Jimmie Johnson left the Martinsville Speedway Sunday in sixth place in the Chase for the Championship standings, 43 points behind series leader Carl Edwards. Although his chances to win a sixth consecutive championship seems remote with just three races to go, he’s not ready to give up yet.
He talked this year’s playoffs, the controversy surrounding his crew chief Chad Knaus and his strategy to win the championship before the race. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Question: What are your feelings about Chad asking to wreck the rear of your car after the race at the Talladega Superspeedway, presumably to make sure NASCAR didn’t find anything wrong?
Johnson: Yeah, looking back on things, Chad explained himself very well this week, and has been more than available to talk though the situation. Everyone is very well aware at the statements he made. The other thing to remember is that car passed inspection multiple times throughout the course of the weekend. At the end of the day, while Chad was trying to protect himself post-race, he made a foolish statement. That is truly it. At the end of the day, that car passed inspection multiple times at an impound race and was pushed out onto the grid. It was certainly something that we did not want to take place. You can tell from my reaction it was something I had never heard in the car from him before, and it is what it is. The car passed tech at the race track multiple times and people have to build faith in that; Chad and I certainly respect NASCAR and their inspection process and unfortunately it happened for really no reason at all and now we have to put it behind us.
Question: What did you think when he told you “crack” the back of the car?
Johnson: At the moment, I was kind of surprised. As he talked to me he made a reference to covering his bases and I’m like, I am not thinking about that, I am going racing like I always do, so that was that.
Question: Have you ever been asked to do something like that before?
Johnson: No, you can tell by my reaction in the race car that was something I had not heard before.
Question: Do you believe you can still win the championship?
Johnson: As long as we are still mathematically in it, I’m not going to give up hope. I just never been one to lay down on something or to quit and not try, we have three races left on the schedule, stuff can happen. That window of opportunity is getting smaller and smaller especially with these last two weeks, but it is not over until it is over. In racing, a lot of weird things happen and we will just see. If that door or window closes on winning the championship, again I want to finish as high as I possibly can in the points for my team, and for my sponsors. I have been able to be in the top-five in points since I started at the Cup level, I would love to keep that stat alive; so there is still a ton to race for including a championship. We just take it race by race.
Question: Do the dynamics of the championship change when two of the guys you have to beat in the Chase are your teammates at Hendrick Motorsports?
Johnson: There is a lot of pride for an organization, for those two shops and within the company to have that speed and have a shot at the championship. As time goes on it gets more and more difficult to have great team spirit and you team to be that teammate. I think Jeff (Gordon) and I and even Mark Martin for that matter have handled it as good as you possibly can and kept the open notebook situation going and (being) respectful on track and all those things that you would hope teammates would do. But it is a weird scenario where you have the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other and what got those guys to are where they are today is working together as a team and that is what worked for Jeff (Gordon), Mark and I in the different years. There is a battle there but fortunately all that stuff builds to a race and then in the race you are your own independent team. And there still is enough that takes place in the course of the race that an individual team is responsible for, that we have found separation in that. Call a better race, make better adjustments, whatever it is to separate yourself from your teammate, so it is in your mind more, Friday, Saturday, but Sunday when you go racing you are on your own path at that point and things shake out.”
Question: Carl Edwards is eight points ahead of second-place Tony Stewart. Will it be easier for him to hold everyone else off, or is it easier to be the people chasing him?
Johnson: With protecting, you end up with a slightly different mindset; at least I did. I’m only speaking about my experience. Other guys handle it in different ways. When you’re protecting something, you’re almost in the way of thinking that glass is half full and I’ve got to be careful. In qualifying, I’d better make sure I make a perfect lap. If it doesn’t turn out well, okay then now I’m in traffic and there could be a crash. You start thinking down a negative line of thought. For me, chasing, there was far less negative thoughts in my mind; it was all aggression. Pretty simple; you’ve got to qualify well. If you don’t, well damn, now I’ve got to figure out how to get through these guys. I need to go lead a lap. There is just a small subtle change in how you approach things, but at the end of 10 weeks or three weeks or wherever you are in the Chase, that does add up and kind of has you in a certain state of mind. I had more fun last year chasing Denny (Hamlin) than I did other years protecting something. But I would much rather be in a position of protecting. I want all the points I can get. I’d rather manage my outcome than have to kind of go off and chase it down. So, I’d much rather lead and be in Carl’s position and we’ll have to see what 14 points means this year and how it will play out. We’ve got three races left and we’ll see what everybody has for him.