NASCAR Transcript: Jimmie Johnson – Press Conference – 02.15.24

THE MODERATOR: We are joined by Jimmie Johnson.

Jimmie, quite a day for you. Tell us a little bit about the closing laps.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I just have such a better appreciation for what many have gone through to race in. I was so fortunate for so many years to not have to worry about getting in on speed for a variety of different reasons.

Last year went well. We got in on speed. To go through that just now, literally have it come down to the last hundred yards of the Duel, that wasn’t in my playbook.

I’m glad I prepared as I did. I’m glad the team was ready. We had a very fast car. Unfortunately with the crash that took place that I was caught up in, pitting, just had us in an awkward position at the back of the field, the last car in either lane. Just tough to make something happen.

Coming through three and four, there was almost a wreck again. JJ chose one lane, I chose the middle lane. The middle lane prevailed by the time we got to the start/finish. Just as simple as that.

THE MODERATOR: We’ll start with questions.

Q. You said you’ve never been through this experience. After last night and the disappointment of not qualifying on speed, what was today like, the lead-up going into the race?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Lead-up, I mean, I started the morning feeling good about things. We were working on our strategy. We understand what Toyota vehicles are going to do. We know how many cars are in our Duel. All these elements come together. Very optimistic kind of light day.

As I put my suit on in my bus before I walked out, the weight of the situation hit me and the butterflies started to kick up.

Once we settled in at the start of the race, I felt really good with my car. I mean, we had a really fast car. Was able to drive from the back to the front. Something just ran through my mind. I’m like, It’s not over. We have a pit stop, we have the end of the race, who knows what’s going to happen. Just keep my guard up.

Sure enough, I had two or three different moments that were quite challenging that maybe put a year or two on me. I mean, I’m literally going down the back straightaway, see the 44 car in front of me, he’s four or five ahead. The 19 has pulled out to help me, but he’s so far back, he’s not going to get to me in time.

I’m like, I’m not going to make it, not going to make the Daytona 500. I’m going to have to call all our partners. I’m going to have to stand in the suite during the 500 and shake hands, not drive a car. This is running through my mind as I’m catching him. I have to figure out a way.

An almost wreck happens, leave it on the floor, hope for the best. Just went the other direction than JJ’s car, and it worked out.

Q. You had Martin, but you came on the radio multiple times frantic about needing help. Are you surprised the 43 never got back there?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I needed a pusher. Anybody does in that back lane. When it comes to the end of the race, it’s tough to get people to pull out or try to find a way to you.

I could have used a little help there. Didn’t get it, which is fine. We figured out how to do it on our own.

All the best plans that you set into place before the race starts, they always seem to go out the window when the race is taking place.

Q. It wasn’t an hour before the race I saw you, you were up doing hospitality. How do you switch that on and switch that off and get into the position that you needed to be in to get into the race today?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Honestly, I’ve liked being busy. The more I sit, the more I have a chance to think. Being as busy as I was today, it allowed me to not let the weight of the moment hit me until I was putting my suit on.

I do like to stay busy. I wasn’t that way throughout my entire career, but in the later years staying busy has always been good.

Q. You went over to Yeley’s car afterwards. What did you say to him?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: We still had helmets on, so I shook his hand. That was the Duel. We had elbows out. I’m not sure if it was picked up, but we had some pretty good contact down the front straightaway. Just elbows out. It was like being on a short track, but we’re here at Daytona.

He raced as hard as he could. I respect the effort he put out and everything they did to try to make the race. We just cycled ahead there at the end.

Q. That level of desperation, can you compare it to any other time you felt something close to that, something that brings back what you felt tonight? Is this something you’ve never felt before in your career?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: You’re so helpless in a restrictor plate environment. The car isn’t necessarily handling. Your run comes from what other people do. It’s not like a normal track where you have anxiety driven by other factors.

Here, it was just the weight of maybe missing it, what that would feel like, what that would be like to miss the Daytona 500. That was the weight I felt on my shoulders, where the frantic nature came from.

When there was an opening to take, never lifted. At one point I hit the car in front of me pretty good. I was like, I think I’m clear of the 44, I’m in a good position. If I spin cars in front of me, I might have ruined my opportunity. Had to back out coming to the finish line not to spin the car out in front of me.

Q. What happened in the wreck with Austin? Did you think your day was over then?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, there was a moment there where I wasn’t sure who was behind us. I thought I was going to get cleaned out.

I didn’t see what started it. I know we slowed up. That accordion effect. As that happened, Austin and I touched. We wiggled a bit. Almost had it saved. There was another car ahead of Austin, I’m not sure who it was, but they both came across my nose.

Went across the apron pretty hard. Hope the car is still straight, not too tore up underneath. That was probably the toughest impact the car made, was transitions down onto the flat.

It drove good. Steering wheel was straight. I think the suspension all is fine on the car. Just a huge scare.

Q. You mentioned the difference between the feeling for this, the feeling for racing for a win. How different is it than when you’re invested in this, a team owner? How different is the mindfulness when it’s your deal?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: It’s heavier. I feel the weight of the partnerships, from corporate partners to my partner Maury Gallagher action everybody at Legacy Motor Club. I’ve always had a sense of team and have felt that I’m out there representing a team. This just had a much different feeling of representing a lot more people on a lot deeper level.

Q. Given what you had to go through to make this race, of the 21 500s now you’ll have been in, does this mean the most or something different maybe than some of the other 500s you’ve been in?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: To be determined. Obviously depends on how the 500 goes.

I’ve never been through anything like this. In my first year down here, we fortunately won the pole. I had exposure to racing my way in. It was pretty stress-free after qualifying.

To fight like we did in those closing laps, I mean, I’ve only done that for a race win here. Never had that level of anxiety and fight for a Duel or anything else except for a proper win.

Q. You talked about that sort of panic you were feeling. It’s hypothetical because you made the race, but had you not made the race, got beat by this team that barely even got to the racetrack, would that have been the most embarrassing moment of your career?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I’ve embarrassed myself quite a few times.

I don’t know.

Q. (No microphone.)

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Golf cart surfing (laughter). There’s a few.

I don’t know. That’s a great question. Disappointment would have been really, really high. Embarrassment? I think we raced really well. We did a lot of things right. I was caught up in a crash. Circumstances dictate plate racing. I think I could have hung my hat on that. We really were fast enough and raced really well tonight.

I just would have been really disappointed. I think I’m identifying with the fact that there’s a lot more riding on my performance in the car these days than when I was a full-time driver. Not only my own personal goals of being a driver, but what’s going on as being a team owner, trying to help grow a race team. There’s a lot more weight on it.

If you would have asked me that question this morning, I wouldn’t have this point of view or be able to reflect on it. I had to go through this experience tonight to understand it.

Q. You in your career have raced in the same race as JJ Yeley a whole lot of times. I think it’s safe to say this was a pretty unique situation. Were you at all surprised by the fight he put up to get that last spot with you?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, not at all. I mean, JJ is a champion. Has raced his whole life. I remember watching him in sprint cars and Champ Cars. A lot of different things climbing the ropes coming up. We kind of entered the sport together. He was a Gibbs driver.

He’s a champion. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a real racer. When it came down to it with three laps to go, we’re door-to-door, I’m like, How does this always happen in the Duels? The two cars racing to get in end up by each other. Here is JJ and JJ banging doors, trying to figure it out (smiling).

Q. After qualifying last night, I had to go back and check to see if you had ever failed to qualify for a race in your NASCAR career. It never happened in the Cup Series. It happened once in the Busch Series. It just so happened you didn’t make the field for the season opener at Daytona here in 2000.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: 2000.

Q. Your answer suggests you remember that. How low a feeling was that, to have to pack up and go home?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: It was really low. I thought about it this morning when I was waking up, having coffee. I hoped that my reflection of it wasn’t a premonition.

The Herzogs helped me move from off-road racing into ASA stockcars, into Busch. It was our first race together. Building a team for the future, a lot of similarities with the vision then as I’m experiencing right now. I went home.

I’m like, Man, I hope that doesn’t repeat itself, happen again.

So, yes, I very much remember missing that race.

Q. Toward the end of the race, JJ was behind Ross Chastain. Were you hoping to get him boxed in there, have that work to your advantage, or were you afraid that would create a draft?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: No, I was hopeful to get up in front of the 44 if it was directly in front of him or Ross. I was hoping I could get in front of 43. That’s where my eyes were focused.

I just couldn’t get there. It was close a couple of times, just the way the lines cycled back and forth. I physically was in a position. There wasn’t an opening to take.

For those scanning me, that’s when my voice probably went up a few decibels, a few octaves, trying to figure out how to get into those spots, it being more of a defensive position to make the race.

Q. Reddick wins, you transfer in. Toyota fans were concerned last night. Does this make a statement that the Toyotas have what it takes to get it done? Are you impressed tonight for the Toyota camp?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I am. Obviously I’m new to it. I remember being a competitor against them for many years. They didn’t show their strength on qualifying days. It was more in race performance, drivability of the cars. I think that showed again tonight.

It’s just one of the traits or in the DNA of the way they approach their plate program. Now, in today’s world, you carry a body through all forms of tracks that we race on. You need to build a car that is going to work everywhere. It’s our first time with it.

I think last night, we didn’t perform as we wanted to. I know at the Legacy MC side, we need to do a better job. I think as a collective group, we need more time with this car to understand its sweet spot, get it better for single car qualifying.

I think at race time it’s quite sporty.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Jimmie.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Thank you.

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