While you’ve been away, there’s been a lot of wrecks in this race at the end. How do you see that.. have we evolved to almost anything goes in the last 10 laps or not?
“I think the blocking is probably one of the biggest issues, and it’s also one of the most important things to get right to maintain track position. I think that’s what’s changed the most from the years that I’ve been a Cup driver is the late blocks and the aggression of the blocks. We’ve had variations of pushing and being able to slam draft, bump draft, whatever it might be. The cars still don’t really like that. I was able to do some of that tonight and get a feel for it. You still need a pretty delicate touch to pull it off. I think that’s what happened last night with the No. 8 car and the No. 99. Just too much energy and just gets the car toggling from side-to-side and around it goes.
I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think the crashes at the end of these races are that you’re not trying to crash someone. You’re trying to win, right? So you’re trying to block to protect; you’re trying to shove somebody to make your lane go. It comes from a good place, but sadly it tears up a lot of race cars.”
Do you have any sense that people might help you more because if they push you to the win, it doesn’t impact the Playoffs?
“I don’t think anybody is visualizing the win just yet. I think you’re still trying to figure out who you’re going to work with; who can receive a push, who can push well, who has speed. I certainly helped myself today by being in that fast Chevy pack and working with my old teammates. But when it comes to the last lap, it’s every man for himself. I don’t expect anyone to cut me any slack.”
At Media Day, you hadn’t really been in the car, expect for your test out in Phoenix for a day or so. Now that you’ve had a race in this new car and have had practice in this new car, what do you think of it? Does it remind you of anything you’ve driven before in your career?
“I would say 70 or 80 percent of it is still a stock car and still the draft here. So the large majority of it is familiar; the large majority of the experience. I’m remembering little details as I make laps and get into the zone that – yeah this works or doesn’t work. Turn four is always tricky. Pit lane entry, pit lane exit, blend line.. all the details are coming back and it’s still really there. That will help you run in the middle of the pack. But to win the race, you have to be on your game. That’s the part I’m still trying to refine and why I ran every lap I could just now. And I plan to again tomorrow and then still a ton of learning to come in the race itself.”
Do you like the way the car feels?
“It drives like a stock car. It doesn’t drive like an INDYCAR, thank god.. we know how that went (laughs).”
I’m sure as a veteran, you’ve had plenty of young people in your time come up and ask for advice or tricks out on the track. Have you found yourself this week asking any of the younger drivers or current Cup drivers for advice?
“Yeah, I’d say leading into Phoenix and then coming here. I did sim for both of them. I spent a lot of time in the shop with Erik (Jones) and Noah (Gragson), just asking questions. Noah was at the track in Phoenix, as well as Erik, obviously driving, so I’ve been able to really lean on those two. They’ve joked a little bit about the fact that they’re giving me so much and they thought it would be the other way around. But honestly with the new car and where the speed hides in this new style of car – setups, driving style, experience you need to really manhandle it – I’ve been all ears listening to them. They’ve both been very helpful.”
What is something specific that a Noah Gragson can teach or tell Jimmie Johnson?
“When we’re sitting there with our hands - doing all the hand talk that drivers do - in those conversations about like where the weight is sitting when you go back to the throttle; how the car might slide. This car seems to hop a lot when the rearend starts to slide across the track, which is new. I noticed that in the sim preparing for Phoenix that there was like a rear tire chatter and then the car would get loose. And I thought it was just something in the sim and maybe not the way the experience would be in real life, and then I got to Phoenix and found out that was the case. I think Conor Daly last night had the extreme that we all saw. I don’t know how he has feeling in his teeth still (laughs). So that would be one specific, kind of technical piece, that I’m trying to get used to.”
Is this one of those cases of the more things change, the more they stay the same, in reference to you being on top of a speed chart in a Cup Series car? Is this a case of with it really being your first, true weekend in a Next Gen car, that you don’t necessarily have any ‘bad habits’ to unlearn because you haven’t really experienced all of this until now?
“Yeah, I honestly think it’s too early to read far into this. It is plate racing. That was just a practice session. We didn’t make any mistakes and did some things right to end up where we did. The other races we’ll run – once we’re able to figure out what those races are – we’ll see how I stack up. If it’s a short track, a mile-and-a-half, road course, whatever it might be.. those are all different, unique challenges that come with it.
For plate racing, I think that we have a really good driving race car. I think the Hendrick cars have a bit more speed from anything I saw out there on track, which qualifying is pretty obvious for that. But it’s just still early and anything can still happen. I’m glad to be in here. I’m glad we’re at the top of the board and not at the bottom. I’m sure the headlines would read a little differently if we were on the other end of it.”
You were side-by-side with the No. 48 out there. What was just the emotion of that.. was it weird or was it just another car?
“Seeing him wasn’t weird, but having my spotter say the No. 48 car was outside of me was really weird. Two or three times, I had to remind myself because I really thought it was me when I’m hearing the No. 48. I’m like - yeah, I’m here.. why are you telling me the No. 48 is next to me (laughs). I have not driven the No. 48 car since I left that No. 48 car, so that part was different. But from a visual standpoint, I’m used to seeing Alex (Bowman) in the car and that part was fine. But through my ears, hearing about the No. 48, threw me off.”
You mentioned still trying to figure out what the rest of your schedule is going to look like. From the ownership standpoint, is it important for you to have their answer in the races that you’re running, just to better understand the feedback from the drivers and what they’re going to need moving forward?
“Yeah, there are many ways to look at the races I run. Right now, kind of our pecking order is of course finding sponsorship for the car. And then secondly, what is going to not hurt the team – from a work load standpoint, car count and aspects that go with that. And then it is to help the other two cars. Once we get six months into this and I think we can staff up accordingly, get our inventory right and kind of catch our breath from the busy offseason we’ve had – we can maybe shuffle the prioritization of those. The goal, ultimately, is to have the No. 84 car really help the other two cars. Help really drive technology and really be a performance reason as to why it’s on-track. We’re just not there yet, but that’s kind of in our 12 month forecast.”
We got a look today at the Garage 56 Camaro. What do you think of that car, that project, that opportunity?
“I’m thrilled to be a part of it and what a fun car. I’m sure you saw some of the specs for it – how much lighter the race car is, the downforce that’s on it, the carbon brakes, paddle shifting – it really is fun to drive. I’m so thankful to be part of the program. I literally leave here Sunday; drive in a rental car over to Sebring to do a 24 hour endurance test with the guys. It’s going to be a busy couple of days of driving.”
What do you need to do to prepare for Le Mans?
“Obviously, the testing that we’re doing is one piece of it. But the rules, flags, there’s a lot of things that are different in the way they officiate for that particular event. I have to go over before the race and spend a day in the simulator to learn where their flagman stations are, what their flags mean. There are some pit road procedures that I need to be aware of and pay attention to. So I’ll head over a few days early to go into their simulator to drive that.
And then at home, I’ve just been using my sim rig and doing a bunch on iRacing. I’ve been out in the Corvette GT car and I’ve put only prototypes out that are faster than me. I’ll put as many as they’ll give me.. it’s usually around 60-70 cars on track, just so they’re chasing me and overtaking me. Every time I’ve been in a sportscar race, I’ve been in the fastest division and have not had to worry about my mirrors, and I’m really concerned about that. I want to make sure I’m leaving a lane when I need to and know what’s coming behind me, and I’m using iRacing to do that.”
With the thunderbirds, where does that experience rank for you?
“Yeah, that’s probably near the top. I’ve never felt anything like that; the adrenaline, the acceleration. The first thing we did is we got off the runway and picked up the gear and did a performance turn to 10,000 feet. Instantly, I had to practice the heavy-g breathing that they talk to you about. It’s just wild. Just the weight of your body and the experience of pointing that thing in the sky; they roll it over and turn and all kinds of stuff.
It was great. I was really worried about getting sick and I’m happy to report that my ‘get sick’ bag was empty. I did not get sick during the ride, so that was super good. But I did take a little nap. We pulled 9.1G’s and I blacked out. I came to sitting in the back wondering where I was, what was going on. It was wild because I couldn’t hear anything and I’m looking around like – what am I doing in an airplane? And then I could hear somebody say ‘Jimmie.. Jimmie.. Jimmie’, and then it got loud and I’m like ‘yeah!’. They were like, ‘hey, you’re back.. I think you took a nap’. I said, ‘I believe I did.. I have no clue where I am or what I’m doing right now (laughs)’. That was wild.”
Hearing about the No. 48 in your ear – did Earl say ‘new leader No. 84’ today?
“He’s with Noah (Gragson).”
Oh, you gave Earl up?
“I did. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but wearing my team owner hat and knowing the experience that Earl has and what he can share with Noah (Gragson). Noah started talking to me about Earl before we announced that I was going to be a part of the team. Neither Earl or Noah knew what was going on. I just sensed it was the right thing to do, so I was like – yeah, I don’t know what my racing is going to be next year.. you guys put that deal together. And then I was able to call them both and say – hey, now you get it.”
Who spots for you?
“Jesse Vaughan. He was, I believe, the backup No. 11 car spotter on the Cup side, and has done Truck, Xfinity and ARCA a bunch."
Does he know the rules, that he has to say ‘new leader, No. 84’?
“No, I’m not going to put that pressure on him. That’s an Earl-thing. We’ll see what he says. He didn’t say that tonight, though. He says ‘dude’ a lot, which I can relate with that. I’m not sure where he’s from, but I’m used to hearing ‘dude’ (laughs).”