The Driven Life: Jimmie Johnson on finding motivation to be healthy

This is the first in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed interviews involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up first: Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson, who offers tips on how the average person can choose a healthier lifestyle.

I know you started a little bit later in life compared to some others. How old were you when you first started getting serious about working out and all that?

I swam in high school and grew up racing motocross — both super physical — and I was in great shape then. But as I started my four-wheel career, there was so much to learn about the vehicles and the tracks and there’s traveling and driving equipment to the races, and I developed all these bad habits along the way of eating at truck stops and fast food — and the fitness just tanked.

So I would say up until 17, 18, I was fit and an athlete and then had this hiatus for a long period of time. I would say probably ’08, ’09, somewhere around there is when I started to get serious again (in his early-30s), and it filled some piece inside of me from my day of feeling accomplished, feeling good about myself, confidence going up and I know that I’m doing that’s important for my career. There’s a lot of positive boxes that I mentally check when I get my workout in, and it’s evolved into many things. But just at a very basic level, that hour or whatever it ends up being in a day, is just vital for me and it gives me such a positive outlook on the rest of the day.

A lot of people have at least tried to get on a workout program, getting healthy habits at some point in life, or maybe they’ve tried diets that haven’t worked out. I noticed that you’ve really stayed consistent with it — and obviously part of it is you’re a professional athlete — but also a lot of it is that you’re doing it on your own. I see sometimes you’ll go on vacation, so you do get off it for a couple days and let yourself enjoy life, but then you go back on it. So how do people, if they want to be healthier, how do they stick with it? What are some of the steps they should take?

I think being honest with yourself about what works for you. New Year’s rolls around and we’re all guilty of saying, “I need to lose 10 pounds, I need to go on some crash diet,” and that’s not sustainable. Three or four days in, you’re like, “The heck with it. I’m out.” So I think setting realistic goals, trying to make just a small change to start with and carrying that for a month — if it’s your eating habits or your training habits, just put one foot in front of the other, literally. Just one step at a time, see what works for you.

And then from there, trying to find things that you enjoy. Being outside has been a big part for me and why cycling and running and all that has worked so well. I just like being outside and that pulls me out.

Signing up for a fitness event is another really good tool for me. For some reason, when I commit to doing some event, I’ll get up earlier or I’ll stay up later, I’ll eat better, like there’s motivation within that. So I think setting some realistic goals and then trying to chase them down from there is really important.

It sounds like to not put too much pressure on yourself. Like you want to better yourself, but without getting to the point where you’re going to fail and then you’re just going to fall off the wagon completely.

I think so. I honestly believe that fitness, health, quality of life, a healthy life — it’s a journey. It’s not like something you’re going to do (overnight). There’s no silver bullet, there’s no quick fix. You need to make adjustments that are going to last through your lifetime, and having a realistic approach and thinking of it as a long journey, I think, is much more useful. And maybe not for all personalities, but for most, I think having that long-term view is key, so you set some realistic goals.

If we can get kind of specific here, it seems like consistently you get up early to do a lot of your workouts, and you have two kids at home. My excuse for myself would be, “Well, I need all the sleep I can get, I’m maxed out with this, I’ve got a lot going on in my life. I just need that extra hour of sleep.” Whereas I see you, you’re getting up at 4:30, 5, something like that to go work out. How do you get yourself up out of bed to do that in the first place?

For me, it’s not easy, and the hardest part is literally putting my feet on the ground and getting out of the bed. From there, everything gets easier as I go. But the way my life works and the way our house works, the kids get up at 6:30, and they go to bed at 7:30, so if I’m going to work out after the house goes down, it’s just not going to work. I’m exhausted. And I find I don’t put in the effort or have the motivation to train later in the day, so I try to get it done early if I can.

Oftentimes, in order to get up early, I’ve got to go to bed early. So the kids go down about 7:30, and I put my phone on silent mode and I’m out most nights by 8, 8:30. That’s the only way. I still need my eight hours of sleep. I mean, I can get by on five to six for a couple days, but I get cranky and don’t function well, so I’ve just got to go to bed earlier to get up earlier.

And then how about with temperatures, because I see that as another excuse that I see myself slide by with. Like it’s either too hot outside or it’s too cold. You live in Charlotte and you also live in Aspen, so you’re having a lot of extremes with the temperature — and yet that doesn’t stop you from working out. So how do you not let that create an excuse for yourself?

I think that’s the nicest thing about my interest in being outdoors, there’s a lot of versatility and sports and a lot of opportunities that I have. In Colorado, one thing that I love to do is to go uphilling or go skinning — you have these downhill skis with carpets on the bottom and the boots and bindings work in a way where you can hike up the hill and you can lock in and you can ski down. So when it’s cold and I want to get a workout in, I do that quite often. I’ll just skip going up on the lift and at least do one trip up the mountain, which is probably an hour, hour and a half to get up. And then ski down and then jump on the lift and do it after that.

So you’ve just got to be creative and take advantage of the environment you’re in. Cycling is tough in the winter; I kind of cycle less because it’s hard to stay warm on a bike. But running works really well, and even going to a pool and swimming works really well.

So just keeping an open mind, and again, thinking of that long-term thing: I just want to have a healthy life and I want to feel good about myself, and I really like to eat — so if I wasn’t training and burning all these calories, I don’t think I’d fit in my suit.

Speaking of eating and diet and things like that, I was at Supercross earlier this year and Aldon Baker, who trains some of the guys, I mean he’s talking about no cheat days ever. He won’t let Jason Anderson and Marvin Musquin enjoy Thanksgiving, nothing. And I see you, you like ice cream, you said you like to eat. So obviously you allow yourself something while still trying to stay healthy. How do you manage eating well with also enjoying the food?

Everybody needs to be pushed and everybody needs to be uncomfortable to succeed, right? I firmly believe in that. I go through windows at times through the season where I get hardcore like that. The motocross world in general, their career span is much shorter than NASCAR. So there’s no way one of those riders is going to go 18 seasons living like that. I have many friends that have ridden for Aldon and they’ve got about a five- to six-year window where they can live life like that, and then they just can’t do it anymore. It’s a tough pace to keep up.

So it depends on what you’re doing. You’ve got to be realistic with yourself and your environment, what you need to be successful. In car racing, we don’t need to be as regimented as those guys do. We just don’t. I’ve found what works for me and I’m playing the long game. A lot of those motocross riders, it’s a short season for starters when you just look at Supercross alone, and then a short career where they’ve got to be so committed. And I respect them all for how high that commitment level is, not only from a fitness and nutrition side, but also the danger that’s involved in riding those things.

So if someone is reading this and they’ve never done anything or never tried to work out, they feel like they can’t do it and they’re just not an athlete, what are the basic first steps they can do just to start? How does somebody learn where to start that’s healthy for them?

I think first and foremost, it’s about not making excuses. And I’m not saying in a way that is harmful or dangerous for yourself, but we all have that little voice that tells us what we probably should do, and it’s usually a really faint soft voice in the back of our minds. Maybe listen to that a little more.

And then just take some realistic first steps to get going. Depending on your health requirements or issues, an event that you have coming up, whatever it might be, there’s different reasons to be highly motivated. And in most cases, and certainly for most of the readers, I think it’s about just consistency.

I see a lot of people start off and they do too much, too soon. If it’s too crazy of a diet, too much lifting, too much running, too much riding and they come out of the gate and they almost burn themselves out in a short period of time. My coach often says, “Quality over quantity.” Just get a quality base started, diet and fitness-wise, and then let the quantity show up down the road if you’re enjoying it.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Charlotte Roval race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s first-round elimination race at the Roval…

1. Roval Love

There were so many things to love about the entire Roval weekend before the race even started. The hype was real, the freshness of a new course injected a boost of enthusiasm into a long season and the whole thing replaced a traditionally ho-hum event with a huge unknown.

Given all that, the Roval was probably going to be viewed as a success even if the race turned out to just be OK.

At least they tried something different!, people would say.

Most of it was a fuel-mileage affair, where drivers tiptoed around the track and kept themselves out of trouble — which honestly was fine! That was the smart thing to do, and the strategy and doubts over whether they could make it to the end on fuel offered enough intrigue to keep fans interested.

But then the race suddenly delivered on its potential for chaotic entertainment — and without crossing the line into shitshow territory. Brad Keselowski stuffed it into the Turn 1 wall and the other leaders followed him into the barrier like the old Lemmings computer game.

GAHHHH!!! WHAT WAS THAT!?!?!

As it turned out, it wasn’t even the craziest moment of the race. As the playoff elimination battle was unfolding behind the race leaders, Jimmie Johnson saw a chance and tried to pass Martin Truex Jr. for the win — only to ruin both of their races.

Just like that, Ryan Blaney drove through the spins and ended up being declared the first official winner in a Cup Roval race.

But the unofficial winners were many: Marcus Smith, the father of the Roval who saw his brainchild come to life in a majorly successful way; NASCAR, which continues to have an excellently fun second half of the season; and the fans who came from all over the country to check the Roval out for themselves, then surely left feeling like they got their money’s worth.

Damn. When NASCAR is good, it can be so, so, SO good. And this was one of those weekends. I got so much enjoyment out of the entire Roval experience; I can’t imagine anyone feeling otherwise.

2. The idea of going for it

Imagine you’re Jimmie Johnson on the last lap. You barely made the playoffs, haven’t won all season — and hear about it constantly — and now you see an opening to grab a victory with a last-turn pass in the playoffs.

Now tell me you’re NOT going to go for it there. Really? Come on. I don’t believe you.

Yes, Johnson screwed up. Yes, he threw his playoff hopes away. But those type of calculations can’t possibly be factored in during a split-second decision.

Gee, what if I try to pass him, but spin myself out and then get passed by seven cars and miss the next round?

There’s no WAY that would even enter a seven-time champion’s mind! Winning racers don’t think that way. He saw a chance and went for it. I don’t even think it was that much of a “just gonna send it!” type gamble; he just messed up.

“If I knew the outcome was going to be that, no (I wouldn’t have tried it),” he said. “I want to stay alive in the championship points. But I really felt like I could pull that pass off.

“I wish I could go back in time and let off the brakes a little bit and take that opportunity, because the championship is what we’re here for.”

Of course he regretted the move with hindsight factored in. But at the time, you wouldn’t want him to do anything differently.

Truex seemed to have a much harsher viewpoint, though. He showed his displeasure by spinning Johnson out after the race — which is understandable, given the lost opportunity to win and get five extra playoff points.

“(Johnson) wasn’t ever going to make it through that corner whether I was there or not,” Truex said. “Just desperation on his part and pretty stupid, really, if you think about it because he was locked into the next round and now he’s out. I guess if there’s a silver lining, that’s it.”

3. Larson’s epic last lap

Someday, when we compile all of the great NASCAR moments from the otherwordly talent that is Kyle Larson, let’s not forget the last lap of the Roval.

Larson was out of the playoffs for about 20 seconds until he somehow drove all the way around the track with a wrecked car and passed Jeffrey Earnhardt about 100 feet before the finish line.

I normally wouldn’t dedicate so much space to a single quote, but you’ve got to read how he described it:

I knew I was in bad shape, so I guess you could say (I was) giving up. I couldn’t even drive my car, it was so badly destroyed.

But then they said (Johnson and Truex) were all crashed and they were coming to the checkered. I was getting on the oval (in the traditional Turn 1 location), and they said they were starting to crash, so I ran hard. We had so much camber and toe in our car, they said if I ran fast, I would blow a right front. But I was like, “You’ve got to go.”

So I ran hard through (the oval Turns) 1 and 2 and through the (backstretch chicane), and then I blew a right front (in the) center of (oval Turns) 3 and 4 and plowed the wall.

I was like, “Crap. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get down to make the (front) chicane.” But luckily, it came down off the banking and I could turn right OK.

So I got through the 16th corner, and then I hit the wall again on the front stretch, and (Earnhardt) was stalled the whole time. He was like 100 feet from the start/finish line. I could start to see him creep in when I was getting to 16. I was like, “Gosh, don’t go! Don’t go!” And we were able to make it. Hey, I was pretty lucky.

Amazing, right!? Check out those last few turns:

To add to the barely-made-it storyline, there’s this nugget: NASCAR gives drivers with damage three laps to meet minimum speed. Larson, who had no chance of getting back up to speed, was on his third lap.

So had the race been one lap longer, he would have been eliminated through that rule alone.

4. Oh yeah…the winner!

How have we gotten this far without talking about Ryan Blaney? He won the race, after all.

Blaney might have seemed unusually chill after the race in some of his interviews, but that was because he didn’t really know how to digest the win. He appeared almost apologetic at times, like a driver who wins a rain-shortened race or through some other fluke scenario.

This really wasn’t in the same category, though, since he put himself in position to win if something happened. The leaders have wrecked and given the win to the third-place car many times in racing history — though not necessarily very often on NASCAR’s biggest stage. The bottom line is he shouldn’t feel bad about it.

But Blaney also isn’t the type of guy to be overly impressed with himself or brag in the first place, so feeling like he didn’t really deserve it was consistent with his personality.

“You’re happy you won the race. You’re happy for the team to do that,” Blaney said. “But me personally inside, there’s some of me (that thinks) … you don’t want people to look at it as, ‘Oh, you just won because the two guys wrecked.’ And that’s what it was.”

Blaney said that scenario had never happened to him in any race he’d ever run — including quarter midgets as a kid. So he just wanted to remain humble while also acknowledging the victory was worth celebrating.

“You don’t want to be kind of overjoyed about it, I guess, but you have to have some pride in it,” he said. “It’s a weird feeling.”

5. Moving on

Two big names are out of the playoffs after Round 1 — Johnson and Denny Hamlin — while young drivers Erik Jones and Austin Dillon also saw their hopes of gaining additional playoff experience come to an end.

Left behind are only two Toyotas — Truex and Kyle Busch — and three Chevrolets — Larson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

Everyone else? Well, it’s a LOT of Fords. All of Stewart-Haas Racing and all of Team Penske has advanced to Round 2, setting up for a Ford-dominated playoffs just three years after the manufacturer was completely shut out of the final four.

I only correctly picked two of the eliminated drivers for Round 1 (Dillon and Jones), so take these next predictions with a grain of salt. (And yes, I’m updating my picks in the middle of the playoffs. Weak, I know.)

— Round 2: I can potentially see the second-round eliminations being less shocking than the opening three races. I’ll pick Bowman, Blaney, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer to get eliminated this round.

— Round 3: That sets up a final eight of Truex, Harvick, both Busch brothers, Keselowski, Joey Logano, Elliott and Larson. Out of those, Truex, Harvick, Keselowski and Kyle Busch will advance to the final four (not going out on a limb at all, in other words).

— Champion: I’ll stick with Harvick as my pick to win it all. For now.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Watkins Glen race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International…

1. The Amazing Chase

It’s just one win, and on a road course at that. So we probably shouldn’t view Chase Elliott’s first career victory on Sunday as some sort of watershed moment.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to think this changes everything.

Elliott has been living under a dark cloud — one created in his own mind — when it comes to his racing in the Cup Series. At times he has clearly felt inadequate and undeserving of even having his ride. That might sound crazy, but Elliott possesses a competitive mindset in which he knows what he is capable of — and feels he’s letting people down if he does not live up to it.

This bleeds through in everything he does, because it’s as if he doesn’t feel he’s even earned the right to act like he belongs until he proves he does. And in his mind, he should have proved it a long time ago.

Whatever any of Elliott’s critics have said about him? He already has thought those things about himself, so he’s more likely to agree than be offended. He believes driving for Hendrick Motorsports requires winning races and championships, and anything less is simply unacceptable.

So over these last few years, as wins have slipped away, Elliott hasn’t wanted to hear anyone’s words of consolation. Eight second-place finishes? Nice for some people, but not satisfying for him. He had to win.

On Sunday, though, there was a sense of real relief. He’s now a winner in the Cup Series. He gave Hendrick Motorsports its 250th victory. He is ready to take the torch as the face of the team in the future, ready to seize upon this confidence and win more.

He can and will — and must, in his mind.

“Definitely relief I would say would be one way to describe it,” he said. “I’ve left these races pretty down over the past couple years at times and had some great opportunities.

“I learned a lot about myself the past couple years. I’ve learned a lot racing in general. I felt like the end of last year I was probably (more) at the top of my game than I’ve ever been racing as a race car driver in general. … The past few weeks have been encouraging and I feel like we’ve been running more like we did last fall, which was really nice.

“No reason why we can’t do that more often.”

This really could be the type of situation where Elliott the high achiever takes those almost races and turns them into wins on a regular basis. He’s already elevated Hendrick beyond where its cars were typically running over the last couple years. Now that the team seems to be turning a corner as a whole? Well, it could just be the beginning for him.

Welcome to Chase Elliott’s world, everyone.

2. What if…

As great as Sunday turned out to be for NASCAR as a whole, let’s talk about what would have happened if things had gone sliiiiiightly differently.

Imagine for a moment if Elliott had blown Turn 1 on the final lap, allowing Truex to pass him (and not run out of gas, just for the sake of this scenario).

First of all, it would have been a masssive gut punch for a lot of NASCAR fans. A member of the Big Three would have won yet another race, and while snatching it from the driver who seems to have the largest support in the fan base at that.

Meanwhile, it would have been a tough blow for Elliott’s career overall. His reputation as a driver who was unable to close out races would have had a signature lowlight and it would have become that much harder to overcome those demons.

Honestly, it would have been uncomfortable to watch for both those on TV and in person.

Instead, Elliott not only got a win — but it was a resume-building one. He beat the best in the sport — passing Kyle Busch earlier in the race and then holding off Truex at the end — in a straight-up, non-fluky way.

How he did it is just as important as the fact he did it at all, in Elliott’s case.

“That’s just satisfying as a racer when you’re able to go and race with the guys who are dominating this deal right now — and actually be a legit contender and not back into one,” Elliott said. “That’s pretty cool.”

3. Road courses are back!

A ho-hum Sonoma race in June made me doubt my love of road courses for a moment there, but…phew! Watkins Glen brought it all back in a major way.

Damn, that was some good stuff! I’m not sure how anyone could watch that race and be bored or dissatisfied with their time investment in any way. Even when Busch was out front and building a lead in Stage 2, there was still entertaining and action-packed racing taking place.

As many have noted over these last few years, double-file restarts completely changed the quality of racing at road courses. These circuits put on a phenomenal show these days, maybe the best product NASCAR has to offer. Yes, consistently better than even short tracks at times.

One reason is they check all the boxes fans are concerned about. Fans are tired of hearing about aero (not much of a factor here) and inspection (35 of 37 cars passed on their first try) and they desire close racing (got it), lead changes (yep), passing (oh yeah) and a showcase for driver skill to come through (no doubt).

I’m not sure how the Roval will turn out this fall, but at least we get a shot to see one more Cup race in that style this season — and several more lower-series races. I wish there were even more road races on the schedule, but maybe someday.

By the way, that race was only 2 hours and 13 minutes — the shortest full-distance points race of the year. Do races need to be 3.5 hours to be enjoyable? Clearly not.

4. The remarkable Kyle Busch

It’s too bad so many fans can’t stomach Busch, because that seemingly stops them from being able to appreciate what he can do in a car every single week. I get much of it has been self-inflicted over the years with his attitude, but Busch might be the most purely talented NASCAR driver — ever.

Just look what he did during the final run on Sunday: After a fueling mishap, Busch restarted 31st and then drove all the way back to third. Third! He was passing the best of the best like it was nothing. That is insane!

Imagine if Busch was as well-liked as Elliott and people were going crazy over all his moves instead of hating on them. I honestly believe NASCAR would be a much different place in terms of popularity, because people would be tuning in for the Tiger-like dominance effect.

Alas…

5. Points picture

As always, the last item of the Top Five looks at the regular season points picture.

Elliott became this season’s eighth different winner, which means there are currently eight playoff spots available on points.

Those are currently held by Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman.

Honestly, there’s not much drama in the points right now — and with only Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis remaining, there might not be another new winner to shake it up.

The closest points battle is between Bowman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but they have more than an entire race’s worth of points between them (62!). And Paul Menard is 72 points behind Bowman, so he’s not close either.

Daniel Suarez, for all the gains he’s made lately, is still 89 points behind Bowman. He’ll have to win to make it.

If there were to be a new winner outside the top 16 in the last four regular season races, that would move the line up to Jimmie Johnson as the cutoff. The seven-time champ is currently 40 points ahead of Bowman, so he should be safe either way.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway…

1. You see where this is going, right?

There have been plenty of NASCAR seasons when one driver stomps everyone and shows up as the team to beat every week. For example: Martin Truex Jr. last year.

But this year seems a bit different: There are two drivers on two different teams who seem evenly matched — and are collectively destroying the competition.

Of course, we’re talking about Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who have combined to win seven of the 11 races so far. After nearly one third of the season, the duo is on pace to win 23 races! Crazy.

It’s just been a tag-team butt-kicking, and they’re not always on at the same time.

But together, the drivers have accounted for more than half of the playoff points awarded so far — and that’s after Harvick lost some with his encumbered win earlier in the season.

This is a battle that is shaping up to continue all summer. And you know what? While it might not be ideal for fans who don’t like either driver, it’s a hell of a lot better than just one guy dominating week after week.

2. Stewart-Haas is the best team

Sorry, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row. You’ve been dethroned.

Though the Fords in general have been strong, it’s clear Stewart-Haas Racing in particular is the team to beat so far. SHR has the fastest, most consistent cars among all four of its entries — with three top-five finishes at Dover to emphasize that point.

Harvick has been great, but it’s not just him. Clint Bowyer (second on Sunday) has won a race and shown potential for more. Kurt Busch has become a regular face in the top 10 again and Aric Almirola is making people say, “Damn! Aric Almirola can drive!”

One key to the team’s success, aside from moves like Tony Gibson coming off the road to help guide collaboration in the shop, is the drivers apparently require similar things from the car. Bowyer said the various setups “are all relatively the same, and it shows on the racetrack.”

That’s a pretty important factor, because it means only one driver or crew chief needs to find something for all of them to benefit each week.

“When you can get four cars that are running as well as these four did today, it’s an awesome feeling,” Tony Stewart said.

3. Suarez on the rise

Doesn’t it seem like Daniel Suarez often gets left out of the top young drivers conversation?

Sometimes it feels like it’s all about Chase and Blaney and Bubba (and maybe Larson, if you consider him young enough to be in that group).

But after a horrible start to the season which saw him sitting 26th in the point standings after seven races, Suarez has put together an impressive four-week stretch: 11th, 10th, 10th and now third at Dover.

Suarez’s best career oval finish boosted him to 17th in the standings — suddenly just seven points out of a playoff spot.

“Once you get to this level, it’s always tough for (drivers),” Joe Gibbs said after the race. “We brought him up a year early. I think he’s just now getting confidence as he goes.”

Suarez said it was a combination of both driver and team getting better at the same time. And he’s learning every week, he said.

“If I have confidence and the team doesn’t, it doesn’t work,” he said. “Momentum in this sport is huge. In the last five or six weeks, we’ve had good speed and consistency — and that’s something I’m very proud of for my team and myself.”

It feels like Suarez is starting to emerge as a driver who can consistently run in the top 10 — and on a good day like Sunday, perhaps battle for wins.

4. What about the 48?

Dover is Jimmie Johnson’s best track, so it was a good weekend to watch how his team performed and see if the 48 is any closer to a turnaround.

The verdict? Eh, maybe.

Johnson got to third place for awhile on Sunday before a pit call cost him track position he never fully regained. He finished ninth, which isn’t great by his standards — but it was the best result by a Chevrolet driver.

And maybe that’s the fairest way to judge Johnson right now. He might be the greatest driver in history, but even the best can’t just take a 10th-place car and manhandle it to a win.

If Johnson gets outrun by Chase Elliott or even Kyle Larson every week, then it definitely makes people wonder if he and Chad Knaus have lost their magic. But Johnson is actually the top Hendrick driver in the standings now (12th) and the second-best Chevrolet to Larson. He has four straight top-12 finishes.

That’s not to say his team is in championship form at the moment. But he might not be as far off as it has seemed at times.

5. Stage 1’s odd ending

NASCAR made an unusual call on Sunday at the end of Stage 1 that is worth further examination.

Typically, NASCAR lets TV go to a commercial at the conclusion of a stage and then opens pit road as the commercials end. That has been part of the rhythm of stage racing since it began last year.

But at Dover, with many cars close to running out of fuel thanks to a strategy play, NASCAR opened pit road as soon as it could. That allowed drivers to make it safely to pit road with a little gas left in their tanks.

That was helpful to those teams, to be sure. But should NASCAR factor team strategy into their decisions? There’s no rule that says NASCAR can’t open pit road in that situation; it just hasn’t happened in other races.

NASCAR said it changed course primarily out of concern for the potential shitshow (my words, not theirs) it could cause if a dozen cars suddenly ran out of fuel at the end of the stage. NASCAR wouldn’t have had enough wreckers to get the potentially stalled cars to pit road, and then might have been in an even worse situation if pit road was blocked for a time. Because then other cars then would have run out of gas and created one of those only-in-NASCAR circus moments.

The desire to avoid that makes sense on many levels. On the other hand, if cars were going to run out of fuel, that’s not NASCAR’s fault. That’s part of the race; some drivers and teams would have played it better than others, and those who didn’t would suffer. Fans would understand that.

So if possible, NASCAR should avoid straying from its typical procedure — it looks bad, because some teams will always benefit more than others when that happens.

Friday roundup: Dover news and notes

Here are some of the highlights from Friday’s media availability sessions at Dover:

Pressure for the 48?

Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won since last year’s Dover spring race (which was in June, so it’s not a full season), which means you might expect him to come here feeling a bit more pressure than a normal weekend.

After all, it’s his best track — he has a record 11 victories here.

But Johnson says there’s actually less pressure when he shows up at Dover, because he’s so confident in how to get around this place.

Still, with Johnson in the midst of a career-long winless streak, Dover could be the best chance to grab a playoff spot and turn his season around.

Can the 48 get back to its old winning ways?

“I think we have created an environment of very high expectations because of the success we’ve had, and I think people forget how special our run has been,” Johnson said.  “We certainly want to get back into those ways and have it happen again — but history shows it doesn’t happen very often. We were very fortunate to harness lightning for a long stretch of time.”

Johnson said he’s “a realist” about his team’s progress.

“The encouraging news is we are making our cars better each and every week,” he said. “… We’re a victim of our own success, and I hope to create the headlines that we want and the headlines being along the lines of ‘Well, they should have won. It was Dover.’”

Pit guns among drivers council topics

This is probably a big “duh” since you would figure the drivers would want to talk to NASCAR about the pit gun issue, but Joey Logano confirmed the topic was raised during Tuesday’s driver council meeting at the NASCAR R&D Center.

“We talk about everything — we talk about pit guns and lots of other things,” Logano said. “I think the pit gun thing will be fine. There will be growing pains with some changes. There is a learning curve for the teams and NASCAR, but we have to make changes to continue growing and sometimes there will be pain when that happens. You can’t stay in your comfort zone forever because there is no growth in your comfort zone.”

Logano praised the drivers council as a positive forum for competitors to air their concerns with NASCAR in a private group. And it’s not all bad, he added.

“Our sport is in great health and we talk about that,” Logano said. “We talk about the amount of fans that are still watching our sport and how great things are going and we have a lot to be proud of.

“There is also a lot to work on, and I don’t think that is a secret that we are trying to make our sport better and better each day.”

Pain in the grass

Austin Dillon was just trying to avoid a wreck last week when he cut through the Talladega grass and ended up destroying his car as a result.

“I saw the cars starting to come even lower, and I saw there was a gap in the grass, so I just cut left,” Dillon said. “When I cut left, the first part of the grass was OK — then all of a sudden it felt like I hit a tabletop jump or something and destroyed the car.”

Dillon speculated he may have hit a drain or a buried pipe that had raised the grass. Otherwise, there was no explanation aside from the grass itself.

“It completely destroyed the car,” Dillon said. “It knocked the front clip up and the rear quarter panel off of the car and punctured the radiator, too. We were done after that.”

Drivers like Kyle Busch have been vocal advocates of getting rid of grass at racetracks, but Dillon said he’d like to go back and look at the exact spot he hit before making a judgment on whether the grass needs to go in that area.

Suarez still healing

Daniel Suarez has been posting workout videos lately where he’s using his injured left hand. But while the thumb has made progress from the avulsion fracture Suarez suffered at Texas, he’ll still have to race with a brace on it for now.

“It’s not 100 percent,” he said. “I can use the front palm of my hand very well, but when it’s time to push, my thumb is not quite there yet.”

Suarez said he thought about trying to race without a brace this weekend, but his doctor said to wait two more weeks. The thumb no longer causes him pain inside the car (because it’s stabilized with the brace), but Suarez can’t grab the wheel the way he’s used to with the brace on.

“It’s still stiff and it’s still a little sore when I move it too much, but it’s much better than a couple weeks ago,” he said. “I’m excited to finally have a regular glove and to not wear this thing (later this month).”

12 Questions with Jimmie Johnson (2018)

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. The interview was recorded as a podcast, but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

I don’t dream all that often, but I do remember one when I was getting ready to race for the Herzogs in ’96 in my very first off-road truck race for them. I had a dream that this brand new beautiful truck he built would only do wheelies — and I couldn’t compete, couldn’t make a turn, couldn’t stay with the pack because every time I touched the gas, it just did a wheelie and I couldn’t turn.

Was this a dream that happened more than once?

No, it was just that one dream, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s probably the only one I remembered through all the years of having different dreams.

2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?

Yeah, it does. I think there’s also an unwritten code out there when there’s just incidental contact that happens. And then there’s that next level of, “Wow, that probably looked bad. I should apologize, I didn’t mean it.” And then you have to see if the guy believes you or not.

And then there’s the insult of all insults where you just completely dump somebody and say, “Oh yeah, sorry.” (Laughs)

3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?

The simple term that you’re a racer. That’s always meant the world to me.

4. NASCAR comes to you and says, “Hey, we are bringing a celebrity to the race and we’re wondering if you have time to say hi.” Who is a celebrity you’d be really excited to host?

I just had a flashback of meeting Vince Vaughn in our transporter a couple years ago. First of all, he was so tall he could barely fit in the transporter. And then he just of course was rolling the humor and dropping one-liners. So I love to have those opportunities to see people and show them around the transporter and through the inner workings of what goes on in a race team.

5. In an effort to show they are health-conscious, NASCAR offers the No. 1 pit stall selection for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for a month. Would you do it?

Man, I tried it. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but I was just curious and had a three-month run at vegan.

So you made it three months?

I did. I made it three months. Not easy — a lot of planning involved. And I’m sure the first month I made plenty of mistakes because you just don’t know any better. You don’t realize how hard it is to be a true vegan.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I have picked a random race from your career and you have to guess where you finished. This is the 2007 Atlanta Spring race. Do you have any idea where you finished in that one?

I don’t remember ’07. Nope, sorry, I don’t. I hope I won.

You actually won that one.

OK!

I was hoping to stump you on one that you won, since you’ve won so many races.

You usually remember the ones you lose. Like losing to Carl (Edwards) at the line or something like that. I wouldn’t know the year off the top of my head, but the ones you lose leave a much bigger mark than the ones you’ve won. (Laughs)

You started third on this one and you led the first 36 laps. There was a debris caution with 10 to go. You took the lead with three to go and you beat Smoke. Does any of this ring a bell?

Yeah, I remember getting by Tony off of Turn 2. We had a little contact, which I know didn’t make him happy. He had a little bit of a tire rub after that, and we were able to get the race won. I remember that now. I just need a little snapshot of what it looked like.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

I’m not all that versed in rap. But I guess I would kind of lean also the old school with Snoop and Ice Cube. I go back to when I was in high school and some of the big names back then, and that’s about as far as I can go. 50 (Cent) is kind of in there, I guess he’s kind of more recent.

But for whatever reason, I remember NWA when I was in high school. That is what all the cool kids listened to for awhile. My parents were like, “This language is unacceptable in the house.” (Laughs)

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

I always think of characters. We were just at Disney World not long ago, and I don’t know why, but I felt like I needed to punch or tackle one of those characters.

One of the mascots?

Yeah, one of the mascots. In general, they have such a punchable face.

Sorry, Mickey!

Right? (Laughs)

9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks. Choose one to be your chew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.

I would say Hanks as the spotter, he’s such a good talker. Taylor Swift — I’d much rather look at Taylor Swift than Chad Knaus. And we’ll have LeBron drive I guess. Our bus driver does a lot. You need to know the inner workings of the tracks and help work with crowds. With LeBron’s size, I think that he could definitely help with crowd management.

10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?

Experience makes all the difference in the world. Some tracks, it’s just port-a-potty, other tracks there’s a suite that you know nearby, or Goodyear’s tire building — there’s always a bathroom in there. And that is always a high priority when you hop off the truck. You can imagine when you’re gonna sit there for four hours and not have access to a bathroom, that last stop is very much on my mind.

11. NASCAR misses the highlight reel value brought by Carl Edwards’ backflips and decides a replacement is needed. How much money would they have to pay you to backflip off your car after your next win?

It wouldn’t be too much. I always loved jumping off things and I was on the dive team and also swam and played water polo. Most of my dives were forward-facing, but I think I could get the rotation around, especially into the grass. I’d be very comfortable going into the grass.

12. Each week, I ask a question given to me from the last interview. Last week, I interviewed Simon Pagenaud. His question is: When you win No. 8, how will you celebrate differently than your other ones, and what was the most epic moment of your first seven celebrations?

The most epic moment would be Snoop Dogg playing the championship party. That was just the coolest experience ever, and we still talk about it over and over. So that would be the first highlight that pops in mind.

Do differently? Thankfully with winning seven, I’ve learned how to pace myself over the banquet week, so I think I would be yet again more experienced on how to manage the four or five days of continuous partying. (Laughs)

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a general question I can ask?

Do they wear underwear under their fireproof clothing in a race car?

Oh, is that a thing?

I don’t know. That’s where it all came from. I’m like, “Well, I don’t know.” I’d like to know.


Other 12 Questions interviews with Jimmie Johnson through the years:

Oct. 13, 2010

Sept. 14, 2011

July 9, 2013

Sept. 10, 2014

July 29, 2015

Feb. 18, 2016

Sept. 27, 2017