Ahead of this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup round at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson sounds off on his chances and whether his continuing domination is starting to frustrate his rivals.
Last fall, this race went to a green-white-checker and you started outside of Denny Hamlin. How does that compare to other tracks?
“First of all, I was watching a classic yesterday of a Martinsville race from 2008 and we didn't have double-file restarts and I forgot how difficult it was at the end of the race to have a shot at winning. So double-file is really good for our sport and given guys a chance to win the race. And I guess if you look at Bristol, if I would have started fifth in line, there is no way we would have gotten there. With all that in mind, the double-file starts are really good. I think that here, for me at least, they seem more intense. You can hit your marks and do your thing, but other guys can really affect you. They can on the bigger tracks (too), but here it's so easy to make contact with someone and not have a huge problem. The people take that opportunity; they are more aggressive and not afraid to use the bumper. And if you're going back to the gas and a guy hits your bumper at the right time, it's going to bust the tires loose and you're dead in the water. So, there is a lot more stress at the end of a race here. On top of the fact, you're just expecting. So it all feeds itself. You just know if it's green-white-checkered, the rear bumper is going to be knocked off, the doors are going to be caved in, and it's going to be pretty rough and tumble.”
Will the new spoiler improve the racing?
“I think the test (at Charlotte) went well. It was useful for all the teams to go out and work on setups and collect some data. The drivers got a feel for the spoiler versus the wing. All that said, we never really raced each other. I don't think I tried to pass a single car the whole time. I certainly didn't run side by side with anybody. We have a lot to learn. Texas will be a huge measuring stick to where this spoiler fits into things and where things are. NASCAR has thought this through well and they're doing a good job of introducing the spoiler at this track, and then Phoenix and then at a big track, so we all have some time with it. But what I kind of predict is that the car is going to be more difficult to drive in traffic. I've heard a lot of people mention that's going to make for better racing. And I'm just not buying that as of now. The end plates on the wing allowed the car to get really far sideways and then it would catch you and straighten you back up. And that's the limiting factor you have in traffic.
“You push until the car moves around, and then you know you're at your limit and that's all you've got. I think it might create more spins and more wrecks. If you remember back to when the wing was first introduced, we'd see cars totally sideways and like, ‘How did he save it?' And, with the old car, there's no way. And we're going back to that setup. So there's a chance there will be more cautions because of that; because you don't have the end plate of the wing to catch you when you get really crossed up. But again, we're all throwing opinions out and Texas will be the weekend when we find out what's up.”
Earlier today, Kyle Busch said that he can only drive as good as his car is. the implication was that if 10 guys had cars as good as yours, things would be more competitive. is that where we are now, or do the other drivers need to step things up a notch?
“Yeah, I think it boils down to people and not just saying that a driver needs to step it up. It's the whole organization. When you look at the racing we have today and the cars that we have today, the box is so tight. The cars are so equal. It's more equal than it has ever, ever been. So I can't say a lot of blame goes into the cars, because you can only be so far off now. There is no doubt that the people who work on this No. 48 team work really, really well together. We're prepared and we find the small, small details. But there are no big changes between organizations, between teams; and my teammates for that matter have all the access to all my setups and run my setups and we're all running the same equipment, the same engines the same cars, and same bodies. But the people on this No. 48 team, as a unit, work really well together and we've been taking advantage of opportunities. We haven't been the best car in the three races we've won, but we've left with the trophy. And that's because the people on our race team are making it happen when it counts.”
After the Bristol race, Kurt Busch got out of the car and said, “Anybody but the 48.” When you hear things like that from other drivers, what do you think?
“It made me smile. I was getting ready to do my victory interview and I could hear that. Man, I've always wanted to be that guy who frustrated the field, frustrated the garage area. I was fortunate enough to watch (Dale) Earnhardt do that during his run and (Jeff) Gordon during his. And you ask any driver in the garage area. They want to be in my shoes. They want to be that guy who is referenced when someone loses and they say ‘anyone but.' So I'm pretty excited to be here.”
Now, they'll all deny that you're in their heads, but do you think the No. 48 team has gotten into their heads?
“Just in his (Kurt Busch's) comment alone? Absolutely, we're in his head. Maybe not everyone's. Everybody deals with things differently. But if you go through and read any press remarks or interviews, if someone talks that they're not worried about us, it's already in there; which is great.”On the dangers of over driving at Martinsville, talk about how you learned and the best way to get around this track
“You can't tiptoe around the racetrack. There are certain areas where you really have to attack to turn a fast lap, and they don't come naturally for the majority of the drivers. It took me a few trips, and I was in a position where I was being lapped by the race leader, who was Tony Stewart at the time. To follow him and visually see where he was attacking, I had it all wrong. And we've all talked about it, but there is a certain rhythm that the track requires for you to run a fast lap time. And on top of that, a fast lap time is maybe a tenth of a second better than a slow one. So there are really, really small adjustments that you have to make. And it's been well discussed where you can't overcharge the entry; and then the forward bite up off onto the straightaways is really important. But there is a combination of the three sections of the turn from entry to the center of the corner to the exit where you have to compromise in two of the areas but be really aggressive in the center of the corner and try to play that rhythm lap after lap, and hopefully you're on the right side of the 10th bracket that you need to be on.”
Has the double-file changed Chad Knaus' ability to make different or risky calls at the end of the race because everyone has same option with the way restarts are now structured?
“I have to say it has probably been a win for the majority of the field. I would say the first maybe two or three cars have a little more pressure on their shoulders, as we all see, whatever the leader does, the majority of the field does the opposite just to try to gain an advantage. So, if you are first or second, third possibly, it may be a little more difficult for you then. But, in general, I think it has opened a lot of possibilities. The fact that you are racing the cars that you need to. Sometimes you aren't in the right lane over the course of a season and over restarts, it all balances itself out. Some days you are in the right lane, some days you are not. In general, I think it has been a very very good change for our series. It has given us more opportunities as drivers and it has put a better product on the track for the viewing audience.”
How much is it just the change of the look of the car with the change from the wing to the spoiler?
“We won't really know until we get to Texas. At the end of the day at Phoenix we will learn a little bit more about it, but the speeds aren't high enough here to have an affect. The balance of the car in a straight line in a wind tunnel provides more rear down force than what we are used to, what we had with the wing. NASCAR intentionally overshot that number a little bit to give us something to work with. But when you are in traffic, a spoiler is less efficient than a wing, so with that in mind, at high speeds you lose efficiency, you are going to lose downforce in the back of the car.
On top of that, we had more side force with the end plates on the wing itself which was a security blanket in some respects, it kept us from spinning all the way around in traffic. I've seen a lot of people who have said it is going to make for better racing and not many pointing out these other difficulties with the spoiler versus the wing and I just have a feeling it's going to make it more difficult. When we get on these faster tracks, it is going to make it tougher to close that gap and to get someone's bumper and put a pass together.”