
Q. There’s been a lot of hype about the Gen-6 car, including your new car smell commercial. During your time at Speedweeks, maybe after, have you gotten any feedback from fans that they’re buying into the change? Also, how different is it driving this car from the COT?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: All the traffic I have seen, talk to people about, it’s all been about the aesthetics of the car, how good it looks.
Plate racing, I kind of look at it this way. Our fans really know our sport and plate racing is its own animal. We lost the tandem and are back to pack racing. I think everybody is holding tight to see how the car races at Phoenix, Vegas, Bristol, Fontana, to get back into the type of racing we see on a regular basis.
Driving the car, there’s so much grip in it, it’s going to promote aggressive driving and aggressive racing. Phoenix is a newly repaved racetrack. The groove might be a little narrow to see the side-by-side racing. I feel when we get to Vegas, we will have a downforce track under our belts, we’ll have a chance to see an amazing race at Vegas, great side-by-side racing that everybody will want to see.
Q. Did it ever cross your mind during Speedweeks that maybe you should try to draft in practice since it’s the new Gen-6 car?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The drafting topic.
We did. We did in the Unlimited and also in the Duels. We knew that there was going to be a learning process for all the drivers on the track. Our car inventory is low. We’re trying to be prepared for the rest of the season.
I know it was a hot topic at different times. But I’ve been doing this a long time and don’t need the experience in the draft on the track. Just wanted to preserve our car, have a smart approach about refining our car and making adjustments to it. Really running by ourselves a lot, look at the stopwatch, determine whether we made the car faster or not.
We stuck to our routine, it worked, and we got the win.
Q. Since the repave at Daytona, how much closer is the racetrack back to the way most drivers like it?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It has a ways to go, to be honest. The repave was awesome. It’s a very smooth racetrack. They did a nice job with it.
But it’s not the old, rough racetrack. It’s funny because the old, rough racetrack led to a lot of single-file racing due to the handling that was needed to run well there. Now I feel like the track is getting into its sweet spot where you need to handle, but at the same time all the lanes are smooth where we can run smoothly and safely by one another, get some good two- or three-wide racing.
As we understand the Gen-6 car, understand the properties around the car, I think we can fine tune it more. I’m sure people wanted to see three-wide and 10-deep on the field and I think we can get back to that point soon.
Q. I know you’re not a structural engineer or track designer or anything, but going back to the Nationwide crash on Saturday, do you believe any changes are required to try to prevent what happened, including any responsibility on the part of the drivers, pack racing, at least at the restrictor plate tracks?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think it’s crazy to ask the drivers to do anything different. It’s just impossible. When the plates were put on the car, it requires a different type of racing. Your speed comes from the car behind you. So the pushing, not necessarily physical contact, but that bubble between the two cars, that bubble is what speeds things along the most and makes things happen within the draft.
You’re going to block. You have to defend. You have to do things on plate tracks that drivers just don’t like to do and it’s not what we’re used to doing, not what we’re used to doing. But that’s the game, that’s the element.
To leave the rules the same and try to impose something on the drivers in how you perform out there, that’s unfair. I mean, it’s absolutely unfair.
But we need to learn from this. There are things that we can do, eventually that we can do, to create a safer environment for the fans. When you look at the evolution of safety, if you go back far enough, you look at the restrictor plate put in place after Bobby Allison’s crash. We continue to make changes. What we saw in Talladega with the crash that happened with Paul and Brad, there were some ideas about the fence posts, the gap between them, what needed to change. Daytona implemented that into their track. When you look at the proximity of where fans sit near the racetrack, there’s certain elements of our sport that are dangerous.
We don’t need them directed at the fans, but we need to look at all things right now. Unfortunately, it’s just a fluke accident to kind of open everyone’s mind to have them look at this again.
Thankfully everybody is okay. We’re going to learn from it and move forward. But there is technology out there. We just have to find the right approach, methodical, smart approach, apply that to our sport, and not create another issue.
I know people have an idea of Plexiglas. I don’t disagree with that concept, but the last thing you want to do is create another safety hazard. If that wall was to shatter and send chards off into the stands, that’s a whole other issue we have to deal with.
We have to be careful in how we approach this and I know that NASCAR and the tracks will be.
Q. There was even some talk on Sunday morning if NASCAR would implement some sort of no-blocking rule for the plate tracks. Is that feasible or would it be almost like the yellow line where everybody is going to kind of test it, you’re just kind of racing in the moment no matter what?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s so tough. I know that everybody is concerned for the fans. That’s where our priority needs to be.
But as competitors on the track, I mean, it’s so tough for us to figure out what to do right, what the right thing to do is. Everybody wants pack racing. Pack racing leads to cars crashing and new risks for the fans, risks for the fans.
So here we are back to pack racing which everybody wants to see, a car crash happens, and the knee-jerk reaction is: Let’s eliminate blocking. That’s plate racing. You cannot as the leader survive on your own. You have to look in the mirror, spend 80%, 90% of your time driving the rearview mirror blocking the lead. That’s what you do.
To take away the leader’s ability to defend his position, I mean, it’s just a crazy concept for me. It’s not like open-wheel racing where you go into a hairpin turn and you’re allowed one move to defend. That’s what plate racing is: you defend and you keep people attached to your rear bumper.
If that requirement is put on the drivers, I say break out the bulldozers and knock down the banking. Let’s take the plates off, make the track flatter where you have to lift, and let’s get rid of the draft altogether.
Q. Speaking about the racing on Sunday, you were able to make the lower line work. Any idea why you were able to? Do you feel drivers were not making a lot of moves because they knew they were not going to be successful or were they just worried about wrecking too early?
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Well, I think the middle part of the race, it was more about crashing. Then as the race wore on, everybody favored the top, especially in our cars. I’m not sure the Nationwide race was exactly that. But everybody favored the top.
You didn’t want to lose track position during the race. So it became kind of a defensive move to hop up there and stay in line and the only way you’d advance is if somebody got aggressive and pulled down.
I had a good car, fast car, had a lot of speed in it, handled well all day. With that and the aggressive side drafting I did, I was able to hang on on the inside and make some stuff happen.
When the 20 was in the race, we made some cool things happen on the bottom that others didn’t do. When he was out and I was on my own late in the race, worked the side draft and fortunately caught a caution as I was ahead of the 2 and I was able to have lane choice at that point.
The right lane to be in migrates around (indiscernible) at the bottom, and with this package kind of smart driving, defensive driving from the drivers, it’s migrated back to the top.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about the differences between your Speedweeks this year, not tearing up many cars, and winning the 500, compared to last year with all the penalties that came along with that, how having a good Speedweeks could help you as you move on to the upcoming races this season.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The issues last year definitely impacted Speedweeks, but it impacted the first quarter of the year for us, defending our position with the supposed violation. Over a period of time we were able to get that all behind us and prove our case.
It’s such a distraction, I can’t even tell you. Yes, it had a little impact on Speedweeks, but it carried on through the other races more so because it took time for our group to be prepared, sitting in front of NASCAR, all these committees. That was time away from the shop and setups that we could devote to the 48 car.
So happy to not have any of that take place. It will help the 48 get off to a quick start this year.
Q. Yesterday morning you mentioned that you really enjoyed not having to start off with a DNQ. At the same time your team, whenever you get in a hole, you seem to get together and work your way out of it. Is there a difference in the attitude of yourself and your team when you do that? You just seem to bounce back no matter what the adversity.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Our team has been very good at that over the years. I’m not sure if we have that in us or if we kind of discovered it along the way. We hope it was in there.
Each year we were faced with adversity, no matter what it was, we rally back. We’ve had opportunities to lead the points, race for championships, win a bunch of championships and races along the way.
It’s a very good trait to have for the 48 team. We’re very proud to have it. It’s been our saving grace in a lot of situations.
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