Thursday, April 29, 2010
Johnson, Gordon to work on issues
PHILADELPHIA -- Jimmie Johnson walked onto a stage where some of his biggest fans got to ask questions of the four-time defending NASCAR champion.
One of the easiest suddenly seemed like the thorniest after the last two weeks: Who's your favorite driver?
Johnson smiled and the crowd laughed at his response. That's one way to diffuse talk of a bubbling feud between the Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
Behind the scenes at Hendrick, the four-time Cup champions needed a second straight week of talks after curt words followed incidents on the track. Johnson said on Thursday that team owner Rick Hendrick told him and Gordon not to let their bubbling feud start "breaking apart the organization."
Johnson, Gordon and Hendrick spoke together on the phone this week to smooth over a rough patch in the relationship between the drivers. The championship teammates tangled on the track in successive weeks, leading Gordon to lash out at Johnson after Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Johnson said Hendrick understood they are competitive drivers who just want to win. But Hendrick didn't want the rivalry to split apart the race teams that work so closely together.
Johnson said Hendrick told him, "You guys need to voice your opinions, handle things on the track as you see fit, but let's not let this carry on too far and affect the race shop."
Johnson made a mistake that ultimately led to Gordon's wreck at Talladega. That came a week after the two had a run-in at Texas Motor Speedway.
Johnson says he was surprised that Gordon lashed out at him on national TV after Sunday's race. He says his relationship with Gordon has changed over the years. They were close friends who "were running hard, having a blast" as single guys but are now more likely as married family men to discuss diapers and strollers.
In Philadelphia on Thursday to promote the May 16 Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway, Johnson said he didn't mind having Gordon as his rival.
"The tension at times, it makes you dig in deeper and fighter harder and work harder," he said. "The more competitive we are, as a team, the better we're going to make our organization. We've got four awesome drivers."
Johnson already took the blame for a mistake that caused Gordon to crash at Talladega. Gordon, who drove his damaged car to a 22nd-place finish, was furious with his teammate after the race.
"The 48 is testing my patience, I can tell you that," Gordon said Sunday at Talladega. "It takes a lot to make me mad. ... I don't know what it is with me and him right now."
Johnson said he was trying to slide in front of Gordon late in Sunday's race so they could draft together toward the front. But he said Gordon was coming too fast. Johnson's move instead had the effect of a block, and Gordon was forced off the apron in a defensive move.
His momentum gone, Gordon slide back in traffic and was caught moments later in a multi-car crash.
"I just mistimed it, misjudged it," Johnson said. "I think once the dust settled and he had a chance to look at everything, he realized it wasn't an intentional move."
Johnson said that after their conversation, he realized Gordon was speaking out of frustration.
"He's had such a good year going. A few victories have slipped through his fingers, wrecked cars late in the race," Johnson said. "I was like the straw that broke the camel's back. When the microphone was there, it was easy just to go."
Johnson has won 50 races and the last four championships, while Gordon has won 24 races but no titles. Gordon won the last of his four titles in 2001 -- the pre-Chase era.
Johnson laughed when he talked about his plan with crew chief Chad Knaus to avoid future dust-ups.
"I told Chad to put turn indicators or hazards on my car this weekend," Johnson said.