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Johnson Passes on Learning Curve

June 23, 2002|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SONOMA, Calif. — One of the rules of having a successful business career is to never beat your boss at cards or golf.

If that is true, it should be worse if you beat a potential boss just when he was considering hiring you.

That's what Jimmie Johnson, the hottest rookie in NASCAR's prestigious Winston Cup, did after nervously approaching four-time champion Jeff Gordon for some guidance while driving in the Busch Grand National series two years ago.

"It's just amazing how it all fell together so fast, hiring Jimmie and building a new team with Rick Hendrick," Gordon said while here for today's Dodge/Save Mart 350 Winston Cup race, one of two road course events on the 36-race schedule.

"We were building a new race shop and Rick and I had been discussing the idea of having a two-car team, the way Joe Gibbs had with Tony [Stewart] and Bobby [Labonte]. It was only in the discussion stage when I went to Michigan to drive my Busch car in August.

"In the driver's meeting, Johnson was in front of me and he turned around and asked if we could talk for a few minutes. He said several teams had been talking to him and he wanted some advice. I told him I thought he needed another year in Busch before making the jump.

"Well, in the race, he was behind me with five or six laps to go when we had a restart and he passed me. At first, I was really mad. Then I started thinking about how smart he was driving, smooth yet very aggressive, and I told Rick about it. Rick said he had had an eye on him after seeing Johnson in races with Rick's son Ricky.

"We decided to go after him and start a two-car team. We didn't have a crew, and we didn't have a sponsor, but we had a driver. Looking back, it was much like it was when Hendrick hired me in 1992."

Johnson said that pass of Gordon at Michigan was one of the highlights of his career.

"To pass a champion like Jeff so early in my career meant a lot to me, and coming the way it did the day after our conversation, made it all the sweeter," Johnson said after posting a qualifying lap of 92.404 mph on Friday. "I hoped it would impress him, I guess it did."

Johnson was driving for William Herzog and Herzog Motorsports at the time, with another year on his contract.

In the fall of 2000, he signed with Gordon and Hendrick for 2002 but fulfilled his 2001 contract with Herzog by driving another year in the Busch series.

Johnson will start 15th in today's 112-lap race of 350 kilometers (224 miles) around the 10-turn, two-mile road course at the renamed Infineon Raceway, the former Sears Point. Gordon qualified fourth at 93.141, behind defending champion Stewart, Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton.

The two-car team of California products is the most successful in NASCAR at the moment. Gordon, 30, the veteran from Vallejo, and Johnson, 26, the rookie from El Cajon, are tied for second after 15 races, only 110 points back of Sterling Marlin.

Both drive Chevrolet Monte Carlos.

The precocious Johnson surprised himself and his backers with how quickly his remarkable career started. In the season's opening race, he won the pole for the Daytona 500 and since then has won races at California Speedway and Dover, Del., and poles at Talladega, Ala., and the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Speedway in Charlotte, N.C.

"Winning the pole at Daytona was easier than I thought it would be," Johnson said. "I can't take credit for it, though. With all the resources we have at Hendrick Motorsports, all I had to do was mash the gas."

His performance might have been more gratifying to Gordon than to Johnson.

"When we were searching for a sponsor for the [No.] 48 car, we had to work overtime. We had five or six meetings with the people at Lowe's and I was making so many promises about how Jimmie would do that Rick looked over at me and laughed when he said, 'You know, you're the one responsible for him now.'

"I felt there was something about Jimmie that reminded me of myself at that stage and I was confident he would be a big success, although not this soon."

Hendrick and Gordon are co-owners of both the 24 car that Gordon drives and the 48 of Johnson's.

"I'm ready to answer any questions Jimmie has about driving," Gordon said, "but I feel my main role is helping him out with all the stuff off the race track, things like scheduling and PR and answering to sponsors, fans and the media. All that stuff can really cut into your focus and after going through it myself I think I can make it easier for Jimmie."

Hendrick, who plucked Gordon from the Busch ranks when he was only 20, said he became sold on Johnson "because he reminded me so much of Jeff at that stage."

Both drivers came from non-stock car backgrounds. Gordon drove sprint cars and midgets in hopes of moving up to Indy cars, but when no opportunities arose he turned to stock cars. Johnson is a product of off-road racing, having won three Mickey Thompson Stadium championships and the 1994 SCORE desert championship.

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