Q&A: Jimmie Johnson
August, 30, 2011
By Nick Friedell | ESPNChicago.com
Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson hopes he can get a win at Chicagoland Speedway for crew chief Chad Knaus, a Rockford native.Jimmie Johnson is like a pitcher in the middle of a perfect game. He doesn't like to talk about how much success he is having, despite the fact that he could be on the way to his sixth consecutive Sprint Cup Championship in a few months. He realizes just how impressive the feat would be, but he doesn't want to do anything to jinx it.
Plus, as I found out last week while he was in town promoting the Sept. 18 Sprint Cup race at the Chicagoland Speedway, he's got plenty of other things on his mind.
Q: Jimmie, what have you gotten for advice about throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley?
A: I'm here, and it's coming soon. I have not practiced or done anything. I've been too busy. I have a 13-month-old daughter at the house so my time has been occupied there. We're not really throwing things at this point. I'm just going to go up there and throw it. Heck, it's just a baseball, right?
Q: Whatever you do, do not call it Wrigley Stadium though, OK?
A: That was the piece of advice I was going to mention. My teammate, Jeff Gordon, covered that base for me, and it didn't go so well.
Q: Yeah, did he get any flak from people around NASCAR about that?
A: I think that was almost worldwide flak that he got from that (laughs).
Q: All right, speaking of somebody who's gotten lots of other flak in the last week or so -- Kyle Busch. If he calls you right now and says, 'Jimmie, I'm stuck. I need a ride. Can you please come pick me up?' You would say what?
A: I'd go get him. I've got no issues with Kyle. He and I have been able to race very hard with one another over the years. Being teammates with him when he was at Hendrick, I think I understand him a little bit more than some. But I can tell by some responses, and some of the driver intros by the crowd's response that he might not be loved by all. But I'd go pick him.
Q: I know he said on Twitter the other day that he was going to have his wife chauffeur you guys around. Would you take him up on that?
A: Yeah, we were having fun. After he got his sentencing, I asked him if he'd pick me up. I was at dinner, and I'd pay him 1,000 bucks to come grab me. So we were just having some fun there.
Q: Could you ever see you guys having like a "Days of Thunder" scene when they rent the cars and just go after for like half an hour and then roll up to the restaurant and they're just shattered.
A: That stuff happens. I would say it's a little less now, but when I first came into this sport, rent-a-cars were a fun mode of transportation at any test session race. It didn't matter if you were a race car driver or a crew chief, crew member -- the rent-a-cars, there were some fun episodes that took place in all that. I don't think we beat them up like you saw in "Days of Thunder," but a little bit of rubbing never hurt anybody.
Q: How ironic is it for a guy who's in NASCAR, who drives for a living, to speed that fast and have his license taken away? Is that something else that he's just never going to hear the end of no matter what?
A: Yeah, I think so. I think he realizes now the 35 mph zone he was in or whatever it was, that just isn't something you should be doing. I'm sure he's hoping it's behind him now, and he still has a little bit of work to do with community service and all that ahead. I'm sure the sooner it's behind him the better he's going to feel about it.
Q: I know you have the big race coming up in a few weeks at the Chicagoland Speedway. For you, what makes racing in Joliet different?
A: For me, I spent a lot of time close by in Wisconsin through my years in ASA. I raced in this area some with ASA. [Crew chief] Chad [Knaus] is from the Rockford area, so there's a cool vibe when I come back. It's a great city, we love being here, and we spend a little bit of time out in downtown when we're out in Joliet. So I enjoy it a lot. I have nothing but good thoughts, and I've been awfully close to winning out at the track. It's a track that I enjoy to race on. I really want to get a win for Chad. We've been able to win quite a few times at my home track, and I'd love to get one for him.
Q: I know the playoff system is still fairly new. How much different is it, or do you consider it the same, as any other professional sports league?
A: Well, playoffs are playoffs. It's the time of year when you need to play or drive and do the best job that you can. With our 10 races, we're challenged and have pretty much every type of race track you could imagine. It is different when we're racing all 43 guys, plus you have the 12 fighting for the championship. There's opinions that go either way on that and how that should be with point systems and on and on. We have our own complicated things we have to deal with, but at the end of the day you've got to run well. And if you're running in the top five and if you're winning races, it should take care of itself then. That's our focus. We've been able to do it the last five years, and we feel like we've got a good road map on how to win a championship. And now it's time to execute and try to do it.
Q: As a guy who has won five titles in a row, would you consider yourself the Michael Jordan of NASCAR?
A: I don't know. I don't like to think about that stuff. It's really weird when you're talking about your stuff. It's so much easier to talk about someone else. I'm just obviously very happy with the way my career has turned out. There were a lot of slow years in the beginning and my success really started in my 30s. I'm just grateful to have this opportunity, and I'm very hungry to keep it going. At the end of my career when I hang up my helmet, I'll start thinking about where I rank with our sport and spend a little bit more time paying attention to comparisons of other athletes. But when you're in the moment and living it, it's real tough to talk about it, and you just want to keep going and doing your job.
Q: Is there one consistent key for you to being so dominant over this stretch of time here?
A: Just work ethic. Every year it's been different. Every year the challenges have been different. Every year I've focused on different things within my skill set of driving and the team has had different challenges with what we're faced with. It's never the same, but the only thing that is the same is you better be ready to work, and that's what it's all about.
Q: As somebody who has been so dominant over such a long period of time, I was curious as to what your thoughts are on somebody like Tiger Woods who has been so dominant and now all of a sudden has kind of fallen off that pedestal for a while.
A: When you watch anyone, whether it's a team sport or an individual sport, it is tough to link together [success] year after year after year. I guess Lance [Armstrong] with his seven Tour championships that he won, with the Tour de France might be the longest run in consecutive years of anything really taking place. It's just so tough to do year after year. Honestly, winning one championship, or being ranked No. 1 in the world once as a golfer over the course of a year, that's career stuff. And it's tough. You watch guys live through their peaks, and then unfortunately, you've got to come down from that peak.
It's a different path for everyone. And I'm hopeful that my path, I know at some point I'm going to be at the top of my peak. Some may think it's now. It could be a few years from now. I just don't know when, either. And I hope to handle it all with class and style and represent my sport in the right way.
Q: If Tiger did come to you though, and said, "Jimmie, you've been on top of your game for so long ..." What advice would you give to kind of get him back on track?
A: First of all, I'd be shocked if he were coming to me for advice because I've been looking up to his success over the years. I really think it's about simplifying your life ... and he is a big brand with a lot of things going on, on top of [having] kids, on top of trying to work out his personal life, on top of trying to play his sport. There's just a lot going on. You may not think of it as a distraction, certain aspects of business and work and opportunities that's out there, but it all does add up. And it takes a toll on the individual. And keeping my life relatively simple has been, I think has been the key for success.
Q: I know you've been tweeting about football lately, when you're away from the track and you do have those moments to get out of your bubble, do you get a chance to put together a fantasy football team?
A: I did one year, and man, that takes a lot of work. And a lot of e-mails. I don't anymore. But for me, especially in the heart of football season, that's when our racing season is over. And I'm finally home enjoying my house, and I really enjoy that time of the year. So I'm ready for preseason to be behind us and start watching games that count and watch the starters get out there and do their jobs and look forward to this winter and the fun on my own couch.
Q: Do you have a favorite team, pro or college?
A: Well, I married into OU, so I'm a Sooner through marriage.
A: Yes sir. And I grew up in San Diego. It's hard to not keep an eye on the [Chargers], but at the same I really don't have a team that I've pulled for. I'm unfortunately one of those fair-weather fans from San Diego that just kind of enjoys sports in general.