Newsmaker: Las Vegas winner Johnson reflects back, ahead

Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2005


  Jimmie Johnson during the Media Day at the NASCAR Nextel Cup Daytona 500 on February 10, 2005 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida. Photo By Streeter Lecka/Getty Im

Jimmie Johnson during the Media Day at the NASCAR Nextel Cup Daytona 500 on February 10, 2005 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida.

Photo By Streeter Lecka/Getty Im

Jimmie Johnson has won five of the last nine races and finished second twice on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series circuit dating back to last season, and his victory Sunday at Las Vegas solidified his position as one of the favorites to win the series championship.

Johnson talked with the media shortly after his most-recent victory about his Hendrick Motorsports team and what he expects during the rest of the season. Here are excerpts of that conversation:

Question: Would you agree there are two main players in stock-car racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing?

Johnson: I think it reflects what's happening on the race track, and I really am against 42 other cars, but the Roush cars have been strong up front. They've won the championship the last two seasons. They've had a couple of cars in the championship chase that we've been racing against. So there's some truth to that. But in our sport it can be one of 20 drivers at any race that has a shot at winning.

Question: Would you be surprised if any other team won the championship?

Johnson: Yes, I think the chance is definitely there. In the 10-race format, there are a lot of people who are dangerous in my eyes and who can put together 10 good races. Over a 36-race schedule, there are a lot of other factors that play into that. But in a 10-race stretch, when you put the championship on the line, guys can really focus and settle down and there are a lot of guys capable of winning the championship at that point.

Question: Is the rivalry between Hendrick and Roush good for the sport?

Johnson: I think competition is good for the sport in any way — whether it's sponsor competition or team competition. We're all out there and competition is good. That's what we like. On any news or sport you watch, there has to be competition or confrontation to generate excitement. I think it's the same on the race track.

Question: After your car flunked post-race inspection at Las Vegas you said when the car was too low it put you at a disadvantage. How does a disadvantaged car win the race by 100 yards?

Johnson: We had a great race car. We had a very loose condition that I was dealing with all day long. Once we got to tech and realized what was going on, it became very clear as to why the race car was so loose. My car was probably the only car that was loose on the race track. Everybody else had a very tight condition. It balanced itself out and worked in our favor. I was in a situation when I was up front and had clean air, and that would make the drop in the back of the car less of a problem. If I was back in traffic with dirty air, there wasn't a lot of air to utilize, my car would have been very, very tough to drive.

Question: Hendrick Motorsports engines had a lot of failures at California. Did your team find out what was wrong?

Johnson: Yeah, we had a problem with some valve train parts that popped up at the California race. Fortunately for us, we had so many failures and they were all the same thing so it was very easy to find the problem. With the weekend off, we had time to rectify the situation. So everything is fine. We hate that Joe Nemechek and Jeff Gordon and all the guys who were running strong had the problem. I know the engine shop feels horrible about that. But because of the way they all broke and how they broke, it was easier for us to diagnose the problem and fix it.

Question: When something like that happens, how does your team react?

Johnson: It's more like an emergency room when a doctor gets to work. We have over 100 people in our engine department. They are very qualified and talented people. They take a scientific approach to how they understand what went wrong with the race car. They just go into the laboratory and pull things apart and try to look very closely at things and send stuff off to metallurgists and things off to be tested. It's a very scientific process.

Question: Now that you've had a year to learn, will you approach the Chase for the Nextel Cup as a 26-race regular season and a 10-race playoff?

Johnson: Definitely. Last year we built up a points lead but didn't really know how to approach the end of the season. I think naturally we just carried over the way the system has always been and kept that mindset. But after looking back at the mistakes we made, you definitely have to make the cut. You have to look at it as a regular season and then a playoff season after that. But first and foremost, you have to qualify. You have to make the cut. You have to leave the regular season in the top 10. Depending on your situation, if you're off to a good start like we are right now, and we get to race 22 or 24 and we have a nice comfortable margin, we can then change things up and save tests and look at it that way. But I think it's too early right now. I think all the teams are trying to get through each style of race track. We've had two intermediate racetracks and I think we understand the package there. We've had one speedway race and that played itself out. We still have some short-track races coming up. So once we get through those, I think you'll see teams starting to play their strategy.

Question: Are you optimistic about this week's race at Atlanta?

Johnson: I feel good. We won the race last time we were there. The No. 6 car (Mark Martin) was strong. I'm expecting the No. 6 car and all the Roush cars to be strong once we get there. But we went and had our tire test earlier this year and we found that with this new tire and spoiler combination that the track is a handful. Atlanta is always tough on the tires. But the softer tire and smaller spoiler is going to create a tough race for a lot of guys. They're going to see a lot of drop off in the pace. I hope you'll see more side-by-side racing just because the tire has given up and you've really got to search around and find a different line more so than you ever did before. So I think you'll see from the white lines to the outside wall being used like normal in Atlanta, but it's just going to be a lot more work inside the cars.

— Compiled by Don Coble

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