Owner Hendrick uncovers another gem in rookie Johnson

NASCAR Winston Cup Series owner Hendrick uncovers another gem in rookie Johnson. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 1, 2002) - Please excuse NASCAR Winston Cup Series owner Rick Hendrick if he is in the midst of a dejà vu experience. Or as Yogi Berra...

NASCAR Winston Cup Series owner Hendrick uncovers another gem in rookie Johnson.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 1, 2002) - Please excuse NASCAR Winston Cup Series owner Rick Hendrick if he is in the midst of a dejà vu experience. Or as Yogi Berra once put it so succinctly,"This is like dejà vu all over again."

In the late 1980s, Hendrick met a young, hungry California-born dirt racer blessed with talent, good looks and a polished personality in search of a ride with no sponsor. They united and the relationship with Jeff Gordon has been extremely fruitful with four NASCAR Winston Cup championships and 58 career wins.

Fast forward to 2001, and Hendrick found himself in a nearly identical situation. Jimmie Johnson, of El Cajon, Calif., possessed the total package like Gordon but needed the financial backing and ultimately, the opportunity. At the time, Hendrick was looking to partner with Gordon on a NASCAR Winston Cup team and everything fell into place, including Johnson in a coveted NASCAR Winston Cup seat.

"Jeff [Gordon] and I thought he was such a good talent," Hendrick said."It was almost a mirror of Jeff's deal. He didn't have a sponsor - didn't know what the team was going to look like. We just knew he was a young guy with a lot of talent. When you see them, you just try and take advantage of it. I never dreamed we would do well this quick."

Hendrick probably never dreamed he would ever uncover a Gordon protege either.

Johnson, 26, is quickly making a name for himself as he seemingly makes an impression each weekend of his NASCAR Winston Cup rookie campaign. He burst upon the scene in the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet by capturing the Bud Pole at the Daytona 500 and has continually proved that he was not going to be a one-hit wonder. Since then, Johnson added another Bud Pole at Talladega and seven top-seven finishes, the most recent officially christening his maiden campaign. Johnson, in his 13th career start, earned his first NASCAR Winston Cup career triumph in last weekend's NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway.

"I'm just blown away," said Johnson, who made three NASCAR Winston Cup starts for Hendrick last season."Coming into this [season], knowing I would be driving for Rick and the way the team was going to be set up working with the No. 24 [car, Gordon], everyone could see the potential. I was just as curious as everyone else. Chad [Knaus, crew chief] and I clicked instantly. The resources at Hendrick Motorsports - the chassis, the bodies, the support from Lowe's - it all let us do what we need to do on the race track and not worry about anything else. There hasn't been any pressure or stress. We've just worked on communicating and polishing our game each week."

Johnson's game will be showcased this week at Richmond International Raceway, which will play host to Saturday night's Pontiac Excitement 400 (7 p.m. ET, FX). He enters the 11th race of the 36-event season fifth in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series title chase, 20 points behind second-place Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford) and 163 behind leader Sterling Marlin (No. 40 Coors Light Dodge).

"This is unbelievable," Johnson said."You always think you have the ability to come out here and be competitive, but you just don't know until the right situation presents itself and you can showcase your talents. My hat's off to Chad. We're both in a similar situation of trying to prove ourselves. He's doing an awesome job and the same with all these guys here in Lowe's uniforms."

In addition to the NASCAR Winston Cup points race, Johnson also is in a battle for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors. Given his early success, many would suspect he is in the midst of a runway for the award, but he expects to be challenged the entire season by Ryan Newman (No. 12 Mobil ALLTELL Ford). Johnson leads Newman, 147-121, in the rookie point standings.

"I definitely keep an eye on Ryan," Johnson said." When he came into the Busch Series last year he was beating up on us pretty bad. And he won a pole in the Winston Cup Series. We both have very limited stock car experience so I've looked at him as a gauge. If I can match that, I would be doing a great job. Whoever wins the Raybestos Rookie of the Year will probably be in the top 15 in points, and that would be a huge accomplishment."

Johnson made the move from off-road racing in 1997 when he relocated to North Carolina to compete in Late Model stock cars. In 1998 and' 99, he ran a handful of NASCAR Busch Series races - eight in all - before settling in for two full seasons. He finished 10th in the 2000 NASCAR Busch Series as a rookie and improved to eighth last year while earning his first career NASCAR Busch win (Chicagoland).

"I figured that I needed to be dominating on the Busch Series to even be recognized by a Winston Cup team," he said."And in my first season in Busch, I hadn't even finished in the top five yet when Jeff and Rick were talking about me driving a Winston Cup car. I thought there was no way. What did they see? I have so much to learn and had hoped to be noticed down the road, but, hey, I wasn't arguing with it."

Johnson is enjoying success, but is keenly aware that there remains plenty to learn in terms of driving experience.

"I think I'm getting better at patience and seeing how the race will play out," he said."There's a part there in a race where I need to get a little better at switching on that race-winning pace to get track position. Track position is so important and you don't want to make any stupid moves at the beginning of the race to take yourself out, but there's a fine line there when you wait a little too long to charge."

The similarities between Gordon and Johnson became even more apparent to Gordon at California Speedway, in their home state and at the same venue where he won the inaugural race in 1997.

"I think there just couldn't be a better place for him to go to Victory Lane," Gordon said."He's from Southern California and has a lot of people out there pulling for him. We've got some similarities because we both come from California. We both have a dirt background, maybe his is more sand than dirt. But he's just a good guy. He's a great guy to have on your team as a teammate. He works so well with people and he can drive the wheels off the thing. I don't know if that is a similarity to me, but if it is, it would be a compliment to me."


Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Sterling Marlin , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson
Teams Hendrick Motorsports