Rick Hendrick vividly remembers the day in 2001 when he signed up a sponsor to back his new Nextel Cup entry with rookie driver Jimmie Johnson behind the wheel. Hendrick, co-owner Jeff Gordon and Johnson met with executives from ...
Rick Hendrick vividly remembers the day in 2001 when he signed up a sponsor to back his new Nextel Cup entry with rookie driver Jimmie Johnson behind the wheel.
Hendrick, co-owner Jeff Gordon and Johnson met with executives from home improvement giant Lowe's looking to finalize the agreement on their sponsorship. He was confident in his new driver, but fortunately, Johnson was even more confident.
"We were awful nervous about that situation and Lowe's was in a situation where they wanted to win," Hendrick recalled. "At the last meeting we had, the chairman of Lowe's looked at Jimmie in the eyes and said, 'Can you win?' And I think my heart stopped because I was waiting for Jimmie's answer. Jimmie said, 'I definitely can win.'"
Hendrick obviously had a lot of credibility with the sponsor. He already had three successful teams and his stable of drivers included former champions Gordon and Terry Labonte. But Hendrick also knew that Lowe's was anxious to back a winner -- in particular, someone that could rival blossoming star Tony Stewart, who piloted the Home Depot Chevrolet.
"DuPont didn't even know who Jeff Gordon was when we signed the deal," Hendrick said. "It's good to see sponsors that take a chance on a young guy and the guy really blossoms and does well. It was a great feeling, but I can tell you it's an awfully lot of pressure when you sit in front of a CEO of one of these big companies and they look at you and ask, 'Can you win?' You think you can win, but you know you've got to produce."
Since that day, the partnership between Johnson and Lowe's has been more successful that either expected. Johnson has racked up 21 wins, including the Daytona 500 this past February, and has finished second in the point standings twice. Most importantly for his sponsor, Johnson has been absolutely dominant at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. He has piled up five wins in the past six points races at LMS and has won the all-star race twice, including last Saturday's star-studded event.
"The success we've had here has really been the confidence in ourselves and in our race cars," Johnson said. "Knowing that once we get into the night and when the points are on the line or the money is on the line in the All Star race, that we will have the right set up."
Johnson has won the Coca-Cola 600 three straight times and is looking to become the 10th driver in NASCAR history to win the same event four consecutive years. He'll take a run at the accomplishment on Sunday (5:00 p.m. Eastern on FOX).
"I don't even try to pay attention to those things, I just get in the car and go," said Johnson, who finished 39th in his first Nextel Cup race at LMS in 2001. "It is quite an accomplishment. I can't say enough for Hendrick Motorsports and the commitment they have to this race team and obviously to be able to perform here for Lowe's at their home track and really the home track for the entire series. It's something we're proud of."
Looking back, Johnson says he understands why Lowe's was skeptical about backing an unproven driver.
"Those that know the CEO of Lowe's know he's very passionate about the company and was going to do whatever he could to bring winning ways to Lowe's including the race team," Johnson said. "I wasn't sitting down for 10 minutes and the loaded gun was pointed at me. I knew what I needed to say. I'm glad I've been able to go out and back it up. I think Rick and Jeff and myself were all nodding yes saying of course but there were a lot of unknowns at that time. I know I'm glad I've been able to do my part to back it up."
Gordon was the last driver to win the same race in four straight years when he took home the Southern 500 trophy from Darlington from 1995 through 1998. He knows that his teammate and protege is clearly the driver to beat this weekend.
"There is no doubt that he's got this place down," said Gordon, who finished second in his first 600 at LMS in 1993. "Anybody who puts a string of races together like they have - it's obviously there's a lot of what they're doing and what Jimmie does - sometimes you just get on a string. From a competitor's standpoint, all you want to do is break that string."
Despite his success in Charlotte, Johnson is aware that his team needs to be on top of their game once again to pull off another Lowe's victory.
"It's a long race," Johnson said. "A lot can happen as we all know over 600 miles. It's hard to really favor someone and go to bet on someone (but), we've got a great track record here. You can't argue with that. I think this Lowe's team is up for challenge."