That's Racin Magazine

Conversation led to winning combination

Saturday, May. 28, 2011

Jimmie Johnson is one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers, with an unprecedented five straight Sprint Cup championships. But not many years ago, his career was at a crossroads.

It was 2000, and he was trying to break into NASCAR’s big-time, to become what Jeff Gordon already was -- a championship driver in what is now the Sprint Cup series. He had the talent, but he needed a break.

That break came from a chance encounter with Gordon.

Gordon, then 29, had changed the sport. The Indiana native had already won three of his four Cup championships, challenging the legendary Dale Earnhardt on the track and among fans.

In a sport long dominated by drivers bred in the Carolinas, Gordon was different. He grew up racing in open-wheel cars on asphalt instead of in stock cars on dirt tracks. Young, talented and refined, he was among the best on the track and as a pitchman for his sponsors.

And he had NASCAR team owners looking everywhere for others like him.

Finding Gordon had made Concord-based Hendrick Motorsports the dominant organization in the sport. From 1995 to 1998, the championship in the Cup series had been won by a Hendrick driver – three by Gordon and one by Terry Labonte, in 1996, when Gordon finished second.

But other top organizations had closed the gap. Gordon finished sixth in points in 1999, the best of any Hendrick driver.

To help the organization get back on top, Hendrick Motorsports was considering fielding a fourth car, and everyone was scouting for talent.

Happenstance led Gordon to Johnson.

Darlington didn't intimidate him

How many Gordon was standing atop a truck in the garage area at Darlington with Ricky Hendrick, giving the Busch Series driver advice about navigating the tricky egg-shaped track, when he pointed to a red and white car whipping around the asphalt.

“I said, ‘See that guy? He’s getting around here good. Taking it up against the wall, carrying the speed he’s carrying, getting out of the gas, all of that stuff. Who is that?’” Gordon recalls.

“(Ricky) said, ‘That’s Jimmie Johnson. He’s pretty good.’ I was like, hmmm….”

Ricky Hendrick, who died in a 2004 plane crash at Martinsville, Va., had become friends with Johnson, who often hitched rides on a Hendrick plane to and from races.

After practice, Gordon went into the garage and introduced himself to Johnson, who was in his first full season driving for Stan, Randy and Bill Herzog in NASCAR’s top support series.

“I said, ‘So how many times have you been to Darlington?’” Gordon remembers. “He said, ‘Today’s the first time I’ve ever seen the place.’

“That was the first time I was impressed with Jimmie.”

Ricky Hendrick was already working his father to sign the then 24-year-old from El Cajon, Calif.

“Ricky said to me, ‘You better hire him. He’s going to be a superstar,’” Rick Hendrick says.

By that August, the superstar needed another break. The sponsorship on his Busch car was going away and he wasn’t sure if he’d have a ride in 2001.

Johnson had options, but he wasn’t sure how good they were. He needed advice.

At Michigan International Speedway, Johnson decided to approach Gordon, who was winding down his Busch career. Johnson remembered Gordon leaving car owner Bill Davis for Hendrick Motorsports and sought his counsel.

“My world was upside down,” Johnson says. “I felt like if I could talk to Jeff. … He knew how to leave a tough situation when he left Bill Davis. He must have the answer.”

Life was changing

Johnson took a seat in the pre-race drivers’ meeting, his stomach churning. By chance, Gordon sat down behind him.

“I’m like, ‘Here’s your chance, you’ve got to ask,’” Johnson remembers.

He asked Gordon if they could talk privately. Gordon invited Johnson back to his hauler in the garage.

Johnson laid out his situation, hoping Gordon had a magic answer.

He didn’t.

“I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went except he had some opportunities. A couple of them, I was like, ‘Uh, you don’t want to do that,’” Gordon recalls.

Then came the kicker.

Hendrick Motorsports was considering starting a fourth team, one that would potentially pair with Gordon’s in a new race shop.

Among the drivers under consideration?

Jimmie Johnson.

“I said, ‘I might be shooting myself in the foot here or saying too much here, but do me a favor before you make any decisions because we have some things in the works,’” Gordon remembers.

“There might be an opportunity for you there. He didn’t say a whole lot but, ‘OK, great.’”

Johnson, quintessentially California cool, left Gordon’s hauler feeling as if his life was changing.

It was.

“I walked into his transporter that day so unsure and scared and nervous about my career,” Johnson says. “I left with my chest puffed out and thinking things are going to be good, and it certainly turned out that way.”

The clincher came the next day, in the next-to-last Busch series race Gordon ran. Gordon found himself dueling with Johnson near the end of the race, not for the checkered flag but for sixth place.

“He passed me on a green-white-checkered for sixth, which I wasn’t real happy about. But I was impressed by it,” Gordon says. “It was that night or the next day I called Rick and said, ‘What do you think of Jimmie Johnson?’”

It didn’t take Hendrick, who had put Johnson in a late-model sportsman car as an 18-year old, long to decide.

“Usually, you want to find a sponsor, then find a driver,” Hendrick says. “I knew if we didn’t move, we’d lose him.

“It was almost like a perfect storm. Then Jeff raced against him and that was the final endorsement.”

One year later, in October 2001, with Gordon on his way to a fourth points championship, Johnson made his Cup debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In the nearly 10 years since, Johnson has won 54 races and five championships of his own. The longtime pitchman for Lowe’s is in the conversation whenever NASCAR’s greatest champions are discussed.

For a decade, Johnson and Gordon have been friends and teammates, even as they quarreled at times about their duels on the track. Both are married and have young children as their careers roll along. Gordon is driven to win another championship while Johnson pursues a remarkable sixth straight title.

They’ll be two of the biggest draws Sundayt night in the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway – the one who needed a break that long-ago day in Darlington, and the one who saw his talent.

Who will follow them?

Earlier this year, Hendrick signed 15-year-old Chase Elliott, the son of former Cup champion Bill Elliott, to a long-term agreement.

Remember the name.

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