We've reached the top of the NASCAR food chain this week with our series of weekly driver interviews: Four-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, who currently leads the points in his quest for title No. 5. JJ took time out from the Chase to answer our 12 questions at Fontana.
What's one of the best races you've ever driven?
JJ: I'd say my Daytona 500 win (in 2006). There were a lot of demons in my head to screw that one up. In the draft, you just don't know what lane is going to work. But in the closing laps, I just stuck to the game plan and it paid off. That took a lot of self-control – I wanted to screw it up badly (laughs).
Who do you think is the most talented driver in NASCAR? And you are allowed to say yourself.
JJ: It's easy when you run up front to form an opinion, but I think some of the guys that are running in the back are dealing with a hell of a lot worse situation than we are! (laughs)
I have a lot of respect for the guys that drive all different types of vehicles. You'd certainly put Kyle (Busch) in that category, and I look at Tony (Stewart) and the fact that he can go run a dirt Late Model or a Sprint car somewhere and has won an IndyCar championship and Cup championships. So based on that, I'd say Tony would probably be the most versatile.
What's the best time for a fan to try and get your autograph at the track?
JJ: You know, at the track is a bad time. That's why guys are often quick and on the run. But any of the sponsor functions that we go to, (meeting fans) is what we're there for. Or send it in to the fan club.
What do you think is something fans may not know or understand about you, even after all the coverage over the years?
JJ: (Thinks for a minute) I don't know if there's anything burning. I've been through different things over the years, but anymore, I just really don't care on the negative front. I guess at the end of the day, if you pay attention to that stuff, you're going to hear a lot of good things and get your chest pumped up, and you're going to hear a lot of bad things that will disappoint you. So I've just kind of pulled out.
What's the worst track on the NASCAR circuit?
JJ: I think Pocono. And I say that with the utmost respect for the Mattiolis (track owners), because they're a great family and have done so much for our sport. But that track and that race, twice a year...the whole thing just puzzles me.
Who is the driver you most admire outside of NASCAR?
JJ: I'd say probably Sebastian Loeb, World Rally driver. Those guys are just phenomenal drivers, and I've been in a World Rally car and have raced off-road and understand that dynamic. Those guys have to adjust every corner – the grip levels change in every corner, they never see the same thing twice. It's just a whole different world.
If you could plan it out, how long would you like your career to last?
JJ: I would say 15 to 20 years in Cup, and then until it was unsafe for me to drive a car I'd be racing endurance races, off-road truck races, maybe some dirt Late Models. I mean, I'm not going to stop driving when my Cup career is over. I still have a lot of other vehicles I want to drive. And driving will never be away from me – I can't just give it up. It's all I've ever done, and there's something about being in that car. I need that fix. I couldn't just walk away.
When you get home after a long race weekend, what's the first thing you do when you walk through the door?
JJ: Now it revolves around a bath for our daughter (three-month-old Genevieve Marie) and getting her fed and to bed. Something that's a high priority on my list – before she was born and still is now, but gets delayed – is we need to eat. When we get home, it's been a long day and I've drained the tank in the race and all that. So I'd say food is the bottom line when we get home.
Who wins the Sprint Cup in 2015?
JJ: (Thinks for a long time) I'd say probably Kyle Busch. SBN: You think that'll be his first title? JJ: I hope so. (laughs)
If you were in charge of NASCAR, what's one thing you would change?
JJ: Shorten the schedule. I would probably put it in the 25-(race) range, and one race at each track. I'd probably want to open it up to a few new areas as well, a few new markets. So I guess if we go down to one race at every track, that's 22, right? So yeah, I'd be in the 25 range.
I asked you this question before the season in Daytona, and I liked your answer so much that I've asked every driver all year long. I'd like to ask you again and see if your answer has changed: If there was one driver you would recommend learning from and one you wouldn't, who would those two people be?
JJ: Oh shit. (laughs) I remember that one. I think I said Mark (Martin) as the one to learn from. I'd still put Mark in that light. I know this year hasn't been the year that we thought when we had this conversation last time, with what took place for him (missing the Chase).
But a Mark, a Jeff (Gordon), you go back to all the different changes in the sport – not only the introduction of the COT, but all the changes they've been through – and the fact they're still competitive...I mean, that's really something.
And I'll move to Kevin Conway now (instead of Sam Hornish Jr. as a driver not to learn from).
Would you rather be known as a great driver or a great person?
JJ: Can it be both? That's my goal. I want it to be both. There are guys who really don't care to have relationships at the track or friendships or worry about that. They're more focused on the driving side.
There's not a bad approach to either – it goes back to the way you grew up in sports. From coaches in high school on the swim team to my parents at the racetrack when I was young, it was 'Treat people how you want to be treated.'