PHILADELPHIA – Jimmie Johnson walked onto a stage where some of his biggest fans got to ask questions of the four-time defending NASCAR champion.
One of the easiest suddenly seemed like the thorniest after the last two weeks: Who’s your favorite driver?
Johnson smiled and the crowd laughed at his response. That’s one way to diffuse talk of a bubbling feud between the Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
Behind the scenes at Hendrick, the four-time Cup champions needed a second straight week of talks after curt words followed incidents on the track. Johnson said on Thursday team owner Rick Hendrick told him and Gordon not to let their bubbling feud start “breaking apart the organization.”
Johnson, Gordon and Hendrick spoke together on the phone this week to smooth over a rough patch in the relationship between the drivers. The championship teammates tangled on the track in successive weeks, leading Gordon to lash out at Johnson after last Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Johnson said Hendrick understood they are competitive drivers who just want to win. But Hendrick didn’t want the rivalry to split apart the race teams that work so closely together.
Johnson said Hendrick told him, “You guys need to voice your opinions, handle things on the track as you see fit, but let’s not let this carry on too far and affect the race shop.”
Johnson made a mistake that ultimately led to Gordon’s wreck at Talladega. That came a week after the two had a run-in at Texas Motor Speedway.
Johnson said he was surprised that Gordon, also a four-time Cup champion, lashed out at him on national TV after Sunday’s race. He said his relationship with Gordon has changed over the years. They were close friends who “were running hard, having a blast” as single guys, but are now more likely as married family men to discuss diapers and strollers.
In Philadelphia on Thursday to promote the May 16 Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway, Johnson said he didn’t mind having Gordon as his rival.
“The tension at times, it makes you dig in deeper and fighter harder and work harder,” he said.
Johnson already took the blame for a mistake that caused Gordon to crash at Talladega. Gordon, who drove his damaged car to a 22nd-place finish, was furious with his teammate after the race.
“The 48 is testing my patience, I can tell you that,” Gordon said Sunday at Talladega. “It takes a lot to make me mad. … I don’t know what it is with me and him right now.”
Johnson said he was trying to slide in front of Gordon late in Sunday’s race so they could draft together toward the front. But, he said Gordon was coming too fast. Johnson’s move instead had the effect of a block, and Gordon was forced off the apron in a defensive move.