On Tuesday afternoon, five-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson took a few minutes out of his Coca Cola 600 preparations to address the media.
Among the topics Johnson discussed were his thoughts and outlook for this weekends race, being named the most influential athlete and the recent affects of late-race tire strategies.
This Sunday night, the Sprint Cup Series will hold its annual Memorial Day weekend 600-mile race. The Coca Cola 600 is the longest race of the season, and it is held at NASCAR's home track, Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson has a hugely successful track record not only in the 600 itself, but at Charlotte in general. In 19 career starts, he has scored six wins at the speedway and amassed an impressive 14 top-10 finishes.
Equally impressive is the fact that he has led laps in 18 out of his 19 career starts here, with his first ever race at this track being the lone time he didn't get out front.
Johnson was asked about the keys to being successful in this event. He replied, "The key is just really staying on the road all night long. You just can't get caught up in things that happen too early. You can have trouble and there's plenty of time to recover. The track changes a lot."
He added that "being smart all night long is going to be the key."
Then his conversation transitioned to talk of the car setup, and how that changes throughout the race. "In the old days, you would always get tighter as the sun would set and the track would pick up grip. Now with the new car and new surfaces there's a lot going on; it's kind of tough to know which way it's going to go," Johnson said.
He continued by saying, "Some of that has to do with the fact of when we practice. We don't get any night practice. The only night practice we got were the guys that competed in the All-Star event. So it's a big plus to have that on your side being in that event."
Johnson finished the thought with, "But we're all working off of past notes and history and trying to guess where we think the track will go. It's a bit of a guessing game right now."
From 2003 through 2005, Johnson won five of the six races in Charlotte and finished third in the other one. Shortly thereafter, the racetrack was repaved. Johnson was asked if that took away the advantage that he and his team had at Charlotte.
"When they repaved it, it changed things a lot. I think around that point in time the new generation tire was coming out, then we certainly ended up with a new car, and that really kind of eliminates the advantage that we had in the past.
"This track was just one of those tracks where we knew what to do. We had a proven track, proven road to go down that we made these adjustments and we could stay competitive, and then when it came time to race for the win at the end, we had the car we needed to and won a lot of races that way."
Johnson was then asked about the mental aspect of this race—being that it is longer than any other race the drivers endure throughout the course of the season—and whether the extra track time made it any harder to focus for the entire race.
"Well, when you're in the car it's pretty easy to keep your focus," he said. "There's so much going on that the laps and the times that you spend in the car go by pretty fast. I'd say probably my early years getting adapted from the 300-mile Nationwide races up to the Cup races, there was a bit there from a mental and physical standpoint that I had to get better at.
"We're so used to 400- to 500-mile races that there's like a mental time clock that's ticking along. And then the 600 every year, I feel like we're getting to the end of it and I'm either reminded or I ask, how much longer, and I hear the distance, and I'm like, 'oh, man, that's right. This is the 600.' So there's more of a mental clock that you have to get used to."
Johnson was also asked about the myriad of late-race tire strategy that we have seen in recent weeks.
"Well, you know, the Dover thing was kind of unexpected," he said. "I think between the [No.] 33 and the 99 and the 48, we had the field covered. When you're that good at times, the only way you're going to beat cars that are that fast is by doing something different. And at Dover, those guys played their cards right. The ones that stayed out, the ones that put two tires on, they played it right.
"Some tracks, like Atlanta, two tires aren't going to work there. Charlotte this weekend, you'll see it. So we need to prepare for that a little better."
In other news, Johnson was just recently named Forbes Magazine's most influential athlete. Johnson was asked to talk a little bit about the honor, and what he thinks makes him so influential.
It means a lot to me," Johsnon said. "And when you think about the people that we were up against from all forms of sports, it's huge for me and my career, it's huge for this race team and I think it's really big for our sport, as well.
"I'm happy to know that the world is paying attention and sports fans and writers, editors, media in general throughout sports, everyone is paying attention to what's going on over in NASCAR."
He was asked what it was that he thought made him influential.
"I think the way I carry myself and handle situations, there's got to be something tied to all of that. I don't say much often in what I do. I'm not flying off the handle and saying crazy things. I think that has a lot to do with it."
So the awards continue to pile up for Johnson. He is the current five-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion. Now he has been recognized as the most influential athlete of the year. And after this weekend, he may very well be a seven-time race winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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