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A Few Words With: The Five-Time Champion

Info Manager | , RacinToday.com Friday, April 1 2011

Jimmie Johnson arrived at Martinsville Speedway on Friday in a bit of a slump. (RacinToday HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

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A Jimmie Johnson slump: Kind of an oxymoron the last five years. But as the Sprint Cup Series arrives in Martinville for Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500, the defending five-time champion is suffering a bit of a dry spell.

He has not won a race since September of last year, when he won at Dover. And, he has not won a race at Martinsville Speedway – where he has six victories, and, from 2006 to 2009, won five of seven – in three straight attempts.

On Friday, Johnson met with the media for a “hauler chat”.

Here is a partial transcript of the questions and answers from that chat:

Question: ONE OF THE FASCINATING ASPECTS OF SHORT TRACK RACING IS THERE SEEM TO BE ONE OR TWO DRIVERS OVER A PERIOD OF TIME SEEM TO MASTER THE TRACK.  CAN YOU GIVE ANY INSIGHT AS TO WHY WHAT SEEMS TO BE THE OPPOSITE OF THE LOGICAL IS THE TRUTH?

Johnson: “Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that it really boils down to the mental status of the driver. When you come to a track where you have a lot of success and you have a good car and a good baseline, it’s easier to control emotions that you can work your way forward, you can pass people, and it’s the set-up you’re looking for. And I think that works into a driver’s favor during a race. I know when I come here, and if we don’t qualify well, don’t be in a big hurry. It’s a long race. I know that I’ll work my way into the top five. I know I can come down pit road and pick up some spots. So you’re just a little bit more relaxed. At tracks where you struggle at, once you get track position or if you have track position at the start of the race, you’re just defending and maybe in a different place mentally and chopping people, rubbing on people, and creating some issues that then lead to some DNF’s. So I

Jimmie Johnson prepares to mount up. (RacinToday HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

think a lot of it has to do with the mental status of it. Guys that like certain tracks typically can find a way by without making enemies; and then you’re usually not in a position to defend and to make enemies then, as well.”

Question: IN YOUR CAREER, YOU’VE NEVER BEEN LONGER THAN 19 RACES WITHOUT A WIN. YOU’RE AT 13 NOW. GIVEN THE FACT THAT YOU’RE SO USED TO WINNING, DO YOU GET ANTSY WHEN YOU GET UP TO 10 OR 12 RACES WITHOUT GOING TO VICTORY LANE?

Johnson: “No, I don’t think about it much to be honest with you. Wins are all so special, even though we have 53 of them; every one of them is very special to me. So I don’t really think of stretches. I do know that you get to a certain point where the questions start coming up and I think it’s kind of funny that when it’s 13, people have some concern that it’s a long stretch. We’ve done a great job to put ourselves in that position, so I’ve got to look at the positive. But I feel like we’re knocking on the door, so regardless of what the outcome is on Sunday, the last two weeks we’ve been a threat for the win. And if you’re in that position consistently enough, you’ll get your victories. And I’ve always believed by that and still do today.”

Question: GOING BACK TO 2005 ENTERING THE SPRING RACE AT MARTINSVILLE, WHOMEVER WAS LEADING THE STANDINGS HAS NEVER GONE ON TO WIN THE TITLE. IS THERE ANY ADVANTAGE OR DISADVANTAGE TO LEADING THIS EARLY?  HISTORY SHOWS IT DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE TO BE AT THE TOP (NOW) TO FINISH THE SEASON STRONG.

Johnson: “I don’t think there is any disadvantage, especially in today’s world with bonus points carrying over into the Chase. I think the one point that lies within that is that there is a lot of racing over the course of the summer and we’re (only) five or six (races) in and there is still a lot of racing to go. A lot can happen. So, I think there is more in that, than anything. But winning races and leading the points early, there’s no downfall in that.”

Question: DENNY HAMLIN COMES INTO MARTINSVILLE IN A SIMILAR POSITION TO LAST YEAR WHERE HE’S 22ND IN POINTS; LAST YEAR HE WAS 19TH. HE WON HERE AND THAT KICKED OFF HIS STRETCH OF TEXAS AND DARLINGTON AND HE SUDDENLY BECAME A CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDER. IF HE WINS SUNDAY, DO YOU LOOK AT HIM THE SAME WAY? ARE YOU A BELIEVER IN THAT ONE WIN SOMETIMES IS ALL A TEAM NEEDS TO GET THINGS TURNED AROUND AND RIGHT THE SHIP?

Johnson: “A win never hurts, for sure. We race on so many different types of tracks that it’s hard to say if a short track win will help you go to Texas and run well and so forth and so on. We are talking about great tracks for Denny, so we could see this happen again like it did last year because of the team and the tracks that are on schedule that are really good for those guys. But a win doesn’t necessarily guarantee you that. In my mind, I know he’s not high in points, I didn’t know where he was, but you have to think he’s going to be there at Martinsville. And you really don’t start worrying about a championship threat until the Chase starts. And really, everybody is a threat at that point. You have 12 guys who are very, very close in points and you race from there. But in my mind, I just really can’t see the No. 11 car not being in the championship battle.”

Question: YOU’VE BEEN COMPARED TO SUPERMAN BEFORE; BEFORE DENNY HAMLIN GOT ON HIS ROLL OF THREE WINS IN A ROW. DID YOU FEEL LIKE SUPERMAN WHEN YOU CAME TO THIS TRACK AND THAT YOU WERE UNBEATABLE?  SECOND QUESTION, YOU ARE ONLY GOING TO RUN TWO LAPS TOMORROW (QUALIFYING). IS THAT ALMOST A WASTED DAY FOR YOU?

Johnson: “Yeah, it’s wild to only run two laps tomorrow. I don’t know why we’re experimenting with this type of schedule because the guys are still here. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, in my

The 48 car has been a frequent guest in Victory Lane. Until lately. (RacinToday HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

opinion, what the drivers are really after. I guess the fans are first and foremost. But the next one in line I would say would be the mechanics and crews working on these cars. And they have a bear of a day on Fridays with this type of schedule and then an okay day tomorrow, a pretty light day, for just two laps. So it’s just weird. You’d rather spread that workload out over the two days and take care of your crew guys. I don’t know why or how, but if it does help on that side (the fans), then we’ll take it.

“There was one race when I was young, racing off-road buggies that I went to a local track and thought if I race with the big guys, this is a slam-dunk. The first obstacle on the track I hit too fast (and) flipped end-over-end and was unconscious and in the ambulance. So from that point on, I’m like never entering a situation thinking you’ve got it covered. And it’s just stuck with me ever since. So, there’s that. And then too, at the Cup level, you just can assume things. So no, I’ve never felt like I was guaranteed a win here, but I just felt like I would be in the hunt and that’s all I was really after. And we’ve had some races come our way and we’ve had other races that we just wore them out. So, you just ask for that chance to be in the hunt.”

Question: A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK YOU JUST BEAT AND BANG AROUND THIS TRACK AND THEN IT’S OVER, BUT IT’S MORE OF A MENTAL GAME. DO YOU KNOW WHY YOU’RE SO GOOD HERE? IS IT A SECRET? AND WHAT DO YOU THINK IT IS THAT PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND ABOUT WHAT IT’S LIKE TO RACE HERE AT MARTINSVILLE AND BE GOOD AT IT?

Johnson: “Quirky tracks have always worked for me. And this track certainly is that. When I first came here, the first year or year and a half, there was no way I thought this track would be one that I liked. But in time, and in learning how to drive it, there is just one way to really get around here. And a lot of tracks have a lot of other options but there’s one very specific line you have to run and when a guy finds it, and he can set his car up to it, you go and go and go for years. And that’s what Denny (Hamlin) has been able to do and what we’ve been able to do and Jeff (Gordon) has done. So I really think it falls into that category. You go to a big track and there are three or four lanes to run on, you can move around and find somewhere that works for your set-up if you missed it (and) for your own driving style. That’s not the case here. There’s one way to drive this place and that’s it.”

Question: SINCE THE CAR BROKE THE VERY FIRST TIME YOU WERE AT MARTINSVILLE IN 2002, YOU’VE NEVER FINISHED OUT OF THE TOP 10. HOW REMARKABLE IS THAT? DID YOU JUST FEEL THAT RHYTHM AND GET ALL THAT INSTANTLY HERE, OR WHAT?

Johnson: “No, I would say the first five or six races here, I was very insecure about my line and technique and what was all going on. But we still managed to pull off some good finishes. I really put credit into Robbie Loomis’ hands and Jeff Gordon’s hands, set-up wise, in giving us some great starting spots. Jeff would be on top of the board and qualifying up front and leading laps and being a contender. And when we got started, our deal was until we outrun the No.24 (Gordon), let’s run their set-up. And let me figure out how to drive differently and run up to speed with Jeff.

“So I had that great tool and was very fortunate to have that. And (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and I both knew that we had something pretty unique there to pull off of and that we’d better use it to our advantage. So, I’d have to say those early years it was Jeff and Robbie and then we kind of developed our own set-ups and things from there and carried on. So, I’m shocked to hear. I would think those first two or three years that I would have been outside the top 10. I heard that stat before I came up here this week and was pretty shocked to hear that myself.”

Info Manager | , RacinToday.com Friday, April 1 2011
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