Coming off a stellar rookie season, many people pegged Jimmie Johnson as a championship contender for 2003. But the driver from California has learned quickly how tough it can be to repeat success. He brushes aside any notions of a "sophomore jinx" and chooses instead to learn from the tough, inevitable lessons. Johnson recently discussed his road to Winston Cup stardom with Stock Car Racing.
SCR: It's a safe bet to say the results you pulled off last year were something that seemed like a dream. At what point in time did all that success sink in? Johnson: I would say during the winter it started to sink in and I was able to realize what an amazing season we had. To accomplish the things we did with a rookie team was great. I really haven't had the time to sit down and reflect on it all that much. I'm always on the go and always thinking about the next week so I haven't really let it sink in. My mom and the rest of my family have kept the articles and pictures, so I'm sure one day I'll sit down with my kids or grandkids and tell them stories of me in Winston Cup racing.
Jimmie Johnson celebrates...
Jimmie Johnson celebrates this season's victory in The Winston, a race that paid him a hefty $1 million for finishing first.
SCR: How have you managed to handle all the success that you've experienced so quickly?
Johnson: I really didn't have much of a choice. Kevin Harvick called me after I won my first race and told me how my life would never be the same, and he was totally right. There is nothing that you can do to prepare yourself for what comes when you start racing Winston Cup and start having success. You get pulled in so many directions and stretched so thin that you have to put the right people in place and create some structure around the madness, or it will just eat you up and drive you crazy. This is an area that Jeff Gordon has helped me out in, and we have created a schedule that allows me to have some time for myself and fulfill all of the things I need and want to do.
SCR: What was the high point of last season for you? Was it that first Winston Cup victory or the fact that you backed it up with two more wins and ended up fifth in the final point standings? Johnson: I would say backing it up with two victories and finishing in the top five overall at the end of the year. The first win was incredible, but it was a new experience and it was like rush here, rush there. I didn't get a chance to savor the moment because I didn't know what to expect. With the wins at Dover, on the other hand, I knew what was coming and I appreciated them more. And to finish fifth overall is something that very few people thought we could do at the start of the season. I had a great time at the banquet in New York and hopefully we will be going back there for many years to come.
Johnson says his No. 48 team...
Johnson says his No. 48 team was built for the future and will only get better with time and experience.
SCR: Your performance left many people expecting you to win a championship soon. Is the team at that level?
Johnson: This team has all of the ingredients to contend for the cham-pionship. We have the support from Hendrick Motorsports and Lowe's, plus we have kept this team intact. These guys, including (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and I, know what it takes to be a championship contender. We know how much effort and dedication it will take and we are continuing to grow as a team and support each other week in and week out. If we can just cut out the peaks and valleys in our finishes and just remain consistent each week, we'll be championship contenders for a long time to come.
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...
Johnson admits he was a bit surprised when Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon started talking to him about taking over the seat of a Winston Cup team.
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.
SCR: Was there any hesitation in the fact you might have taken on more than you could handle?
Johnson: No. The plan for the No. 48 Lowe's team is for the future. We are all relatively young guys on this team, and we are still learning and growing. It just happened that the fit was perfect, and we had success right from the start. However, this team was built for the future, and we'll only get better with time and experience.
SCR: On the other side of that, how personally satisfying has it been for you to not only race, but also beat veteran and champion drivers on a regular basis in making a name for yourself?
Johnson: It's weird to be racing alongside of guys and beating guys that were my idols growing up. Last season in Darlington, I was coming off pit road with the No. 88 behind me, and we all know how good Dale Jarrett is at Darlington. We got going and I just thought to myself, "here we go because D.J. is going to eat me up." Three laps into that run, I looked in my rearview mirror and I was pulling away from him. I was amazed, and I think that was one instance when I started building some confidence in the fact that I could run with guys like Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett on a regular basis.
SCR: How much of a job has it been trying to satisfy everybody from the media to all the folks who pay the bills?
Johnson: It's a full-time job being a driver. You just have to create a structure or routine that allows you to take care of everything. Mondays are my days off. Tuesdays, I have a media conference call. Wednesdays, I do laundry, pay bills, etc. and do media or sponsor activities if necessary. Thursdays, I travel to the races. Then, we are into the race weekend and that is filled with racing, sponsor activities, charity events, etc. You really have to make time for things because if you don't, it will never happen.
Crew chief Chad Knaus (right)...
Crew chief Chad Knaus (right) isn't afraid to take chances on setups, Johnson says, and that's paid off frequently.
SCR: How much time do you get to spend with your family now that you're a busy Winston Cup superstar?
Johnson: I'm not sure about the superstar tag there, but it's very challenging to spend time with them. Shortly after I started racing in the Busch Series, my family moved from California to North Carolina. My father drives my motor coach to virtually every race and my mom works on my fan club. So they are still very much involved in my life. My little brother, Jessie, drives a Bandolero, and my middle brother, Jarit, is his crew chief and spends a lot of time building and fine-tuning the car. Jessie races Tuesday nights at Lowe's Motor Speedway, so when I'm in town on a Tuesday, it's a safe bet that I'll be there supporting both of them and helping out in any way possible. Besides that, we all live about five miles away from each other, so we try and get together as much as possible.
SCR: What is one thing most race fans don't know about Jimmie Johnson that they might find interesting?
Johnson: People would be surprised to know that I'm just an average person who has a really cool job. I still do laundry, pay bills, wash dishes, do yard work--all the same things that everyone else has to do. Many people think that as drivers, we have people that do all of the things, but many of us don't. We're just the average next door neighbors.