A Chat With Jimmie and Jeff

(June 8, 2002)- - Few rookies in the history of motorsports have come in and won two races in their first 13 starts. Jimmie Johnson has driven the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet to victories at California Speedway and Dover International Speedway thus far in 2002. While his car owner Jeff Gordon is yet to visit victory lane this season as a driver, he has made two trips as an owner. The pair sat down for an interview at Pocono Raceway prior to the start of the weekend's events.

Talk about your season so far:
Jimmie Johnson: "Obviously, it's been a great season for myself and this Lowe's team. To be teamed up with Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports has given me a great opportunity to come out and learn and develop as a driver. And obviously we've had a great season and a great Rookie of the Year battle with Ryan (Newman). He hasn't won a points race yet, but it's around the corner. He's been running extremely strong and obviously won The Winston, the biggest paying event we have. The season's been great. We've been competitive, we've been up front racing in the top five for the championship along with the battle with Ryan for the Rookie of the Year. It's just a dream come true for me to be here and to be in this situation and even better on top of that that we're running so well week in and week out, and as long as we can just stay consistent and stay in the top 10 here and keep that as a goal of ours-- top 10, top 15 in race finishes and qualifying throughout the rest of the season-- we feel we'll be a contender for the Rookie of the Year battle as well as possibly a top five in the points."

Did you think you could win a race in your rookie season?
Jimmie Johnson: "I hoped that I could. Coming into the season watching in the past, of course, Tony Stewart, Dale Jr, Matt Kenseth, all the rookies that had come along, Kevin Harvick. I thought that I might be the one that didn't win a race or had a shot at winning the Rookie of the Year. I was expecting to be coming on over time and developing as a driver, but to come in and be in a situation to break records that had been set by other rookies, it's something I never expected, but I'm very glad to be up here and be part of it doing it."

Why did you select Jimmie Johnson as your driver?
Jeff Gordon: "I don't know if Rick and I picked him or if he picked us or how exactly it worked, but we're certainly proud of the effort that's been put out and extremely proud of what Jimmie's done out there. The two rookies have had extraordinary years, and Rusty (Wallace) and I have had kind of quiet years, without the wins but yet consistent, so it's been pretty interesting to see it all work out. I got a chance to race with Jimmie in the Busch Series. I guess I'm glad I ran those two years in the Busch Series because I was able to meet Jimmie and get to know him and also get to see him drive the race car. It appeared to me like you put this guy behind a top-notch team and car in the Winston Cup circuit that he would get a lot out of it. He seemed like a smart driver, he certainly proved that this year, by Hendrick Motorsports putting good equipment underneath him and him going out there and getting the job done. I'm proud of the whole effort because basically (it was a) brand new team the end of last year, when it ran a few of the races, (and) for them to come into this season with a lot of new individuals on the team and a rookie driver, a fairly new crew chief, and to come out and be as prepared as they've been and to be as consistent as they've been and then run the way that they have has really been amazing to watch and I'm really proud to be a part of the team that's come together."

How frustrating has your season been?
Jeff Gordon: "It's been a little bit frustrating. It's like Rusty (Wallace) said, (he) usually had won a race at this point in the season and that first win of the season can do so much for you. If it comes early it can just help your confidence level through the rest of the year. It's certainly been interesting for the DuPont team because we came off of a championship year last year. Everybody keeps telling me how bad of a year I'm having, then I'm third in points and led quite a few laps and sat on some poles. I know that we haven't won a race; that's frustrating to us too. At the same time it really hasn't been that bad of a year. Other than the kids are kicking our butts. That to me is the only thing that we can learn from and understand how to push the limits a little bit more in the cars and the setups and it should hopefully just make us better."

On your better luck the last few races:
Jeff Gordon: "That's a change for us, having some luck on our side. The last couple of weeks have been pretty good for us, the last three weeks. At Charlotte and last week we qualified ninth and started third without doing anything; that made for an interesting start. These days it's so important to start up front. Obviously, with the conditions that we had out there today and being third in points, I told them, I think there's two options. We either need to start by points or start by the way we drew for qualifying. I was number one to draw so I told them either way they wanted to do that I'd be fine with it. Let's hope luck keeps going our way. It is pretty amazing we're third in points. We've done it extremely quiet and that's not traditionally how we've done things. We've typically done it in exciting fashion. That's the way I want to go from here on out for the rest of the season is doing it by doing some exciting things. I know we're capable of winning races, but right now we've got to be pretty thankful to be third in points with the type of season we have had so far."

It's your teammate's first time here, you're starting right behind him. How will you approach that?
Jeff Gordon: "You're joking, right? Because I mean Jimmie's been outrunning me every weekend. I don't think that he's any of my concern right now. I don't even consider him a rookie. He came up here and tested, so in my mind he's got a far more of an advantage over the rest of us that are up there than anything we need to worry about. These days, with the way he's handled himself, the experience, in my mind that he's shown, the maturity that he's shown, even though he doesn't have a lot of experience, and being that this is Pocono, which typically is definitely a track that takes a while for rookies to get used to, you would be concerned. With what he's done this year, I have no concerns. But we're going to get practice in tomorrow, and we'll get plenty of laps in race conditions to go out there and be ready for Sunday."

Do you get frustrated that Jimmie's driving your cars from last year and he's running so well?
Jeff Gordon: "I approached it with a good attitude. I was the one really pushing Rick Hendrick to hire the guy and then I wanted to be a part of it from an ownership side and I wanted to be involved with getting the sponsorship and seeing the people come on to that team and build that team up, and so being a party of it I'm only excited. The frustration level has nothing to do with him winning races and leading races. The frustration level is that we're not. And we should be I think up there battling with those guys. I was really excited last week at Dover when we were running one-two and I really thought, hey, this is going to be a one-two thing for me and him to battle this thing out. Unfortunately, we had a little bit of trouble with the tire and we weren't able to get back up there and play with him. That's our wish every weekend, is that we're running one-two. They've done a great job and they deserve that credit and that's exactly what I want to see. Someone said to me, 'are you tired of seeing Jimmie up there winning?' I said, 'I'll never be tired of Jimmie up there winning. I'll be tired if I'm not up there battling with him for the win.' And that is important to me. When you know what types of cars he has and what type of setups he's got in there you know that you should be able to get up there and do the same thing. That doesn't mean you just put everything he's got in there and it's going to work for me. I think that we've learned enough from them, they've learned enough from us, that we should both be up there battling. That's why we're second and third in points."

What's the half-step you're off by?
Jeff Gordon: "Everywhere we go Jimmie's car is 200 pounds lighter and 100 pounds stiffer in the rear of the car. Typically that would burn the right rear tire off or just be too loose over a longer run, certain things like that. We've been a little more conservative as it comes to that because we feel like, hey, we have traditionally always been good on the longer runs and that kind of stuff typically would not allow for the longer runs to be good. It's a credit not only to the engineers, the people that are coming up with these setups. It's a credit to Jimmie for driving the wheels off the thing to learn that. And it's a credit to Goodyear for the tires they have these days. It's just a big, big difference. For a guy like me that won a championship last year, won six races and drove the car a certain way that worked really well. It's hard to change when you come into this season and the only way that you can change is when you got your identical car sitting there knowing all the setups, knowing exactly the way that guy is driving that car and the way they're setting it up. And then you learn from that. I think we taught that 48 car an awful lot of how to prepare, how to build a team, how to get the chemistry and how to go into each race track ready to win and ready to win championships and now they're teaching us how to use more aggressive setups that a lot of the young guys out here are running. Ryan Newman is having the same success and Rusty will tell you the same thing. Me and him we're like ditto-ing one another because we're saying all the same things: You can't run that spring in there, you can't do that, there's no way that works at that track, yet they go out there and make it work. I was saying to Rusty, We finally decided to show up with Jimmie's set up this weekend. He goes, I showed up the first three races with Ryan's setup and I took two provisionals. You never know how it's going to work for one guy the way it has for the other."

This sport is rapidly changing, with aggressive setups, etc. How has that changed from last year?
Jeff Gordon: "You always think of the changing in viewer audiences and television networks and new race tracks, things like that. But for the competitors it's equally changing as fast from a competitive standpoint of shocks, springs-- the technological side, the engineering, the aerodynamics, the horsepower in the engines, Goodyear with the way they build the tires. You do have to constantly keep up with it. And, sometimes you get stuck in a rut because you find something that works and you don't want to stray too far from that, yet you then start hearing about some of these things that are a lot different from the way they've been doing them and you find yourself a little bit behind and having to go in that direction. Then you learn what they're doing and then you try to take it to the next step. It is rapidly changing. I'm a little bit frustrated with the racing right now because these soft front springs, the big rear springs that put so much downforce on the cars, we're going extremely fast through the corners. Even though Goodyear's got a much harder tire than we've ever had before, we're going a lot faster through the corners than we ever had before and it's making the passing a lot, lot more difficult. We need to find a way to slow these cars down through the corners and get the tires... the reason why Goodyear's got these tires is because we were sticking the cars so hard to the race track before and the tires were blowing. It wasn't their fault; it's just us being real aggressive with everything, so they had to build the tire that would withstand what we were putting at it. They've done that, but now the tires don't ever give up. They stay the same speed from the beginning of the run to the end of the run. Until we can take some downforce and some speed out of these cars through the corners you're not going to see them change these tires. I hope we get to that point. We've obviously heard of NASCAR doing some testing with some teams, bigger greenhouse and taking downforce away and possibly getting Goodyear to go back to some of their older tires that are a little bit softer, that give up. I think that if they do that, you'll see a lot of the veterans start come around a little bit more and some of the younger guys start to have to learn some things over because now you start getting back into pacing yourself, saving equipment, saving tires. Patience becomes a much bigger issue. Right now it's like an F1 car out there. You just pretty much hammer down from the time they drop the green, you never lift until the time they drop the checkered."

In light of the changes in the sport, who on the team becomes the most important?
Jeff Gordon: "I don't know. I still think there's a lot that has to be said about just pure chemistry and communication between the crew chief and the driver. I still think the crew chief is extremely important, but he's got so much more knowledge at his fingertips today. It's what he does with that knowledge and obviously the engineering side of it has grown tremendously. A lot of these engineers actually have basically just a format in a computer that they plug in all these numbers and it spits back out what setup they should run in the car. We call it simulation setup. When they first started doing this we all laughed at them and said there's no way, but that's what we're running these days. It's closer and closer to what the computer is saying based on the numbers that they're throwing at it. A lot of it's just angle of the corners, banking of the corners, and downforce of the cars, and wheelbase, spring rates and all that stuff. It's pretty amazing. Obviously, the engineers are real, real important these days. I still think the crew chief/driver combination is the most important thing there is."

What's the best advice that Jeff gave you when you got this ride?
Jimmie Johnson: "The biggest thing really has been patience. He might not have said it directly or talked about it in conversation, but it's something that sticks in my head, how much longer these races are and how many opportunities you have to work on the car. And if you can stay on the lead lap, stay patient and keep working on the car, crazy things happen. The race turns around, comes your way and you can salvage good finishes out of bad days. It's really been patience."

On looking for a victory in the coming races:
Jeff Gordon: "We're going to a lot of tracks I think we're capable of winning there. We've been good enough to win at a few races this year. I know that it's around the corner. We're doing what we need to be doing right now as far as the points are concerned, but we want to get to victory lane. We know that Pocono is a track that we run real strong at, that we can win it. Jimmie tested here last month so hopefully we can learn a lot from what they found here and can apply it to the 24 car to get a victory."

On returning to Watkins Glen:
Jimmie Johnson: "What you've really got to stay conscious of is not to overdrive the tracks when you come back to them a second time and feeling like I've got to be up front or got to win or qualify on the pole or whatever it is. I just try to stay calm and take it all in stride."

Are road courses what you have to conquer this season?
Jimmie Johnson: "I don't really think so. It's close to the background I had with off-road racing. I ran strong at Watkins Glen at both the Busch races we had there-- had a wild wreck one time and pitted at the wrong time and lost a lot of track position and didn't have a good finish to show for the second race there last year. I'm looking forward to it. We tested out at Sears Point and ran some extremely good lap times, but the track's changed a little bit. We'll have to see when we get there. I'm hoping that we can keep it on the road all day long and come out with a top 10."

Is this still fun for you?
Jimmie Johnson: "It's been a blast. It's hard not to have fun when we've had the success that we've had. the true test is going to be when we have the first slump thrown at us and test our patience and skill and who we are as a team at that point. That's something that we talk about in our team meetings every week. Don't expect to come in here and lead and win and qualify up front. This could be a bad run and that's what going to show who we are as a team and what our character is -- when we are able to have a slump and come back. It's just been a dream year and I'm having a blast. I've worked real hard through a lot of divisions. My parents didn't have the means to put me in race cars to get going, and I've fallen into opportunities. I've had a lot of pressure performing in those opportunities. I've been extremely lucky that from my off-road days until now I've been with great teams, great equipment and great people to learn from. It wasn't a dream situation, and now of course it looks like it, but at the time when I entered into the season, the three races I ran last year-- I think my best finish was a 25th, my best qualifying effort was 15th -- I had won one Busch race. I didn't dominate the Busch Series by any means. there was a lot of pressure and a lot of worries coming into the season. And now that we've been able to perform, it's definitely turned it around to a definite positive feeling."

Talk about crew chief Chad Knaus:
Jimmie Johnson: "Chad's great. It's been one of the few relationships I've ever had in my life where I didn't have to work at having a relationship. It just kind of clicked. It's naturally been there. He didn't need to babysit me, I don't have to babysit him. It's just been a good, easy working relationship."

On possibly winning both the rookie of the year and the Winston Cup title:
Jimmie Johnson: "It's hard not to look at the points and see where we're at. We are so above and beyond our expectations, where we thought we'd be. And, if we come out shooting for the moon like that and putting that pressure on ourselves, I think we're going to self-destruct. We're going to put unneeded pressure on ourselves, and get frustrated and be in a bad situation. Right now we just need to enjoy where we're at and gain experience. It's easy to forget that we're a rookie. This will be my first race at Pocono, my first time at the Brickyard, first time to all these tracks in Winston Cup cars, so we just need to keep it all in perspective and if, for some crazy reason, we're at at the head table in New York then we'll talk about it then."

The more wins, the more sponsor and media attention. How are you going to handle that?
Jimmie Johnson: "I've got a situation where Jeff Gordon is coach and mentor, I drive for the same team, and thing's have been put in place for him who's probably the most successful driver in recent history. To still have a balance, to be able to still hit everything that he needs to and have a personal life and enjoy himself. I have the network set up around me and I'm falling in line with it, using it, and it's working great. That's another advantage driving for the team I'm driving for and having Jeff as a coach and mentor. He's found a way to stay fresh and energetic through all of this stuff, with all of the stuff that he's had. And I'm on my second win and third pole-- he's well above that. He's been able to maintain it and do a great job."

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