TALK ABOUT MAKING YOUR 700TH NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES CAREER START AND ALSO ABOUT A FEW MEMORIES AT DARLINGTON OVER THE YEARS
“I’m excited. Hopefully we can start this race tomorrow night from a good position. We had a pretty good qualifying effort there in practice. Hopefully we can make the right adjustments and guess right for the conditions and take advantage of that late draw and get us a really good start for that 700th.
“I’m excited it’s happening here at Darlington. I’ve known for a while that this is the location for that to happen. Everything went right. This has been such a special track to me over the years. And I feel like just showing up here today, even though the tires still may be a little too hard for the track. The track is starting to get like old Darlington was, and I like that. I like slipping and sliding around. I’d like to see the tires wear a little bit more. But it’s such a great weekend for me, personally, to accomplish that. Obviously there has been a lot of effort over the years from the team to a lot of different people; crew chiefs and pit crew members have contributed to those 700 starts. So, I’m very proud of that and excited about the weekend.”
DO YOU ANTICIPATE BREAKING RICKY RUDD’S CONSECUTIVE STARTS OF 789? ALSO, CAN YOU RELATE TO WHAT DENNY HAMLIN SAID ABOUT HIS BACK ISSUES?
“Never say never; but that to me is like David Pearson’s 105 wins. It’s too far out there. You have to get closer before you can think realistically about those things. I never dreamed I’d make 700 consecutive starts. It’s just an amazing thing for me to try to swallow right now because it’s been an amazing run of great teams and cars and going from like 28 races my first year now to 36. So a lot of things happened over the years. So, I’m just enjoying the moment right now of those 700 and not thinking ahead too much.
“As far as back issues, I mean yeah, I definitely reiterate a little bit of what Denny was saying over the years when I’ve had my back issues flare-up. What worried me is that I didn’t know what it was when it first happened and I started just getting these different types of pains during the race and muscles tightening up and it definitely takes your focus off of driving the car and feeling the car the way that you need to do to go out there and get the most out of it. And so now, over time, I’ve worked with doctors in managing that as well as now understanding the pain and that I’m not damaging something that I can just kind of deal with it, you know. Its just pain; it’s not like there’s something happening in there that I’m damaging where I should not be pushing myself. All the work I’ve put into it has certainly helped me. Shoot, several years ago I didn’t think I was going to be driving much longer because of that pain and the way it was bothering me and getting out of the car and not being able to stand up. So now, I’m hobbling out of the car but I’m able to walk and I feel pretty decent inside the car. It’s really more just getting out of the car.”
LAST YEAR, JIMMIE JOHNSON SCORED THE 200TH WIN FOR RICK HENDRICK HERE AT DARLINGTON. HOW SPECIAL IS IT FOR YOU TO BE MAKING YOUR 700TH START AT A TRACK WITH SO MUCH HISTORY?
“I have so much thanks to Rick (Hendrick) and to Hendrick Motorsports. It just seems like it was yesterday that we were signing that contract and talking about starting in the Cup Series, and that first start in Atlanta. So it’s hard to believe 20 years and 700 starts later, and all the success that we’ve had too, it’s been amazing. And I’m proud of not just the record that I have of the number of wins and top-5’s and top-10s, but to do 700 consecutive. There are other guys who have done it, but it’s not an easy thing to do. But I’ve been fortunate that along the way my main focus was not getting to 700; it was going out there to win and be competitive and that’s because of Hendrick Motorsports.
“This track has changed a lot over the last few years because of the re-pave. But like I said, I’m starting to see it get back to the way it used to be to where you really have to drive that car and manage the tires and no so much wear, but just the grip level; and stay out of the fence, which I didn’t do a great job of today because I did get into it. As soon as we got the car working good in practice, I went out and hit the wall (laughs). So, I guess that’s a good thing. My guys are pretty fired-up. They’re excited about that. They don’t see me get in the wall very often in practice. But, we’re pushing hard. So far things have gone pretty good. We’re definitely much improved in the first practice and in the second practice, I thought things went pretty well for us.”
ON MAKING 700 STARTS AND STILL BEING COMPETITIVE WHEN SOME DRIVERS AREN’T. DOES THAT MEAN MORE TO YOU TO BE IN THAT POSITION AND TO BE ABLE TO DO THAT?
“I appreciate that you still consider me being a threat for the championship and wins because lately, just trying to get top-10’s has been a struggle. I know that this team is capable of it and I feel like I am. We won the last race at Homestead. So yeah, I think that means a lot to me. And I got reminded of this the other day and how bad I felt about it when it happened. But, when Darrell Waltrip was having one of his last good days at Dover and I was a torn-up lapped car and we met one another going into Turn 3 and that ended his day. So, I remember watching Darrell and other guys run in the back in their last year or two and I think every driver at a young age says, ‘I don’t want to end my career like that. I want to go out on top’. You either want to be able to walk away from it as a champion or winning that race or at least being competitive, if you could choose. But that’s not always the way it happens.
“Along the way, guys start making more money at the end of their career not winning races than they were when they were winning race. So, it’s kind of hard to step away from that; and just the love and desire you have for getting out there and driving that car. I think Mark Martin has shown me that more than anybody. He thought he could step away and then he realized how much he missed it and how much it meant to him to go do it. He just didn’t want to do it on a full-time schedule and I can appreciate that very, very much because it’s that grinding it out for that championship and every single weekend for 38 weeks. That’s what gets so tough and it can take it out of you and burn you out a little bit. So, there are a lot of different ways to go about it and I’m thrilled with the way things are still continuing to go for me because I do feel like we have opportunities to win races and I think we certainly have an opportunity. We’ve had mediocre at best results and we’re still getting close to the top-10. So, I’m pretty optimistic that we can get things going really well the second half of the season.”
DENNY HAMLIN SAID HE THOUGHT YOU CHANGED THE SPORT THE WAY YOU’VE BLENDED SUCCESS ON AND OFF THE TRACK. DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’VE CHANGED NASCAR FROM THE WAY IT WAS WHEN YOU FIRST BEGAN?
“When I looked at it, I felt like Dale Earnhardt Sr. did. He was making a lot of money (laughs) and he was investing it. He certainly helped me look at contracts and licensing and protecting you likeness and controlling those rights and all those things. It’s turned into a big business. My first contract I signed was more money than I ever thought I could make driving a race car, but it was nothing compared to what the second contract was. To me, these days, because I have a lifetime contract with Hendrick, I don’t talk contracts with anybody anymore. It’s like this is what I agreed to and I don’t discuss it. As long as there’s a sponsor or sponsors that come and want to sponsor our car, and Rick Hendrick tells me he still wants me to drive it, then we don’t discuss that.
“Back in those days, contract negotiations were just being talked about among the drivers all the time; you know, what’d you do, how’d you get this, and what do you think about this structure or that structure. So Dale really helped me in the way I like to structure my contract, which I have today, where it’s a percentage of the income. Whatever the sponsor income comes in, you take a percentage of it and that’s your salary. And if the sponsorship goes down because of the economy, then so does your salary. If the economy is great and you’re doing well and the team is doing well and the sponsors want to pay the big bucks, then you’re going to get paid the big bucks. I think that’s the way it should be as well as incentive-based, where it’s how you perform on the track with winnings and your point’s position. I don’t know. Some of these guys I feel like get it before they’ve ever earned it. My first contract was not very much. I had to go earn it, and then I got a second contract that was really good.
“I’ve seen guys getting paid pretty big dollars coming into it that haven’t really shown any results. And that’s where things have changed today. It’s tough to find that guy that you feel like can turn your program around and what will you pay to get him? And then you have maybe somebody like Jimmie Johnson that you didn’t expect to come in and maybe do quite as well as he has, and then he just turns everything upside-down and sets the world on fire. And then you go okay; we’ve got to pay this guy to make sure he says here. You don’t want him to go anywhere; as well as the sponsorships.
“I don’t know if I’m answering your question. I feel like it was something that me and my team of people, the personal people like my step-father, Bob Branham who used to work for me, PR people like Jon Edwards and other individuals from a marketing standpoint. We work very hard at trying to capitalize on all the wins and the championships and the things off the track like the Saturday Night Lives and Regis & Kelly and TAG Heuer and just trying to do things to another level outside the sport. And I see the benefits of that more today than I ever did when I was doing it. Those things didn’t pay a lot of money. They just gave me great brand recognition and respect as an athlete.”
OVER THE YEARS, DO YOU THINK NASCAR HAS TIGHTENED THE REIGNS OR LOOSENED THE REIGNS ON WHAT DRIVERS CAN SAY BEFORE EITHER GETTING DINGED WITH A CHECK OR GET CALLED INTO THE HAULER? OBVIOUSLY IS COMES FROM WHAT RYAN NEWMAN SAID LAST WEEK
“Oh, well we all want consistency (laughs). That’s what we always ask for. I don’t know. I do feel like I’ve known that ever since the CoT came along, that product of that car, and the racing that relates to that car on the track is something very sacred to NASCAR. And the feel very serious about the implement and affects that that could have by putting that down. It obviously seems like as it relates to how you talk about NASCAR and their decision-making, that seems to be okay. I don’t know. It’s something I always thought about. I never want to do anything that’s going to damage the sport or damage my team or my sponsors or put a negative light on things. So, I feel like I’ve always tried to be conscious of that but hey, like Ryan, in the heat of the moment, it’s hard not to get upset and speak your opinion.
“So, I do wish we had a little bit more consistency and more of what are the exact lines, because I thought for sure Ryan was going to get penalized. It was pretty harsh. I think we all understood what he was saying and as a competitor I can relate to it, but it was kind of over the top. So, I was surprised that he didn’t get penalized. And the thing that Denny (Hamlin) did, I didn’t think that it warranted the penalty. It looked like a knee-jerk reaction to me of somebody or a group that was very upset and disappointed in hearing that and where it went to and sort of made a rash decision. So, somewhere in the middle, there is a balance.”
YOUR SUCCESS OVER THE YEARS HAS BEEN AT SOME OF THE MORE DIFFICULT TRACKS LIKE DARLINGTON AND MARTINSVILLE AND LOUDON. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HOW LONG IT TOOK YOU TO DEVELOP YOUR SUCCESS AND YOUR STYLE ON DIFFICULT TRACKS AND HOW YOU RACE THEM TODAY?
“All those are different. Martinsville was a long process for me. It was different than any other track I’d ever raced on. The dirt racing that I did, I didn’t feel like it really applied there. The short track racing I did was more on faster, more banked tracks. So going to a flat track like New Hampshire or Martinsville were the biggest challenges that I faced when I first came into the sport. But Darlington was one that I loved right away. It kind of reminded me more of a Winchester or Salem, which you have to be aggressive and it’s fast and you run right up next to the wall and it can be very intimidating, but I enjoyed that challenge. It maybe took me a while to figure out how to manage the level of grip, but that went back to my dirt track days. So, I don’t know. This place I took to fairly well and right away. Those other two that you mentioned were definitely big challenges for me and took lots of laps and lots of work as a team; working with the them on the set-up and me with what I felt like I needed to go faster. Eventually we started hitting on it. And then once you hit on it, you build that confidence that you do know what it takes to get it done there. You’ve just got to find the right ingredients.”
YOU SAID YOU DIDN’T THINK YOU WOULD MAKE THE RICKY RUDD RECORD. DOES THAT MEAN YOU’RE NOT THINKING ABOUT GOING PAST THE NEXT TWO OR THREE YEARS?
“I’m just saying it’s so far out there I’m not thinking about it. How many races will I be at at the end of this season? That’s the only thing I’m looking at right now. I just never have been one to look that far ahead. We’ve typically just looked at where our sponsors’ agreements are or where my contract was. With a lifetime contract, I don’t look at the contract anymore; I just look at what are our sponsors and how they signed and how am I feeling and how competitive am I and does Rick want me in the seat and am I valuable to the organization? Once you get those questions out of the way during the off-season, then you just go and drive the wheels off of it and do your best as a drivers. So, I pretty much look at one year at a time at this stage. So I don’t know if that’s going to take me five more years or one more year. I really don’t know.”