Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues this week with the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion himself: Jimmie Johnson. This weekend at Chicagoland, Johnson will kick off his attempt to take an unprecedented sixth straight title.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
JJ: Underrated...hmm. You know, my mind is gravitating toward (Casey) Mears. The reason being is it's tough when you leave a big organization and it's easy for people to dust their hands off and not pay attention. You look at what he has done with the Germain group and how that car has performed.
He's largely responsible for not only what the car is doing, but even in the sense of behind the doors of the shop, with the management people and trying to work with Germain on developing the team. He's making a big difference in that organization, so I'd lean that way.
SBN: You've won a lot of races, but what's a race in your career that you didn't win and still bugs you?
JJ: One that's really in my mind is racing Carl (Edwards) at Atlanta (a side-by-side finish in 2005). I've had it happen to me a couple times since then – (Kevin) Harvick just got us this year at California doing it – and those hurt the worst. But when I see the clip playing of the Atlanta one, I turn around and walk away.
SBN: Why? Just because it was a tough loss, or do you feel you could have done something differently?
JJ: I left him about a car length up there to find a way by – just like with Kevin – and damn if they didn't find a way by. (Laughs) Gotta cut the air off up there and get to the fence.
SBN: Let's say you're going to be on a four-car Sprint Cup team and you can pick your three teammates, but you can't pick anyone you're currently associated with. Who would you pick?
JJ: (Matt) Kenseth, Kyle (Busch) and (Jeff) Burton. There's a performance aspect, but there's also a quality in those three. When you get to know someone, you get to know how they go about working on a race car and what's important to them. I've been able to get to know Matt very well, and Burton.
I guess Kyle would be the hardest one for people to understand – it's probably easier for them to see Kenseth and Burton. But I've worked with Kyle before, and with a four-car team, you always need a young guy. So we could let Kyle be the young guy.
SBN: Which driver did you want to model yourself after when you were growing up?
JJ: When I was focused on the style of driving a race car, I was in my 20s and it's when Bobby Labonte was in the Interstate Batteries car at Gibbs. There was something I really admired about the way he carried himself, how he did his job on the track. I really, really appreciated the style that he had and modeled myself after it.
Before that, I had idolized drivers not so much because of their style, but because they were heroes: Jeff Gordon or Cale Yarborough or Davey Allison.
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape you've made from the track after a race?
JJ: There was one in Vegas. They had a few of us in a cop car – Gordon, myself and I think (wife) Chani was in there. I was sitting in the backseat of the cop car, which was cool. I'd never been back there before, and I was like, 'Hell yeah! Let's go!'
We're on (Interstate) 15 making our way back to the airport, and it's dead-stopped traffic. We're in the right lane – lights on, sirens on – rollin'. We get to an overpass, and some stuff had fallen off of a truck. There was a cardboard box and a plastic chair sitting there on the side of the road, right in front of us. We had nowhere to go – we were rolling, at speed.
Man, we blew right through that stuff. Just ran over it and shot it up in the air. It was like, "Wowwwwwwww!" (Laughs)
SBN: So no damage to the cop car?
JJ: Nope, not at all. Just kept rolling!
SBN: I know you've met a ton of famous people, but is there anyone you'd like to meet who you haven't met yet?
JJ: (Thinks for awhile) Man, I don't know. I don't really spend a lot of time thinking in that way. I want to think of someone good, and not just throw out some bullshit answer. (Keeps thinking)
SBN: I guess you've just met so many of them already?
JJ: It's not only that. I've met a handful of presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to George Bush to Barack Obama. So I've been very fortunate to meet leaders, which would be my natural first thought (for an answer).
There's just good people out there that I've been able to run across. I'm more focused on that than on who someone is. Especially now, being a parent – life is changing in a lot of different ways.
SBN: Maybe you need to meet the people from Yo Gabba Gabba! then?
JJ: We're not there yet. (Laughs) She's not even into cartoons yet. But we could be there before long.
SBN: Last season, Jamie McMurray won some huge races but missed the Chase; Gordon didn't win any races but made the Chase and contended for awhile. Which type of season would you rather have for yourself?
JJ: If I didn't win the championship, I'd just want race wins. In order, it's championship, race wins, making the Chase. At the time, you're only going to think about trying to make the Chase. But if I was reflecting back on the year, I'd definitely pick race wins over making the Chase and not winning the championship.
SBN: How much does your personality differ from when you're inside the car and when you're standing here talking to me?
JJ: A lot. Especially depending on the circumstances. I push the (radio) button less than others, but I still do push it from time to time. You get pretty heated in there and start spouting off pretty good.
You get into a rhythm and you get into a racing mindset, and in that space, I'm extremely, extremely competitive. But outside of that space, I'm really relaxed and laid back. I don't get caught up in that competitiveness outside of racing.
I suck at golf and a variety of other things where I go out and do with my friends. And they're like, 'Well why aren't you mad?' Well, that's not what I do. Put the helmet on, and then I get more critical and competitive. But until then, that's not what I do.
SBN: So if you lose at ping pong or something, you don't get too mad?
JJ: No. Beer pong, maybe. Because then you drink too much beer. (Laughs)
SBN: If you could switch lives with a different athlete and take over their skill set in a different sport, who would you want to be?
JJ: I just have to think from an athletic standpoint – and I don't know any of them by name – but something in the manner of an Ironman triathlete. It would be the most physically demanding day of your life like that. That's just incredible.
I first thought of Lance (Armstrong) and his seven Tour de France wins, and obviously being on the bike for 20-plus days is really, really amazing. But triathlons are starting to intrigue me a little bit more as time goes on. And I just can't imagine doing the distances for the Ironman: Full marathon, a full bike ride and a full swim. It's just beyond me to imagine how those guys can do it in the times they do it in.
SBN: Have you ever done a normal triathlon?
JJ: No. I mean, I swim, bike and run for my cardio during the week. I swam in high school. There's a part of me that wishes I'd spend a little time and focus on doing some mini-triathlons. I think that's something I'll try to do in the next few years here.
SBN: If you could take a year away from NASCAR and go do whatever you wanted and come back knowing you had a ride guaranteed, would you ever want to do that?
JJ: I think all veterans fantasize about a year off and what that would be like. But the truth in all of it is that with a year away, you lose pieces of skill set that you have. You look at guys that come out of retirement – regardless of the sport – and it's tough to come back. That part is kind of a deterrent, to say the least. But every veteran has thought, 'What if I just took this year off?'
SBN: Now that I think about it, you actually could probably do it. Someone would hire you when you came back for sure.
JJ: I guess in theory, I could. I really could. But it's just not in my makeup.
SBN: Someday, when you eventually quit driving, what do you want your retirement story to say about you? Do you want to be remembered just for your championships, or is your nice-guy image also important?
JJ: Well, as time has gone on here and we have five championships, I'd love to have seven or eight and be the only guy that's been able to do that. In recent years, that has been more of a goal. Starting into racing, that was never on the table. It's just because of what's gone on the last few years that I'd even consider that.
But it's important to me to have friendships. And it's important to me to be respected by my peers – even if I don't have the friendships with them.
At the end of the day, what it boils down to is respect. That's the thing I want the most. Respect for my commitment to my sport, my work ethic and the things I was part of, on and off the track.
SBN: Let's say you're going to win your sixth championship this year. Would you rather have it clinched after Phoenix or win it off Turn 4 of the last lap at Homestead?
JJ: I don't care. I just want the trophy. I've been almost in that situation these last five years, and it doesn't matter. Whatever it takes to get there.
SBN: I've heard people ask you that question in a different way several times before. So you're sticking to the answer that no matter how you win it, they all mean the same?
JJ: No, well...I was surprised at how much was made of how we came behind last year to win the championship. So I'll take that perspective. That's fine.
The most relaxing way to do it would be to lock it up before Homestead and go to Miami and have a big time and enjoy everything Miami has to offer in the week leading up to it. (Laughs)
When I think about the fun, I'd like to wrap it up early. When I think about perception, I'd like to win it off Turn 4 on the last lap.