SCR: How much more comfortable have you been in your second season of Winston Cup racing compared to your first go-around?
Johnson: Going to the tracks the second time, being in the garage and knowing faces and routines and everything that's going on, have made things a lot more comfortable. After the year we had last year, the con-fidence that I've gotten has been tre-mendous. It's been a huge thing for me and has really made my second year a lot more enjoyable.
SCR: How concerned were you about experiencing a "sophomore jinx" in 2003?
Johnson: I don't have that fear. Every racer has pressure to perform, whether you're a four-time Winston Cup champion or a rookie team trying to make a race. You will always have pressure to perform. The only thing that we can do is to be prepared each week and give 100 percent each week. If we do that, I'm confident that the rest will take care of itself.
SCR: When you were in contention for the championship last year, you said that if you didn't win the title that it would be OK because you would have more opportunities later in your career. But after getting off to somewhat of a slow start in 2003 before picking up the back-to-back victories in The Winston and the Coca-Cola 600, do you think opportunities to win the title come around only once or twice in a lifetime?
Johnson: I do have a better understanding of the difficulties in competing and winning races and winning championships. It's very hard. Last year, when I made that comment, I felt we'd have another opportunity. With our being a rookie team last year, the worst thing we could do was to have that pressure on our shoulders. We were putting ourselves in that position by not thinking or worrying about that. As soon as that pressure starts to creep in, then you change. That's what we were trying to avoid this year. With the future at hand, who knows when that oppor-tunity will happen again? I think Mark Martin has finally realized that, and we all know how hard he's been on himself for years and years about not getting a championship. You can't deny the man the effort and dedication he's put into it, but it just hasn't happened for him yet. I don't want to find myself or my team in that situation.
SCR: There have been times when Jeff Gordon and his team have really seemed to be relying on you and crew chief Chad Knaus for setup information. What is it like being a sophomore driver trying to give advice to a four-time Winston Cup champion?
Johnson: The No. 24 and No. 48 teams share a shop and work together very closely. Really, all four of the Hendrick Motorsports teams work together and rely on each other for information and help. With the way that NASCAR has limited the number of tests that teams have this season, sharing information is even more important now then it has been in the past. It's great that the No. 24 team and the other Hendrick teams feel comfortable with us and can use our information to help them. It really is a family philosophy at Hendrick.
SCR: It seemed like Jeff Gordon really became receptive to some of the new attitudes and approaches that have been working for you. Do you agree that you helped him like he has said on countless occasions?
Johnson: I feel like Chad Knaus is responsible for that. He has brought in new, fresh ideas, and with the way the sport is changing and evolving, Chad is really aggressive in trying some unique setups. Without me being in the sport for a long time and not having strong feelings to a certain setup on certain tracks, I've been really open-minded. The setups Chad has brought to me have helped me with my driving style. In a roundabout way, I think that's what Jeff Gordon is talking about. These cars are ever-changing, and the way you drive them changes with each setup change. I'm able to get a handle with the new setups we're running and learn them relatively quickly because I don't have any past experience. I've been able to teach Jeff a little about that, too.
Johnson admits he was a bit surprised when Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon started talking t
SCR: Some people in the media have made it a point this year to talk about whether Jeff Gordon has been somewhat bewildered that you have come along and had an immediate impact. What are your thoughts on that subject?
Johnson: I don't think that has Jeff miffed or that he thinks I'm even upstaging him. He's a competitor and I'm a competitor. If you'll notice, during the race when it's time for give and take, both of us play that game pretty well together and give each other the breaks that are needed. When you get to the end of the race and have a million dollars on the line like we did at The Winston, both of us are going at each other as hard as we do anyone else. Would I turn Jeff around to have a position or would I rough him up? No. That's my teammate and I wouldn't do that to any of my teammates, but I'm going to race him as hard as I can.
SCR: You've taken the path not normally traveled to reach the Winston Cup level after a great deal of success in off-road racing, with six championships. Because you did have limited Busch Series experience, how much of a surprise was it to you when you were approached about the idea of starting a fourth Winston Cup team at Hendrick Motorsports?
Johnson: I was a little taken aback when I spoke with Jeff about the idea. I really haven't spent much more than two years in each series that I've raced in. After two years, I move on. Thankfully, Jeff and Rick (Hendrick) saw something in me, and I've been able to take the tools that they've supplied us with and have had success with them. It's a great feeling being associated with one of the premier organizations in all of motorsports.