Teleconference: Jimmie Johnson

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Recently crowned 2006 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, was this week's guest on the NASCAR Teleconference.

Q: Jimmie, welcome, congratulations. How is it sinking in now two days later?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's an amazing feeling to be able to be a champion. It's something I always wanted to be, worked my whole career to get to this point. Just a great time for myself, Hendrick Motorsports, the race team, Lowe's. Everybody is just happy as you could ever imagine.

Q: As much as you want to take some time to enjoy this, how much are you now looking forward to 2007, being able to race a full season without the stigma of: When is he going to be able to win the Cup?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm letting other people worry about that right now. I'm enjoying this ride. The shop is working hard at it. They're working on the Car of Tomorrow we're going to need to race next year.

Our current staff, those guys are working hard to get prepared for next year. I think I'll have some closure after the banquet. Definitely enjoy what we've done here in 2006. That's something I don't typically do, is sit back and reflect and enjoy. I'm going to let this soak in. I'm not sure when this chance to be on top of the world will come back or ever come up again, so I'm going to enjoy it.

Q: If the champion is the face of the sport, what image would you like to project for NASCAR or what kind of message about the sport would you like to represent in your year as champion?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: First thing that comes to mind is looking at the road that I went down to get to this point in my career. I think it speaks volumes for NASCAR, how we're evolving as a sport, that drivers from all walks of life, all forms of motorsport, can succeed in our sport.

With my two-wheel background, off-road buggies and trucks, up through ASA, into Busch, I didn't grow up racing at a local short tracks, so through a lot of hard work, very interesting background in racing, I've been able to make it to this level.

Q: What has been the most surprising thing to you since becoming champion?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: To be honest, I haven't had much time to even take a breath. We left the track at midnight, had an awesome celebration with the crew guys, very early morning on Monday to come up to Bristol, Connecticut, to do the ESPN tour. Now I'm in Manhattan going through all the paces. I haven't had a chance to really let it soak in and experience much of it.

I just know the respect that I've had looking up to the other drivers in the sport that have been champions. As the experience wears on, we get into banquet week next week, I can't wait to see my other drivers and friends and people throughout the garage area, catch up with them, spend some time with them.

Q: Can you give me a rundown of what your Monday and today are like as far as appearances and stuff like that.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Monday morning I was greeted at sunrise by my crew chief and a group of friends, including Mike Hampton from the Atlanta Braves, with a champagne spray. My wife and I were asleep. I don't know how in the world they got a room key to get in. I was trying to catch a couple hours sleep before our days started. Those clowns barged in and nailed me like you've never seen.

Then we traveled to Connecticut, went through all the ESPN paces yesterday. Traveled to Manhattan, got back to my apartment maybe 8:00 last night. Then this morning, up, GMA this morning, then to Regis and Kelly, variety of phone calls. A lot of phone calls yesterday as well. Different media interviews with radio stations and such. Then I have Letterman this afternoon.

Q: With everything you've accomplished, last year when Tony was asked this question, he said he wanted to win the Daytona 500. What is left on your resume that you feel is empty? Is it just now you want to do everything a second time? Anything left you want to fulfill in your career?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: That's a great question. I have been so blessed, so fortunate to win all these big events, the championship now. I guess the second time is really something that I'm looking at. A personal goal that I have is to get better on the road courses. I can run fair, run in the top 5, top 10, but I really want to be up there racing with the 20 and 24 for those victories. As I look into next season, the racetracks that we have ahead of us, that's something I really want to focus on.

Q: Much has been made about you kind of getting over the hump of the last few years, being close, breaking through. Have you had much of a chance to think about sort of the backwards long-term, how easy it would have been to top out at any of those other levels along the way?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: You know, I remember coming through all the different levels. I only spent two years in any division. I was on a fast pace moving through the different classes, vehicles, from dirt to asphalt, on and on. I knocked on the championship door and was around it. I competed for one in ASA and also in the off road, the final two years in off road that I ran in the Midwest. I got into Busch. I think my best was an eighth. I really wasn't in the hunt for the points.

Through that, I hope that I get some point in my career to really peak. Really didn't start peaking until I got into Cup. There's been points along the way here where I thought, Wow, if it all ended tomorrow without the championship, I've had an amazing, amazing career, so much to be thankful for. As the years go by, things keep getting sweeter, better, more success keeps coming. It's just been an amazing ride.

Q: Have you gotten a chance to have any conversations with any of the little people that helped you along the way lately?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: No one yet. I have some big plans to sit down on the phone when I get home tomorrow and go through and call a lot of people from the past, everybody I have a phone number for.

Q: When you left Kansas, I think that's where you had the problems on pit road with the speeding penalty, you were like 165 out of first. Did you feel at all like your chances were slipping away? Did you have to sit down and regroup and say it's not over yet?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: We had a very good outlook on things. Even though things were stacked against us, we really just wanted to perform. We wanted to show what this team was capable of doing in the Chase. Even if we didn't end up with the big prize at the end, we just wanted to go out and run well, be respected for our performance, our effort, just go out and race, and race well.

Kansas was the start of things for us. We had more of a letdown from dominating the race and not winning the race than anything. I think after Talladega, that was probably the low of emotions in the championship. But still at that time no one ever said, We can't do this. I mean, the meetings we had, the gatherings we had at the racetrack, just being around each other, we just kept telling ourselves, This isn't over, keep fighting, it's not over.

Q: I don't know how much you remember about this, but when you made your first starts for Rick at the end of 2001, I think you ran three races. Do you remember much about that at all, what kind of expectations you went into those races with?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: At that point I was just worried about making the event. I really didn't have a lot of pressure from anyone. Those three races were a chance for me to get my feet wet. I just remember the pressure of qualifying, getting in the show. As the rookie season started, I knew deep down inside that I needed to win a race, I needed to make my mark in that 48 car, especially with Jeff coming off of a championship season. The real pressure started my rookie year.

Q: Looking at this whole season, it just seems you started out the season maybe facing some adversity with Chad having to be on the sidelines, maybe sort of a little bit of a struggle midway, came back and win at Indy, then obviously with the Chase. Sort of seemed like the key to this season for you was not necessarily the highs but how you handled the lows. Could you talk about that, if you agree with that statement.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I think what we were faced with at the beginning of the year as we look back, that really was the defining moment for this race team, period. Not only the season, but just us in general.

Chad is a self-admitted workaholic. He just puts himself through too much. As last year wound down, he admitted, we all recognized, he just worked too hard and burned himself out. We had a plan in effect for him to start counting on more people, surrounding him with guys he really trusted and believed in. He started building that confidence in those guys over the off-season.

We hit Daytona. He was suspended. We were like, we really need to live by this theory, we're forced to. Through that, I think that set the pace for the year. Chad was able to pass on responsibilities to other guys, had some free mental space to focus on the right things.

Q: Listening to you, is it possible a good thing came out of the fact he was suspended because he had no choice but to pass along responsibility, and you were performing well in the four races he missed?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think so. I think in general through my life, I think everybody listening to this in some way can agree, I learn more from bad things that take place, negative things, than anything else. When things are going good, you don't want to change. When you're faced with adversity, faced with a mistake, faced with doing something wrong, that's when I do the most learning and growing on my own. I think that's definitely happened through my career, from making mistakes on the track, outside the car, personal life, professional life, whatever it may be.

Q: The Driver of the Year committee is going to meet next week to vote on that. I know you're going to be a leading candidate probably along with Sam Hornish, Sébastien Bourdais, John Force, Tony Schumacher. Do you think you've had a better season than those guys and probably deserve to be Driver of the Year?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I can't say I know their seasons well enough. I've been focused on my stuff. Especially the last few weeks, I have completely disconnected from racing media in general. I just wanted -- I had enough things going on in my mind, let alone reading something on our sport or racing in general. I just stayed inside my own little world, excluded myself from outside information.

That I guess kind of answers that. But to be in consideration with those guys, you mentioned the best guys in the country, it's an honor to be associated with them. I can't say that I'm any more deserving than anybody. They've all done an amazing job to be the champion. I certainly hope they all enjoy their championships as much as I'm enjoying mine.

Q: Did losing the championships that you lost help you win this year?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think so. I think going through those experiences got me ready to deal with this year. The slow start to the Chase, the adversity we were faced with, the chaos of the contact with Vickers at Talladega, needing to go on a tear and race our way back into this thing, all of that, you can see different pieces of what we did this year in the Chase, over the last three years of the Chase, four years we've been in Cup, there have been pieces of that in all of those years. I think all of that built up and helped us keep our composure and be smart this year in the Chase and do what we needed to.

Q: I went back and pulled the interview the other day, in 1999 in Memphis, you won the ASA race. We sat down in the press room, had quite a long talk. I'm wondering if you could remember back then, would you think that in seven and a half years in your wildest dreams of dreams that you would have been the Nextel Cup champion?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Hell, no. There is no way I thought I would end up where I am. I had dreams and hopes, but to really end up here, it's shocking. I remember back to that day, I remember that being a very special day for me because I had raced on the dirt, won a lot of races on the dirt, and just didn't know how my career was going on the asphalt. There wasn't a lot of guys on dirt on the asphalt yet. I knew that I really needed to shine and do great things if I wanted my career to move on, and winning is obviously part of that.

To get that first win was so special to me.

Q: When you look at everything that you have accomplished in just five years of Cup racing, think of it outside looking in that someone else did that, what kind of driver would you call him?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Uhm, I guess I would have to look at it and respect everything they've done and be very happy and proud that that person won a championship. As you pointed out, a short period of time, the big races, all the different stuff that's going on. I look at different guys that have come in and look at Bourdais, look at what he's done in a short period of time in IndyCar (sic), look at different guys that have won, just compete week after week in other forms of racing, just admire what they do.

Q: In addition to winning the championship this year, obviously you won arguably the sport's two biggest events, Daytona 500 and Indianapolis. Last year when Tony Stewart won the championship, we saw so much passion from him after he won the Brickyard. He's from Indiana. Now that you've got those three big trophies in your possession, what's the difference between winning the Chase and winning those two huge events?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: The high that you're on from winning a race is short-lived. You go to the next race and somebody else is the race winner. In most cases, somebody else is the race winner. I'm the champion and no one is going to be the champion until next year this time. I get an entire year of riding this high. That's probably the biggest thing. I'm the guy for a year. I'm going to enjoy every damn day of it.

Q: You've talked quite a bit recent days about different people you've learned from as you've come up through the different series. Could you tell me, is there anything specific you've learned from Rick Hendrick during your association with him, how much he's helped you?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Rick has such a good approach, very patient is how I would put it. In his position, he can I guess afford to take time, being so well-established. I've just respected that and noticed that. Through his patience, the right things develop, good things happen. He thinks through business decisions, personal decisions. He just can handle all the things he needs to because he's patient through it all.

Q: Do you go to him with concerns about stuff off the track? Do you talk business other than racing with him?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Certainly. He has offered up so much help to me. Then as time has gone on, I'm faced with different things, I reach out to him all the time on things, he and Jeff both.

Q: In Toronto you talked about the very rare break in the schedule, you were going to go to Italy, eat some pasta, drink wine, get away from the grind. Can you talk about how you were able this year to relax, try to get away from the pressure, the grind, what that may have done to lead up to the championship?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: The season is so long, as you know. You almost have to force yourself at times to just take some days off during the season. The way the breaks fall, we have two early, one in the middle, then a long stretch after that.

Outside of those three weeks that we have, I find trips to New York City help out a lot. That's why I have my apartment up here so I can sneak up here, get away from things. I don't get to use the apartment as much as I would like to. It works really well for that.

We race in some great places as the season wears on. A long trip to Phoenix, Sonoma, Napa is close by, Dallas is a great place. We're able to build in some extra days usually before the event just to kind of get out there, get somewhere and relax and recharge our batteries.

Q: The idea of running some kind of a NASCAR series race in Canada, that is going to happen in Montréal next summer. A comment on that from you?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I'm excited for our sport to be expanding into Canada. We have a very successful race down in Mexico. This year coming to Canada, it's going to be great for our sport. I'm hopeful with these experiences in the Busch Series will move over into the Cup Series, we can take our premiere series into different markets.

Q: Must have been nice to put your hands on that $6.2 million check. What is Christmas going to be like in the Johnson family? Are you going to buy yourself anything special this year?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's been a popular question. I haven't attached any emotion to a toy or a gift for myself through the season, what I would do. I'm going to rethink this, figure something out. I don't have anything in mind.

My wife was asking that on our way back from the track. I'm sure she has her eyes on a few things. I personally haven't thought of anything. Maybe a cool car or something.

Q: Very few get to repeat a number two championship finish. You definitely are an expert there, too. Can you comment on how being an almost champion compares to being a champion?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: There's no comparison. There's a lot of motivation being runner-up and being so close to it, especially sitting through the banquet, all the things that take place during banquet week, watching the champion experience all the great things, sit on stage. I think anybody with a competitive spirit wants that to be them. The last four years watching the ceremonies highly motivated me. I remember Rick and I talking last year during the banquet, saying, This stinks being down on the ground level. We want to be up there on the stage getting all the praise.

It's a very motivating experience, to say the least.

Q: Jimmie, that's it for today. We want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy champion's schedule to join us. Congratulations again. Enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday and of course your champion celebration, well-deserved, next week in New York.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thank you. Everybody enjoy the holidays.

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