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'Next Jeff Gordon?' Original still winning

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, May. 27, 2011

CONCORD, N.C. – A young driver burst onto the NASCAR scene and made winning races and championships look easy.

He made some of his biggest impressions at Charlotte Motor Speedway and he was so good, the credit for his success was often placed on others, such as his talented crew chief.

No, this is not another Jimmie Johnson story, but it well could be.

Johnson’s meteoric rise up the NASCAR ranks is actually remarkably similar to another's: His mentor and Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon.

“It’s scary,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “Their careers in many ways are almost identical.”

Gordon and Johnson’s respective career paths share many similarities, including early success at Charlotte, site of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. Gordon has five wins at the track, including three in the 600. Johnson has six wins and also – surprise – three in the 600.

Also consider:

– Gordon won his first race in what is now the Sprint Cup Series in 1994 at age of 22. Johnson won his first race in 2002 at the age of 26.

– In his first five full seasons, Gordon won 29 times; Johnson 23.

– Gordon has 83 career wins in 19 seasons, an average of 4.4 per season; Johnson has 54 wins in 10 seasons, a 5.4 average.

– And perhaps most remarkably, Gordon won four series championships in a seven-year span; Johnson has won the title in each of the past five seasons.

Oddly enough – or perhaps appropriately so – Gordon also played a role in Johnson joining Hendrick Motorsports, recommending him to the boss.

“My intentions were to find a guy who would be a good fit and a good teammate and would be a quality driver that could win races,” Gordon said.

“Nobody could ever imagine – I don’t care if you were hiring Dale Earnhardt Sr. or me or anybody else – that Jimmie would be as successful as he’s been.”

Or produce a career so similar to Gordon’s.

“He only wins because …”

Through roughly seven seasons and three of his four championships, Gordon became all too familiar with the phrase: “He only wins because he’s got Ray Evernham as his crew chief.”

Some longtime NASCAR fans didn’t want to give Gordon much – if any – credit for his quick success.

“I don’t think anybody wins without a good car and a good team, so to me I feel like it’s a little naive not to understand what it takes to win and the role the driver plays,” Gordon said.

“You shouldn’t place too much of an emphasis on anybody.”

Fast forward to Johnson’s arrival in the Cup series and you’ll see a repeat performance.

In fan comments on stories or in social media, it’s an all-too-frequent statement: “Jimmie Johnson wouldn’t win as much if it weren’t for his crew chief, Chad Knaus.”

Johnson’s response?

“They’re right,” he said. “In my heart, I know this is a team sport and I would not be where I am today without Chad Knaus.”

The 'next Jeff Gordon'

Gordon’s early success prompted its own movement in NASCAR: Who can find “the next Jeff Gordon?”

Ream after team began its own “driver development” programs, hoping to latch onto a youngster who one day would blossom and have the same fairytale-like career as Gordon.

“All of the sudden, everybody started going that way. I think he revolutionized the sport because he was good-looking, 'Saturday Night Live' type, (on) the cover of magazines,” Hendrick said.

“He was so different that just everybody wanted one like Jeff Gordon.”

Did they find him?

Today, Roush Fenway Racing is the only Cup organization that continues to operate a true driver-development program. Most other Cup teams have abandoned them, due in large part to the tough economy.

Hendrick, however, is certain he found what he was looking for in Johnson.

“Jeff deserves a lot of credit for that because he saw something in him,” Hendrick said.

“Sometimes when you’re so close to a guy, you don’t think of him as being that guy. You need a co-signer.”

Still going strong

If Hendrick truly did find the next Jeff Gordon, what about the one still competing?

He continues to win races and compete for championships year after year.

“I have the pleasure to watch one of the best drivers this sport has ever had,” Hendrick said.

Gordon’s last championship came in 2001, but he has still piled up race wins over the last 10 years. His 83 wins rank him tied for fifth all-time with Cale Yarborough.

“We’ve maintained consistent success, just not in (winning) championships,” Gordon said. “There is nothing that feels better than a win or a championship.

“I don’t need another championship to fulfill some career stat. I know we’re still capable of it and I would love to prove to myself and others that we can still do it.”

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